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Blue Origin zeroes in on flying people to space

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith shows a video of a BE-4 rocket engine firing during the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit in October 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith has told Axios that just a few test flights remain before the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos starts putting people on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

“We’re still focused on getting the vehicle ready to go fly humans on it, and we’re still pushing to get that done by the end of the year,” Smith was quoted as saying in today’s report.

The first riders are likely to be test subjects selected from Blue Origin’s staff — potentially including former NASA astronauts.

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LightSail 2 opens up in orbit to fly on sunshine

This fisheye image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. Baja California and Mexico are visible in the background. The image has been de-distorted and color-corrected. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0)

The nonprofit Planetary Society says its LightSail 2 experiment spread out its solar sails today, nearly a month after it took a piggyback ride to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Following through on 2015’s LightSail 1 mission, this latest flight is designed to demonstrate not only that the 18.4-foot-wide, 4.5-micron thick reflective Mylar sails can be successfully deployed from a shoebox-sized spacecraft, but also that they can be used to maneuver in orbit.

LightSail 2 is pushed by the pressure of sunlight, much as a seagoing sailboat is pushed by the pressure of the wind. Theoretically, bigger and more capable sails could be used to drive a spacecraft around the solar system, or even outward to other stars.

The $7 million project is largely funded by Planetary Society members and private donors. LightSail 2 was packed aboard the Falcon Heavy as part of a larger payload called Prox-1 and delivered to orbit on June 25. Since then, the spacecraft has been going through checkouts and snapping pictures of the planet below.

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FAA puts new drone management system in play

Aerix drone
Recreational drone fliers can use a new online system to get authorization. (Aerix Photo)

Good news for law-abiding drone operators: The Federal Aviation Administration is expanding its automated online system for authorizing recreational flights in controlled airspace.

Today the FAA announced the expansion of the Low Altitude Authorization and Capability System, or LAANC, which provides authorization in near real-time.

Since May, drone operators have been required to get LAANC clearance for flights they wanted to conduct within controlled airspace, but the system wasn’t available for recreational fliers. You could still fly your drone for fun in uncontrolled airspace, but those spots tend to be hard to find in areas anywhere close to an airport.

As a stopgap, the FAA set aside a limited number of fixed sites in controlled airspace where such flights would be OK, including four sites in Washington state. All of those sites cater to model-airplane hobbyists, and may require a membership fee.

Now recreational fliers have a wider range of places to choose from, as long as they use the LAANC system. You still have to comply with all the rules for drone flights, including keeping your craft below 400 feet and within your line of sight. There are also local regulations to consider: For example, drone flights are forbidden in Seattle city parks.

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Allen Institute hatches new HQ for startup incubator

AI2 incubator offices
A view from Google Maps shows the building at 2101 N. 34th St. that’s due to serve as the new home for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s startup incubator. (Google Maps Photo)

The startup incubator at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is getting so busy that it has to move into new digs across the street.

Starting Aug. 12, the incubator will occupy a 7,250-square-foot “long-term home” at 2101 N. 34th St., near Gasworks Park and AI2’s main offices on Northlake Way, the institute said in its email newsletter for friends and families.

“We anticipate having 50+ workstations for our EIRs and CTOs [entrepreneurs in residence and chief technology officers] — complemented by numerous team pods, phone booths, conference rooms, a classroom, a lounge and our own large outdoor deck overlooking Lake Union,” AI2 said.

Jacob Colker, a managing director for AI2’s incubator, told GeekWire in a follow-up email that the new space will be nearly four times bigger than the current 1,850-square-foot office space (above a dive shop that’s next door to AI2’s headquarters).

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India sends probe toward moon landing

India GSLV rocket launch
India’s GSLV Mk III rocket lifts off, sending the Chandrayaan 2 probe on a trip to the moon. (ISRO Photo)

India began a slow but steady space odyssey to the moon’s south polar region today with the launch of its Chandrayaan 2 mission.

The lunar landing, set for Sept. 6-7, would make India the fourth nation to set a probe safely down on the moon’s surface, after Russia, the United States and China.

If all goes according to plan, the mission’s Vikram lander and Pragyan rover would gather the first on-the-ground scientific data from a region that NASA is targeting for a crewed landing in 2024.

