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Webb Space Telescope scores big at astronomy meet-up

It’s not yet clear whether the Seahawks will be in the Super Bowl, but Seattle is in the spotlight this week for the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” — and there’s already an obvious choice for MVP.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is taking center stage at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which has drawn more than 3,400 masked-up registrants to the Seattle Convention Center to share astronomical research and figure out their next moves on the final frontier.

The twice-a-year AAS meetings are often compared to scientific Super Bowls — although the fact that this week’s meeting came on the heels of the soccer world’s biggest event led the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab to call it the “World Cup of Astronomy and Astrophysics” instead.

This is the second post-pandemic, in-person meeting for AAS, following up on last June’s AAS 240 meeting in Pasadena, Calif. The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope was launched a little more than a year ago, but the telescope’s first full-color images and science data weren’t released until July — a month after AAS 240. That makes this week’s gathering something of a coming-out party for JWST.

Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who serves as JWST’s operations project scientist, said there’s “nothing but good news” about the telescope’s performance. “The science requirements are met or exceeded across the board,” she said during a plenary lecture. “It’s just all so gorgeous.”

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GeekWire

A flying boat for Titan? It could happen…

NASA says it’ll distribute up to $2.45 million to 14 teams in support of experimental projects that would be right at home in the pages of a science-fiction novel — including a plan to send a flying boat to study the smoggy atmosphere and hydrocarbon-rich lakes of Titan.

The unconventional Titan probe was proposed by a former Boeing mechanic in Gig Harbor, Wash., who says his space venture — Planet Enterprises — is “pretty much a one-man band,” at least for now.

Two other researchers based in the Seattle area also won Phase 1 grants in the latest round of awards by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each nine-month Phase 1 study grant is worth $175,000, and successful projects could go on to win additional funding during follow-up phases.

The NIAC program is designed to support out-of-this-world ideas that could eventually become reality. “These initial Phase 1 NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters, explained in a news release.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Observer’ blends way-out quantum science and fiction

Do we each create our own reality? Could different observers create measurably different realities? It’s a fantastical line of thought that has sparked scientific inquiries as well — and now the science and the fiction has come together in a new novel titled “Observer.”

“The observer is actually the basis of the universe, so basically the novel and the scientific ideas are really a rethink of everything we know about time, space and indeed the universe itself,” stem-cell researcher Robert Lanza says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

Lanza’s co-author, Seattle science-fiction writer Nancy Kress, agrees that the novel takes aim at one of life’s greatest mysteries. “The novel is about how we understand reality, and nothing could be more important about that, because everything else is based on it,” she told me.

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Universe Today

Tech star supports a tribute to Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy

Efforts to create a memorial celebrating the legacy of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played a pointy-eared alien named Spock on “Star Trek,” have shifted to warp speed nearly eight years after his death.

A six-figure contribution from Rich Miner, the co-founder of Android, is energizing the campaign to create an illuminated 20-foot-high sculpture depicting Spock’s famous “Live Long and Prosper” hand gesture. The sculpture would be placed at Boston’s Museum of Science, near the West End neighborhood where Nimoy grew up.

Nimoy’s daughter, Julie Nimoy, and her husband David Knight are working with the museum to hit a $500,000 fundraising goal for the project. Thanks to Miner’s contribution, Knight said that the stainless-steel monument, designed by artist Tom Stocker and sculptor David Phillips, could begin taking shape as early as this year.

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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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GeekWire

NASA calls an end to Mars InSight lander’s mission

Four years after engineers cheered the landing of the robotic InSight spacecraft on Mars, NASA today declared an end to the $830 million quake-detecting mission.

In a mission update, NASA said the control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory failed to contact the lander in two consecutive attempts — which had previously been set as the criterion for ending the mission. Dust had been building up on the probe’s solar panels, and mission planners concluded that the batteries finally ran out of power. The last time NASA heard from Mars InSight was on Dec. 15.

JPL’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen for signals from the spacecraft, but further contact is considered unlikely.

Those involved in the mission chose to concentrate on InSight’s achievements rather than its setbacks. InSight’s primary purpose was to record seismic readings emanating from the Red Planet’s interior. The mission detected 1,319 Marsquakes in all, including quakes caused by meteor impacts. In May, the spacecraft’s seismometer recorded the largest quake ever detected on a planet other than Earth.

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Fiction Science Club

Avatars return to the movies ⁠— and find a real-life foothold

Thirteen years after the original “Avatar” movie came out, the idea of human minds inhabiting alien bodies is returning for an amped-up sequel ⁠— and since 2009, real-life efforts to create robotic avatars have advanced at least as much as computer-aided filmmaking has.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns to Pandora, a far-off exomoon where the peaceful, blue-skinned Na’vi people are menaced by human invaders who are capable of getting into their skin. The film is a visual mind-blower, combining elements of underwater documentaries, video games and the movie that earned Cameron his Oscar: “Titanic.”

The idea of a human taking charge of an alien body via virtual reality is pure science fiction — but if you replace the fictional Na’vi with a robot, you get the premise for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, which gave out its top awards at the $10 million competition’s finals in November.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, we focus on the parallels between the science-fiction vision embodied in the Avatar movies and the future-tech vision that roboticists are pursuing through the Avatar XPRIZE and other efforts. Someday, robotic avatars could well transform space exploration as well as life back here on Earth.

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GeekWire

Microsoft and Viasat boost satellite internet links

Over the past five years, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has helped bring internet access to more than 51 million people in rural America and around the world — and now a new partnership with Viasat aims to kick Airband into overdrive.

The partnership, announced today in conjunction with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., will take advantage of Viasat’s satellite network to extend internet access to 10 million people globally, including 5 million in Africa. It’s part of a wider Airband campaign to help connect a quarter of a billion people, including 100 million in Africa, by the end of 2025.

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GeekWire

Air New Zealand makes plans for electric planes

Air New Zealand has signed a letter of intent to order up to 23 all-electric Alice aircraft from Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation as part of its Mission NextGen Aircraft program to accelerate the switch to zero-emission flights. The deal makes Air New Zealand the first national flag carrier to put in a reservation for the nine-seater Alice.

In a statement, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran said Eviation’s Alice is a “natural fit” for the airline’s plan to decarbonize its domestic flights, starting in 2026. An Alice prototype went through its first flight test in September, and Eviation plans to put the plane into service by 2027. Other electric aircraft manufacturers teaming up with Air New Zealand include BetaCranfield Aerospace and VoltAero.

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Universe Today

Fusion breakthrough raises hopes — and questions

For the first time ever, physicists have set off a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than what was put into the experiment.

The milestone laser shot took place on Dec. 5 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The fact that there was a net energy gain qualified the shot, in technical terms, as ignition.

“Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering and experimentation,” said Jill Hruby, under secretary of energy for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

However, officials acknowledged that it’s still likely to be decades before commercial fusion power becomes a reality. They said the most immediate impact of the breakthrough will be felt in the field of national security and the stewardship of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile.