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GeekWire

NASA names Mars landing site after sci-fi pioneer

Fifteen years after her death, Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX’s Starship lands at last — but then blows up

SpaceX’s prototype Starship super-rocket landed upright today at the end of the program’s third high-altitude test flight — which qualifies as a big step forward, even though the rocket blew up minutes later.

There were actually two launch attempts during today’s hours-long opportunity at the company’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas. The first one ended with an aborted ignition. In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the rocket’s three methane-fueled Raptor engines exceeded a “slightly conservative high thrust limit.”

SpaceX’s launch team raised the allowable thrust limit for another attempt two hours later, and this time the liftoff was picture-perfect. As was the case for SpaceX’s two earlier high-flying Starship tests — in December and February — the 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from its pad at the company’s Boca Chica test facility, reaching its target altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

When the prototype, known as SN10, passed through the top of its trajectory and began its descent, it did an eyebrow-raising flip onto its belly — a maneuver designed to brake its speed on the way down. Moments before reaching the ground, SN10 executed yet another flip to return to a vertical position for a retro-rocket landing.

All that was successfully done during the earlier SN8 and SN9 test flights. The landing has been tougher to execute: Both of those earlier tests ended in a fiery crash — due to low fuel-tank pressure in December, and a faulty rocket engine in February.

This time around, the prototype spaceship landed on its feet, although it appeared to lean a bit to the side. “Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk exulted in a tweet.

The sense of accomplishment was dimmed only slightly minutes later when Starship caught fire while sitting on the landing pad. The massive rocket erupted in a fireball, sending Starship’s remains hundreds of feet into the air.

“SN10 re-flew a lot quicker than any of us expected,” Tim Dodd, also known as the Everyday Astronaut, joked in a tweet.

Elon Musk replied in kind: “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

SpaceX didn’t immediately say why the rocket exploded, but Scottish rocket scientist and YouTuber Scott Manley speculated that a rupture in the prototype’s oxygen tank was to blame.

Some observers said flames that were seen licking around the base of the rocket as it landed may have contributed to a structural failure. Others pointed to video views suggesting that at least some of the prototype’s landing legs didn’t work properly — which would explain why Starship was leaning on its landing pad.

In any case, it won’t be long until SN11 makes its way to the launch pad for the next Starship test. SpaceX is following a strategy of rapid prototyping, construction and high-altitude testing to hasten the development of a Starship capable of reaching orbit.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to launch Starship atop an even taller Super Heavy first-stage booster for trips to the moon and Mars. And the company is working on a tight timeline.

Just this week, Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced an update in their plans for a Starship trip around the moon. Maezawa’s crewmates for the trip are to be selected within the next few months in a global competition, and spaceflight training could begin this summer for a six-day mission that’s scheduled for 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023,” Musk said.

Update for 12:35 a.m. PT March 4: Less than 10 hours after the Starship test in Texas, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida to put another 60 of the company’s Starlink broadband internet satellites into low Earth orbit.

After stage separation, the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Starlink satellites are built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. The latest batch joins more than 1,000 other satellites that are already providing connectivity to beta users.

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GeekWire

Electric motor venture gets an $80M boost

Turntide Technologies, a Silicon Valley venture that’s retooling electric motors for the 21st century, says it has completed an $80 million funding round that was led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the clean-tech fund created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Other investors include the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, actor Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition Ventures, Keyframe Capital, Fifth Wall and Captain Planet LP. The newly announced round brings Turntide’s total funding to $180 million.

Turntide’s executive chairman and CEO, Ryan Morris, emphasized that the company’s backers are looking for a payoff that goes beyond dollars and cents.

“Our investors recognize the critical role that technology will play in our fight against climate change,” he said today in a news release. “To curb the carbon emissions driving this crisis, we all need to change the way that we use energy. That starts with modernizing the technology that is currently powering our world.”

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Cosmic Space

Japanese tycoon reboots contest for moon trip

Will the third time be the charm for Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who’s looking for company on a trip around the moon?

Two and a half years ago, Maezawa announced that he would buy a ride on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket — and select half a dozen artists on a par with Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson to accompany him on a flight around the moon and back (without making a lunar landing).

A year ago, Maezawa took a different tack: He set up a reality-TV contest to choose a soulmate to be by his side, and invited women from around the world to apply. A couple of weeks later, he canceled the project and apologized to the 27,722 women who signed up.

Today marks the third try: Maezawa is opening up a fresh opportunity for folks to apply for a spot on his Starship, via his dearMoon website.

“I’m inviting you to join me on this mission,” he said in a video. “Eight of you from all around the world. It will be 10 to 12 people in all, but I will be inviting eight people to come along on the ridc.”