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German team wins Hyperloop race (again)

TUM Hyperloop team
The TUM Hyperloop team shows off its pod racer. (TUM via Facebook)

The name may have changed, but the result is the same: For the fourth time in a row, a German team registered the top speed in SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Hyperloop pod race for college-level engineers.

The TUM Hyperloop team from the Technical University of Munich — formerly known as WARR Hyperloop — sent its sleek pod racer through a specially built, mile-long test track next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., at a top speed of 288 mph (463 kilometers per hour).

There was some drama at the end of the run, when the pod experienced what Teslarati photographer Tom Cross called a “rapid unplanned disassembly” — but the judges nevertheless gave the nod to the German team.

As WARR Hyperloop, the same team had the top speed during the three previous runnings of the Hyperloop competition.

Today’s runners-up were Swissloop (160 mph) and EPFLoop (148 mph) from Switzerland, plus Delft Hyperloop from the Netherlands. The University of Washington had a team in the competition but didn’t make it to the Final Four.

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Apollo anniversary brings tributes and questions

A Saturn V rocket is projected on the Washington Monument during a 17-minute multimedia presentation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s moonwalkers took one giant leap for humanity, luminaries including President Donald Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — paid tribute to the achievement and looked forward to the future of spaceflight.

Today’s observances were about more than memories: There were also fresh questions about where that future might lead — plus a Russian rocket launch that resonated with references to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

The marquee observance on today’s anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, came at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Vice President Mike Pence invoked the legacy of the Apollo program and hailed NASA’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon once again by 2024.

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Space for Humanity seeks citizen astronauts

Space travelers
An artist’s conception shows two high-flying travelers looking at the curving Earth below. (World View Enterprises Illuastration via Space for Humanity)

RENTON, Wash. — Space for Humanity is looking for more than a few good astronauts.

The Colorado-based nonprofit group today opened up an online application processfor expense-paid trips to the edge of space, with the goal of giving citizen astronauts a sense of planetary perspective known as the Overview Effect.

This is actually Space for Humanity’s second solicitation, following up on an initial call that went out two years ago. Like that earlier campaign, today’s follow-up was unveiled in conjunction with the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference.

The objective of the campaign is to raise global awareness about the Overview Effect — a feeling of spiritual connectedness that has often been experienced by astronauts looking down at the planet below.

Space for Humanity says as many as 10,000 candidates could be selected for the project, with the expectation that those who travel to the high frontier will serve as ambassadors for the Overview Effect once they come back down to Earth.

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Blue Origin pushes ahead with moon lander engine

BE-7 engine test
Blue Origin’s BE-7 rocket engine executes a test firing in June. The green flame is produced by the engine’s ignition system. (Blue Origin Photo)

RENTON, Wash. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it has test-fired its BE-7 rocket engine for the total six-minute duration it would need for a landing on the moon.

Patrick Zeitouni, Blue Origin’s head of advanced development programs, said the milestone for cumulative firing time was reached during a test conducted just a few days ago at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama — part of a series of tests that began a month ago.

“We’re very excited,” Zeitouni said here at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference. “That means we’re getting a whole lot closer to getting that engine fielded,” he said. “And as you guys know, propulsion, rocket engines are extremely important. They’re the long pole in the tent when you’re trying to develop a new system and bring it online.”

A single hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine would power Blue Origin’s Blue Moon landerfor payload deliveries to the lunar surface, packing up to 10,000 pounds of thrust.

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Olis and Tethers Unlimited team up on space robots

Robot arm and Refabricator
An artist’s conception shows a Mantis robotic arm at work on Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator 3-D printer and recycler. (Tethers Unlimited / Olis Robotics Illustration)

Two space tech companies that are headquartered in the Seattle area, Olis Robotics and Tethers Unlimited, are joining forces to create a new kind of remote-controlled robotic system that could be used on the International Space Station or other off-Earth outposts.

The companies say they’ve signed an agreement to explore further development of the system, in an arrangement that follows up on past collaborations.

Seattle-based Olis Robotics’ software platform allows robots to perform some tasks autonomously and reduce operator workload on other tasks. The platform makes it possible for robots in remote locations to execute their prescribed tasks safely even if their links with remote operators are subject to time delays or data dropouts.

That’s just the kind of resiliency that’s required for space operations, Olis CEO Don Pickering said. “Our variable autonomy software platform allows operators anywhere in the world to command new levels of precision, safety and efficiency in remotely operating robotics in space,” he explained in a news release.

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