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Cosmic Space

NASA rolls back its SLS moon rocket to make repairs

NASA brought its Space Launch System rocket back to one of the world’s biggest repair shops — the 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida — to fix some flaws that turned up during rehearsals for a mission beyond the moon.

It took 10 hours to roll the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket on its mobile launch platform from Launch Complex 39B to the VAB. The 4-mile journey, which made use of a giant crawler-transporter handed down from the Apollo and space shuttle programs, was basically a rewind of the rocket’s trip to the pad on March 17-18.

NASA had hoped to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” for the launch of the SLS and its Orion deep-space capsule on an uncrewed trip around the moon. That mission, known as Artemis 1, is meant to set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024 and the first crewed landing on the moon since the Apollo era in 2025 or 2026.

Unfortunately for NASA, the practice runs came across some issues that need to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead.

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Universe Today

Large Hadron Collider restarts at record energy levels

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider has started up its proton beams again at unprecedented energy levels after going through a three-year shutdown for maintenance and upgrades.

It only took a couple of days of tweaking for the pilot streams of protons to reach a record energy level of 6.8 tera electronvolts, or TeV. That exceeds the previous record of 6.5 TeV, which was set by the LHC in 2015 at the start of the particle collider’s second run.

The new level comes “very close to the design energy of the LHC, which is 7 TeV,” Jörg Wenninger, head of the LHC beam operation section and LHC machine coordinator at CERN, said today in a video announcing the milestone.

When the collider at the French-Swiss border resumes honest-to-goodness science operations, probably within a few months, the international LHC team plans to address mysteries that could send theories of physics in new directions.

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Universe Today

Axiom’s first astronauts end an extended space trip

Axiom Space’s first crew of private astronauts is back on Earth after a 17-day orbital trip that included a week of bonus time on the International Space Station.

The mission ended at 1:06 p.m. ET (10:06 a.m. PT) today when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria was the commander for the homeward trip, accompanied by three investors who each paid Axiom $55 million for their rides: Ohio real-estate and tech entrepreneur Larry Connor, who served as the mission pilot, plus Canada’s Mark Pathy and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe.

“Welcome back to planet Earth,” SpaceX’s mission control operator Sarah Gillis told the crew. “The Axiom-1 mission marks the beginning of a new paradigm for human spaceflight. We hope you enjoyed the extra few days in space.”

Axiom-1 began on April 8 with the Florida launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The trip was originally supposed to last about 10 days, but concerns about weather in the splashdown zone delayed the descent. Because of the way their fares were structured, Axiom’s customers didn’t have to pay extra for the extension.

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GeekWire

Citizen astronaut is still seeking out new frontiers

KIRKLAND, Wash. — It’s been seven months since Chris Sembroski splashed down at the end of the world’s first all-civilian orbital space mission, but his drive to seek out new frontiers is still going strong.

The 42-year-old data engineer from Everett, Wash., won his spot on last September’s philanthropic Inspiration4 space trip thanks to a friend of his who won a lottery, but weighed too much to take advantage of the prize.

For months, Sembroski took time off from his day job at Lockheed Martin to train with his three crewmates: Jared Isaacman, the billionaire tech CEO who organized and paid for the mission; Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who now works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Sian Proctor, a geology professor who parlayed her talents in art and business to win a “Shark Tank”-style contest.

Their training included a Mount Rainier climb, zero-G and high-G airplane rides, and hours upon hours of instruction from SpaceX. It all came to a climax with the foursome’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, followed by three days of experiments and outreach activities that raised more than $240 million for St. Jude.

A follow-up series of space missions, known as the Polaris Program, is expected to blaze more new trails for citizen astronauts — and generate even more contributions for cancer research.

Sembroski, meanwhile, is starting a new job as a data analytics engineer at DB Engineering in Redmond, Wash. In an interview conducted last week during a space industry social event at SigmaDesign’s Kirkland office, Sembroski talked about how he found out he was getting a free trip to orbit, what he experienced during the mission, and what he expects from his next adventure.

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GeekWire

Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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GeekWire

NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Cosmic Space

Uranus and Enceladus top planetary scientists’ to-do list

Uranus has long been the butt of jokes, but the ice giant is finally getting its day in the sun, thanks to a recommendation in the National Academies’ newly released survey of potential interplanetary missions.

The decadal survey, drawn up by teams of scientists, serves as a roadmap for research in planetary science and astrobiology over the next 10 years. And the survey’s highest priority for multibillion-dollar flagship missions is to send an orbiter and a piggyback atmospheric probe to Uranus (preferably pronounced “urine-us,” not “your-anus”). Launch would come as early as 2031 or 2032, when the orbital mechanics are optimal for a multibillion-mile cruise.

In preparation for this decadal survey, a team of scientists led by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drew up preliminary plans for a mission to Uranus or its ice-giant neighbor, Neptune.  Separately, Purdue University researchers developed a mission concept called OCEANUS (Observatory Capture Exploring the Atmospheric Nature of Uranus and Neptune) that included a Saturn flyby as well as a years-long study of Uranus.

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GeekWire

Aviation collection reportedly sold to Walmart heir

Three and a half years after his death, another one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s passion projects — the extensive collection of aviation and military artifacts that was housed at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash. — has reportedly been sold off by his estate.

Air Current magazine reported late last week that the museum’s entire collection was sold “in its entirety.”

“Many of the projects are being crated for shipment to their new home while the flying aircraft are being readied for cross-country trips,” the magazine said on its Facebook page. “One man’s dream has come to an end, but another man’s dream has just begun.”

The collection’s new owner is Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, according to Scramble, a publication of the Dutch Aviation Society.

Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a holding company with investments in northwest Arkansas; and the co-founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft.

He serves on the board of directors for Walmart and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among other organizations, and is a licensed pilot as well as an aircraft collector. His net worth has been estimated at $300 million.

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GeekWire

Eviation makes a deal to sell 75 electric airplanes

A Seattle-area venture called Eviation has struck a deal with Massachusetts-based Cape Air for the purchase of 75 Eviation Alice all-electric planes.

The letter of intent follows up on a claim that was made back in 2019 by Eviation’s then-CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, who said Cape Air would be his company’s first customer. At the time, Bar-Yohay said the list price for the Alice commuter aircraft would be $4 million per plane — but Eviation said it’s not releasing financial details about the Cape Air deal.

Bar-Yohay left Eviation in February, citing “a longstanding disagreement” with the company’s main shareholder, Singapore-based Clermont Group. Longtime aerospace executive Gregory Davis took over as interim CEO for the privately held company, which is headquartered in Arlington, Wash.

Eviation has begun ground tests of an Alice prototype, and those tests haven’t always gone perfectly — which is to be expected with a totally new type of aircraft. In February, Eviation said Alice’s first flight test would take place “in the upcoming weeks,” but the company now says it plans to reach that milestone this summer.

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GeekWire

Play a game with AI to boost your public speaking

Six months after coming out of stealth mode, a Seattle AI startup called Yoodli is raising the curtain on a free website that’s designed to improve your public speaking.

And as if that’s not enough, Yoodli is throwing in some free games as well. “Think of these as Wordle, but for communication skills,” Yoodli co-founder Varun Puri said in an introductory video.