Categories
Fiction Science Club

‘Don’t Look Up’ aims a satirical spotlight at a cosmic threat

The science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded comedy about a killer comet, has some serious advice for dodging a threat from the skies: Take the title of the movie, and do the exact opposite.

“The sensible thing to do about this particular problem is … just go look up and see if it’s out there,” said Amy Mainzer, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “And do a thorough enough job of it that we have a reasonable chance of spotting something that’s large enough to cause appreciable damage, well before it could make its way here.”

The roughly 5-mile-wide comet that’s heading for Earth in “Don’t Look Up,” with only about six and a half months of advance warning, is totally fictional. Nevertheless, the movie is a teachable moment for the science surrounding asteroids, comets and planetary defense. And Mainzer said the stars of the show, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, were unusually eager students.

“These actors wanted to know everything,” she said. “I would say they’re approaching some pretty solid knowledge of just how do we find asteroids and comets, and what do we do about them.”

Mainzer discusses what’s going on with the search for potentially threatening near-Earth objects, as well as her experience as a science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture. You can listen to the episode via your favorite podcast channel — or right here:

Categories
GeekWire

Quantum-style computing is getting real-world tests

Microsoft and KPMG are getting set to test Azure Quantum’s capabilities on the sorts of real-world problems that should give quantum computing an edge over traditional approaches.

Such problems have to do with optimizing systems and networks, such as where best to place cellular phone towers or how to allocate investments to match a client’s priorities relating to risks vs. rewards.

“Optimization problems are found in many industries and are often difficult to solve using traditional methods which can accelerate optimization,” Krysta Svore, general manager of Microsoft Quantum, explained today in a blog post. “Emulating these quantum effects on classical computers has led to the development of quantum-inspired optimization (QIO) algorithms that run on classical hardware.”

Such algorithms reflect the quantum perspective, in which information doesn’t necessarily take the form of rigid ones and zeroes but can instead reflect a range of values simultaneously during processing. The beauty of QIO algorithms is that they don’t need to run on honest-to-goodness quantum processors, which are still in their infancy.

Categories
GeekWire

Blue Origin wins NASA support for a new space station

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and its partners have won a $130 million award to jump-start the design of their Orbital Reef commercial space station, which could take shape during the waning years of the International Space Station.

Two other teams also won NASA funding for their design efforts: Houston-based Nanoracks will get $160 million for its Starlab concept, while Northrop Grumman will get $125.6 million for its proposal.

Blue Origin — which is headquartered in Kent, Wash. — is partnering with Sierra Space as well as Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University on Orbital Reef.

The project is envisioned as an expandable business park, with Boeing’s Starliner space taxi and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane transporting passengers to and from low Earth orbit for tourism, research, in-space manufacturing projects and more. NASA could presumably use Orbital Reef or the other commercial space platforms as a way station and training facility for missions beyond Earth orbit.

Categories
GeekWire

How experts turned down the noise at the Space Needle

Back in 2017, architects laid out their dream design for the Space Needle’s $100 million renovation project, featuring a sleek, modernistic interior, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, glass benches and a glass floor that would make a complete turn around the needle’s axis every 45 minutes.

But for Daniel Bruck, the president of Seattle-based BRC Acoustics & Audiovisual Design, there was a chance that the dream could turn into a noisy nightmare.

“That was a very interesting challenge for us,” he said today at a news conference during the Acoustical Society of America’s Seattle meeting.

Out went the sound-deadening carpet and plush furniture in the restaurant of the 605-foot-tall Seattle landmark — a holdover from the 1962 World’s Fair attended by millions of visitors, including Elvis Presley. In came sound-reflecting floors, ceilings and walls that had the potential to raise the decibel level to rockabilly proportions.

And as if that wasn’t enough cause for worry, the steel-on-steel gearwork that set the floor revolving could have introduced a whole new source of mechanical noise.

Bruck acknowledged that the renovated space has a “clean and elegant” look. “But from an acoustical standpoint, it didn’t give us a whole lot to work with,” he said.

Categories
GeekWire

Kymeta and OneWeb move ahead with satellite terminals

Kymeta Corp., the antenna venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has signed onto a joint development agreement with OneWeb to develop a flat-panel user terminal for OneWeb’s global satellite internet network.

The plan calls for modifying Kymeta’s u8 antenna system for fixed-terminal applications on land, with an eye toward supporting additional applications including mobile service in land-based and maritime settings.

Today’s announcement comes just weeks after Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta and OneWeb reported a successful test of Kymeta’s u8 technology, which takes advantage of an exotic category of electronics known as metamaterials. The technology makes it possible to “steer” an antenna electronically rather than physically moving it.

OneWeb is one of several ventures that is creating satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, or LEO, to broaden access to broadband internet service. SpaceX’s Starlink service is furthest along, but OneWeb is planning to begin limited service in the Arctic within the next few months. The plan calls for Kymeta’s terminals to enter the market as an option by the third quarter of 2022.

