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Rocket Lab launches 7 satellites for Spaceflight

Rocket Lab launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed a picture-perfect first launch for Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc., putting BlackSky’s Global-3 Earth-observing satellite and six other small spacecraft into orbit from its New Zealand launch pad.

The Los Angeles-based launch company nicknamed today’s mission “Make It Rain,” in honor of Spaceflight and its allegedly drizzly home base.

In contrast to the nickname, the weather was crystal-clear and sunny for liftoff at 4:30 p.m. June 29 New Zealand time (9:30 p.m. PT June 28) from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The launch had been delayed twice this week, just to make sure all systems were go, but today’s countdown was trouble-free.

The ascent of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket looked trouble-free as well. After the first two stages did their job, the rocket’s kick stage entered what Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck called a “perfect transfer orbit” in preparation for satellite deployment.

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SpaceX reports milestone for Starlink satellite links

Starlink satellite
An artist’s conception shows the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. (SpaceX Illustration)

In the wake of last month’s launch of 60 Starlink broadband data satellites, SpaceX says all but three of them are in communication with the company’s network of ground stations, including the satellite operation’s home base in Redmond, Wash.

In an emailed update, SpaceX said Starlink is ready to go into a testing phase that involves streaming videos and playing video games via satellite.

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NASA decides to send a nuclear drone to Titan

Dragonfly probe
An artist’s conception shows the Dragonfly probe on the dunes of Titan. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

NASA has chosen to commit up to $850 million to creating an interplanetary probe unlike any seen before: a rotor-equipped spacecraft that will fly through the smoggy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon.

The Dragonfly mission will be managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory on NASA’s behalf, with its launch scheduled for 2026 on a rocket to be named later, and its landing due amid the dunes of Titan in 2034.

This won’t be the first landing on Titan: That happened back in 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft dropped off the Huygens lander to send back the first pictures from the moon’s cloud-obscured surface. Observations from Cassini and Huygens confirmed that chilly Titan held rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and that methane fell like rain on the icy terrain.

“Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to have an Earthlike cycle of liquids flowing across its surface,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a tweet. “Dragonfly will explore the processes that shape this extraordinary environment filled with organic compounds – the building blocks to life as we know it.”

Today’s announcement was the climax of a years-long process to choose the next mission for NASA’s New Horizons portfolio, which supports projects costing no more than $850 million. Past selections include the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter. and the OSIRIS-REx mission to bring back a sample from asteroid Bennu.

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Spotlight shines on asteroid perils and prospects

DART spacecraft
Artwork shows NASA’s DART spacecraft approaching a binary asteroid. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

Asteroid Day marks a catastrophic cosmic blast that flattened Siberian forests on June 30, 1908 — but the theme for this year’s observance is hope rather than dread.

“It’s a really exciting time for planetary defense,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute, told reporters today during the buildup to the anniversary. And the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute has a starring role.

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Cave-exploring rover tested for moon and Mars

Cave rover team
NASA’s robotics team drives the test rover, CaveR, into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument in California. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. (NASA Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Underground lava tubes are great places to set up bases on the moon, or look for life on Mars — but they’ll be super-tricky to navigate. Which is why a NASA team is practicing with a cave rover in California.

Scientists are sharing their experiences from the Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments project, or BRAILLE, here at this week’s Astrobiology Science Conference.

The site of the experiment is California’s Lava Beds National Monument, which houses North America’s largest network of lava tubes. These are tunnel-like structures left behind by ancient volcanic flows of molten rock. They’re known to exist on the moon and Mars, and in some places there are even openings that make those lava tubes accessible from the surface.

The underground passageways provide shelter from the harsh radiation hitting the surface of the moon and Mars, which would be a big plus for would-be settlers. There’s even a chance that microbes could find a foothold in lava tubes on Mars, as they do on Earth.

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These student art projects will be out of this world

OK Go with winners
Members of the OK Go performance-art band (at left) give the good word to one of the winning teams (shown on the screen at right) in the Art in Space contest. (OK Go via YouTube)

Three students are getting ready for a space experiment that will use gravity and magnetism to simulate the origin of planet Earth. Another trio plans to create a musical composition that’s based on blips of cosmic radiation.

