Universe Today

New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.


Asteroids loom as a new Klondike

Asteroid-hunting telescope
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid-hunting telescope in Earth orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Seattle could profit from the rush for resources in outer space much as it did during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s: by selling goods and services to the fortune-seekers.

At least that’s the vision laid out by entrepreneurs who are laying the groundwork in Seattle — and in space — for what they hope will be a multitrillion-dollar asteroid mining industry.

“I do believe that the first trillion is going to be made in space,” Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said via video during a Seattle Space Entrepreneurs reception at Kirkland’s Marina Park on Thursday.

Chris Lewicki, the company’s president, noted that Seattle became a boomtown because of its location as the “Gateway to the Gold Fields” in Alaska. The city’s merchants made their fortunes by provisioning tens of thousands of would-be miners for the outward journey.

He and Diamandis told Thursday’s gathering of about 150 entrepreneurs and space geeks that Seattle is in a similar position today — not so much because of the region’s geography, but because of its intellectual resources.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Some of Pluto’s names may not fly

Image: Pluto
The heart-shaped area that’s prominent in this New Horizons picture of Pluto is known as Tombaugh Regio. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Some of the best-known names on Pluto — ranging from the Sputnik plains to the Hillary and Norgay mountains and the dark Cthulhu Regio — may never appear on the International Astronomical Union’s maps, due to a tiff over terminology.

Those are just a few of the informal names that have raised questions from members of the IAU panel charged with approving the nomenclature for the dwarf planet’s geographical features. The names were selected by the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto after a months-long online naming campaign at

“Frankly, we would have preferred that the New Horizons team had approached us before putting all these informal names everywhere,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Ceres’ pyramid gets its close-up

Image: Ceres' pyramid
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The mountain, located in the southern hemisphere, stands 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

NASA’s mission to that other dwarf planet, Ceres, has delivered a fresh bird’s-eye view of one of the asteroid’s most mysterious features: a cone-shaped, 4-mile-high “pyramid” mountain whose sides are covered with bright material.

The Dawn mission’s principal investigator says those shiny sides may be connected to Ceres’ other big mystery: the bright spots that shine out from the mini-world’s dark surface.

“The bright material on the mountain and in the bright spots are probably the same material,” UCLA’s Christopher Russell told GeekWire in an email. “How the material got on the sides of the mountain and also in the bottom of the craters is unknown.”

Which begs the question: What is that stuff?

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Jeff Bezos will unveil Florida launch plans

Image: Jeff Bezos
Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, inspects Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas before a test flight in April. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is heading to Cape Canaveral next month to make a “significant announcement regarding the emerging commercial launch industry” — most likely about plans for his Blue Origin space venture to build and launch rockets on Florida’s Space Coast.

The media invitation went out this week for the Sept. 15 event at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. No further details were provided about the subject of the announcement, but Blue Origin has been working for years to secure a Florida facility.

Bezos’ privately financed venture aims to send tourists and researchers to the edge of space in a vertical-launch-and-landing suborbital vehicle called New Shepard. An uncrewed prototype blasted off for its first developmental test flight in April at Blue Origin’s West Texas rocket range. The company is also working on an orbital launch system, with the aim of winning NASA contracts to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station. Developing that system is expected to be the focus in Florida.

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6 small steps toward cooler spaceships

Image: Magbeam station
An artist’s conception shows a Magbeam station emitting a plasma beam to propel a target spacecraft beyond Jupiter. (Credit: UW Advanced Propulsion Lab)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Is there a better way to power a spaceship? The basic tools of the rocket trade have been refined over the course of nearly nine decades, but there’s only so far the physics will take us. If we ever want to send anything to another star system, as described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s newly published book“Aurora,” we’ll have to come up with new technologies.

Some of those technologies were laid out at Sasquan, the world science-fiction convention playing out this week in Spokane, during a session on the art and science of spaceships. And it turns out many of those technologies have a Seattle spin. Get a quick rundown on six research areas, with links to the local connections.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Will HBO finish ‘Game of Thrones’ first?

Image: George R.R. Martin
“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin sets the scene for a reading at the Sasquan science-fiction convention in Spokane. (Credit: Alan Boyle)

SPOKANE, Wash. — “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin acknowledges that HBO could air the final episode of the show based on his books even before the last book in the series comes out — and he’s OK with that.

“Anything is possible,” he told GeekWire during Thursday’s Q&A at the Sasquan science-fiction convention in Spokane. Martin took questions after reading a chapter from “The Winds of Winter,” which will be the sixth book in what’s expected to be at least a seven-volume series.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Meteor-less in Seattle? Five Perseid places

Mount Rainier and meteors
Photographer Jeff Berkes captured this picture of a Perseid meteor flashing over Mount Rainier’s right flank in 2013 with the Milky Way filling the night sky. (Credit: Jeff Berkes Photography)

The Perseids are traditionally among the most popular meteor showers of the year, and Seattle is traditionally one of the worst places to watch for meteors. Fortunately, the weather and the stars could align for a potentially good show this week — and we have five options that will help you make the most of this summertime skywatching tradition.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Astronauts eat first grown-in-space salad

Sampling lettuce
Japan’s Kimiya Yui (at left) joins NASA’s Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly in sampling space-grown Outredgeous red romaine lettuce. (Credit: NASA TV)

Astronauts on the International Space Station ate space-grown lettuce for the first time today — an Oregon-bred variety of “Outredgeous” red romaine that’s perfectly suited for outer space as well as the Pacific Northwest.

“Nobody is more surprised that Outredgeous went into space than I am,” said Frank Morton, the founder of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon.

Morton developed the romaine variety back in the 1990s, when he was supplying greens for local restaurants. The leaves are so red that the first buyers found it hard to believe it was actually lettuce. But the taste quickly won over those who tried it, including the spacefliers who snipped off the leaves today and sampled them with a dab of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

“That’s awesome,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren said.

“Tastes good … kinda like arugula,” said NASA crewmate Scott Kelly, who is in the midst of a yearlong stint on the space station.

Read the full story on GeekWire.


Reserve a satellite launch online? Make it so!

Peter Beck
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck aims to have the company’s Electron rocket blasting off from a New Zealand launch site within a year. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The CubeSat revolution has come to this: Now you can make an online reservation for a nanosatellite launch almost as easily as booking a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles.

L.A.-based Rocket Lab unveiled its launch booking system today at the annualSmallSat conference in Logan, Utah. “It’s really about trying to break down the barriers and make space more accessible,” Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, explained during a GeekWire interview.

It’s one more small step toward turning the satellite business into a turnkey operation for researchers, entrepreneurs, students and Kickstarter-savvy enthusiasts.

Read the full story at GeekWire.