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Planetary Resources hopes for asteroid comeback

Planetary Resources' Arkyd-301
An artist’s conception shows the Arkyd-301 spacecraft, which was destined to start blazing a trail for asteroid prospecting in 2020. (Planetary Resources Illustration)

It’s been months since Planetary Resources had to scale back its asteroid aspirations because a fundraising campaign came up short — and the quest for cash is continuing as space industry leaders converge on the Seattle area this week for the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference.

So how long will the quest continue?

“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that,” Chris Lewicki, the Redmond, Wash.-based venture’s CEO, president and chief asteroid miner, told GeekWire today.

But Lewicki said Planetary Resources, which has raised more than $50 million in investments and successfully sent two satellites into orbit over the course of six years, isn’t swerving from its goal of mining near-Earth asteroids to build a trillion-dollar industry.

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Microsoft and Toyota rev up interest in fuel-cell tech

Toyota Mirai fuel-cell car
Toyota’s Mirai fuel-cell sedan runs on hydrogen. (Toyota Photo)

Grid battery storage projects like Tesla’s 100-megawatt installation in Australia may be getting lots of press, but behind the scenes, hydrogen fuel-cell systems are carving out a niche in applications ranging from non-polluting motor vehicles to power-gobbling data centers.

“It’s not either-or,” said Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Office. “We definitely need battery electric vehicles, we need advanced combustion, biofuels — really, all of the above. But what’s unique about hydrogen is its versatility.”

Satyapal and some prominent users of fuel-cell systems, including executives from Microsoft and Toyota, discussed the state of the art in Seattle today during the CleanTech Innovation Showcase, presented by CleanTech Alliance.

Fuel cells generate energy through a straightforward chemical reaction: Stored hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air with the aid of a catalyst, producing electricity. The devices are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engineswhen it comes to converting chemical energy into power, and the only emissions they produce are air and water vapor.

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Spaceflight adds Virgin Orbit to its lineup

Virgin Orbit launch
An artist’s conception shows Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl” 747 jet carrying a LauncherOne rocket in preparation for air launch. (Virgin Orbit Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight has a new product to offer customers who want to get small satellites up and running: Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system.

Virgin Orbit’s system, which involves sending its two-stage LauncherOne rocket into orbit from a converted Boeing 747 jet dubbed Cosmic Girl, isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. But it’s due to become available soon, and when the rockets start flying, they’ll offer Spaceflight’s clients something that’s been hard to get up to now.

Melissa Wuerl, Spaceflight’s director of business development, said her company’s customers have been asking for launch opportunities that can put small satellites into low- to mid-latitude orbital inclinations that stick close to Earth’s equator.

“We started casting about … and there just wasn’t any,” she told GeekWire.

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‘Expanse’ co-author discusses sci-fi … and politics

Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham, co-author of “The Expanse” book series, gives a reading at Seattle’s University Book Store. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

There’s more to Daniel Abraham than “The Expanse.”

To be sure, the science-fiction saga about our future fractious solar system has been very, very good to Abraham and his co-author for the book series, Ty Franck.

Writing under the pen name of James S.A. Corey, Abraham and Franck are just finishing up the eighth book in the series, “Tiamat’s Wrath,” and getting ready to start the ninth and final volume. (Abraham says he already knows the title, but is bound by Orbit Books to keep it secret for now.)

Then there’s the TV show: The third season of “The Expanse” is wrapping up on the Syfy cable channel, and a month ago, Amazon picked up the show in dramatic fashion for a fourth season.

That announcement was made at a space conference by none other than Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, with the cast of “The Expanse” sitting out in the audience.

Abraham has compared the writing business to a casino, and says that “writers are, among other things, professional gamblers.” If that’s so, he’s hit the jackpot with “The Expanse” alone.

But that’s not his only play: He uses a different pen name, M.L.N. Hanover, for a long-running wizards-and-demons book series known as “The Black Sun’s Daughter.” Under his own name, Abraham writes fantasy novels (and has contributed to the “Wild Cards” graphic novel series).

Abraham, who lives in New Mexico with his wife and daughter, wore yet another hat this week: He served as an instructor for the Clarion West Summer Workshop, which brings a select few writers to Seattle’s University District to sharpen their skills in speculative fiction.

It was in that capacity that he gave a reading at University Book Store, and sat down in the store’s coffee shop before the reading for a Q&A with yours truly. Here’s an edited transcript of the talk, which started out with the revival of “The Expanse” TV series and ended up with a wide-angle look at politics in the Donald Trump era.

