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Hubble is back at work after breakdown

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope gets its final close-up after a shuttle servicing mission in 2009. (NASA Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope is doing science again, three weeks after going out of service due to a gyro failure.

In today’s mission update, NASA said the 28-year-old telescope conducted its first science observations since Oct. 5 overnight, focusing on a faraway galaxy.

Hubble went into safe mode when one of its three working gyroscopes failed, leaving mission managers with a weighty challenge.

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Canada invests $38M in General Fusion’s research

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The Canadian government says it’s investing $37.5 million (49.3 million Canadian dollars) in General Fusion, a British Columbia company that aims to build a prototype plant powered by nuclear fusion.

Funding from Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund was announced today by Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

In a news release, Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion said the government’s backing would support the creation of 400 new jobs and boost the development of a “first-of-its-kind, large-scale prototype plant that will demonstrate a practical approach to commercializing affordable, abundant, safe and emission-free electricity from fusion energy.”

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Hanford sounds all-clear after steam sparks alarm

Hanford waste site
Crews inspected the area around a tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that contains nuclear waste. (Department of Energy Photo)

Workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state were told to take cover for several hours today when steam was seen escaping from a tunnel where radioactive waste is being stored.

The take-cover order was lifted at about 12:15 p.m. PT when inspectors confirmed that there was no radiological release from Tunnel 2 at Hanford’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction facility, or PUREX, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office reported in an update.

For the past few weeks, Hanford workers have been filling the 1,688-foot-long tunnel with thousands of cubic yards of grout to guard against the tunnel’s collapse. The tunnel, which dates back to 1964, houses a set of 28 rail cars that contain contaminated equipment. The last rail car was placed inside in 1996.

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Who’ll get to Mars first? Oddsmakers favor SpaceX

Mars landing
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s BFR rocket landing on Mars. (SpaceX via YouTube)

If sending humans to Mars is a race, which team is favored to win? Bookies give the nod to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture, but it’ll be years before any bet pays off.

David Strauss, an analyst and oddsmaker at MyBookie, says NASA is the underdog and Musk is the favorite.

“Bezos may have the discipline, but Musk has the infrastructure and just the right amount of craziness to make a successful mission happen,” he said today in a news release. “The days of government organizations staging trips to another planet are behind us. I would be surprised if NASA truly makes it back to the moon.”

MyBookie’s betting line gives SpaceX a 75 percent chance of sending humans to Mars first.

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Crowdfunding effort offers faux moon dirt

Simulated moon dirt
Off Planet Research makes simulated moon dirt by the bagful. (Off Planet Research Photo)

Wanna buy some fake moon dirt? Off Planet Research, which manufactures loads of the stuff, is making it available for public consumption — but make sure you don’t eat it or breathe it in.

The research facility in Lacey, Wash., specializes in making types of soil that simulate what’s found on the lunar surface. Off Planet mixes up blends of earthly ingredients, including crushed rock, so that students and scientists can learn how humans and their hardware would fare in the lunar environment.

Two main varieties of lunar simulants are on the menu: a dark-colored blend that reflects the composition of the lunar lowlands, or maria, and a lighter-colored type of soil that mimics the moon’s highlands.

Off Planet also makes a frosty concoction that blends water ice and soil, based on findings from NASA’s LCROSS impact experiment. That simulant, OPRFLCROSS1, can be used to test equipment designed to extract water on the moon.

To ensure quality control, Off Planet typically rents its soil rather than selling it. Institutional users pay a monthly charge of $50 to $300 per kilogram, depending on the type of simulant, said Lauren Roux, one of the company’s researchers. “We expect the material to come back,” she told GeekWire.

The European Space Agency is Off Planet’s biggest customer. “ESA has quite a bit of our simulant that they’re running through,” Roux said.

Now the company is giving out limited quantities of its simulants as rewards for Indiegogo contributions. For as little as $99, contributors can get a vial of simulant, with their choice of lowland or highland dirt, plus a T-shirt.

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SpaceX is looking for a loan — and baristas

BFR illustration
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s BFR in flight. (SpaceX Illustration)

Bloomberg News is quoting unnamed sources as saying that SpaceX is seeking to borrow $500 million in the leveraged loan market with Goldman Sachs’ help.

Today’s report said that Goldman Sachs Group is leading the talks with potential investors this week. Neither Goldman Sachs nor SpaceX have publicly acknowledged the talks, however.

