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GeekWire

Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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GeekWire

NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Cosmic Space

Uranus and Enceladus top planetary scientists’ to-do list

Uranus has long been the butt of jokes, but the ice giant is finally getting its day in the sun, thanks to a recommendation in the National Academies’ newly released survey of potential interplanetary missions.

The decadal survey, drawn up by teams of scientists, serves as a roadmap for research in planetary science and astrobiology over the next 10 years. And the survey’s highest priority for multibillion-dollar flagship missions is to send an orbiter and a piggyback atmospheric probe to Uranus (preferably pronounced “urine-us,” not “your-anus”). Launch would come as early as 2031 or 2032, when the orbital mechanics are optimal for a multibillion-mile cruise.

In preparation for this decadal survey, a team of scientists led by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drew up preliminary plans for a mission to Uranus or its ice-giant neighbor, Neptune.  Separately, Purdue University researchers developed a mission concept called OCEANUS (Observatory Capture Exploring the Atmospheric Nature of Uranus and Neptune) that included a Saturn flyby as well as a years-long study of Uranus.

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GeekWire

Aviation collection reportedly sold to Walmart heir

Three and a half years after his death, another one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s passion projects — the extensive collection of aviation and military artifacts that was housed at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash. — has reportedly been sold off by his estate.

Air Current magazine reported late last week that the museum’s entire collection was sold “in its entirety.”

“Many of the projects are being crated for shipment to their new home while the flying aircraft are being readied for cross-country trips,” the magazine said on its Facebook page. “One man’s dream has come to an end, but another man’s dream has just begun.”

The collection’s new owner is Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, according to Scramble, a publication of the Dutch Aviation Society.

Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a holding company with investments in northwest Arkansas; and the co-founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft.

He serves on the board of directors for Walmart and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among other organizations, and is a licensed pilot as well as an aircraft collector. His net worth has been estimated at $300 million.

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GeekWire

Eviation makes a deal to sell 75 electric airplanes

A Seattle-area venture called Eviation has struck a deal with Massachusetts-based Cape Air for the purchase of 75 Eviation Alice all-electric planes.

The letter of intent follows up on a claim that was made back in 2019 by Eviation’s then-CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, who said Cape Air would be his company’s first customer. At the time, Bar-Yohay said the list price for the Alice commuter aircraft would be $4 million per plane — but Eviation said it’s not releasing financial details about the Cape Air deal.

Bar-Yohay left Eviation in February, citing “a longstanding disagreement” with the company’s main shareholder, Singapore-based Clermont Group. Longtime aerospace executive Gregory Davis took over as interim CEO for the privately held company, which is headquartered in Arlington, Wash.

Eviation has begun ground tests of an Alice prototype, and those tests haven’t always gone perfectly — which is to be expected with a totally new type of aircraft. In February, Eviation said Alice’s first flight test would take place “in the upcoming weeks,” but the company now says it plans to reach that milestone this summer.

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GeekWire

Play a game with AI to boost your public speaking

Six months after coming out of stealth mode, a Seattle AI startup called Yoodli is raising the curtain on a free website that’s designed to improve your public speaking.

And as if that’s not enough, Yoodli is throwing in some free games as well. “Think of these as Wordle, but for communication skills,” Yoodli co-founder Varun Puri said in an introductory video.

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GeekWire

Astra and LeoStella make a deal for ion drives

Astra Space says it’s made a deal with Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella to provide multiple electric propulsion systems for LeoStella’s small satellites, with deliveries due to begin later this year.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

LeoStella is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space that builds satellites for BlackSkyLoft Orbital and other customers. California-based Astra Space’s main business line has to do with launching rockets, but last year the company acquired Apollo Fusion, which makes electric propulsion systems.

Electric propulsion systems, also known as ion drives, can provide a gentle but steady oomph for spacecraft by shooting out beams of ions. The Astra / Apollo Fusion systems can make use of xenon or krypton.

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Universe Today

Get an inside look at a stratospheric lounge

Mood lighting, swanky seats, plants, a bar … and a restroom with an out-of-this-world view: Those are the sorts of perks you’d expect on a luxury cruise, but the cruise that Space Perspective plans to offer with those amenities will take you 100,000 feet up, lofted by a balloon.

The Florida-based venture has just unveiled the interior design for its Spaceship Neptune capsule, which is meant to carry up to eight passengers and a pilot into the stratosphere for a look at the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

Space Perspective says more than 600 customers have put in their reservations at a price of $125,000 for trips that are due to begin in 2024. And to whet your appetite for the adventure, the company is offering an interactive 3-D visualization of the capsule that you can wander through virtually.

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Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

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Cosmic Science

Could a bulky boson point to new physics? Stay tuned

A decade ago, physicists wondered whether the discovery of the Higgs boson at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider would point to a new frontier beyond the Standard Model of subatomic particles. So far, that’s not been the case — but a new measurement of a different kind of boson at a different particle collider might do the trick.

That’s the upshot of fresh findings from the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, one of the main experiments that made use of the Tevatron particle collider at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Illinois. It’s not yet time to throw out the physics textbooks, but scientists around the world are scratching their heads over the CDF team’s newly reported value for the mass of the W boson.