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Make the most of the supermoon eclipse

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A total lunar eclipse shines dully over Seattle’s Space Needle in 2008. (Credit: Clane Gessel)

Sunday’s super-sized total lunar eclipse is special for a couple of reasons, but it’s extra-special for places like Seattle, where the timing is perfect for family viewing.

“I love it when these astronomical events are at a good time,” said Alice Enevoldsen, an astronomy educator whose home base is in West Seattle. “It’s in the evening … but not yet bedtime for little kids.”

Lunar eclipses are among the most accessible astronomical events out there: When Earth casts its shadow on the full moon’s disk, half the world can watch it — and the show usually lasts for an hour or more, in contrast to the mere minutes of duration for a total solar eclipse. (Check out this interactive feature to learn more about lunar eclipses.)

This eclipse is making headlines in part because it takes place when the full moon’s apparent size is at its maximum for the year — a so-called supermoon. Supermoons are about 7 percent bigger and 16 percent brighter than the average full moon. NASA says the most recent supermoon lunar eclipse was in 1982, and the next time will be in 2033. (However, depending on your definition of a “supermoon,” such an eclipse came in 1997 and is due in 2021 as well.)

For Seattleites, Sunday’s show begins with moonrise at 6:54 p.m. PT, when the eclipse’s partial phase is already well under way. If you’re lucky, you can catch the show’s climax at 7:11 p.m., when the last sliver of the moon’s bright disk gives way to a dull red glow.

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Astronaut gives thumbs-up on ‘The Martian’

Image: Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon stars as a stranded astronaut in “The Martian.” (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Martian” isn’t due to hit theaters until Oct. 2, but the highly anticipated man-vs.-Mars movie is already sparking some scientific nitpicking. So here’s some advice from NASA astronaut Michael Barratt: Don’t get hung up on what the filmmakers got wrong.

“I would just ask everybody to get past that, because there are so many things they got right,” Barratt, a flight surgeon and two-time spaceflier who has been compared to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, said during a panel at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

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Uber in the air? NASA touts flying taxis

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An artist’s conception shows a vertical-takeoff craft rising from an urban helipad, using a distributed electric propulsion system. (Credit: Joby Aviation via YouTube)

Taking a ride on a flying air taxi could become as cheap as taking an Uber ride, and get you where you’re going in as little as a third of the time, according to a NASA concept study.

In fact, if you’re looking for your flying car, today’s Uber ride-on-demand arrangement just might provide the best model for finding it, said Mark Moore, chief technologist for on-demand ‎mobility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

“Uber could provide a true door-to-door system,” Moore observed during a presentation at this week’s SAE AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle. “It’s hard to beat that economic model.”

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Boeing’s CEO lists Amazon as rival (or partner)

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Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg addresses the SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress. (Credit: Alan Boyle)

Two months into his job as the Boeing Co.’s president and CEO, Dennis Muilenburg says Amazon and Facebook are emerging as competitors in the aerospace industry, due to their plans to develop drones for package deliveries and Internet services.

But they could also emerge as business partners, Muilenburg said Tuesday during his keynote address at this week’s SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle.

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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.

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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 OurPluto.org.

“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.

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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?

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Jeff Bezos will unveil Florida launch plans

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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.

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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.

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