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Curious crowds sample Amazon’s high-tech supermarket

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The first full-service Amazon Fresh grocery store to take advantage of the retailer’s “Just Walk Out” cashierless shopping technology could well become a tourist attraction.

That’s what was on the mind of Romy Wada, who made the half-hour drive from Auburn to the store at Bellevue’s Factoria shopping center at 4:30 a.m. today to be the first in line to enter.

“I work for a tour company,” Wada explained as he waited in the morning sunshine. “We are handling Asian people, and sometimes they’re interested in the supermarkets at Amazon. So I just had to come here to check out everything.”

The crowd grew to more than 200 people, queued in the mall’s parking lot and down the sidewalk, by the time the doors opened at 7 a.m.

There wasn’t exactly a mad rush: Amazon staff members checked with customers as they moved up the line, to make sure they were ready for cashierless shopping.

Amazon operates more than a dozen Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country, but the Bellevue store is the first one to use the shopping surveillance system that was pioneered at the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores.

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Space nuclear power is nearing critical mass

The idea of putting nukes in space may sound like a national security nightmare, but the right kind of nukes are likely to be a must-have for long-term space exploration.

At least that’s the way a panel of experts at the intersection of the space industry and the nuclear industry described the state of things this week during the American Nuclear Society’s virtual annual meeting.

“In order to do significant activity in space, you need power. And in order to get that power … it’s complicated,” said Paolo Venneri, CEO of a Seattle-based nuclear power venture called USNC-Tech.

Even if you build a hydrogen fuel production plant on the moon, or a methane production plant on Mars, the power to run those plants has to come from somewhere. And studies suggest that solar power alone won’t be enough.

“The sun, it’s great, but only within a certain region of the solar system,” Venneri said. “And so if you want to have sustained high-power applications, you need a nuclear power system.”

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U.S. and Europe call a truce in Boeing-Airbus battle

The United States and the European Union have agreed on a five-year suspension in tit-for-tat tariffs over a 17-year-long trade dispute that involved subsidies given to Boeing and Airbus for airplane development. The deal, announced today during President Joe Biden’s meetings with EU leaders in Brussels, heads off billions of dollars in duties that could have affected a wide range of products — although U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the tariffs could be reactivated if “U.S. producers are not able to compete fairly.”

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Can Amazon’s robots make work safer for humans?

Bert and Ernie, Scooter and Kermit may have started out as warm and fuzzy Muppet characters, but now they’re part of Amazon’s team of warehouse robots as well.

Amazon showed off the latest members of its mechanical menagerie today in a blog post that focuses on how it’s using robotic research to improve workplace safety for its human employees.

For example, a type of robot nicknamed Ernie is designed to take boxy product containers known as totes off shelves at different heights, and then use its robotic arm to deliver the totes to warehouse employees at a standard height. The goal is to reduce the amount of reaching up or bending down that workers have to do.

“We’re known for being passionate about innovating for customers, but being able to innovate with robotics for our employees is something that gives me an extra kick of motivation each day,” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, said in the blog posting. “The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees.”

Today’s inside look at the research being done at labs in the Seattle area, the Boston area and northern Italy comes in the wake of a couple of reports criticizing Amazon’s workplace safety record.

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Blue Origin sells suborbital space seat for $28 million

An open spot on the first-ever crew to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship was auctioned off today for $28 million, which is millions more than the International Space Station’s first paying tourist reportedly paid 20 years ago.

It took about eight minutes for RR Auction to wind up the bidding at its Boston headquarters. That’s a couple of minutes less than the expected duration of the New Shepard mission, set for July 20 at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. And it’s a few minutes more than the yet-to-be-identified winner is expected to spend in zero-G during the flight.

The winner, currently known only as Bidder No. 107, will experience about three minutes of weightlessness and a big-picture view of the curving Earth below the black sky of space. It’ll be one of the priciest per-minute trips in history. But it’ll also go down in the space history books, in part because Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, will be one of the crewmates.

It didn’t take long for speculation about the winner’s identity to begin — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Bezos’ biggest billionaire space rival, thrown into the mix.

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To the moon! Amazon boosts space startups

The first 10 companies to participate in Amazon Web Services’ accelerator program for space-centric startups are targeting territory ranging from low Earth orbit to the surface of the moon and Mars.

Today’s announcement follows up on the unveiling of the AWS Space Accelerator in March. Amazon chief technology officer Werner Vogels said the 10 ventures were selected out of more than 190 proposals from 44 countries.

“These companies from the United States and Europe cover a wide range of space capabilities with impact here on Earth today, as well as on humanity’s approach to working and living in space in the future,” he wrote in a blog posting.

Over a four-week span, the companies will be provided with hands-on technical training in machine learning, high-performance computing and other tools of the cloud computing trade. They’ll hear from mentors about business development and investment, and they’ll receive $100,000 in AWS Activate credit for cloud services.

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Virgin Galactic downplays billionaire space race

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march on Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes down to which billionaire flies first on their own suborbital spaceship?

There’s been some buzz about that question in the wake of this week’s announcement that Bezos will be among the first people to travel to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson was quick to tweet his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also told followers to “watch this space.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier — who’s long reported on Virgin Galactic’s ups and downs from its home base in Mojave, Calif. — quoted an unnamed source as saying that the company was working on a plan to put Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for a trip beyond 50 miles in altitude over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

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Relativity raises $650M for a bigger 3D-printed rocket

Relativity Space, the space venture that got its start in Seattle and is now working on 3D-printed rockets in California, says it’ll build a bigger launch vehicle with the aid of a similarly huge $650 million Series E funding round.

The startup says its fully reusable, two-stage Terran R rocket will be capable of launching more than 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit. That’s 16 times the listed payload capacity of its first-generation Terran 1 rocket, which is due to make its debut this year, and equal to the capability of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

“From our founding days in Y Combinator just five years ago, we planned on 3D printing Terran 1 and then Terran R – a 20X larger fully reusable rocket – on our ‘Factory of the Future’ platform,” Tim Ellis, CEO and co-founder of Relativity, said today in a news release. “Today we are one step closer to this goal.”

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Astra makes space deals as it gets set to go public

Astra, the California-based space startup that’s aiming to merge with a blank-check company founded by Seattle telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, has set a July 1 target date to go public on Nasdaq.

That’s the word from Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder, chairman and CEO. “We will start mailing proxy statements today for shareholders of $HOL to vote ahead of the shareholder meeting on 6/30,” Kemp said in a LinkedIn posting. $HOL is the symbol for Holicity, McCaw’s special purpose acquisition company in Kirkland, Wash.

The Astra-Holicity SPAC deal values Kemp’s company at $2.1 billion.

Astra’s Rocket 3.2 launch vehicle made it to space during a test launch from Alaska in December but narrowly missed reaching orbit. Since then, the company has been preparing for its next launch — and racking up business deals.

Last month, Astra announced an agreement to work on a multi-launch mission for Planet’s Earth observation satellites in 2022. And today, Astra said it would acquire Apollo Fusion in a transaction valued at up to $145 million. The deal is due to close after Astra goes public.

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Jeff Bezos will be on Blue Origin’s first space crew

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he and his brother Mark will fly to space next month on the first crewed flight of his space venture’s suborbital spaceship.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote today in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The surprise announcement comes even as Blue Origin, the space company Bezos founded 21 years ago, is auctioning off one of the six seats on next month’s flight. The high bid currently stands at $3.2 million, and the final price is due to be set at a live online bidding round on June 12.

Blue Origin says it’s received bids from nearly 6,000 participants from 143 countries. The proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Blue Origin’s educational foundation, the Club for the Future.