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NASA names Mars landing site after sci-fi pioneer

Fifteen years after her death, Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”

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Electric motor venture gets an $80M boost

Turntide Technologies, a Silicon Valley venture that’s retooling electric motors for the 21st century, says it has completed an $80 million funding round that was led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the clean-tech fund created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Other investors include the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, actor Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition Ventures, Keyframe Capital, Fifth Wall and Captain Planet LP. The newly announced round brings Turntide’s total funding to $180 million.

Turntide’s executive chairman and CEO, Ryan Morris, emphasized that the company’s backers are looking for a payoff that goes beyond dollars and cents.

“Our investors recognize the critical role that technology will play in our fight against climate change,” he said today in a news release. “To curb the carbon emissions driving this crisis, we all need to change the way that we use energy. That starts with modernizing the technology that is currently powering our world.”

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SpaceX will expand satellite operation to Texas

SpaceX is planning to break ground on a “state-of-the-art manufacturing facility” in Austin, Texas, to support a satellite operation that got its start in Redmond, Wash.

The company’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, set up the Starlink satellite operation in Redmond five years ago. It’s now said to turn out six satellites per day for SpaceX’s broadband internet constellation, which is in the midst of an expanding beta test. More than 1,000 of the satellites have already been deployed in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX continues to launch them in batches of as many as 60 at a time.

Starlink is the furthest along of several mega-constellation projects aimed at providing global internet access via satellites in low Earth orbit. Competitors include OneWebTelesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

In contrast to SpaceX’s Redmond facility, the Austin factory would build “millions of consumer-facing devices that we ship directly to customers (Starlink dishes, Wi-Fi routers, mounting hardware, etc.),” SpaceX said in a job posting. That part of the operation has been managed from SpaceX’s headquarters in the Los Angeles area.

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Human genome sequencing rises to the next level

Twenty years after the first human genome sequence was published, an international research team has kicked the sequencing game to the next level with a set of 64 reference genomes that reflect much higher resolution and more genetic diversity.

Since the Human Genome Project completed the first draft of its reference genome in 2001, decoding the human genetic code has been transformed from a multibillion-dollar endeavor into a relatively inexpensive commercial service. However, commercial whole-genome sequencing, or WGS, often misses out on crucial variations that can make all the difference when it comes to an individual’s health.

“As a metric, 75% of structural variants that are present in that person’s genome are missed by WGS, but are captured by our long-read phased genome assembly,” University of Washington genome scientist Evan Eichler told me in an email. “Such variants are about three times more likely to cause disease.”

Eichler, who was a member of the original Human Genome Project, is one of the senior authors of a study laying out the new set of reference genomes, published today by the journal Science.

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A way-out idea to drill into Mars wins NASA funding

The latest crop of NASA-backed concepts for far-out space exploration includes “borebots” that could drill as far as a mile beneath the Martian surface in search of liquid water, and a nuclear-powered spacecraft that could intercept interstellar objects as they zip through our solar system.

Researchers in Washington state are behind both of those ideas.

The borebots and the interstellar-object checker are among 16 proposals winning Phase I funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC.

For more than two decades, NIAC (which started out as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) has backed early-stage projects that could eventually add to NASA’s capabilities for aerospace technology and space exploration.

“NIAC Fellows are known to dream big, proposing technologies that may appear to border science fiction and are unlike research being funded by other agency programs,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovations and partnerships within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release.

“We don’t expect them all to come to fruition but recognize that providing a small amount of seed-funding for early research could benefit NASA greatly in the long run,” Gustetic said.

Phase I grants typically amount to $125,000 for a nine-month concept study, and promising concepts can go on to receive another $500,000 in Phase II support for two years of further development. The best ideas can win Phase III grants of $2 million for a two-year transition to commercial or government applications.

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Blue Origin delays New Glenn rocket’s first flight

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it’s targeting the fourth quarter of 2022 for the first flight of its orbital-class New Glenn rocket — which marks a major schedule shift.

The company had previously planned to conduct its first New Glenn launch from Florida by the end of this year, although it was becoming increasingly clear that timeline wouldn’t hold.

In a blog posting, Blue Origin said its team “has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.”

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.

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Stoke Space raises $9.1 million for rocket reusability

Stoke Space Technologies, the Renton, Wash.-based company founded by veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, has attracted $9.1 million in seed investments for extending rocket reusability to new frontiers.

