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GeekWire

Triumphs and tragedies in the vaccine quest

The good news is that Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19, is moving ahead at a pace that justifies its name.

The bad news is that despite all that effort, the coronavirus outbreak is still likely to be with us next year — and low- to medium-income countries such as India are likely to be hit particularly hard.

“We’re going to probably see a lot of deaths,” said Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines and human immunobiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s going to be a great inequity and tragedy that will unfold.”

Stuart and other experts involved in the vaccine quest laid out their assessment of the road ahead today during the first session of the 2020 GeekWire Summit.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Eight nations sign Artemis Accords for moon missions

Seven nations have signed up with the United States to participate in NASA’s Artemis effort to put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024.

The Artemis Accords commit the signatories — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates as well as the U.S. — to observe a set of principles ranging from the interoperability of space hardware to the protection of heritage sites and space property rights.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other international representatives announced the signing of the accords today in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress.

During a briefing with reporters, Bridenstine said the accords will serve as the “preamble of bilateral agreements between the United States and all of our international partners as we go sustainably to the moon with commercial and international partners.”

It’ll be up to each nation to ensure that commercial partners under its jurisdiction — such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, for example — observe the requirements of the Artemis Accords. Just today, Blue Origin tested a guidance system that NASA aims to use on future lunar landers.

The signers of the accords will also be required to register the objects they’re sending into space and provide public notification about the location and nature of their operations, under a provision known as due regard.

If signatories don’t adhere to the accords and the follow-up bilateral agreements, they could be asked to leave the Artemis coalition, Bridenstine said. “There’s a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear,” he said, without going into specifics on the enforcement process.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin rocket tests NASA’s moon landing system

Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship today conducted a robotic rehearsal for a future touchdown on the moon — and by all appearances, it stuck the landing.

Testing most of the elements of NASA’s precision lunar landing system was the top item on the agenda for today’s mission, which represented the 13th uncrewed test flight of a New Shepard spacecraft for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

New Shepard’s flight had initially been scheduled for Sept. 24, but the launch was scrubbed due to a potential issue with the power supply for one of the 12 commercial payloads on board. It took more than two weeks for Blue Origin to resolve all the technical issues.

New Shepard’s reusable booster blasted off from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 8:37 a.m. CT (6:37 a.m. PT), sending a capsule stuffed with scientific experiments at a maximum speed of 2,232 mph to an altitude in excess of 65 miles (346,964 feet, or 105 kilometers). That’s beyond the 100-kilometer level that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated and floated back down to the Texas desert at the end of a parachute. Meanwhile, the booster made a supersonic descent. Just before landing, the booster relit its hydrogen-fueled engine in retro-rocket mode to fly itself autonomously to its landing pad for a record seventh time.

“That never gets old to watch that rocket,” launch commentator Caitlin Dietrich said from Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash. “It almost looks fake, every single time.”

The flight took just over 10 minutes, from liftoff to the capsule’s touchdown.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Fiction Science Club

How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.

“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”

He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.

One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”

Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.

Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.

“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”

Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.

I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”

Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.

“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin hits reset for suborbital spaceship’s test

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is now targeting Oct. 13 for the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed mission to the edge of space and back, to try out a precision landing system for NASA.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas is scheduled for no earlier than 8:35 a.m. CT (6:35 a.m. PT).

A webcast is due to go live at Blue Origin’s website 30 minutes before launch, but there’s always a chance of delays due to weather or technical issues. That was the case more than two weeks ago when Blue Origin postponed the launch. At first, the launch team had to wait for cloudy weather to clear up, and then Blue Origin detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. A day later, Blue Origin tweeted that engineers would be taking extra time to make sure that all the technical issues were fully resolved.

The time frame for launch now extends to Nov. 1, according to an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

It’s been 10 months since Blue Origin last launched its New Shepard spaceship, which is designed to carry scientific payloads — and eventually, passengers as well. This 13th uncrewed 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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Pentagon will test 5G for virtual reality missions

Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state is participating in a $600 million Pentagon program to test the use of 5G connectivity for high-tech applications.

JBLM’s piece of the program will focus on 5G-enabled applications that make use of augmented reality and virtual reality for mission planning, training and operations, the Department of Defense said today. The other sites involved in the experimentation and testing program are Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia, Naval Base San Diego in California, and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

“Through these test sites, the department is leveraging its unique authorities to pursue bold innovation at a scale and scope unmatched anywhere else in the world,” Michael Kratsios, acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a news release.

JBLM’s AR/VR project will also involve the U.S. Army’s Yakima Training Center in central Washington state.

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Cosmic Tech

Boom does a virtual rollout for its supersonic plane

A year ago, you might have expected the rollout of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1 prototype jet to be a hands-on affair, attended by throngs of employees and enthusiasts.

