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Cosmic Space

Blue Origin veterans spark space startups

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture turned 20 years old this week — and although the privately held company hasn’t yet put people into space, or put a rocket into orbit, it has spawned a new generation of space startups.

One of those startups, Relativity Space, pulled up stakes in Seattle early on and moved to Southern California. Now it’s making a multimillion-dollar splash and putting the pieces in place for the first launch of its Terran rocket from Florida next year.

Relativity is also going through a leadership transition: Jordan Noone, the venture’s co-founder and chief technology officer, announced today on Twitter that he’ll step back and become an executive adviser “in preparation for starting my next venture.” Relativity’s other co-founder, Blue Origin veteran Tim Ellis, will stay on as CEO.

Other startups are in semi-stealth mode. Here are three notable Seattle-area ventures with Blue Origin connections:

Stoke Space Technologies: Incorporated last October in Renton. Co-founders are CEO Andrew Lapsa, who was responsible for all aspects of development and operation for Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 and BE-3U engines; and Thomas Feldman, an engineer who played a key role in designing components for the more powerful BE-4 engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas.

Stoke’s website says the company is “building technology to seamlessly connect Earth and orbit.” In May, the company won a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation to work on an integrated propulsion solution for reusable rocket upper stages.

Stoke says it’ll use the NSF funding “to develop new technology enabling space launch vehicles to re-enter the atmosphere and land propulsively at a target destination for reuse.” SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket are designed with first-stage reusability in mind. Stoke is looking ahead to the next giant leap in reusable rockets.

In addition to Lapsa and Feldman, LinkedIn lists three other Stoke employees with Blue Origin experience. And they have  job openings for a lead system architect and a “Superhuman.”

Reach Space Technologies: Incorporated in February in Maple Valley. The company’s website is still password-protected, but LinkedIn lists Mike Krene, former senior propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, as founder and CEO. Krene spent a decade at Blue Origin, and before that, he dealt with propulsion systems at SpaceX and Pratt & Whitney.

The venture says it aims to “accelerate the time and reduce the cost for new launch startups to get to commercial viability, thereby growing the overall launch market.”

“Our engine systems also provide a high-value, commercially focused propulsion option for existing NewSpace and traditional launch providers,” Reach Space says on its LinkedIn page.

The company says it has between two and 10 employees, including “leading engineers with experience across many flight and development rocket engine systems.”

Starfish Space: Incorporated last November in Kent, where Blue Origin is headquartered. The co-founders are Trevor Bennett, a former flight sciences engineer at Blue Origin; and Austin Link, who spent three years at Blue Origin as a flight sciences simulation engineer. Ian Heidenberger, Starfish’s principal roboticist, was an autonomous-controls engineer at Blue Origin.

Starfish says it’s a venture-backed startup but has not yet revealed details about its investors or investments. It’s working on an “on-demand, in-space transportation service,” including a space tug that could be used to relocate, deorbit or extend the life of satellites. It’s also developing the software to support rendezvous and proximity operations — with an emphasis on electric propulsion.

Four years ago, Jeff Bezos told me his goal for Blue Origin was to build the “heavy-lifting infrastructure” for a wider space industry ecosystem, just as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and the internet furnished the infrastructure that got Amazon off the ground. Now it looks as if Blue Origin is providing a seedbed for that ecosystem, even before the company has fully occupied its own niche in the marketplace.

Correction for 12:35 a.m. PT Sept. 10: We’ve fixed the spelling of Ian Heidenberger’s name. Hat tip to Isaac Alexander.

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Scientists design proteins that confound coronavirus

Imagine being able to ward off COVID-19 just by spritzing a nasal spray into your nostrils. It may not be just your imagination: Researchers at the University of Washington have designed a batch of synthetic proteins that could conceivably block the coronavirus behind this year’s pandemic from gaining a foothold.

“Although extensive clinical testing is still needed, we believe the best of these computer-generated antivirals are quite promising,” Longxing Cao, a postdoctoral scholar at UW’s Institute for Protein Design, said in a news release.

