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Amazon commits $10B to satellites after FCC’s OK

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures.

In response, Amazon said it would invest more than $10 billion in the project. “We’re off to the races,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in a statement.

The FCC’s non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on July 29 and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

Project Kuiper’s satellites are to be launched in five phases, and service would begin once Amazon launched the first 578 satellites. Under the terms of the FCC’s order, Amazon will have to launch half of its satellites by mid-2026, and the rest of them by mid-2029.

Amazon had sought to vie on an equal footing with constellation operators whose plans had been previously authorized by the FCC, but the commission said that in fairness, Project Kuiper would have to give deference to those plans. The FCC said that it expected Amazon’s mega-constellation rivals to act in good faith to resolve radio interference concerns.

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Perseverance rover begins trek to seek life on Mars

With the fiery flash of a rocket launch, NASA’s Perseverance rover headed out today for what’s expected to be a decade-long campaign to store up and bring back Martian samples that may hold evidence of alien life.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), sending the rover into space for a seven-month cruise to Mars.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the area surrounding the launch pad was restricted, but hundreds of thousands of people watched the liftoff via streaming video. And as if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, in the minutes before launch, a magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover mission is managed.

Mission managers said the complications had no effect on the countdown.

“This is all about perseverance,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the buildup to liftoff. “Going to Mars is all about persevering in general. Doing it now is more persevering than ever before.”

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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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Cosmic Science

ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.

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Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

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Cosmic Science

XPRIZE organizes $5M challenge for COVID-19 tests

The nonprofit XPRIZE foundation has assembled a high-powered coalition to take on a high-priority problem: developing high-quality screening tests for COVID-19 that are low-cost and easy to use with a fast turnaround time.

The $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition is the latest project from the folks who created multimillion-dollar contests for privately financed spaceships, super-efficient cars and real-life equivalents of Star Trek’s medical tricorders.

Among those voicing support for the testing development effort are:

  • OpenCovidScreen, a nonprofit group that numbers researchers from such institutions as the University of Washington and business leaders from such companies as Illumina among its advisers and collaborators. OpenCovidScreen’s partners include ThermoFisher Scientific, Google, Amazon and Ancestry.com. The group’s president and co-founder is Jeff Huber, a former Google executive and co-founder of Grail, a cancer detection startup.
  • A $50 million fund known as the COVID Apollo Project, backed by investors including RA Capital, Bain Capital, Perceptive Advisors, Redmile Group and Samsara Biocapital.
  • Healthcare companies including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, BlueCross / BlueShield of South Carolina and Cambia Health Solutions.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “seeing the breakthroughs that arise from this challenge and the countless lives that will be saved as a result.”

Teams can compete in one of four categories, focusing on at-home tests, point-of-care tests, distributed lab tests or high-throughput lab tests. They’ll be asked to develop new tests that produce results within 12 hours of collecting a sample, using minimally invasive procedures.

Winning teams will be required to deploy and conduct a minimum of 500 tests per week at a live testing site within 60 days, and have the potential to scale up their solutions to thousands of tests per week.

Cost of the test should be less than $15, including all materials, with avenues for reducing costs as production is scaled up.

Currently, the cost of COVID-19 testing can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on healthcare circumstances. What’s more, the turnaround time for test results can extend past a week, due to shortages in supplies and staffing.

“Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said. “XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable Covid-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again.”

Teams must register by Aug. 31, and the XPRIZE timeline calls for tests to be deployed in a pilot round that runs from Nov. 2, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021. Winners are to be announced by the end of next January, with scaled-up production planned during the months that follow.

The reaction to today’s announcement was mostly positive. “THIS is what we need right now,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a tweet.

However, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to have the final word on any tests that come out of the competition. And even without the contest, progress is being made on rapid-turnaround COVID-19 tests. There’s a chance that this XPRIZE will be rendered unnecessary before it reaches its climax. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Cosmic Space

China launches Mars probe amid big questions

China’s most advanced space probe — Tianwen-1, whose name means “Heavenly Questions” — is on its way to Mars, beginning a quest that will be riddled with questions.

Some of those questions are definitely heavenly in nature: How are reservoirs of potentially precious water ice distributed beneath the Martian surface? Where are the best places to find traces of past life, or to shelter future explorers?

But the biggest question about Tianwen-1 is more down to Earth: Can the Chinese actually pull this off?

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” mission team leaders wrote last week in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

The mission’s start looked auspicious, although it lacked the level of official reportage that Western space enthusiasts are used to.

A video stream from Douyu.com showed China’s Long March 5 rocket sending the 5-ton probe skyward from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 p.m. local time July 23 (9:41 p.m. PT July 22). China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the launch in a bulletin issued a couple of minutes later.

The plan calls for Tianwen-1 to make a seven-month cruise to Mars and enter a polar elliptical orbit next February.

Tianwen-1 is one of three Mars probes being launched this summer to take advantage of a favorable celestial alignment that comes around only every 26 months. The other two spacecraft are the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which was launched earlier this week; and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for liftoff next week.

