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Will FAA let drones fly out of sight? Stay tuned

PrecisionHawk Lancaster drone
PrecisionHawk is using its Lancaster drone to investigate the options for letting unmanned air vehicles fly beyond the view of their operators. (Credit: PrecisionHawk)

Should commercial operators be able to fly their drones beyond their line of sight? The question is a big deal for Amazon as well as Walmart, Google and other companies that want to use robotic air vehicles to deliver goods to consumers – but the Federal Aviation Administration needs convincing.

Now the FAA is trying to nail down an answer, thanks to a series of field tests known as Project Pathfinder.

Project Pathfinder is actually a quartet of test programs, aimed at determining the safety of extended drone operations in four scenarios.

Find out about the programs on GeekWire.

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Free e-book shares sci-fi’s ‘Future Visions’

"Future Visions"
“Machine Learning” by Nancy Kress is one of the tales in “Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.” (Credit: Joey Camacho / Raw & Rendered for Microsoft Research)

When you’re developing technologies that sound like science fiction, why not use science fiction stories to show what you’re up to? That’s the motivation behind“Future Visions,” a free e-book from Microsoft Research that highlights the gee-whiz ideas its researchers are working on.

“We have a group of people who are trying to turn science fiction into reality, and it seems fitting that we’d want to tell that story with science fiction stories written by science fiction authors,” Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller, told GeekWire. (And by the way, Steve, how did you get that job title?)

The authors are top-drawer: Eight short stories come from science-fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer. There’s also a graphic mini-novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Inside the flying lab that’s probing rain clouds

Image: DC-8 view
The view out the window during NASA’s DC-8 flight on Saturday. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now – from below, on the receiving end of an all-day rain; and from above, where NASA’s flying laboratory is dissecting those rain clouds.

For more than six hours on a rainy Saturday, I rode along as a DC-8 jet bristling with electronic gear took radar and microwave measurements of the clouds hanging over the Olympic Peninsula. The flight is part of a months-long campaign called the Olympic Mountain Experiment, or OLYMPEX, which is being conducted by NASA and the University of Washington.

OLYMPEX is aimed at fine-tuning the algorithms that scientists use to translate the data coming from on-the-ground weather installations and satellites like the recently launched Global Precipitation Measurement Mission Core Observatory into weather and climate projections.

In the process, they’re addressing a scientific problem we’ve known about since Judy Collins first sang about clouds in the ’60s: We really don’t know clouds at all.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Scientists list brain’s common gene patterns

Image: Brain gene expression
An image from the Allen Brain Explorer shows gene expression across the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Researchers say they’ve traced 32 of the most common genetic patterns at work in the human brain, as part of a mapping project that could lead to new insights about Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

“We’re really trying to understand the genetic basis for the architecture of the human brain,” said Ed Lein, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the authors of a study published online on Monday by Nature Neuroscience.

Lein told GeekWire that the study, based on data from the Allen Human Brain Atlas, demonstrates “we’re really much more similar than we are dissimilar” when it comes to the genetic code for our brain’s wiring. The genes that are most consistently associated with specific regions of the brain include some associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as epilepsy and disorders associated with cocaine and nicotine use.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Blue Origin plans research spaceflights in 2016

Image: New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s prototype suborbital spaceship rises from its launch pad in April. (Blue Origin photo)

Blue Origin, the space venture backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is reportedly planning to start flying research payloads on its New Shepard suborbital space vehicle as early as the first half of 2016.

“We’re aiming for the second quarter of next year,” Space News quoted Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, as saying on Tuesday at a workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop on microgravity research was organized by NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that’s partnering with Blue Origin to fly scientific experiments on New Shepard.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has been putting New Shepard through a series of uncrewed flight tests at the company’s West Texas launch facility. The most recent test took place in April. The rocket-powered vehicle rose to a height of 307,000 feet – and although the propulsion module couldn’t be recovered as hoped, due to a hydraulic problem, the crew capsule made a flawless parachute landing.

“Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” Bezos said at the time.

Blue Origin says the next test flight could take place by the end of the year.

Like the test flights, the research flights would be launched without a crew. Instead, standard-size payload lockers would be loaded aboard New Shepard, sent up on a flight rising above 100 kilometers (62 miles) that would involve about three minutes of weightlessness, and then be recovered after landing.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Mystery object’s breakup caught on video

Scientists flying on an instrument-laden jet captured great video views of a mysterious space object known as WT1190F as it streaked through the air and burned up over the Indian Ocean today.

The pictures were put on the Web just hours after the object, which is thought to have been debris from a rocket or spacecraft, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 06:18 GMT Friday (10:18 p.m. PT Thursday).

