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Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.

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Orion capsule sets a record with far-out lunar orbit

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule successfully executed an engine burn to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission, and it set a distance record on the 11th day.

During the Nov. 25 course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s European-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The firing ensured that Orion will trace what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit, ranging out as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. Today, the capsule broke the 248,655-mile record for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by spacecraft designed to carry humans to space and bring them home safely. The previous record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After making half of a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire its engine again to start setting itself up for the homeward trip, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

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Orion capsule gets great views as it buzzes the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule rounded the moon today, marking a crucial milestone in a weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that’s preparing the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.

As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for its outbound powered flyby, it sent back a spectacular set of images that showed the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a tiny blue Earth setting beneath the lunar horizon.

Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “giddy” when they saw the pictures come down. “They’re just happy that all of the hard work and dedication that they’ve spent for years — many, many, many years — is really paying dividends,” he told reporters.

Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was proceeding with “no concerns,” other than a few glitches with its power system and its star trackers.

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Greg Bear, 1951-2022: Author influenced the sci-fi world

Greg Bear, a Seattle science-fiction author who played a leading role in defining how global audiences saw future final frontiers, died Nov. 19 of complications following heart surgery.

Astrid Bear, the 71-year-old writer’s wife, said he died peacefully in a Seattle-area hospital. “He was not alone,” she wrote in a message to friends.

Born in San Diego, Greg Bear had his first short story published in 1967 and began writing full time in 1975. He wrote more than 50 books — including award-winning series, a Star Trek novel and a Star Wars novel, plus a trilogy set in the Halo video-game universe. His final novel, “The Unfinished Land,” was published last year.

Bear’s influence on the science-fiction community extended far beyond the written page: He was one of the founders of San Diego’s Comic-Con International and served a two-year stint as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, now known as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Bear was a guest on podcasts and talk shows including “The Daily Show,” and once appeared as himself in the “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip.

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Defense Innovation Unit explores Northwest tech frontier

If space is the next frontier for national security, then the Pacific Northwest may well be the new frontier for that next frontier.

That’s the word from Steve “Bucky” Butow, an Air Force brigadier general who is now director of the space portfolio at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“I really think that the best news story out of the Pacific Northwest is just how impactful this region is in the new space economy,” Butow told me. “It’s not widely recognized, but I think that’s going to be changing here in the near future.”

Butow and his teammates at the DIU got an on-the-ground look at Seattle’s tech frontier this week during a series of meetings and site visits in the region. Among the tour’s highlights were meetings with executives at Amazon and Microsoft (which just won contracts to help build the Pentagon’s Hybrid Space Architecture), a roadshow workshop with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors, and a stopover at SpaceX’s satellite facility in Redmond, Wash.

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Gravitics raises $20M to build space station modules

A space venture called Gravitics has emerged from stealth with $20 million in seed funding and a plan to build space station modules at a 42,000-square-foot facility north of Seattle, in Marysville, Wash.

As NASA makes plans to phase out the International Space Station in the 2031 time frame, Gravitics and its backers are betting on a rush to launch commercial outposts to low Earth orbit. The operators of those outposts just might need subcontractors to provide the hardware.

Gravitics’ main offering will be a super-sized module known as StarMax. The general-purpose module would provide up to 400 cubic meters (14,000 cubic feet) of usable habitable volume — which represents nearly half of the pressurized volume of the International Space Station.

Multiple StarMax modules could be linked together in orbit like Lego blocks. “We are focused on helping commercial space station operators be successful,” Colin Doughan, Gravitics’ co-founder and CEO, said today in a news release. “StarMax gives our customers scalable volume to accommodate a space station’s growing user base over time. StarMax is the modular building block for a human-centric cislunar economy.”

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Microsoft and Lockheed Martin team up on defense tech

Lockheed Martin and Microsoft say they’re deepening their strategic relationship to help power the next generation of computing and communications technology for the Department of Defense.

Cloud-based services play a key role in that relationship. Under the terms of an agreement announced this week, Lockheed Martin will become the first non-governmental entity to operate independently inside the Microsoft Azure Government Secret cloud.

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NASA’s mega rocket lifts off to begin moon mission

NASA succeeded spectacularly in the third attempt to launch its Space Launch System rocket on an uncrewed round-the-moon mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for future Artemis lunar landings.

Artemis 1’s liftoff from Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 1:47 a.m. ET Nov. 16 (10:47 p.m. PT Nov. 15).

The 322-foot-tall, 5.5 million-pound SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, surpassing the power of the Apollo era’s Saturn V rocket. The SLS evoked the legacy of Saturn V as it rose on a bright pillar of flame and disappeared into the night sky.

“You guys have worked hard as a team for this moment. This is your moment,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her teammates in the control room after liftoff. “You have earned your place in history. You are part of a first. It doesn’t come along very often — once in a career, maybe. But we are part of something very special: the first launch of Artemis. The first step in returning our country to the moon, and on to Mars.”

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Axiom Space joins effort to put the cloud in orbit

When Houston-based Axiom Space starts putting together its commercial space station, some out-of-this-world infrastructure for cloud computing could be close behind — and Microsoft could help make it happen.

That vision of “infrastructure as a service” in low Earth orbit, or LEO, is what’s behind a strategic collaboration agreement involving Axiom Space, Microsoft Azure Space and a Virginia-based venture called LEOcloud. The deal sets the stage for developing and delivering space-based cloud services from commercial assets.

“It’s been an amazing ride to bring all this to this level of reality,” LEOcloud founder Dennis Gatens told me.

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Air Force lab agrees to support hypersonic test flight

Stratolaunch, the company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago, says it’s won a contract from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to support next year’s flight test of Stratolaunch’s first Talon-A hypersonic vehicle.

The rocket-powered Talon-A is designed to be deployed from Stratolaunch’s twin-fuselage Roc aircraft, which is the world’s largest airplane. Last month, Stratolaunch flew a stand-in for the hypersonic test vehicle during Roc’s eighth flight test, and it’s planning to execute Roc’s first air launch with TA-1 in the first quarter of 2023.