Categories
Universe Today

Elon Musk updates his vision for SpaceX’s Starship

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has laid out a scenario for space travel that calls for his company’s Starship launch system to take on its first orbital test flight as soon as January.

Starship could go through “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the moon, Mars and even the solar system’s outer planets by 2023, Musk said today during an online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy.

But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the lower-cost scientific mission stuff on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.

The National Academies presentation followed up on big-picture talks that Musk delivered in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as the BFR or “Big Frickin’ Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk settled on “Starship”).

Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster would be a one-size-fits-all system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions and all manner of trips beyond Earth orbit, including moon landings. It’d be capable of lofting more than 100 tons to low Earth orbit (three times as much as the space shuttle), and sending 100 people at a time to Mars.

This week’s presentation provided some new details.

Categories
GeekWire

Famed designer enlisted for space training complex

The French designer who created the look for Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America and Axiom Space’s orbital habitat has taken on yet another space-centric project: the space training complex planned by a Seattle-based venture called Orbite.

Orbite says Philippe Starck will design its Astronaut Training and Spaceflight Gateway Complex, which is expected to consist of multiple buildings and go into operation at a U.S. location in late 2023 or 2024.

For now, that’s about all that can be said about the project. Further details, including the site selected for the complex and the specifics of Starck’s vision for the facility, will be announced in the months ahead.

“We will have to wait a little more during the winter,” Orbite co-founder Nicolas Gaume said. “We thought it was great to announce that such an amazing designer, who shares so much of our vision for astronaut orientation, preparation and training, could be disclosed.”

The 72-year-old Starck has designed projects ranging from hotels and yachts (including a yacht for the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs) to bathroom accessories. But he’s best-known for his space-related projects, including the Virgin Galactic logo that incorporates a close-up of billionaire founder Richard Branson’s iris.

Categories
GeekWire

TerraPower picks Wyoming site for its first nuclear plant

TerraPower, the nuclear power venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has chosen a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming as its preferred location for a next-generation demonstration reactor.

After an evaluation process that included meetings with community members, the Bellevue, Wash.-based venture selected Kemmerer, Wyo., for the site of its Natrium reactor, which will make use of technology from TerraPower and GE-Hitachi.

The project is one of two projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy with an initial funding round totaling $160 million. The other project is planned by Maryland-based X-energy, with Washington state’s Hanford nuclear reservation selected as the preferred location. The Department of Energy plans to invest a total of $3.2 billion over a seven-year period to turn the concepts into reality by 2028, with matching funds provided by industry partners.

TerraPower had previously signaled that it planned to build the demonstration reactor at one of PacifiCorp’s four retiring coal-fired plants in Wyoming, but today’s announcement revealed the precise location.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Russian anti-satellite test creates space station hazard

A Russian anti-satellite test sparked an orbital-debris emergency aboard the International Space Station today, followed by sharp protests from NASA’s administrator and other U.S. officials.

The incident, which involved the deliberate destruction of an obsolete Russian spy satellite known as Cosmos 1408, is likely to spur renewed debate over military rules of engagement in space and the nature of Russian (and Chinese) anti-satellite maneuvers.

The U.S. Space Command said Russia struck the one-ton satellite with a direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and what’s thought to be hundreds of thousands of smaller bits.

“The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the Space Command, said in a news release. “Space activities underpin our way of life, and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

The trajectories for the debris cloud and the International Space Station come close to each other every 90 minutes, and that required the space station’s seven crew members to take cover today.

Categories
GeekWire

Jeff Bezos plays up the Earth-space connection

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has been getting a lot of press lately, but the Amazon founder and chairman says he’s spending more money nowadays on Earth’s environmental welfare through his Bezos Earth Fund.

Four and a half years ago, Bezos told reporters that he was selling about a billion dollars’ worth of his Amazon stock on a yearly basis to put toward Blue Origin.

But at least for the time being, he says that’s trumped by his $10 billion, 10-year commitment to the Bezos Earth Fund, which distributes grants to projects around the globe. During this month’s U.N. climate summit in Scotland, the fund announced a $2 billion round of grants supporting land restoration and food production.

