Blue Origin sends art and science to space and back

A little more than a month after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a rocket ride, his Blue Origin space venture set another New Shepard suborbital spaceship to the final frontier — but this time the high-profile payloads were paintings, not people.

Blue Origin’s 17th New Shepard mission lifted off from the company’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 9:31 a.m. CT (7:31 a.m. PT) today, after a couple of countdown holds that provided opportunities for last-minute checks of the rocket and its payloads.

The reusable vehicle that Bezos and three crewmates rode last month was optimized to fly passengers, but the spaceship for today’s flight was optimized to carry research payloads instead. No humans were riding along for this particular rocket ship’s eighth suborbital outing.

The flight followed the standard profile for New Shepard: The hydrogen-fueled booster pushed the capsule to an altitude of 347,434 feet (105.9 kilometers), which is above the 100-kilometer (62-mile) “Karman Line” that marks a widely accepted outer-space boundary.

Minutes later, the booster touched down autonomously on a landing pad not far from the launch site. “Just like she was landing on the moon,” launch commentator Jacki Cortese said.

Meanwhile, the capsule experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, and then descended to a parachute-aided landing in the Texas desert. The flight took 10 minutes from launch to the capsule’s touchdown.

Cosmic Science

Check out the oldest known painting of an animal

Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.

Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.

The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.

In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.


These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

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Artist pays tribute to DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin

Artist Kate Thompson with Rosalind Franklin portrait
Artist Kate Thompson worked samples of synthetic DNA into the ink and acrylic coating for her portrait of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

On one level, multimedia artist Kate Thompson’s work shows the black-and-white visage of Franklin — the late biochemist whose famous “Photo 51” revealed the double-helix structure of life’s most vital molecule, even though she didn’t get her full share of credit for it.

Look more closely, and you’ll see a mosaic of 2,000 images submitted by the general public as part of UW’s #MemoriesInDNA project.

And if you were to scrape off a few flakes of paint and process them in a DNA lab, you could read out the pixels that make up all of those images and more, translated from the four-letter genetic code of life to the ones and zeroes of digital data.

“This portrait is not only preserving Franklin’s memory, but preserving the data as well, in a form that will be accessible to future generations,” Karin Strauss, co-director of UW’s Molecular Information Systems Laboratory and principal research manager at Microsoft Research, said today in a news release about the art project.

Thompson’s portrait arguably ranks as the most visual and publicly accessible demonstration of mass data storage in DNA, which has been the focus of study at MISL for years.

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Blue Origin puts postcards and art on a space ride

Blue Origin New Shepard launch
A drone’s-eye view shows Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship blasting off from its West Texas launch pad. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Thousands of postcards, an array of science experiments and a couple of art projects took a suborbital ride to space today on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship, during a test flight aimed at blazing a trail for space travelers.

Today’s uncrewed flight was the 12th test mission for the New Shepard program, which is just one of the space initiatives being pursued by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture. It’s been seven months since the previous test flight in May.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility in West Texas came one day after weather concerns forced a postponement. Even today, the launch team had to wait for heavy fog to clear before sending up the 60-foot-tall reusable spacecraft at 11:53 a.m. CT (9:53 a.m. PT).

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These student art projects will be out of this world

OK Go with winners
Members of the OK Go performance-art band (at left) give the good word to one of the winning teams (shown on the screen at right) in the Art in Space contest. (OK Go via YouTube)

Three students are getting ready for a space experiment that will use gravity and magnetism to simulate the origin of planet Earth. Another trio plans to create a musical composition that’s based on blips of cosmic radiation.

We’re not talking about strictly scientific experiments here: These are the winning entries in an art contest set up by the performance-art rock band OK Go to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

The Art in Space contest follows up on OK Go’s viral “Upside Down & Inside Out” video, which splashed paint all over the interior of an airplane during a zero-gravity parabolic airplane flight.