Then COVID-19 hit.

As a result, today’s big reveal played out mostly as a hands-off affair, with the XB-1 rolling out under a sullen sky while the music swelled at the climax of a 45-minute video. It wasn’t computer-generated graphics, but the rollout had that feel to it.

Despite the social distancing, today’s event proved that Boom Supersonic’s vision is more than CGI — thanks to the efforts of nearly 150 employees at the company’s facilities in Centennial, Colo., and more than $140 million in funding from venture capital firms and high-profile investors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

The coronavirus pandemic may have put a crimp in Boom’s development timeline, but the current plan calls for the single-seat XB-1 to start flight testing at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port next year, with veteran test pilots Bill “Doc” Shoemaker and Chris “Duff” Guarente taking turns at the controls.

If that plan holds, XB-1 will be the first commercial-purpose supersonic jet to take to the skies since the last Concorde flew in 2003.

The XB-1’s fuselage is longer than that of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (71 vs. 60 feet) but its delta wings aren’t nearly as wide (21 vs. 44 feet). Carbon-composite construction and 3-D printing cut down on weight and complexity. Shoemaker said the plane has cameras mounted on its nose gear that’ll give pilots the visibility they need without having to employ a Concorde-style swiveling nose.

It’s powered by three tried-and-true GE J85-15 engines, but to cut down its carbon footprint, it’ll use fuel produced from captured CO2. “We’re going to get to zero from day one,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl promised during today’s festivities.

The XB-1 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, designed to fly at Mach 1.3 but not designed for commercial service. Instead, it’ll serve as a testbed for Boom’s bigger Overture airplane: Currently still on the drawing boards, the nearly 200-foot-long Overture is meant to fly 65 to 88 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 2.2.

Scholl said going supersonic would cut Seattle-to-Tokyo air travel time from 10 hours to four and a half hours. That’s why Japan Air Lines has already signed up to buy some of the Overture jets when they’re ready.

The current timetable calls for Boom to start building Overture in 2022, with rollout scheduled for 2025 and the start of service set for 2027. Boom’s past development schedules have slipped, however, and Overture’s timeline is likely to face delays as well.

Boom is one of several companies receiving funding from the U.S. Air Force to study options for the development of a supersonic Air Force One for presidential and VIP use. Georgia-based Hermeus has received $1.5 million for supersonic studies, and California-based Exosonic has a $1 million contract. Boom’s contract seems likely to be in the same ballpark.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has a $247.5 million contract from NASA to build a supersonic aircraft that would demonstrate low-boom technologies. Test flights could begin as early as next year.

Boeing has its own vision for commercial supersonic flight, and has invested in Aerion Supersonic to make it so. Spike Aerospace and Virgin Galactic also plan to field supersonic planes.

Will Boom be the first to make a splash in the supersonic market? Scholl certainly has big ambitions. “We’re sizing the initial factory to do between five and 10 aircraft a month, and I think it’s very likely that we’ll need to build a second factory and double that up,” he said.

Just this week, Boeing said the prospects for commercial airplane sales look dimmer than they did a year ago, largely due to the pandemic. But Scholl sounds much more bullish — or should we say, boomish.

“When you look at how many people are flying on routes that we can fly with today’s regulations, with a big speedup, we need to build a lot of Overtures,” he said. “In fact, we think we’re going to make more Overtures than Boeing has made 787s.

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Cosmic Space

Boeing astronaut chooses family over Starliner flight

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA’s final space shuttle mission nine years ago, says he’s passing up his chance to be on the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi next year.

Ferguson, who is director of mission integration and operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, tweeted that he’s taking on a “new mission” that prioritizes “my most important crew — my family.”

The 56-year-old former astronaut told Space News that he didn’t make his decision lightly: “It surrounds what has really amounted to a year that is replete with family obligations that I just do not want to risk missing,” he said. Among those obligations, according to The Associated Press, is his daughter’s wedding.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who has served as a backup spaceflier during Starliner training, will take Ferguson’s place.

“Butch will be able to step in seamlessly, and his previous experience on both space shuttle and space station missions make him a valuable addition to this flight,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

The other astronauts due to make the trip to the International Space Station next year are NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. Fincke joined the crew last year when NASA astronaut Eric Boe had to bow out due to unspecified medical reasons.

Ferguson had been looking forward to his Starliner trip for years. He joined Boeing soon after his final shuttle flight in 2011 and played a high-profile role in the Starliner effort — going so far as to help CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert try on Boeing’s spacesuit in 2017.

If the development timeline for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner had been glitch-free, Ferguson and his crewmates might well have been in space by now. But last December, an uncrewed demonstration flight to the space station went awry due to software problems. As a result, NASA and Boeing had to pass up the station docking and end the flight early.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was able to proceed with the first crewed flight of its Crew Dragon capsule in May, beating Boeing to the punch.