Cao is the lead author of a study about the protein-building experiment, published today by the journal Science. It’s the latest innovation to come from the emerging field of protein engineering, and the technique could revolutionize how drugs are developed to counter future pandemics.

It may not be too late to counter COVID-19 as well. “We are working to get improved versions … deployed to fight the current pandemic,” senior study author David Baker, the director of the Institute for Protein Design, told GeekWire in an email.

The technique involves creating small-molecule proteins, or mini-binders, that are custom-designed to latch onto the spiky molecular structures that are scattered around the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The spikes on the virus do their dirty work by fitting into molecular-scale receptors on the surfaces of cells, much like fitting a key into a lock to gain entry to someone’s house. Once the virus “unlocks” a receptor, it gains entry to the cell, hijacks its chemical machinery and churns out more virus particles to spread the infection.

Baker, Cao and their colleagues used high-powered computers to design more than 2 million candidate proteins that could conceivably gum up the works for the virus’ spike protein. More than 118,000 of the most promising candidates were synthesized and tested on lab-grown cells.

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Cosmic Science

Report lays out a road map for human gene editing

Experts on an international commission are saying it’s too early to tweak the human genome for future generations, but they’re also pointing to the first genetic targets to be tweaked.

The experts’ report, issued today, comes in response to the uproar that arose in 2018 over claims that Chinese researchers had edited the genomes of twin babies in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability to the HIV virus.

Those claims sparked a blizzard of questions about the ethics, legality and efficacy of the experiment. It also sparked efforts to lay down guidelines for the use of recently developed gene-editing tools such as CRISPR to make changes in the human genome that could be passed down to future generations.

In today’s report — prepared with the backing of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and Britain’s Royal Society — the 18-member commission says researchers will have to demonstrate that precise genomic changes can be made reliably without introducing unwanted changes. The commission also says no current technologies, including CRISPR, can satisfy that requirement.

Once the state of the art gets to that point, heritable human genome editing should initially be limited to the prevention of serious diseases that are caused by a single gene, the report says. Examples include cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease.

Even in those cases, gene-editing therapy should be reserved for cases where parents who have a known risk for passing on such a disease have virtually no other options.

“Any initial uses of HHGE [heritable human genome editing] should proceed incrementally and cautiously, and provide the most favorable balance of potential benefits and harms,” Rockefeller University President Richard Lifton, the panel’s co-chair, said in a news release.

Today’s report will feed into the work of a different advisory panel at the World Health Organization, which is drawing up recommendations for governance mechanism that would apply to heritable as well as non-heritable genome editing research and clinical uses.

Those recommendations are due to be issued later this year. It’ll be up to individual countries to incorporate the guidelines as they draw up gene-editing regulations. Today’s report calls for the creation of an independent International Scientific Advisory Panel to track developments in the gene-editing field, as well as an international body to provide further guidance on regulating the field.

Francis Collins, the longtime director of the National Institutes of Health, gave the report his thumbs-up in a tweet:

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Cosmic Space

Black hole crash creates LIGO’s biggest ‘bang’

Scientists say the merger of two black holes that occurred when the universe was half its current age has created the most massive source of gravitational waves ever observed.

After traveling billions of light-years, the disturbance in spacetime was picked up on May 21, 2019, by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, also known as LIGO, and the Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy. The unusual event and its implications are described in papers published today by Physical Review Letters and the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“This doesn’t look much like a chirp, which is what we typically detect,” Nelson Christensen, an astrophysicist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, said in a news release. “This is more like something that goes ‘bang,’ and it’s the most massive signal LIGO and Virgo have seen.”

Christensen and his colleagues say the signal, known as GW190521, appears to have come from the violent collision of two spinning black holes that were about 85 and 66 times as massive as our sun.

The merger created an even bigger black hole that’s about 142 times as massive as the sun. It also released the equivalent of eight solar masses in the form of gravitational-wave energy, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s E=mc2 formula, the scientists said.