WT1190F was discovered by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey just last month, but an analysis of archived telescope data revealed that the object had been tracing a highly elliptical Earth orbit for years, ranging up to twice as far away as the moon.

The analysis also showed that the object was relatively lightweight, and measured about 6 feet (2 meters) in length. That’s what led experts on orbital debris to conclude that it was a piece of space junk.

There are thousands of bits of space junk orbiting our planet, but what’s remarkable about WT1190F is that its atmospheric re-entry could be calculated so precisely in advance. The pictures and data captured from a Gulfstream jet flying out of Abu Dhabi provides the evidence that scientists nailed it.

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Mystery space object heads for Indian Ocean

Image: Hayabusa re-entry
An image taken from a NASA DC-8 airplane shows the re-entry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010. WT1190F’s re-entry will be less spectacular because it’s due to occur at midday local time. (Credit: Jesse Carpenter / Greg Merkes / NASA Ames file)

Is it a spent Apollo rocket stage from the ’60s? A scary space rock? Whatever it is, the mysterious object known as WT1190F is zooming in from deep space – and it’s expected to go out in a blaze of glory tonight.

The big question is whether anyone will see that blaze. Experts on orbital debris estimate that WT1190F is a low-density, possibly hollow object measuring just 6 feet (2 meters long). Astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey first observed the object in October. When they looked back at archived telescope data, they figured out that it’s been tracing a highly eccentric orbit around Earth that swings out beyond the moon’s orbit.

The European Space Agency says the best match for an object with those characteristics is a “discarded rocket body.” Other observers suggest it could be debris cast off by a moon mission, perhaps going back to the Apollo era. No wonder the thing has been nicknamed “WTF.”

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Rain-measuring mission gets a good, soggy start

Image: DC-8
Members of a NASA Social group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord get ready to tour a DC-8 plane that NASA is using to document rainfall on the Olympic Peninsula. (GeekWire photo: Alan Boyle)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The weather forecast for the Olympic Peninsula is dark and rainy, and that’s putting the scientists behind NASA’s OLYMPEX campaign in a sunny mood.

“The really exciting thing that everyone’s talking about is, there’s this huge rain event that’s coming in,” says Rachael Kroodsma, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, helping to get a specially outfitted DC-8 plane ready to fly into the storm this week. “There’s a lot of buzz about that. … It’s a good start to the campaign.”

Usually, bad weather is bad news.

Not for OLYMPEX, the Olympic Mountain Experiment.

Under the leadership of NASA and the University of Washington, the months-long effort is using aerial observations as well as a bevy of radars and rain gauges to validate orbital data from the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, also known as GPM. The $3 million campaign is the latest of several field studies aimed at making sure the satellite readings reflect ground truth.

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Legislation sets up space property rights

Image: Asteroid mining
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid being mined by robots. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

After months of consideration, Congress is finishing up work on legislation that establishes legal rights for U.S. citizens to own resources in outer space – a key requirement for asteroid mining ventures like Planetary Resources.

“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multiplanetary species,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of the Redmond-based company, said today in a statement. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”

The legislation also extends the regulatory “learning period” for commercial spaceflight ventures through 2023, confirms that the International Space Station should stay in operation through 2024, and extends indemnification of commercial launches through 2025.

The Senate and House passed different versions of the legislation, known as H.R. 2262 and S. 1297, earlier this year – but it took until today for the Senate to pass an amendment that incorporates provisions agreed upon by both houses of Congress. The measure was sent back to the House for final passage, and if the legislation is approved as expected, it will be sent onward to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

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Solar system’s most distant world detected

Image: Kuiper Belt object
An artist’s conception shows an object in the distant Kuiper Belt. The newly reported object is beyond the Kuiper Belt, in a region known as the inner Oort Cloud. (Credit: G. Bacon / STScI / NASA)

Astronomers say they’ve identified the most distant celestial object in our solar system – a speck of light more than three times farther out than Pluto, called V774104.

The object is smaller than Pluto or Eris, which rank as the largest known worlds beyond Neptune with diameters of a little less than 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). V774104’s brightness suggests that it’s just 300 to 600 miles (500 to 1,000 kilometers) wide. But based on a limited number of observations by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, astronomers estimate its distance at more than 9.5 billion miles, or 103 times the distance between the sun and Earth.

The sun-Earth distance, known as an astronomical unit or AU, provides the best measuring stick for distant objects in the solar system. Pluto is currently 33 AU from the sun, and Eris’ distance is 96 AU. V774104 is farther out, in a twilight zone that’s between the belt of icy material called the Kuiper Belt and a halo of comets called the Oort Cloud.

Get the full story on GeekWire.