The first goal will be to develop a new kind of reusable upper stage, Stoke co-founder and CEO Andy Lapsa said. “That’s the last domino to fall in the industry before reusability is commonplace,” Lapsa told GeekWire. “Even right now, I think space launch is in a production-limited paradigm.”

Rocket reusability is the watchword, to be sure — not only at Blue Origin, where Lapsa was an award-winning rocket engineer, but also at SpaceX and other leading launch companies.

Both Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have said total reusability is the key to driving down the cost of access to space, and opening up new frontiers including regular runs to Mars and back. Until recently, however, the focus has been on reusing a rocket’s first-stage booster. The upper stage — which kicks in after the first stage is exhausted to push payloads the rest of the way to orbit — typically burns up during atmospheric re-entry at the end of its flight.

SpaceX is aiming to change that paradigm with its Starship super-rocket. The massive prototypes that are currently being tested at that company’s South Texas launch facility are part of a development effort for reusable second stages that would sit on top of an even more massive Super Heavy booster — and fly themselves back to a landing pad after they’ve done their job.

Lapsa said what SpaceX is doing with Starship is “incredible.”

“But I think that same type of mentality needs to be applied to the commercial satellite market, in order to really provide them with what they’re looking for,” he added. “So that’s where we’re starting.”

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Fossils flesh out the tale of the first primates

The shapes of fossilized teeth from 65.9 million-year-old, squirrel-like creatures suggest that the branch of the tree of life that gave rise to us humans and other primates flowered while dinosaurs still walked the earth. That’s the claim coming from a team of 10 researchers across the U.S., including biologists at Seattle’s Burke Museum and the University of Washington.

In a study published by Royal Society Open Science, the team lays out evidence that an ancient group of primates known as plesiadapiforms must have emerged before the mass-extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. (Technically, modern-day birds are considered the descendants of dinosaurs, but that’s another story.)

The evidence comes from an analysis of tooth fossils that were unearthed in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana.

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NASA releases amazing video and audio from Mars

For the first time ever, NASA has captured video of a rover landing on the surface of Mars, plus audio of the wind whistling past it after the landing — and Amazon Web Services is playing a key role in making all those gigabytes of goodness available to the world.

The stars of the show are NASA’s Perseverance rover and the hundreds of scientists and engineers supporting the mission to Mars at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions around the world. But the fact that thousands of images are being pumped out via NASA’s website with only a few hiccups is arguably a testament to AWS’ performance.

“AWS is proud to support NASA JPL’s Perseverance mission,” Teresa Carlson, Amazon Web Services’ vice president of worldwide public sector and industries, said today in a blog post. “From the outset, AWS cloud services have enabled NASA JPL in its mission to capture and share mission-critical images, and help to answer key questions about the potential for life on Mars.”

More than 23,000 images, amounting to 30 gigabytes of data, were gathered during the final minutes of Perseverance’s journey to Jezero Crater on Mars, said Dave Gruel, camera suite lead for entry, descent and landing at JPL.

A couple of cameras looked up from the spacecraft’s back shell to document the deployment of the parachute. Another camera looked down from the “Sky Crane” descent stage to watch the rover’s touchdown. Meanwhile, cameras on the rover looked up at the Sky Crane and looked down and out to survey its surroundings.

All those perspectives were put together in a three-minute video that documented the milestones of the descent, from the time the parachute popped open to the rover’s dusty touchdown. At the end, video from the rover shows the descent stage flying away to its safe disposal, powered by a set of thrusters built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

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Bad weather slows COVID-19 vaccination drive

They say that the second vaccine shot for COVID-19 is rougher than the first one — and we’re not just talking about the side effects.

As a newly double-vaccinated member of the 65-and-older set, I can vouch for the claim that the side effects can be felt more acutely the second time around: Back in late January, my first Pfizer-BioNTech shot gave me nothing more than a sore arm. This week’s second shot gave me body aches the day after, as if I had been shoveling snow for hours. (Which, come to think of it, I was … a couple of days earlier.)

But that’s nothing compared to the headaches I would have given myself if I had tried to schedule a vaccination this week. I would have been hard-pressed to find an appointment, even with the benefit of websites like WA COVID Vaccine Finder, the Washington State Department of Health’s Vaccine Locator and the Washington State COVID-19 Vaccination Sign Up System.

Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, acknowledged that it’s been a tough slog for some folks. “I wish we had more vaccine, and had vaccine for everyone,” he said today during a news briefing.