After a months-long investigation, NASA and Boeing decided that another uncrewed test mission would have to be flown at Boeing’s expense. That mission is expected to take place late this year or early next year. If all goes well, a crewed flight will follow in mid-2021.

Ferguson said he has “full confidence in the Starliner vehicle, the men and women building and testing it, and the NASA astronauts who will ultimately fly it.” And he hinted that he wouldn’t mind getting another chance to go into space once he takes care of his family obligations.

“I’ve been asked what this means long-term: Does it mean that I’m leaving or does it mean that I’m staying and I just can’t do this,” he told Space News. “I just cannot launch next year. You can read into that as you see fit.”

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Cosmic Space

Space Notes: From satellite deals to a new fellowship

— Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s signed an agreement with HawkEye 360 to support multiple launches of the Virginia-based company’s radio-frequency mapping satellites.

Spaceflight will provide mission management services for HawkEye 360’s Cluster 4, 5 and 6 launches. Each cluster consists of three 65-pound satellites that fly in formation to gather a wide variety of geolocation tracking data. SpaceX sent HawkEye 360’s first cluster into orbit in 2018 as part of a dedicated-rideshare mission organized by Spaceflight. Cluster 2 is scheduled for launch as soon as December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s equipped with Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is one of several launch vehicles in Spaceflight’s portfolio for rideshare satellite missions. Other rocket offerings include Northrop Grumman’s Antares, Rocket Lab’s Electron, Arianespace’s Vega, Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha and India’s PSLV. Spaceflight has launched more than 300 satellites across 32 rideshare missions to date.

— Seattle-based RBC Signals has been engaged by California-based Swarm Technologies to host ground-based antennas for Swarm’s satellite IoT communications constellation.

The antennas will support Swarm’s next wave of satellites, part of a 150-unit constellation that’s due to go into full operation by the end of 2021. The first antenna included in the agreement has been placed on Alaska’s North Slope and is supporting the latest group of satellites to be deployed. Those 12 satellites, each about the size of a slice of bread, were sent into orbit on Sept. 2 by an Arianespace Vega rocket.

Plans call for additional Swarm antennas to be activated and hosted by RBC Signals in strategic locations around the world. RBC Signals, founded in 2015, takes advantage of company-owned as well as partner-owned antennas to provide communication services to government and commercial satellite operators.

— Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited says it has completed a critical design review for its MakerSat payload, which is due to fly aboard a NASA mission aimed at testing in-space servicing and manufacturing technologies in the mid-2020s.

MakerSat will be part of Maxar Technologies’ Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), one of the payloads attached to NASA’s OSAM-1 spacecraft. (OSAM stands for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing). SPIDER is designed to assemble a communications antenna in orbit, while MakerSat will manufacture a 32-foot-long, carbon-fiber construction beam.

The project will test techniques for use on future space missions. “MakerSat will demonstrate the manufacturing of the 2-by-4’s that can be used to construct large telescopes for studying exoplanets and to assemble future space stations,” Tethers Unlimited’s founder and president, Rob Hoyt, said in a news release.

— The application window has opened for the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, a new program that offers paid internships in the aerospace industry for Black and African-American college students.

The fellowship program is modeled after the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, which offers summer internships to undergraduate as well as graduate students who are passionate about commercial spaceflight; and the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which focuses on women and gender-minority students in aerospace. (GeekWire participated in the first year of the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program.)

Seattle-area companies participating in the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship Program include Blue Origin, Boeing and Stratolaunch. The program is named after Patti Grace Smith, who was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, became the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial spaceflight, and passed away in 2016 at the age of 68.

Check out the fellowship’s website for eligibility requirements and application procedures. The application deadline for internships in 2021 is Nov. 15.

This report was first published on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

How farmers use tech to tend the fields of the future

In the old days, farmers kept track of their crops’ vital stats in logbooks and on whiteboards — but in the new days, that’s not going to cut it.

“Shun analog,” said Steve Mantle, the founder and CEO of Innov8 Ag Solutions, a farm management venture that’s headquartered in Walla Walla, Wash. “Digital first. If a grower is still putting things in logbooks, they have to shift to it.”

Mantle and other experts and entrepreneurs surveyed the state of agricultural tech today during Washington State University’s Digital Agriculture Summit — and it’s clear that the field is in a state of flux.

The panelists gave a shout-out to technologies ranging from sensor-equipped drones and 5G connectivity to robotic harvesters and artificial intelligence. But at the same time, some in the virtual audience complained about not being able to get even a 4G signal down on the farm.

Much more needs to be done to bring the agricultural data revolution to full fruition, said Kurt Steck, managing general partner of the 5G Open Innovation Lab, based in Bellevue, Wash.

Get the full story on GeekWire.