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Firefly Aerospace gets a Florida launch site

Firefly rocket plant
An architectural rendering shows Firefly Aerospace’s future rocket production facility at Exploration Park on Florida’s Space Coast. (Firefly Aerospace Illustration)

Firefly Aerospace, a Texas-based launch venture that was lifted out of bankruptcy, says it’s struck a deal with Space Florida to establish business operations at Cape Canaveral Spaceport.

The terms of the newly executed agreement call for Firefly to build a 150,000-square-foot rocket manufacturing facility at Space Florida’s Exploration Park and set up a launch facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 20.

Firefly says it will invest $52 million in the project and bring more than 200 jobs to Florida. Space Florida has agreed to match up to $18.9 million of Firefly’s infrastructure investments via the Florida Department of Transportation Spaceport Improvement Program.

Other ventures with facilities at Exploration Park include OneWeb Satellites and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

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SpaceX readies test dummy for milestone launch

SpaceX Crew Dragon
An artist’s conception shows a Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. (SpaceX / NASA Illustration)

NASA gave the all-clear today for the first test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship to the International Space Station in a week, setting the stage for crewed missions later this year.

There won’t be any crew aboard this first Crew Dragon, also known as the Dragon 2, but there will be an instrument-laden, spacesuit-wearing mannequin sitting in one of the seats, to provide data about the environment that astronauts will experience.

“Should I say ‘dummy,’ is that the right word?” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, asked during a briefing for reporters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“ATD, ATD,” said Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program. “We prefer to not call them dummies.” (For the record, ATD stands for Anthropomorphic Test Device or Anthropomorphic Test Dummy.)

There’ll also be a load of cargo to be sent up to the station from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, at 2:48 a.m. ET March 2 (11:48 p.m. PT March 1). Lueders said the total mass would be “pretty close” to what the Dragon 2 will carry when astronauts climb aboard.

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New Horizons’ view of space snowman hits its peak

2014 MU69
The most detailed images of a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule — obtained just minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach — have a resolution of about 110 feet per pixel. This processed, composite picture combines nine individual images taken with the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. The image was taken at 12:26 a.m. ET Jan. 1, when the spacecraft was 4,109 miles from 2014 MU69 and 4.1 billion miles from Earth. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / NOAO Photo)

The scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have released the sharpest possible view of the mission’s latest target, a smooshed-in cosmic snowman known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.

New Horizons captured gigabytes’ worth of imagery and data as it flew past the icy object, more than 4 billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of primordial material on the edge of our solar system. It’s taken weeks to send back detailed data for processing, but now the team says they’ve gotten the best close-up view of Ultima that they’ll ever get.

The best pictures were taken from a distance of 4,109 miles, just six and a half minutes before the time of closest approach at 12:33 a.m. ET Jan. 1 (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31). By processing multiple images, the team was able to sharpen image resolution to about 110 feet per pixel.

Principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said the imaging campaign hit the “bull’s-eye.”

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SpaceShipTwo carries three people for the first time

SpaceShipTwo Unity
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity touches down at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the first suborbital space test flight to have three people aboard. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic followed up on last December’s first SpaceShipTwo flight past the 50-mile space milestone by sending up its first non-pilot on today’s test flight.

The crew member who accompanied the two pilots was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor (and wife of the company’s president, Mike Moses).

Today’s test sent the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to a height of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), Virgin Galactic said.

The flight followed Virgin Galactic’s usual profile: Unity was slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. At an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released into the air and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a minute, screaming toward the black sky of space at a top speed of Mach 3.04.

After a zero-gravity coast at the top of the ride, Unity glided back to the airport for an airplane-like landing. Eve made its own landing minutes later.

It was Unity’s fifth supersonic test flight, setting the stage for what could be the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year.

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Japan’s ispace moon mission plans battery test

ispace lander and rover
Artwork shows ispace’s Hakuto-R lander and rover on the lunar surface. (ispace Illustration)

The Japanese moon venture known as ispace says it has recruited new corporate partners and struck a deal to put a commercial payload on its Hakuto-R lunar lander.

Ispace has arranged for two spacecraft to be launched to the moon, in 2020 and 2021, as secondary payloads on SpaceX rockets. Those will be rideshare missions similar to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch that sent SpaceIL’s Israeli-made lander on its way to the moon tonight.

Like SpaceIL, ispace includes veterans of a team that competed in the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize. Team Hakuto took its name from the Japanese word for “white rabbit.” The R in the name of ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar project stands for “reboot.”