GW190521 not only ranks as the biggest bang recorded since LIGO made its initial, Nobel-winning gravitational-wave detection in 2015. It also counts as LIGO’s first detection of a mysterious object known as an intermediate-mass black hole.

For decades, physicists have been fleshing out their theories regarding the nature and origin of black holes — concentrations of matter so massive and compact that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational grip.

Some black holes are thought to be created when stars up to 130 times as massive as our sun run out of their fusion fuel and collapse inward, producing black holes as big as 65 solar masses. There are also scenarios in which stars that weigh more than 200 solar masses can collapse into black holes in the range of 120 solar masses.

A completely different process leads to the creation of monster black holes at the centers of galaxies (including our own galaxy). Such supermassive black holes are at least 1,000 times as massive as the sun.

Not that long ago, scientists thought the physics behind gravitational collapse ruled out the creation of black holes between 65 and 120 solar masses. Instead, the collapse of midsize stars was thought to produce instability through the creation of electron-antielectron pairs — and as a result, the stars were supposed to blow themselves completely apart.

Now, the fact that one of the black holes involved in last year’s smashup was measured at 85 solar masses is complicating claims for the existence of a pair instability mass gap.

“The fact that we’re seeing a black hole in this mass gap will make a lot of astrophysicists scratch their heads and try to figure out how these black holes are made,” said Christensen, who is the director of the Artemis Laboratory at the Nice Observatory in France.

The authors of the paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters have already come up with one possibility: Perhaps the midsize black hole was not directly produced by a stellar collapse, but instead by an earlier merger of smaller black holes — just the sort of merger that LIGO and Virgo have been detecting over the past five years.

“This event opens more questions than in provides answers,” said Caltech physicist Alan Weinstein, a member of the LIGO collaboration. “From the perspective of discovery and physics, it’s a very exciting thing.”

Weinstein cautioned that there’s still some uncertainty about the current explanation for GW190521.

“Since we first turned on LIGO, everything we’ve observed with confidence has been a collision of black holes or neutron stars,” he said. “This is the one event where our analysis allows the possibility that this event is not such a collision.  Although this event is consistent with being from an exceptionally massive binary black hole merger, and alternative explanations are disfavored, it is pushing the boundaries of our confidence. And that potentially makes it extremely exciting.”

Further observations from LIGO and Virgo could turn up something completely new in the gravitational-wave menagerie — for example, evidence for the creation of primordial cosmic strings.

The LIGO project is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by Caltech and MIT. It relies on two gravitational-wave detectors that have been built at Hanford, Wash., and at Livingston, La., with about 2,000 miles of separation to provide a double-check on the detectors’ results.

Each detector consists of an L-shaped network of tunnels, measuring 2.5 miles on a side, with laser beams reflected back and forth within the tunnels. Gravitational waves from far-off cataclysms disturb the fabric of spacetime ever so slightly — but the detectors are sensitive enough to pick up such disturbances to within the width of a proton.

Europe’s Virgo detector, designed according to a similar scheme, provides further verification for LIGO’s gravitational-wave data and makes it easier to triangulate on the sources of the waves.

In the case of GW190521, the waves are thought to have been thrown off by a source that’s now roughly 17 billion light-years (5 gigaparsecs) away from us — at a time when the universe was about half its current age of 13.8 billion years. That makes it one of the most distant gravitational-wave sources detected so far.

Because light travels at a finite speed, it may seem counterintuitive for a signal that was sent out 7 billion years ago to be received from an object that’s 17 billion light-years away.

But in an email exchange, Weinstein told me there’s a relatively simple explanation for the seeming mismatch. “The universe has been expanding since the gravitational waves were emitted,” he wrote. “So physical distances are tricky to interpret in an expanding universe, and must be treated with care.”

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These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

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Cosmic Space

Pentagon awards $282 million for satellite constellation

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems will share $281.6 million in contracts from the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to build the first 20 satellites for a new military data network with global reach.

