Spaceflight buys SpaceX rocket for satellites

Image: SpaceX launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off in April, sending cargo to the International Space Station. The payloads included Planetary Resources’ A3R satellite, which was flown under an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight. (Credit: SpaceX)

In the first deal of its kind, Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s buying a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will be set aside exclusively for launching other people’s small satellites into orbit.

The first dedicated rideshare launch is due to go into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during the latter half of 2017, said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch business. Sun-synchronous orbits are particularly popular for Earth imaging satellites, and Spaceflight anticipates buying a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 every year to service the market.

“By purchasing and manifesting the entire SpaceX rocket, Spaceflight is well-positioned to meet the small-sat industry’s growing demand for routine, reliable access to space,” Blake said in a statement issued Wednesday.

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Cosmic Environment Cosmic Tech

Carbon X Prize could turn CO2 into $20 million

Image: Power plant
The Four Corners power plant in New Mexico is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, based on measurements made by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Credit: LANL)

Can you turn carbon dioxide emissions into gold? How about biofuel? The Carbon X Prize competition is offering $20 million for the best strategies to make use of CO2.

Past X Prizes have rewarded high-tech achievements in private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient automobiles. There are also X Prizes for moon missions“Star Trek” tricorders and educational software. The competition announced Tuesday is aimed at identifying technologies that convert industrial carbon dioxide emissions into high-value products – for example, clothing or shoes, building materials or industrial chemicals.

Carbon dioxide emissions are considered one of the factors behind global climate change, and the Obama administration is seeking steep cuts in such emissions from power plants. The Carbon X Prize could highlight high-tech solutions to the environmental problem.

“In order to demonstrate the widest possible applicability of potential solutions, the competition will have two tracks: one focused on testing technologies at a coal power plant, and one focused on testing technologies at a natural gas power plant,” Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPrize, said in Tuesday’s announcement.

Would-be competitors have until next June to sign up. Their proposals will be assessed by a judging panel, and the top 15 teams in each track will move on to demonstrate their technologies in controlled experiments.

In each track, the five top-rated finalists will share a $2.5 million milestone purse, based on the results of the experiments. Then they’ll try out their technologies using actual emissions from power plants. In March 2020, the highest-rated team in each track will be awarded a grand prize of $7.5 million. Check out the Carbon XPrize website for the details.

The competition is sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA. It follows up on a similar multimillion-dollar carbon conversion contest in Canada known as the CCEMC Grand Challenge.


‘Orbit-first’ Mars plan goes public: Will it fly?

Image: Mars as seen from Phobos
An artist’s conception shows as astronaut’s-eye view of Mars from Phobos. (Credit: Planetary Society)

The nonprofit Planetary Society has laid out a detailed blueprint for sending astronauts to the Martian moon Phobos in 2033 and then touching down on Mars itself beginning in 2039.

The blueprint released Tuesday is based on a “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshopthat was conducted in April – and it’s probably already out of date, due to last month’s announcement that NASA’s first crewed flight of the Orion deep-space capsule is likely to be put off until 2023. Nevertheless, the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier says the full study can serve as a realistic yardstick for NASA’s Mars exploration timetable.

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NASA vet sees ‘endless’ frontier for space biz

Image: Lori Garver
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight)

Former NASA official Lori Garver’s resume is filled with highlights from politics and government service – going back to John Glenn’s presidential campaign – but when it comes to America’s space program, her heart’s with commercial ventures.

“The opportunities in commercial space are endless,” she told GeekWire. “Government opportunities are not endless.”

Garver, who helped draw up the Obama administration’s space policy and served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, will lay out the opportunities for commercial space ventures – and the limitations of government space efforts – at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

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DNA art honors genetic pioneer Francis Crick

Image: Kindra Crick
Portland artist Kindra Crick shows off “What Mad Pursuit,” a sculpture inspired by the work of her grandfather, DNA pioneer Francis Crick. (Credit: Alex Crick / @crickontour)

The granddaughter of genetic pioneer Francis Crick joined 20 other artists to create a series of 7-foot-high sculptures inspired by DNA’s double helix – and now those sculptures are going on the auction block to benefit cancer research.

Portland artist Kindra Crick told GeekWire she took on the project for several reasons: She’s trained as a molecular biologist as well as a painter, and her grandparents include the late Nobel-winning biologist and his artist wife, Odile Crick. What’s more, proceeds from the auction will go to the Francis Crick Institute, a London facility that’s due to open next year with backing from Cancer Research UK and five other leading medical research organizations. The two-week online sale begins on Wednesday.

Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize with colleague James Watson for revealing the double-helix structure of DNA, died in 2004 at the age of 88 after battling colon cancer.

“This seemed like the perfect project, not only to bring awareness to the institute, but also to use my skills and my background to present this beautiful union of art and science,” Kindra Crick said.

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Dark Martian streaks linked to liquid water

Image: Recurring slope lineae
Scientists say these dark streaks, shown flowing downhill in a false-color image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, were formed by flowing water. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

For years, scientists have puzzled over dark streaks that appear and disappear on the surface of Mars – and now they’re confident enough to assert that the streaks are caused by trickles of salty water.

Their findings, published Monday in Nature Geoscience, serve as the best evidence yet that liquid water still occasionally flows on the Red Planet. The research is likely to spark a new wave of speculation about life on Mars – but it’s not likely to justify the breathless reports that circulated in advance of the study’s release.

“Has NASA found life on Mars?” one headline asked over the weekend. The short answer is no. Nevertheless, NASA thought enough of the study to call it a “major science finding” and schedule a news briefing about it.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said the results make it “even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Mars, to explore the question, ‘Is there current life on Mars?’” NASA’s long-range plan calls for astronauts to start visiting Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

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Make the most of the supermoon eclipse

Image: Seattle lunar eclipse
A total lunar eclipse shines dully over Seattle’s Space Needle in 2008. (Credit: Clane Gessel)

Sunday’s super-sized total lunar eclipse is special for a couple of reasons, but it’s extra-special for places like Seattle, where the timing is perfect for family viewing.

“I love it when these astronomical events are at a good time,” said Alice Enevoldsen, an astronomy educator whose home base is in West Seattle. “It’s in the evening … but not yet bedtime for little kids.”

Lunar eclipses are among the most accessible astronomical events out there: When Earth casts its shadow on the full moon’s disk, half the world can watch it — and the show usually lasts for an hour or more, in contrast to the mere minutes of duration for a total solar eclipse. (Check out this interactive feature to learn more about lunar eclipses.)

This eclipse is making headlines in part because it takes place when the full moon’s apparent size is at its maximum for the year — a so-called supermoon. Supermoons are about 7 percent bigger and 16 percent brighter than the average full moon. NASA says the most recent supermoon lunar eclipse was in 1982, and the next time will be in 2033. (However, depending on your definition of a “supermoon,” such an eclipse came in 1997 and is due in 2021 as well.)

For Seattleites, Sunday’s show begins with moonrise at 6:54 p.m. PT, when the eclipse’s partial phase is already well under way. If you’re lucky, you can catch the show’s climax at 7:11 p.m., when the last sliver of the moon’s bright disk gives way to a dull red glow.

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Astronaut gives thumbs-up on ‘The Martian’

Image: Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon stars as a stranded astronaut in “The Martian.” (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Martian” isn’t due to hit theaters until Oct. 2, but the highly anticipated man-vs.-Mars movie is already sparking some scientific nitpicking. So here’s some advice from NASA astronaut Michael Barratt: Don’t get hung up on what the filmmakers got wrong.

“I would just ask everybody to get past that, because there are so many things they got right,” Barratt, a flight surgeon and two-time spaceflier who has been compared to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, said during a panel at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

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Uber in the air? NASA touts flying taxis

Image: Air taxi
An artist’s conception shows a vertical-takeoff craft rising from an urban helipad, using a distributed electric propulsion system. (Credit: Joby Aviation via YouTube)

Taking a ride on a flying air taxi could become as cheap as taking an Uber ride, and get you where you’re going in as little as a third of the time, according to a NASA concept study.

In fact, if you’re looking for your flying car, today’s Uber ride-on-demand arrangement just might provide the best model for finding it, said Mark Moore, chief technologist for on-demand ‎mobility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

“Uber could provide a true door-to-door system,” Moore observed during a presentation at this week’s SAE AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle. “It’s hard to beat that economic model.”

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Boeing’s CEO lists Amazon as rival (or partner)

Image: Muilenburg
Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg addresses the SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress. (Credit: Alan Boyle)

Two months into his job as the Boeing Co.’s president and CEO, Dennis Muilenburg says Amazon and Facebook are emerging as competitors in the aerospace industry, due to their plans to develop drones for package deliveries and Internet services.

But they could also emerge as business partners, Muilenburg said Tuesday during his keynote address at this week’s SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle.

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