Astra bounces back with Alaska satellite launch

California-based Astra sent a batch of satellites into orbit for Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. from an Alaska launch pad today, a just a little more than a month after Astra’s launch failure in Florida.

Astra’s LV0009 launch vehicle lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island at 9:22 a.m. PT, and about an hour later, Astra CEO Chris Kemp reported that the mission was a success.

“Our customers are calling us and indicating that the satellites are alive, they’re talking, which means that they’ve been successfully deployed,” he said during a webcast. “The flight was nominal. We were able to precisely deliver to the targeted orbit and inclination at orbital velocity. … It’s been a long journey.”

Astra went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange last July, thanks to a blank-check merger orchestrated by Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw. The company’s status as a publicly traded company led to some ups and downs today as investors waited for word about the mission’s success or failure — and despite notching a success, Astra’s share price ended the day slightly down, at $3.49.


Astra soars after first successful orbital launch

Astra Space, the California-based launch company that went public this year with an assist from Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, had a high-flying day on Wall Street today after recording its first successful orbital launch from Alaska.

The company’s share price rose by as much as 42% on the Nasdaq stock exchange before settling at $11.17 for a 17% gain at the end of the trading day.

The successful test launch for the U.S. Space Force on the night of Nov. 19 was the key driver for Astra’s financial rise. Rocket 3.3 LV0007 carried a test payload into orbit from the Pacific Spaceport on Alaska’s Kodiak Island — nearly a year after a previous test mission just missed reaching orbit, and three months after a follow-up launch attempt literally went sideways.

Because this mission was meant purely as a test, the payload didn’t separate from the rocket’s upper stage. Instead, it monitored conditions on the vehicle in flight for the Space Force under a contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. Going forward, the Space Force is likely to be one of Astra’s prime customers.

“Reaching orbit is a historic milestone for Astra,” Chris Kemp, the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO, said today in a news release. “We can now focus on delivering for our customers and scaling up rocket production.”


Echodyne plays a role in a pioneering drone test

Alaska drone flight
A Skyfront Perimeter drone takes off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for a milestone flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. (University of Alaska Photo / Sean Tevebaugh)

A public-private consortium led by the University of Alaska has conducted the first-ever federally authorized test flight of a drone beyond the operator’s line of sight without on-the-ground observers keeping watch – with Echodyne, the radar venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., playing a supporting role.

Autonomous flight beyond visual line of sight will be key to the kinds of drone delivery operations envisioned by Amazon, Walmart and other retailers.

During the July 31 flight, a Skyfront Perimeter multirotor drone inspected a 3.87-mile stretch of Trans-Alaska Pipeline infrastructure as part of the University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, one of 10 such programs that won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration last year.

The big thing about this flight is that the drone made use of Iris Automation’s Casia onboard detect-and-avoid system, paired up with Echodyne’s ground-based MESA airspace management radar system, without having a human on the route.

Current FAA regulations limit drone flights to the operator’s visual line of sight. Pilot projects have been experimenting with technologies that can ensure safe operations beyond the visual line of sight, known as BVLOS. But until now, the FAA’s waivers still required a ground-based observer to look out for non-cooperative aircraft coming into the test area.

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Astranis to provide satellite internet for Alaska

Astranis satellite
An artist’s conception shows an Astranis satellite in geostationary orbit. (Astranis Illustration)

Astranis Space Technologies says it has struck a deal with Alaska’s Pacific Dataport Inc. to provide America’s northernmost state with three times as much satellite data bandwidth as it has today, via its first satellite in geostationary orbit.

“It is a firm contract in the many tens of millions of dollars,” Astranis co-founder and CEO John Gedmark told GeekWire in advance of today’s announcement. It also arguably ranks as the biggest deal of its type for a satellite company as young as Astranis, which emerged from stealth mode less than a year ago.

Astranis put a small-scale test satellite into low Earth orbit last year, and plans to follow up with the launch of a 660-pound (300-kilogram), 3-foot-wide telecommunications satellite in the second half of next year. Gedmark said the satellite would be sent up as a secondary payload by a major launch provider, but declined to say which one.

“This is going to happen fast,” he said.

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Tweets document damage after 7.0 Alaska quake

Tsunami hazard map
The red area on this map indicates the extent of the tsunami warning about an hour and a half after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Alaska. ( / NOAA Graphic)

Buildings in downtown Anchorage were damaged and roads were ruined when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit Alaska’s biggest city today.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake occurred at 8:29 a.m. Alaska time (9:29 a.m. PT) and was centered 8 miles north of Anchorage. The main quake was followed by aftershocks in the range of magnitude 4 to 5.8.

“There is major infrastructure damage across Anchorage,” the city’s police department said in an online alert. “Many homes and buildings are damaged. Many roads and bridges are closed. Stay off the roads if you don’t need to drive. Seek a safe shelter. Check on your surroundings and loved ones.”

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Whew! Chukchi Sea polar bears are in good shape

Polar Bears
An adult female polar bear and a cub stroll on Wrangel Island in the fall of 2017. Hundreds of Chukchi Sea polar bears spend the summer months on the island. (University of Washington Photo / Eric Regehr)

The first census of polar bears living around the Chukchi Sea, straddling Alaska and eastern Siberia, suggests that the population has been stable and healthy over the past decade.

That comes as a welcome contrast to the problems facing polar bears in other Arctic regions as their sea-ice habitat shrinks. The loss of  sea ice is an issue for the Chukchi Sea as well, but the nearly 3,000 bears in that region don’t seem to be feeling the strain as much.

“Despite having about one month less time on preferred sea-ice habitats to hunt compared with 25 years ago, we found that the Chukchi Sea subpopulation was doing well from 2008 to 2016,” Eric Regehr, a biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, said today in a news release.

Regehr is the principal author of a study about the census published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports. The census, conducted by researchers from UW and federal agencies, chronicles a decade’s worth of observations — and delves into why the Chukchi Sea bears seem to be faring better than their cousins elsewhere.

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Alaska volcano erupts – and disrupts flights

Image: Pavlof eruption
Colt Snapp captured a picture of the ash plume emanating from Mount Pavlof on Sunday evening as he was flying to Anchorage from Dutch Harbor. (Credit: Colt Snapp via Twitter)

The spectacular eruption of Alaska’s Mount Pavlof had a not-so-spectacular effect on airline schedules today: Alaska Airlines said it had to cancel 41 flights to and from six cities in northern Alaska due to the massive ash cloud emanating from Pavlof.

More than 3,000 passengers were affected by today’s cancellations, Alaska Airlines said in a travel advisory. Flights to Barrow, Bethel, Fairbanks, Kotzebue, Nome and Prudhoe Bay are suspended until the airline can assess weather reports after dawn Tuesday.

Anchorage’s KTVA TV said Bering Air, PenAir and Ravn Alaska canceled flights this morning, but at least some of those airlines returned to normal schedules later in the day.

Mount Pavlof, 600 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, is one of the state’s most consistently active volcanoes. The 8,261-foot peak began erupting on Sunday afternoon, sending ash to heights in excess of 20,000 feet.

KTVA quoted public safety officer Barrett Taylor as saying more than an eighth of an inch of ash had blanketed much of the Aleutian community of Nelson Lagoon. “It was basically raining ash,” Taylor said.

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