Bezos cited the funding during last week’s Ignatius Forum at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. as evidence that he wasn’t just a starry-eyed billionaire with no concern about Earth’s welfare.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Space opera features a starship with a mind of its own

The starship is alive, and sometimes you can almost hear it purr.

Science-fiction writer Cat Rambo‘s new novel, “You Sexy Thing,” isn’t the first tale to give a personality to its characters’ interstellar conveyance. There’s the Heart of Gold from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which had a sunny disposition as it used its Infinite Improbability Drive. There are the Vorlon starships of “Babylon 5,” which grieved when their pilots died. And there are the starships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series that give themselves whimsical names.

But how many sentient spacecraft are inspired in part by a cat?

Rambo, who goes by they/them pronouns, had their pet cat Raven in mind while creating the character of the bioship that literally sets the plot of “You Sexy Thing” in motion.

“It’s a cross between Raven and a cousin of mine who is the not the swiftest person in the world, but is very good-hearted,” Rambo told me and my co-host for the Fiction Science podcast, science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace. During our chat, we delved into Rambo’s plan for a grand space opera that could eventually span 10 novels.

Categories
GeekWire

BlackSky strikes a satellite data deal with NASA

BlackSky Technology says it has secured a five-year, sole-source blanket purchase agreement with NASA for the use of high-revisit satellite imaging data in support of the space agency’s Earth observation research.

The agreement announced today is part of NASA’s Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition Program, or CSDAP. It will give researchers access to frequently updated high-resolution imagery via BlackSky’s Spectra AI geospatial data platform.

Spectra AI makes use of imagery from BlackSky’s on-demand satellite constellation as well as other sources to provide global real-time environmental monitoring. BlackSky’s satellites are manufactured in Tukwila, Wash., by LeoStella, the Virginia-based company’s joint venture with Thales Alenia Space.

BlackSky traces its lineage back to Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which sold off Spaceflight Inc. for an undisclosed price in 2020 and adopted the BlackSky corporate brand. In September, BlackSky went public through a blank-check merger with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. that provided $283 million in cash. More than 50 of BlackSky’s 200-plus employees are based in the Seattle area.

In a news release, BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said the CSDAP award “reflects yet another valuable point of alignment between government demand and BlackSky’s commercially available real-time, global intelligence products.”

Categories
GeekWire

Weeks after Blue Origin trip, spaceflier dies in plane crash

A month after taking a suborbital space trip alongside Star Trek actor William Shatner, medical-technology entrepreneur Glen de Vries has died in a New Jersey small-plane crash.

New Jersey State Police identified de Vries, 49, as one of two people killed on Thursday when their single-engine Cessna 172 went down in a wooded area shortly after takeoff from Caldwell, N.J. The other fatality was Thomas P. Fisher, 54, NJ.com quoted authorities as saying.

De Vries was the co-founder of Medidata Solutions, a medical software company that was acquired by Dassault Systemes in 2019 for $5.8 billion. He bought a ticket for an undisclosed price from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture to go on the company’s second crewed suborbital spaceflight in October – and trained alongside Shatner as well as Planet Labs co-founder Chris Boshuizen and Blue Origin executive Audrey Powers.

Categories
Universe Today

NASA’s first Artemis moon landing slips to 2025

NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.

Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.

Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.

Categories
GeekWire

Blue Origin practices with simulated orbital rocket

It’ll be at least another year before Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket gets its first launch, but Jeff Bezos’ space venture has brought out a dummy version of New Glenn’s first stage to practice for that eventual countdown.

The 188-foot-long, 23-foot-wide simulator emerged from Blue Origin’s rocket factory in Florida last week.

In a series of tweets, the company said the GS1 simulator would “enable the team to practice ground ops for New Glenn’s massive first stage, including the transport from the rocket manufacturing complex to LC-36 for integration.”

“While not destined for flight, this hardware is giving our team invaluable data to inform future launch vehicle operations,” Blue Origin said.