We’re not talking about strictly scientific experiments here: These are the winning entries in an art contest set up by the performance-art rock band OK Go to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

The Art in Space contest follows up on OK Go’s viral “Upside Down & Inside Out” video, which splashed paint all over the interior of an airplane during a zero-gravity parabolic airplane flight.

OK Go Sandbox, the nonprofit venture established by the group in league with the University of St. Thomas’ Playful Learning Lab, struck a deal with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture to let kids do something similarly creative during the weightless phase of New Shepard’s flight.

Unlike OK Go, the winners of the contest won’t be floating in zero-G. The experiments are designed to do their thing autonomously, under controlled conditions, without splattering stuff on New Shepard’s nice new upholstery.

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Apollo 11 flight manual goes on the road

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book
The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book sits in a display case at the Living Computers Museum + Labs, with a picture of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book that sat between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for the moon landing 50 years ago is going up for auction, at a price that’s expected to amount to as much as $9 million — but first, it’s going on display.

Today, for one day only, the ring-bound flight manual is on exhibit inside a glass case at Seattle’s Living Computers Museum + Labs. From Seattle, the book travels on to Palo Alto, Calif., for another one-day preview Thursday at the Pace Gallery. Then it’s off to Christie’s auction house in New York for a showing from July 11 to 17.

Christie’s is featuring the book as the marquee item in a 195-lot auction of space artifacts and memorabilia scheduled for July 18, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission.

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Falcon Heavy puts solar sail and much more in orbit

Launch pad video shows the Falcon Heavy liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket had its first night launch tonight, sending 24 different spacecraft toward three different types of orbit to test a wide range of technologies.

The triple-barreled rocket rose into the sky from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 2:30 a.m. ET Tuesday (11:30 p.m. PT Monday), kicking off the Defense Department’s Space Test Program-2 mission, or STP-2.

Minutes after launch, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters separated and flew themselves to two landing pads set up at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, not far from the launch pad. The twin touchdowns were greeted with raucous cheers from SpaceX employees watching the webcast at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

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Martian methane fades away but mystery remains

Curiosity rover
This image was taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover on June 18. It shows part of Teal Ridge, which the rover has been studying in a region called the “clay-bearing unit.” (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — NASA says the record-setting belch of Martian methane that its Curiosity rover detected last week has faded away, leaving some big questions hanging in the air: Where did the gas come from, and what were its origins?

Much of the methane on Earth is produced biologically, from sources ranging from microbes to the digestive tracts of cows and humans. But methane can also be produced through geological, completely non-biological processes. For example, methane makes up about 5 percent of the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon Titan, which is so cold that methane and other hydrocarbons pool up in lakes and rivers.

Curiosity’s onboard chemistry lab — known as Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM — has an instrument that can sense methane levels in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and those levels usually amount to less than 1 part per billion by volume. But SAM has registered several curious methane spikes during its seven years of surface operations — including a rise to 6 parts per billion in 2013 that got NASA’s attention, and another detection that rose even higher during the following Martian year.

Last week, methane levels spiked to the highest levels ever detected by Curiosity: 21 parts per billion. That caused the SAM science team to change their plans for the weekend and make follow-up measurements.

Those measurements were sent back to the science team this morning, and they showed that methane levels were back to their usual level.

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UW rocketeers win the Spaceport America Cup

UW SARP team
Teammates from the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion carry hardware during the Spaceport America Cup competition in New Mexico. (UW-SARP via Facebook)

If at first you don’t succeed … try, try, try again. That’s the formula that the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion followed to win the top prize at this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition, held over the weekend in New Mexico.

The SARP team took the Judge’s Choice and Overall Winner Award at the world’s largest collegiate rocket engineering contest, which is run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association and drew 120 teams from 14 countries. Each team is required to design, build and fly a rocket that can reach 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, depending on the contest category.

SARP’s chief engineer, Jess Grant, said this year’s win comes after a string of three disappointments.

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