Ispace says it’s raised nearly $95 million in funding to support the Hakuto-R campaign. The 2020 mission would put a probe in lunar orbit, and the 2021 mission would send a lander and rover spacecraft to the lunar surface.

In a news release issued today, ispace says Japan-based NGK Spark Plug Co. has agreed to be a corporate partner in the Hakuto-R program. Part of the partnership will involve developing a payload to test solid-state battery technology on the moon.

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SpaceX launches Israeli lunar lander plus satellites

SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite as well as the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander and an Air Force research satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent the Israeli-made Beresheet lunar lander on the first leg of its journey to the moon tonight, as a ride-along payload accompanying Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite and a U.S. Air Force experimental satellite.

The mission marks a milestone for SpaceIL, which funded and built Beresheet (Hebrew for “In the Beginning”), and also for Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handled the pre-launch logistics for SpaceIL.

If the lander successfully touches down on the lunar surface after its circuitous two-month trip, that will make Israel-based SpaceIL the first privately funded venture to put a payload on the moon. It will also make Israel the fourth nation with a spacecraft on the lunar surface — after Russia, the United States and China.

Tonight’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida also represents Spaceflight’s first effort to get payloads to geosynchronous transfer orbit and beyond. The Seattle launch services company has negotiated the launch of more than 200 satellites, but previous missions had gone no higher than low Earth orbit.

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Hayabusa 2 probe touches down on asteroid

Hayabusa 2 after touchdown
An image captured just after the Hayabusa 2’s touchdown on asteroid Ryugu shows the H-shaped shadow of the spacecraft and its solar panels. The dark splotch represents material disturbed by the sample collection operation. (JAXA Photo via Twitter)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock.

The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact.

In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid.

“Based on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” the Hayabusa 2 team tweeted. “A detailed analysis will now be done.”

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Russians report deal to put tourists in orbit by 2021

Charles Simonyi
Space Adventures facilitated two trips to the International Space Station for Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

Russia’s space agency says it’s getting ready to resume sending private passengers to the International Space Station and back, a decade after the last space tour.

A contract has been signed with Virginia-based Space Adventures to send two non-professional spacefliers into orbit for short-term space station stays by the end of 2021, Roscosmos reported today in a news release.

Space Adventures didn’t issue a statement but retweeted Roscosmos’ news.

Roscosmos said the two passengers would fly on a Soyuz spacecraft that’s currently being built, presumably with a professional Russian cosmonaut in the pilot’s seat. “The execution of all works on the creation of space technology will be carried out at the expense of the space tourists,” Roscosmos said.

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Space Force to be created under Air Force’s wing

Oval Office signing
Vice President Mike Pence makes comments at an Oval Office signing ceremony for Space Policy Directive 4, alongside President Donald Trump and officials including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva and Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence. (White House Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump today signed a space policy directive that lays out further steps in the creation of the U.S. Space Force as a sixth military branch housed within the Department of the Air Force.

The plan wouldn’t involve splitting off Space Force from the Air Force immediately, although it leaves the door open to take that step at a later time. As described in the White House’s Space Policy Directive 4, the arrangement would be similar to the Marine Corps’ status as a military branch within the Department of the Navy.

Such a concept is more likely to meet with approval from the Democratic-led House, which along with the Senate would have to approve the Space Force’s creation.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who heads the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico earlier this month that “we can work with” the concept, which some have referred to as a “Space Corps” rather than a Space Force. In contrast, Smith previously voiced his opposition to the idea of creating a Space Force that was independent from the Air Force.

The Space Force would be the first new military branch created since the Air Force was born in 1947. (The others are the Army, the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard.)

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How IoT could bring hackers into your kitchen

Internet of Things and the cloud
Pixabay Illustration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tens of billions of devices, ranging from coffee makers to cars to spacecraft, could someday be connected to global networks thanks to what’s known as the Internet of Things, or IoT, and cybersecurity experts say that could open up a whole new universe for hackers and eavesdroppers.

Consider the humble coffee maker, for example: University of North Carolina techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci suggested that if Chinese authorities wanted to, say, root out Muslim activists in the country’s far western Xinjiang region, they could watch for the telltale sign of coffee or tea being brewed before morning prayers.

“Your coffee maker has an IP [address], and it might be at risk of identifying these people, because if I wanted one piece of data from the region, that would be my thing. … It’s a very synchronized hour, that’s the whole point of it,” Tufekci said here last weekend during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Holy crap, we were just talking about coffee making, right? And now we’re talking about taking people to send to internment camps,” she said. “These lines are not as far apart from one another as one would think.”

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