The network will be capable of sending targeting data directly from a remote-sensing satellite in space to a weapons platform on the ground, making use of laser communications between satellites in low Earth orbit. By the late 2020s, the system is expected to play a key role in countering emerging threats such as hypersonic attack vehicles.

The National Defense Space Architecture is the first major project for the Space Development Agency, which was created last year to foster military technologies on the high frontier.

“This is a very important step toward building the National Defense Space Architecture. It represents one of the Space Development Agency’s first major contract activities, and it might also highlight the importance of SDA — its ability to quickly obligate appropriate funds and execute toward their mission,” Mark Lewis, acting deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters.

“As the Netflix ‘Space Force’ series likes to say, space is hard,” he said. “Space is hard, but sometimes we make it harder than it has to be. The SDA is showing us that sometimes we don’t need to make it that hard.”

The two Colorado-based companies receiving awards today will build 10 satellites each for the first phase of the project, known as Tranche 0. Lockheed Martin is due to receive $187,542,641 under the terms of a firm, fixed-price contract. York Space Systems, a relative newcomer in the satellite industry, will receive $94,036,666.

Tranch 0’s data-transport-layer satellites are to be launched no later than September 2022, with a “capstone” demonstration of the mesh network’s capabilities planned in late 2022 or early 2023.

SDA Director Derek Tournear said today’s contracts represent the first step for a network that will comprise hundreds of satellites by 2026.

“We’re pushing on completely developing a new architecture that breaks the old model,” Tournear said. A big part of the new model will involve relying on commercial providers and “spiral development” to add innovations as the constellation is built out, he said.

“We’ll see this as an era of new space, basically showing the concept that you can utilize commoditized components in a very rapid manner to meet military utility and military specifications,” Tournear said.

Each set of 10 spacecraft will include seven equipped with the hardware for four laser-enabled optical cross-links between satellites. The other three satellites will have two optical cross-links, plus a standard Link 16 transceiver to communicate with ground installations.

Tournear said the satellites will be interoperable with other commercial and military space assets — including remote-sensing spacecraft, military communication satellites and commercial telecom constellations. He told me his team is talking with ventures including SpaceX, which already has launched hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband network. (Other parts of the U.S. military are testing Starlink’s capabilities for military applications.)

The Space Development Agency says the satellites will be sent into orbits ranging from 600 to 1,200 kilometers (370 to 740 miles) in altitude. That’s higher than the altitude that was recommended last week for minimizing negative effects on astronomical observations. But Tournear noted that the Tranch 0 satellites will be smaller and less numerous than, say, Starlink satellites.

The first batches of satellites won’t make use of the brightness-reducing measures that SpaceX has been implementing, he said. But there’ll be many more satellites to come.

“We’re going to be building out roughly one satellite a week for each of the [orbital] layers … and then launching them out on a cadence that allows us to replenish and add new capabilities that we’re going to be soliciting,” Tournear said.

In its contract announcement, the Department of Defense said the work of building the Tranche 0 satellites would be done in seven U.S. states plus Germany, Canada and Spain.

About 3.3% of York’s work is to be performed in Bothell, Wash., the Pentagon said. Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited has partnered with York previously, and Tethers CEO Bob Hoyt told me that his company has been in on some of York’s proposals for the National Defense Space Architecture. But he said he hasn’t yet heard whether Tethers Unlimited will play a role in the contract awarded today.

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GeekWire

‘Three Little Pigs’ demonstrate Neuralink’s brain implant

With grudging assistance from a trio of pigs, Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk showed off the startup’s state-of-the-art neuron-reading brain implant and announced that the system has received the Food and Drug Administration’s preliminary blessing as an experimental medical device.

During today’s demonstration at Neuralink’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif., it took a few minutes for wranglers to get the swine into their proper positions for what Musk called his “Three Little Pigs demonstration.”