OK Go Sandbox, the nonprofit venture established by the group in league with the University of St. Thomas’ Playful Learning Lab, struck a deal with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture to let kids do something similarly creative during the weightless phase of New Shepard’s flight.

Unlike OK Go, the winners of the contest won’t be floating in zero-G. The experiments are designed to do their thing autonomously, under controlled conditions, without splattering stuff on New Shepard’s nice new upholstery.

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OK Go and Blue Origin team up on art contest

OK Go in zero-G
OK Go’s zero-gravity art contest follows up on a music video that the group performed during a zero-gravity airplane flight. (OK Go Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with the music-video masters at OK Go to give students a chance to send art experiments into outer space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

The “Art in Space” contest follows up on OK Go’s viral “Upside Down & Inside Out” video, which splashed paint all over the interior of an airplane during a zero-gravity parabolic airplane flight.

“Now we want you to try, but in actual space!” the music group says in today’s contest announcement.

Winners won’t be able to get quite as wild and crazy as OK Go did: Their experiments will have to be confined inside a 4-by-4-by-8-inch box that would be packed aboard an upcoming New Shepard test flight in West Texas. They can weigh no more than 1.1 pounds, and explosives are frowned upon.

Despite the limitations, teams will have wide leeway to design a payload that produces art in microgravity.

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Artists vie for a free trip around the moon

Violinist in zero-G
An artist’s conception shows a violinist in zero-G on SpaceX’s BFR spaceship. (SpaceX via Twitter)

It’s been only a day since SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the plan to send Yusaku Maezawa and roughly half a dozen artists around the moon, but folks are already nominating themselves (and others) for a free trip.

Maezawa is paying an undisclosed but reportedly substantial amount for the journey on SpaceX’s yet-to-be-built BFR spaceship, and there are scads of details to be worked out before the launch date, which is currently set for 2023.

In a series of tweets today, Musk promised that the mission would be live-streamed in high-definition virtual reality, with the broadcast potentially facilitated by SpaceX’s yet-to-be-deployed Starlink satellite internet constellation. There could also be an onboard watering hole called the “Space Bar,” and the artists on the flight would be permitted (but not obliged) to perform in zero-G.

Musk promised to take questions during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” chat that’s yet to be scheduled. “Love Reddit,” he said in a tweet.

One of the more interesting questions has to do with who will be selected for Maezawa’s Willy Wonka-style golden tickets.

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Japanese billionaire signs up for SpaceX moon trip

Maezawa and Musk
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk strike a pose at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. (Yusaku Maezawa via Twitter)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk today introduced Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as the first paying customer for a trip around the moon.

“Finally I can tell you that ‘I choose to go to the moon,’” Maezawa said, echoing President John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase.

Maezawa, 42, founded a mail-order retail business called Start Today in 1998, which spawned what’s now Japan’s largest fashion retail website, known as Zozotown. His net worth is estimated at more than $3 billion.

He’s made a name for himself as a musician and art collector as well as an entrepreneur. During tonight’s big reveal at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Maezawa said he intended to invite six to eight artists from around the world, on the level of the late Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson, to go around the moon with him.

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Alan Bean, Apollo 12’s artistic astronaut, dies at 86

Alan Bean
Astronaut Alan Bean poses for a portrait in front of a mockup of NASA’s lunar module in advance of his Apollo 12 moon mission in 1969. (NASA Photo)

Artist-astronaut Alan Bean, the moonwalker who saw himself as different from the rest, died today at the age of 86 at Houston Medical Hospital.

Bean’s death followed a sudden illness that befell him two weeks earlier during a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., for a school fundraising event.

He became the fourth human to walk on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, exploring Oceanus Procellarum alongside the late astronaut Pete Conrad. Bean also commanded the second crewed flight to Skylab, America’s first space station, in 1973.

“Alan was the strongest and kindest man I ever knew. He was the love of my life, and I miss him dearly,” Leslie Bean, his wife of 40 years, said in a statement released by NASA and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. “A native Texan, Alan died peacefully in Houston surrounded by those who loved him.”

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