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GeekWire

Federal funding goes to nuclear propulsion systems

Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies and its partners are among three teams winning $5 million contracts from NASA and the Department of Energy to develop reactor designs for space-based nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

USNC-Tech’s partners include its parent company, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — as well as General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome and Materion.

The team will work under the direction of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory on a concept known as the Power Adjusted Demonstration Mars Engine, or PADME.

Another contract went to Virginia-based BWX Technologies for a reactor design that it will develop in cooperation with Lockheed Martin. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems of San Diego received the third contract, and will partner with X-energy and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos’ space venture approaches crucial phase

Jeff Bezos may be easing back from his CEO role at Amazon, but now he’s due to feel the heat at Blue Origin, the privately held space venture he created in the year 2000.

The next 31 days arguably could rank as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company that’s headquartered in Kent, Wash., but also has employees in locales ranging from Florida and Washington, D.C., to Alabama, Texas and California.

The red-letter date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to take the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas.

But there are a couple of other dates that loom large on Blue Origin’s timeline: The big one is Aug. 4, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered for a lunar lander contract from NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program.

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GeekWire

Space nuclear power is nearing critical mass

The idea of putting nukes in space may sound like a national security nightmare, but the right kind of nukes are likely to be a must-have for long-term space exploration.

At least that’s the way a panel of experts at the intersection of the space industry and the nuclear industry described the state of things this week during the American Nuclear Society’s virtual annual meeting.

“In order to do significant activity in space, you need power. And in order to get that power … it’s complicated,” said Paolo Venneri, CEO of a Seattle-based nuclear power venture called USNC-Tech.

Even if you build a hydrogen fuel production plant on the moon, or a methane production plant on Mars, the power to run those plants has to come from somewhere. And studies suggest that solar power alone won’t be enough.

“The sun, it’s great, but only within a certain region of the solar system,” Venneri said. “And so if you want to have sustained high-power applications, you need a nuclear power system.”

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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GeekWire

‘Kidney on a chip’ gets another ride to space

SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station today with more than 7,300 pounds of supplies and science, including an experiment from the University of Washington that takes advantage of zero gravity to study how our kidneys work.

The resupply mission began at 1:29 p.m. ET (10:29 a.m. PT) with liftoff for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon continued its rise to orbit.

Rendezvous with the space station took place on June 5.

SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission is carrying a wide range of science experiments. One will use glow-in-the dark bobtail squid to study the impact of spaceflight on interactions between microbes and their hosts. Another will study how tardigrades are able to weather the rigors of space. And then there’s UW’s “kidney on a chip.”

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Universe Today

NASA orders up a double shot of Venus missions

NASA’s planetary science program is making a big bet on Venus, after decades of putting its chips on Mars in the search for hints of past or present life out there in the solar system.

The bet comes in the form of a double dose of development funding for Discovery Program missions, amounting to as much as $1 billion. Both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were selected from a field of four finalists in a competitive process — leaving behind missions aimed at studying Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.

“These two sister missions are both aimed to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in his first “State of NASA” address. “They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

Lessons from Venus, which underwent a runaway greenhouse effect early in its existence, could improve scientists’ understanding of our own planet’s changing climate. The missions could also address one of the biggest questions about the second rock from the sun: whether life could exist in the upper reaches of its cloud layer.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars pictures fuel NASA’s funding pitch

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released today, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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GeekWire

NASA awards $105 million to boost space tech

Two Washington state companies have won grants of up to $750,000 each from NASA to take space-related technologies they’re already working on to the next stage of development.

The awards to Renton-based Stoke Space Technologies and Bellevue-based Sequoia Scientific are part of the latest batch of NASA Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grants. Nationwide, $105 million in awards were allocated to 140 projects proposed by 127 small businesses spread across 34 states and Washington, D.C.

The aim of the program is to encourage the development of innovations that could contribute to NASA’s efforts in human exploration, space technology, science and aeronautics — and could find commercial, non-NASA applications as well. All of the Phase II awardees previously received NASA SBIR Phase I awards that were worth up to $125,000 each.

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Cosmic Space

Axiom Space plans for a string of orbital tours

Axiom Space has firmed up its plans with NASA for the first all-civilian mission to the International Space Station — and says it has three more such tours lined up for the next couple of years.

But those next tours are going to be more costly, thanks to the law of supply and demand.

“There’s still not much in the way of supply,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told reporters today during a teleconference. “The spacecrafts are awesome, but there’s just not a lot of flights available yet, and the demand is still growing.”

In that regard, Axiom Space is a trailblazer. Last year, it struck a deal with NASA to have its own habitat attached to the ISS in the 2024 time frame, in preparation for building its own orbital outpost. This year, it announced plans to send three customers to the station under the command of former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Today, Houston-based Axiom and NASA announced that they’ve signed an order clearing the way for the space station mission known as Ax-1 to take place by as early as next January.

“The first private crew to visit the International Space Station is a watershed moment in humanity’s expansion off the planet, and we are glad to partner with NASA in making it happen,” Suffredini said.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”