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Blue Origin gets set for launch with COVID-19 in mind

Update for 6:45 a.m. PT Sept. 25: Blue Origin called off the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for the second day in a row. “We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly,” the company said today in a tweet.

The previous day’s postponement was due to a “potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” Blue Origin tweeted at the time. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.

We’ll update this report when a new launch date is set.

Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Liftoff will take place at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

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Premonition takes disease tracking to the next level

Five years after launching an experiment to see if advanced sensors and artificial intelligence could spot the signs of a disease outbreak before it happens, Microsoft says it’s ramping up Project Premonition to create an honest-to-goodness biothreat protection network.

The network will involve setting up about 100 sensor stations in Texas’ Harris County, to track swarms of mosquitoes that could transmit diseases ranging from malaria and dengue fever to Zika and West Nile viruses. AI algorithms will analyze that tracking data for the telltale signs of an epidemic in the making, just as weather forecasting programs look for the signs of a storm on the way.

“It will really be almost like a weather map, the likes of which has not really been seen before in the mosquito vector space,” Ethan Jackson, director of Microsoft Premonition, told me.

The expansion of the Premonition program was announced today in conjunction with this week’s annual Microsoft Ignite conference for software developers.

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Microsoft launches into cloud space race with Amazon

Call it the Clash of the Cloud Titans: Today Microsoft is taking the wraps off Azure Orbital, a cloud-based satellite data processing platform that competes with Amazon Web Services’ Ground Station offering.

The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference for developers, can be taken as another sign that the final frontier is the next frontier for cloud computing.

“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service,’ ” Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling.

“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”

Like AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital makes it possible for satellite operators to control their spacecraft via the cloud, or integrate satellite data with cloud-based storage and processing.

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Blue Origin says it’ll ‘soon’ test lunar landing tech

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong famously had to dodge a boulder-strewn crater just seconds before the first moon landing in 1969 — but for future lunar touchdowns, NASA expects robotic eyes to see such missions to safe landings.

And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is helping to make it so.

Today NASA talked up a precision landing system known as SPLICE (which stands for Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution). The system makes use of an onboard camera, laser sensors and computerized firepower to identify and avoid hazards such as craters and boulders.

NASA says three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems — the terrain relative navigation system, a navigation Doppler lidar system and the descent and landing computer — will be tested during an upcoming flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. The fourth component, a hazard detection lidar system, still has to go through ground testing.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said technologies such as SPLICE “can provide spacecraft with the ‘eyes’ and analytical capability” for making safe landings. Blue Origin answered with a tweet of its own:

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Aviation vision fueled by hydrogen and electricity

Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX says it’s partnering with a Los Angeles startup called Universal Hydrogen to retrofit 40-passenger regional aircraft with carbon-free, hydrogen-fueled electric powertrains.

The partnership opens up a new frontier for MagniX, which is already involved in flight tests for all-electric versions of smaller airplanes such as the de Havilland Beaver (for Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air) and the Cessna Grand Caravan.

This time, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen aim to transform the de Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, better known as the Dash 8. The Dash 8 is a time-honored twin turboprop traditionally used for commercial regional air service. If the project succeeds, the lessons learned can be applied for the development of retrofit conversion kits for the wider ATR 42 family of aircraft.

Universal Hydrogen’s plan for the Dash 8 calls for MagniX to provide an electric propulsion system in the 2-megawatt class for each wing, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

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Blue Origin’s team hits lunar lander milestone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says the aerospace team that it’s leading has completed its first “gated milestone” in a NASA-funded effort to develop a lunar lander for crewed missions.

The milestone — known as the system requirement review, or SRR — involves specifying the baseline requirements for the missions, the space vehicles and the landing system’s ground segment.

“The design proceeded to the NASA Certification Baseline Review, followed by the lower-level element SRRs and the preliminary design phase,” Blue Origin reported today in a news release.

Blue Origin leads what it calls a “National Team” in the first phase of the NASA’s Human Landing System development process. While Blue Origin is working on the system’s descent module, Lockheed Martin is responsible for the ascent module, Northrop Grumman is in charge of the transfer module that would get the lander into low lunar orbit, and Draper is working on the system’s avionics.

SpaceX and Dynetics are working on parallel efforts, and next year, NASA is due to select one or two teams to move on to the next phase of development. For this first phase, the Blue Origin-led team is receiving $579 million from NASA, while SpaceX is in line for $135 million and the Dynetics team is getting $253 million. The money is disbursed as each team reaches milestones like the one reported today.

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Genetic sleuths flesh out pandemic’s origin story

Detailed genetic analyses of the strains of virus that cause COVID-19 suggest that the outbreak took hold in Washington state in late January or early February, but went undetected for weeks.

That’s the upshot of two studies published by the journal Science, based on separate efforts to trace the genetic fingerprints of the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.

The studies draw upon analyses of more than 10,000 samples collected in the Puget Sound region as part of the Seattle Flu Study during the early weeks of the outbreak, plus thousands more samples from other areas of the world.

One of the studies was conducted by a team including Trevor Bedford, a biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been issuing assessments of the virus and its spread since the earliest days of the outbreak. The first version of the team’s paper went online back in March and was revised in May, months in advance of today’s peer-reviewed publication.

The other study comes from researchers led by the University of Arizona’s Michael Worobey, who also published a preliminary version of their results in May.

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First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

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Scientists design proteins that confound coronavirus

Imagine being able to ward off COVID-19 just by spritzing a nasal spray into your nostrils. It may not be just your imagination: Researchers at the University of Washington have designed a batch of synthetic proteins that could conceivably block the coronavirus behind this year’s pandemic from gaining a foothold.

“Although extensive clinical testing is still needed, we believe the best of these computer-generated antivirals are quite promising,” Longxing Cao, a postdoctoral scholar at UW’s Institute for Protein Design, said in a news release.

Cao is the lead author of a study about the protein-building experiment, published today by the journal Science. It’s the latest innovation to come from the emerging field of protein engineering, and the technique could revolutionize how drugs are developed to counter future pandemics.

It may not be too late to counter COVID-19 as well. “We are working to get improved versions … deployed to fight the current pandemic,” senior study author David Baker, the director of the Institute for Protein Design, told GeekWire in an email.

The technique involves creating small-molecule proteins, or mini-binders, that are custom-designed to latch onto the spiky molecular structures that are scattered around the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The spikes on the virus do their dirty work by fitting into molecular-scale receptors on the surfaces of cells, much like fitting a key into a lock to gain entry to someone’s house. Once the virus “unlocks” a receptor, it gains entry to the cell, hijacks its chemical machinery and churns out more virus particles to spread the infection.

Baker, Cao and their colleagues used high-powered computers to design more than 2 million candidate proteins that could conceivably gum up the works for the virus’ spike protein. More than 118,000 of the most promising candidates were synthesized and tested on lab-grown cells.

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These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

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