One of the pigs was in her natural state, and roamed unremarkably around her straw-covered pen. Musk said the second pig had been given a brain implant that was later removed, showing that the operation could be reversed safely.

After some difficulty, a third pig named Gertrude was brought into her pen. As she rooted around in the straw, a sequence of jazzy electronic beeps played through the sound system. Musk said the tones were sounded whenever nerves in the pig’s snout triggered electrical impulses that were picked up by her brain implant.

“The beeps you’re hearing are real-time signals from the Neuralink in Gertrude’s head,” he said.

Eventually, Neuralink’s team plans to place the implants in people, initially to see if those who have become paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries can regain motor functions through thought alone.

Musk said the implant received a Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA last month. That doesn’t yet clear the way for human clinical trials, but it does put Neuralink on the fast track for consultation with the FDA’s experts during preparations for such trials.

Neuralink has received more than $150 million in funding, with roughly two-thirds of that support coming from Musk himself. Today he said the venture had about 100 employees. He expects that number to grow. “Over time, there might be 10,000 or more people at Neuralink,” he said.

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TerraPower advances plans for next-gen nuclear power

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has gotten a boost on two fronts in its campaign to pioneer a new generation of safer, less expensive reactors.

On Aug. 24, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that an industry team including TerraPower has been selected to begin contract negotiations to design and build the Versatile Test Reactor, a federally financed facility that’s meant to test advanced nuclear reactor technologies. The team is led by Bechtel National Inc., with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy among the other industry partners. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is on the concept development team.)

“We received excellent proposals from industry, which is indicative of the support to build a fast-spectrum neutron testing facility in the United States,” Mark Peters, director of the Idaho Falls lab, said in a news release. “We are excited about the potential for working with the BNI-led team.”

The plan calls for work on the project to begin in 2021, and for the reactor to be completed by as early as 2026.

Then, on Aug. 27, the Bellevue-based venture announced that it’s working with GE Hitachi on a reactor architecture that could supplement solar and wind energy systems with always-on electricity.

The system architecture, known as Natrium, would involve building cost-competitive, sodium fast reactors as well as molten-salt energy storage systems. The heat generated by the 345-megawatt reactors could be stored in the molten-salt tanks, and converted into grid electricity to smooth out fluctuations in renewable energy.

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A new way to fight COVID-19 and other viral threats

A team including researchers from Seattle’s Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason has identified a new pathway for protecting cells from deadly viruses — including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as well as the Ebola virus.

The technique, described in this week’s issue of the journal Science, takes advantage of a screening technique for seeking out new genes that can prevent infection.

In the newly published study, the research team pinpoints two genes that have already been the subject of biomedical studies. One gene is called the MHC class II transactivator, or CIITA. The second gene is known as CD74 — specifically, a variant known as p41.

Those genes have previously been thought to be involved in conventional immune responses involving T cells and B cells. The new findings, resulting from a screening technique called transposon-mediated gene activation, shed light on a different way in which the genes block infection.

The researchers found that CIITA can induce resistance in human cell lines by activating CD74 p41, which in turn disrupts the processing of proteins on the coat of the Ebola virus protein. That stops the virus from being able to infect its target cell. The same process blocks the entry pathway for an assortment of coronaviruses — including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s behind the current pandemic.

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Northwest researchers get in on a quantum leap

Microsoft, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington are playing supporting roles in the White House’s $1 billion effort to advance research into artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

Those three organizations have already been working together through the Northwest Quantum Nexus to develop the infrastructure for quantum computers, which promise to open up new possibilities in fields ranging from chemistry to systems optimization and financial modeling.

The initiatives announced today are likely to accelerate progress toward the development of commercial-scale quantum computers, Chetan Nayak, Microsoft’s general manager for quantum hardware, said in a blog posting.

“Today marks one of the U.S. government’s largest investments in the field,” he said. “It is also a noteworthy moment for Microsoft, which is providing scientific leadership in addition to expertise in workforce development and technology transfer.”

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