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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic teams up with Boeing for motherships

Virgin Galactic says it will partner with Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based Boeing subsidiary, to design and build next-generation motherships for its suborbital rocket planes.

The motherships will serve as flying launch pads for Virgin Galactic’s next-gen, Delta-class spacecraft, just as a carrier airplane called White Knight Two or VMS Eve has served for the company’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane.

The system’s design is an upgraded version of the SpaceShipOne system that was funded almost two decades ago by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

VSS Unity and VMS Eve have been undergoing test flights for years, and commercial suborbital space missions are scheduled to begin next year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Hundreds of customers have reserved spots on future flights.

The next-generation mothership and rocket plane are due to start revenue-generating missions in 2025. The partnership announced today will cover the production of two motherships.

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Universe Today

LHC spots exotic particles — and starts hunting for more

Physicists say they’ve found evidence in data from Europe’s Large Hadron Collider for three never-before-seen combinations of quarks, just as the world’s largest particle-smasher is beginning a new round of high-energy experiments.

The three exotic types of particles — which include two four-quark combinations, known as tetraquarks, plus a five-quark unit called a pentaquark — are totally consistent with the Standard Model, the decades-old theory that describes the structure of atoms.

In contrast, scientists hope that the LHC’s current run will turn up evidence of physics that goes beyond the Standard Model to explain the nature of mysterious phenomena such as dark matter. Such evidence could point to new arrays of subatomic particles, or even extra dimensions in our universe.

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Fiction Science Club

Star Trek keeps up to date with science — and society

Over the course of five decades, advances in space science and exploration have changed the Star Trek saga — but it’s obvious that the sci-fi TV show has changed the course of space exploration as well.

You need look no further than Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, who took inspiration from Star Trek to green-light talking computers and his very own Blue Origin space effort. The same goes for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

“I can’t imagine a version of the world where Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos exist, for better or worse, however you feel about them, without Star Trek,” says Ryan Britt, the author of “Phasers on Stun,” a new book chronicling the history of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise.

“I’m not saying that those guys embody all of Star Trek’s ideals, because they may not,” Britt says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But there is an audacity to space travel, whether it is from a government like NASA or another nation’s government that’s putting people in space, or if it’s from the private sector.”

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GeekWire

First Mode enters second stage of clean energy quest

First Mode, a Seattle-based engineering company, says it’s agreed to a business combination with the zero-emission truck development effort led by the Anglo American mining company.

The deal follows up on First Mode’s work with Anglo American on its nuGen Zero Emissions Haulage Solution, which uses a hybrid hydrogen-battery powertrain on ore-hauling trucks. First Mode designed and built the powerplant in partnership with several other companies.

In May, Anglo American unveiled the first converted nuGen monster truck at its platinum mine in Mogalakwena, South Africa. The newly combined business, operating under the First Mode name, would convert Anglo American’s fleet of 400 trucks to the nuGen system. It would also provide associated site infrastructure for battery charging as well as hydrogen production and refueling. First Mode says converting 400 ultra-class haul trucks to zero-emission systems is equivalent to taking 280,000 carbon-emitting cars off the road.

“We started First Mode to solve meaningful and difficult problems,” Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said in a news release. “Climate change and energy security are the paramount challenges of our time, and I am so proud this will be First Mode’s focus as we enter this next phase of growth. Now is the right time, and this is the right team, to build the barely possible for this extraordinary set of problems.”

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Cosmic Space

Robotic probe begins monthslong voyage to the moon

A robotic probe that’s meant to blaze a trail for astronauts has begun a slow and steady trek to the moon, thanks to a launch from New Zealand on a commercial rocket.

NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, also known as Capstone, lifted off from Rocket Lab’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula atop an Electron rocket at 2:55 a.m. PT (9:55 p.m. local time) today.

Because Rocket Lab’s Electron has far less oomph than, say, a Saturn V or Space Launch System rocket, the microwave oven-sized spacecraft will be sent along a leisurely, looping route that takes advantage of the gravitational pulls of the moon, the sun and Earth.

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Universe Today

No more rehearsals for NASA’s SLS moon rocket

NASA says it’s finished with having to do full-scale dress rehearsals for the first liftoff of its moon-bound Space Launch System rocket. But it’s not finished with having to make fixes.

“At this point we’ve determined that we’ve successfully completed the evaluations and the work that we intended to complete for the dress rehearsal,” Thomas Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for common exploration systems development, told reporters today.

NASA’s assessment came after a dress rehearsal that reached its climax on June 20 with the loading of the 322-foot-tall rocket’s supercooled propellant tanks. The rehearsal, which followed some less-than-fully-successful trial runs in April, marked a milestone for launch preparations because it was the first time that the team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida had fully loaded all of the tanks and proceeded into the terminal launch countdown.

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GeekWire

Old satellites could get a new lease on life via the cloud

What do you do with an aging weather satellite? If you’re the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you turn to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep it going.

After a yearlong demonstration project, the three partners determined that there is a way, thanks to cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

The demonstration — conducted under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short — showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, NOAA-18, in a way that met NOAA’s specifications.

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GeekWire

How ‘Big Data’ can help scientists focus the search for E.T.

Could far-off aliens be sending out signals telling us they exist? If so, how would we know where to look? Researchers focusing on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, have laid out a new strategy for focusing their quest.

The strategy applies simple trigonometry to millions of data points, with the aim of seeking out potential interstellar beacons that are synchronized with hard-to-miss astronomical phenomena such as supernovae.

University of Washington astronomer James Davenport and his colleagues lay out the plan in a research paper submitted to the arXiv pre-print server this month. The idea is also the subject of a talk that Davenport’s giving this week at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in California.

“I think the technique is very straightforward. It’s dealing with triangles and ellipses, things that are like high-school geometry, which is sort of my speed,” Davenport told GeekWire half-jokingly. “I like simple shapes and things I can calculate easily.”

The pre-print paper, which hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, draws upon data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia sky-mapping mission. But Davenport said the technique is tailor-made for the terabytes of astronomical data that will be coming from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory nightly when it goes online, a couple of years from now.

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Maurice on Mars’ brings black comedy to the Red Planet

The world’s richest human wants to build a city on Mars: Fifty years ago, Elon Musk’s vision of our future on the Red Planet might have sounded like science fiction — but today, Musk is actually serious about the idea of using billions of dollars from ventures like SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network to finance the move to Mars.

“In looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars, well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk said back in 2015. “So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”

What kind of city would Musk want to see on Mars? His vision calls for a place that offers “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to nightclubs” while getting rid of “special interests and coercion of politicians.” But what if cities on Mars turn out like cities on Earth, complete with wealth disparity, racism — and ambitious billionaires?

That’s the premise for “Maurice on Mars,” a darkly funny series of animated shorts created and written by comedian and TV writer Tim Barnes for Comedy Central’s Animated YouTube channel.

“I truly think that people often jump to that aspirational part of living on Mars,” Barnes says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast focusing on the intersection of science and fiction. “But the practical thing is that you’re going to need people to build stuff once you get there. So the working class, the underclass, I believe will be the first people on Mars to actually build the White House there.”