Categories
Cosmic Tech

Commercial fusion ventures bring in billions of dollars

Commonwealth Fusion Systems has topped off a banner year for investment in commercial fusion projects with a $1.8 billion funding round for a concept that takes advantage of super-powerful superconducting magnets.

When you add in funding for other ventures, total private investment in fusion over the past year amounts to more than $2.7 billion.

Among the investors: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who’s backing Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, or CFS; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s supporting Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion; PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who’s investing in Everett, Wash.-based Helion Energy; and Google, which is getting behind California-based TAE Technologies.

CFS said its Series B funding round, led by Tiger Global Management, will provide enough capital to get its SPARC fusion machine up and running in Devens, Mass., in cooperation with MIT. In addition to Gates, the list of investors includes Google, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Soros Fund Management LLC and actor Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition.

“The world is ready to make big investments in commercial fusion as a key part of the global energy transition. This diverse group of investors includes a spectrum of capital from energy and technology companies to venture capitalists, hedge funds, and university endowments that believe in fusion as a large-scale solution to decarbonize the planet,” CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard said in today’s news release.

Categories
Universe Today

Mother and daughter win suborbital space trips

A wellness coach from Antigua and her daughter are getting tickets for a suborbital space trip, thanks to the latest in a line of out-of-this-world sweepstakes going back 20 years. And although not a single spaceflight sweepstakes winner has flown yet, there’s still significant value to such contests, financially and otherwise.

“Being able to give people of all ages and backgrounds equal access to space, and in turn, the opportunity to lead and inspire others back on Earth, is what Virgin Galactic has been building towards for the past two decades,” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said today in a news release.

Branson himself broke the good news to Keisha Schahaff at her home on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Schahaff had entered a contest arranged in collaboration with the Omaze online sweepstakes platform and a nonprofit group called Space for Humanity this summer. She ended up winning the random drawing. Her grand prize? Two tickets for a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane, plus terrestrial travel expenses.

Categories
GeekWire

NASA begins mission to try pushing away an asteroid

A space probe the size of a school bus is on its way to smash into an asteroid the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, directed by thruster systems built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

This is no “Armageddon,” and there’s no need for Bruce Willis to ride to the rescue. But the experiment is expected to help scientists figure out how to divert a dangerous asteroid heading for Earth should the need arise. That’s one giant leap for planetary defense — and for Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose made-in-Redmond thrusters have been used on dozens of space missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” said Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s executive director for space. “But this is the first time we’ve ever done something that’s really truly planned as a defense against threats to life on Earth. The test we’re going to do here is really the first step in getting ourselves ready as a species to react and respond if we ever are threatened in that way.”

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, got off to a showy start with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Liftoff occurred at 10:21 p.m. PT, at the end of a smooth countdown.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster and proceeded to orbit, while the booster flew itself back to an at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed in the Pacific. Within an hour after launch, the second stage deployed the DART spacecraft and sent it on its way.

Tonight’s launch marked the first leg of a 10-month journey to a double-asteroid system that’ll be nearly 7 million miles away from Earth at the time of the encounter. The larger asteroid, called Didymos, is about half a mile wide — but that’s not DART’s target. Instead, Aerojet’s thrusters will guide the spacecraft to hit the smaller asteroid, known as Dimorphos.

Categories
GeekWire

OceanGate’s sub is coming home after Titanic trips

After making a series of successful dives to the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic this summer, OceanGate’s flagship submersible is returning to its homeport in Everett, Wash., where it’ll be spruced up for another round of Titanic trips.

OceanGate Expeditions officially announced that its 2022 Titanic Survey Expedition will run from next May through June, with fresh opportunities for mission specialists to take part in the adventure. (Because OceanGate’s customers contribute to operations at sea, the company doesn’t call them “tourists,” even though they’re paying OceanGate a fee of $250,000.)

The five-person Titan submersible’s dives to the Titanic, more than two miles below the sea surface, are aimed at documenting the condition of the wreck on an annual basis. This summer’s dives confirmed previous findings that the world’s most famous shipwreck is rapidly deteriorating — 109 years after the luxury liner struck an iceberg and sank, causing more than 1,500 deaths.

“Mission specialists helped our crew gather and review terabytes of the highest-resolution still images and video of Titanic and the debris field ever collected,” OceanGate Expeditions’ president, Stockton Rush, said today in a news release.

Categories
GeekWire

Blue Origin aims to send astronaut’s daughter to space

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to fly six suborbital space travelers next month, which would mark a first for the company’s New Shepard spaceship. And that’s far from the only first.

If the NS-19 mission proceeds as planned on Dec. 9, the people on board will include the first parent-and-child team in space, the first professional U.S. journalist in space, and the first daughter of an astronaut to go into space herself.

To cap it all off, the astronaut’s daughter is Laura Shepard Churchley — whose father, Alan Shepard, was the first American in space in 1961, providing the inspiration for New Shepard’s name.

“It’s kind of fun for me to say an original Shepard will fly on the New Shepard,” Churchley, 74, said in a video clip released by Blue Origin. “I’m really excited to be going on a Blue Origin flight. I’m very proud of my father’s legacy.”