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Google honors Seattle sci-fi author Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler
Seattle science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler gets a star turn in today’s Google Doodle graphic.

Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler passed away in 2006, but she’s getting timely good wishes today on what would have been her 71st birthday in the form of a Google Doodle tribute.

The black writer’s work broke the “white guys with lasers” mold for science fiction by telling stories that reflected the future-day diversity she wanted to see in present-day society. Not in a preachy way, but in the form of more than a dozen thought-provoking, award-winning novels and shorter works.

In 1995, she was the first science-fiction writer to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and four years later she moved from her native California to Seattle. She died unexpectedly at the age of 58 after falling and striking her head on a walkway outside her home.

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Air Force contract marks a first for Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy launch
An automated camera documents the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first ascent from Kennedy Space Center in February with SpaceX’s hangar in the foreground. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $130 million firm-fixed-price contract to SpaceX for the launch of its classified AFSPC-52 satellite on a Falcon Heavy rocket.

It’s the first national security contract won for SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket, which had its first test flight in February. AFSPC-52 is tue to lift off in 2020 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The launch will support the Air Force Space Command’s “mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our nation while maintaining assured access to space,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force program executive officer for space and commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said today in a news release.

In an emailed statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said her company was “honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively awarded AFSPC-52 mission.”

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NASA puts out the call for Gateway’s first element

Solar electric propulsion
An artist’s conception shows a spacecraft that incorporates a solar electric propulsion system. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has laid out its plan for acquiring the first piece of its successor to the International Space Station, an outpost known as the Gateway that will be stationed in lunar orbit.

A draft solicitation, published today, calls for commercial partners to build one or more candidates to serve as the Gateway’s power and propulsion element, with launch set for 2022.

The Power and Propulsion Element would have a high-power, 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system capable of maintaining the Gateway’s position and moving it between different lunar orbits as needed. The spacecraft would also serve as the Gateway’s communications hub.

There’s be an in-space flight demonstration of the commercial spacecraft, lasting for up to a year. Then NASA could exercise an option to acquire one spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway.

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Hayabusa 2 probe closes in on an asteroid

Hayabusa 2 views of Ryugu
A series of pictures from Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe shows views of the asteroid Ryugu during the spacecraft’s approach. The closest views were captured from a distance of about 100 kilometers (62 miles), and reveal craters and boulders on the asteroid’s turning surface. (JAXA Photos)

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a dumpling … It’s a “Star Trek” Borg cube … It’s the asteroid Ryugu!

Our view of Ryugu, a half-mile-wide space rock nearly 180 million miles from Earth, is coming into sharper focus with the approach of the Japanese probe Hayabusa 2.

Three and a half years after its launch, the spacecraft is now within 35 miles of the asteroid, closing in on what’s expected to be a standoff orbital distance of 12 miles. The pictures that it’s been sending back throughout the approach provide enough detail to reveal Ryugu’s blocky shape.

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Allen Institute boosts its brain cell database

Mouse brain
The Allen Brain Explorer can display a virtual mouse brain in 3-D. (Allen Institute for Brain Science)

The Allen Institute for Brain Science has added about 900 virtual mouse brain cells to its Allen Cell Types Database, bringing the total to slightly more than 1,900 cells available for study.

But wait: There’s more.

Today’s release also includes a new, browser-based beta version of a 3-D viewer called the Allen Brain Explorer, which lets users explore the anatomy and connectivity maps for the mouse brain. The Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas has been freshened up with more information. More details about RNA transcription in mouse, human and macaque brain cells have been added as well.

The upgrades are all part of the open-science mission for the Allen Institute, which Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen created in 2003 and has supported to the tune of half a billion dollars.

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Scientists pull out protein data from single cells

NanoPOTS protein analysis
Ying Zhu, a chemist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, places a chip containing samples for analysis into the automated NanoPOTS system. (PNNL Photo / Andrea Starr)

Scientists have developed a technique that can analyze fluid from a single human cell to identify its proteins — which could open the way for tracking the progression of cancer one cell at a time.

The method is known as NanoPOTS, or “nanodroplet processing in one pot for trace samples.” It was developed by scientists at the the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and detailed in a study published in the German journal Angewandte Chemie.

“NanoPOTS is like a molecular microscope that allows us to analyze samples that are 500 times smaller than we could see before,” PNNL analytical chemist Ryan Kelly, the study’s senior author, said in a news release. “We can identify more proteins in one cell than could previously be identified from a group of hundreds of cells.”

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