SpaceX has notched plenty of successes over the year to date, including 16 Falcon 9 rocket launches plus the first test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket in February. Within the coming year, the California-based company is expected to execute its first crewed space launch, aimed at sending astronauts to the International Space Station.

Significantly more ambitious and capital-intensive projects are on SpaceX’s longer-range agenda: The company is working on a constellation of thousands of Starlink satellites that are designed to provide global internet access as well as a revenue stream that, over the long run, may be more substantial than the launch business. SpaceX’s team in Redmond, Wash., has been given the lead role in the Starlink project.

Then there’s the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket: That super-heavy-lifter is designed to take on suborbital passenger flights between terrestrial destinations as well as trips to the moon and Mars. SpaceX has already signed up Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a flight around the moon in the 2020s.

Starlink and BFR are each expected to require billions of dollars of investment.

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Virgin Orbit fits rocket beneath mothership’s wing

Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket undergoes fit checks underneath a 747 jet that’s been modified to serve as a carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo via Twitter)

What do you get when you cross a Boeing 747 with a rocket launcher? You get something like what you see in the pictures that Virgin Orbit sent out today, showing a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath the wing of a modified 747 that’s been christened “Cosmic Girl.”

Such a system is designed to serve as Virgin Orbit’s air-launch platform for putting payloads weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in orbit. Future customers include OneWeb, which is working on a constellation of satellites for global internet access; and Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handles the logistics for small-satellite launches.

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After drama, Tesla posts ‘historic’ quarterly report

Elon Musk
Tesla CEO presides over the handover of the first Model 3 cars in August 2017. (Tesla via YouTube)

Tesla shares jumped more than 10 percent in after-hours trading today after the controversial electric-car company posted a surprisingly positive quarterly report, including a profit rather than a loss.

Adjusted net income for the third quarter amounted to $312 million, which translated into earnings of $2.90 a share. Analysts had expected a loss of around 19 cents per share.

Total revenue hit $6.8 billion, exceeding expectations of $6.3 billion. And Tesla’s cash on hand increased by $731 million, even though Tesla repaid $82.5 million in bonds during the quarter.

That cash position could take some of the pressure off Tesla, which had been burning through its reserves by the billions during what CEO Elon Musk called “production hell” for the company’s Model 3 electric car.

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Boeing reports financial pluses (and a few minuses)

Dennis Muilenburg
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg says the supply chain for 737 jet production is returning to a healthy condition. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing’s third-quarter financial results exceeded expectations, leading the company to raise its outlook for the full year — and leading investors to bid up Boeing’s share price.

Adjusted earnings per share amounted to $3.58, which was nearly 4 percent higher than the Zacks Consensus Estimate and 37 percent higher than the year-ago figures. Total revenue was $25.1 billion, 4 percent higher than last year’s third quarter.

Boeing updated its guidance for 2018, raising its revenue projection by $1 billion to the range of $98 billion to $100 billion. Projected earnings per share got a similar boost, rising 60 cents to the range of $14.90 to $15.10.

“With growing markets and opportunities ahead, our team remains intensely focused on growth, innovation and accelerating productivity improvement to fuel our investments in the future,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said today during a conference call with reporters and analysts.

On the plus side, Boeing pointed to higher-than-expected margins on 787 Dreamliner jet sales and strong operating performance on commercial aircraft production programs. The company also scored a hat trick for defense contracts, winning the Air Force’s go-ahead to build T-X training jets and MH-139 helicopters, as well as the Navy’s nod for MQ-25 drone tankers.

Boeing took a $691 million charge to cover investments related to those contracts, which was partially offset by the $412 million benefit of a tax audit settlement.

There was also a $176 million charge related to delays in delivering the Air Force’s KC-46 tanker. Muilenburg said the first deliveries were now on track for the fourth quarter, reiterating a schedule he laid out earlier this month at the GeekWire Summit. Boeing has absorbed more than $3 billion in cost overruns on the fixed-price KC-46 contract.

Muilenburg said Boeing was making progress on supply-chain snags that resulted in a logjam of unfinished 737 jets at its Renton factory this summer. “We’re continuing to ramp up on our recovery plan,” he said.

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Hubble Space Telescope is on the road to recovery

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope hangs in orbit after a 2002 servicing mission. (NASA Photo)

Things are looking up for two of NASA’s Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Both telescopes had to go out of service this month due to different types of problems experienced by their gyroscopic pointing systems.

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