NASA’s recent Mars missions may make the interplanetary trip look easy. But over the past five decades, trips to the Red Planet have been so fraught with risks that mission managers used to joke darkly about a “Great Galactic Ghoul” who gobbled spacecraft bound for Mars.

Only NASA and the Soviet Union have successfully landed probes on Mars, and the Soviet Mars 3 lander lasted just 110 seconds on the ground before giving up the ghost in 1971.

Several NASA probes have gone astray, including Mars Observer in 1993 as well as Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. China has fallen victim to the ghoul’s grip as well: Its first Mars probe, a piggyback orbiter known as Yinghuo-1, was lost when the Russian spacecraft it was riding on, Phobos-Grunt, failed to get out of Earth orbit after its launch in 2011 and eventually fell into the Pacific.

Since that failure, China’s robotic space program has had much more success: The Chang’e-3 mission put a rover on the lunar surface in 2013, and a little more than five years later, Chang’e-4 became the world’s first mission to explore the moon’s far side at ground level.

Tianwen-1’s agenda is similarly ambitious: The orbiter is meant to conduct a global high-resolution survey of Mars over the course of a full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. Two or three months after entering Martian orbit, a lander will unhook from the orbiter, descend through the atmosphere and make a soft landing in Utopia Planitia with the aid of a parachute, retrorockets and airbags.

If that touchdown is successful, the lander will disgorge a 500-pound rover that’s bristling with six scientific instruments — including two cameras, a meteorology station, a magnetometer, a surface composition analyzer and a ground-penetrating radar that could map those hidden concentrations of subsurface water ice.

Mars’ reservoirs of water ice would be crucial for sustaining human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. In the past, Chinese experts have talked about sending astronauts there sometime after 2040. But that’s an issue for another day. In the meantime, China — and the rest of the world’s spacefaring nations — will have to deal with lots of slightly less lofty heavenly questions.

Update for 1:25 a.m. PT July 23: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wished Tianwen-1 safe travels in a tweet:

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GeekWire

BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

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Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

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Cosmic Space

Hope rises: Emirates’ first Mars probe lifts off from Japan

The United Arab Emirates’ first-ever mission to Mars got off to a fiery start today with the launch of the Hope orbiter from Japan.

A two-stage Mitsubishi H-2A rocket sent the car-sized probe into space from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 2:58 p.m. PT today (6:58 a.m. local time July 20). Two previous launch attempts had to be called off due to unacceptable weather.

An Emirati team based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai is in charge of the $200 million mission. The probe itself was built in the U.S. with help from research institutions including Berkeley, Arizona State University and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP.

Learning the tools of the space exploration trade is one of the Hope mission’s on-the-ground objectives. The United Arab Emirates has had several satellites launched into Earth orbit, but this is the nation’s first interplanetary probe.

“Collaboration and knowledge transfer have been key to the development of the Emirates Mars Mission,” project director Omran Sharaf said in a pre-launch news release.

About an hour after launch, the probe was deployed from the H-2A’s second stage and sent out of Earth orbit to start the seven-month, 306 million-mile cruise to Mars. Emirati mission controllers will track Hope’s progress with an assist from NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Hope’s three instruments — a high-resolution imager, an infrared spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer — are aimed at providing data about Mars’ atmosphere on a par with what Earth-observing weather satellites provide.

That should help flesh out the global picture of Martian weather provided by other nations’ orbiters, including NASA’s MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

One of the key scientific questions has to do with how hydrogen and oxygen are escaping from the upper atmosphere — a phenomenon that, over the course of billions of years, is thought to have turned Mars from a hospitable home for life to the cold, dry planet it is today.

“Hope will capture the ebbs and flows of weather on Mars to a degree that wasn’t possible before,” said LASP’s director, Daniel Baker. “It’s a showcase for how space exploration has become an increasingly international endeavor.”

The primary phase of the mission is meant to last a full Martian year, or a little less than two Earth years, but if all goes well that mission is likely to be extended.

Hope was the first of three Mars probes scheduled for launch during this summer’s rapid-transit opportunity. (Such opportunities come only every 26 months.)

China is expected to launch its Tianwen-1 spacecraft — including an orbiter, a lander and a rover — sometime in the next week or so. And NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is due for liftoff from its Florida launch pad no earlier than July 30.

Less than an hour before launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the UAE’s space program was a “shining example” of international space cooperation — and that last year’s flight of the Emirates’ first astronaut gave NASA “another partner” in human spaceflight during the ramp-up to Artemis moon missions.

Bridenstine said both the Hope orbiter and the Perseverance rover were aptly named.

“All of us believe that this is critical for our nation: to inspire the next generation, to provide hope and demonstrate perseverance,” he said. “The naming of these two robots, if you will, is absolutely perfect. … This is a very serious mission that is going to give us a lot of data and information on how we might one day, together even, explore Mars with humans.”