The current plan calls for the Starship launch to take place in 2023. A Super Heavy booster would lift the Starship to Earth orbit. Then the spaceship and its crew would loop around the moon and return to Earth. The round trip would last about six days in all.

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GeekWire

SpaceX will expand satellite operation to Texas

SpaceX is planning to break ground on a “state-of-the-art manufacturing facility” in Austin, Texas, to support a satellite operation that got its start in Redmond, Wash.

The company’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, set up the Starlink satellite operation in Redmond five years ago. It’s now said to turn out six satellites per day for SpaceX’s broadband internet constellation, which is in the midst of an expanding beta test. More than 1,000 of the satellites have already been deployed in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX continues to launch them in batches of as many as 60 at a time.

Starlink is the furthest along of several mega-constellation projects aimed at providing global internet access via satellites in low Earth orbit. Competitors include OneWebTelesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

In contrast to SpaceX’s Redmond facility, the Austin factory would build “millions of consumer-facing devices that we ship directly to customers (Starlink dishes, Wi-Fi routers, mounting hardware, etc.),” SpaceX said in a job posting. That part of the operation has been managed from SpaceX’s headquarters in the Los Angeles area.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.

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Cosmic Science

Sexy Roman chariot emerges from Pompeii’s ashes

Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site has yielded up yet another treasure revealing how the good life was lived in ancient Rome: a four-wheeled chariot that was designed for use during sexy ceremonies.

The intact artifact was unearthed over the past month from a field of ash laid down in the year 79 during the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Nearby, excavators previously found the ash-preserved remains of three horses — including one horse that died in its harness.

Massimo Osanna, outgoing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, suggested that the chariot served a function analogous to modern-day limousines. It’s styled as a type of ceremonial chariot known as a pilentum, and was decorated with bronze and tin medallions depicting men, women and winged Cupids in erotic scenes.

“The scenes on the medallions which embellish the rear of the chariot refer to Eros … while the numerous studs feature Erotes,” Osanna said in a news release. “Considering that the ancient sources allude to the use of the pilentum by priestesses and ladies, one cannot exclude the possibility that this could have been a chariot used for rituals relating to marriage, for leading the bride to her new household.”

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GeekWire

Human genome sequencing rises to the next level

Twenty years after the first human genome sequence was published, an international research team has kicked the sequencing game to the next level with a set of 64 reference genomes that reflect much higher resolution and more genetic diversity.

Since the Human Genome Project completed the first draft of its reference genome in 2001, decoding the human genetic code has been transformed from a multibillion-dollar endeavor into a relatively inexpensive commercial service. However, commercial whole-genome sequencing, or WGS, often misses out on crucial variations that can make all the difference when it comes to an individual’s health.

“As a metric, 75% of structural variants that are present in that person’s genome are missed by WGS, but are captured by our long-read phased genome assembly,” University of Washington genome scientist Evan Eichler told me in an email. “Such variants are about three times more likely to cause disease.”

Eichler, who was a member of the original Human Genome Project, is one of the senior authors of a study laying out the new set of reference genomes, published today by the journal Science.

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GeekWire

A way-out idea to drill into Mars wins NASA funding

The latest crop of NASA-backed concepts for far-out space exploration includes “borebots” that could drill as far as a mile beneath the Martian surface in search of liquid water, and a nuclear-powered spacecraft that could intercept interstellar objects as they zip through our solar system.

Researchers in Washington state are behind both of those ideas.

The borebots and the interstellar-object checker are among 16 proposals winning Phase I funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC.

For more than two decades, NIAC (which started out as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) has backed early-stage projects that could eventually add to NASA’s capabilities for aerospace technology and space exploration.

“NIAC Fellows are known to dream big, proposing technologies that may appear to border science fiction and are unlike research being funded by other agency programs,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovations and partnerships within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release.

“We don’t expect them all to come to fruition but recognize that providing a small amount of seed-funding for early research could benefit NASA greatly in the long run,” Gustetic said.

Phase I grants typically amount to $125,000 for a nine-month concept study, and promising concepts can go on to receive another $500,000 in Phase II support for two years of further development. The best ideas can win Phase III grants of $2 million for a two-year transition to commercial or government applications.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin delays New Glenn rocket’s first flight

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it’s targeting the fourth quarter of 2022 for the first flight of its orbital-class New Glenn rocket — which marks a major schedule shift.

The company had previously planned to conduct its first New Glenn launch from Florida by the end of this year, although it was becoming increasingly clear that timeline wouldn’t hold.

In a blog posting, Blue Origin said its team “has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.”

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.