Categories
GeekWire

Blue Origin aces rehearsal for crewed space trips

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture put the New Shepard spaceship that’s destined to fly people on suborbital trips through its first uncrewed test flight today — and by all appearances, the practice run was a success.

The reusable booster and its attached crew capsule lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas at about 11:19 a.m. CT (9:19 a.m. PT), after a countdown that was delayed 20 minutes due to concerns about midlevel winds.

“Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

This was the first outing for this particular spaceship. The capsule has been dubbed RSS First Step, with RSS standing for “reusable spaceship.” During a string of 13 previous test flights going back to 2015, Blue Origin has flown two other reusable capsules — but First Step is the first one that’s fully configured to take up to six people to the edge of space and back.

If the program goes as hoped, Blue Origin could start flying people later this year.

Categories
Universe Today

Rival billionaires both play roles in MethaneSAT

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

Categories
GeekWire

Blue Origin gets set to fly a spaceship built for people

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to live-stream the first test flight of its first passenger-friendly space capsule on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin will launch a never-before-flown New Shepard crew capsule and booster from its West Texas facility on an uncrewed suborbital space trip as early as 9:45 a.m. CT (7:45 a.m. PT), with coverage streamed via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube.

Coverage is due to begin 30 minutes before launch, with the precise timing dependent on weather and technical readiness.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Intel office enlists AI to analyze satellite images

U.S. intelligence officials today launched a program to develop new satellite image analysis tools that use machine learning and other tricks of the artificial intelligence trade.

In a news release, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced that contracts for the Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique program, or SMART, have been awarded to teams led by BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, which has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.; Accenture Federal Services, with offices in Arlington, Va.; Kitware, headquartered in New York; and Systems & Technology Research in Woburn, Mass.

Categories
GeekWire

Jeff Bezos names rocket recovery ship after his mom

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk named his rocket recovery vessels after science-fiction spaceships, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stayed closer to home for the christening of the ship that his Blue Origin space venture will use for at-sea rocket landings.

In an Instagram post, Bezos said he and his siblings surprised their mom, Jacklyn Bezos, by revealing that the 600-foot recovery ship would be named after her. A video included in the post shows Jacklyn Bezos smashing a bottle of bubbly against the hull, then waving to a cheering crowd.

The landing platform vessel has had several names during its more than two decades of existence. For most of that time, it was known as the Stena Freighter. But when Blue Origin purchased the ship in 2018 and had it brought to Florida for refurbishing, it was clear that it’d be only a matter of time before a new name was painted on its prow.

Categories
GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Comebacks in the skies above

Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.

American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.

The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.

Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight.

Categories
GeekWire

Lockheed Martin acquires Aerojet in $4.4 billion deal

Lockheed Martin has struck a deal to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings in an all-cash transaction valued at $4.4 billion, the two companies announced today.

The agreement marks the latest combination of space industry heavyweights, following Northrop Grumman’s $7.8 billion acquisition of Orbital ATK in 2017.

It also marks a change of ownership for Aerojet’s space propulsion facility in Redmond, Wash., one of the Seattle area’s longest-running space ventures.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Jupiter and Saturn pair up to make a Christmas Star

Are you ready for a remake of the Christmas Star story? Depending on how much stock you put in historical hypotheses, this year’s solstice on Dec. 21 could bring a replay of the phenomenon that the Three Kings saw in the Gospel of Matthew.

That’s when Jupiter and Saturn can be seen incredibly close together in the night sky. If the skies are clear, the two planets will be hard to miss in southwest skies just after sunset, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Jupiter will sparkle brighter, and Saturn will be shining only a tenth of a degree to the upper right. With a small telescope, you might be able to see both planets and their moons in a single field of view.

“Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star, and others say the two planets will form a double planet,” NASA says in a blog posting about the Dec. 21 conjunction. “To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!”

Categories
Cosmic Space

OneWeb adds 36 satellites to revived constellation

Less than a month after emerging from bankruptcy, OneWeb resumed its campaign to provide global satellite internet access today with the successful launch and deployment of 36 satellites.

The satellites were sent into low Earth orbit by a Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East at 12:26 GMT (4:26 a.m. PT). Nine batches of satellites were dropped off in their target orbits over the course of nearly four hours, and OneWeb confirmed signal acquisition for all 36 satellites.

This was the first fully commercial launch from Russia’s Vostochny complex. Europe’s Arianespace consortium managed launch logistics.

Today’s operation brings OneWeb’s constellation to 110 satellites, with hundreds more due for launch in the months ahead. OneWeb says it’s back on track to provide broadband data services to customers in northern latitudes — including Alaska, Britain, Canada and northern Europe — during 2021, with global service to follow in 2022.

OneWeb’s prime rivals in the market for satellite internet services from low Earth orbit are SpaceX, which has already launched nearly 1,000 satellites and is offering limited beta service; Telesat, a Canadian satellite operator targeting the start of service in 2022; and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is aiming for a debut in the mid-2020s.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Hollywood creates a new kind of killer comet

If a killer asteroid or comet comes our way, don’t expect Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall to try flying to the rescue. And don’t expect doom to arrive in one big dose.

Those are two of the lessons that Hollywood has learned since 1998, when “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” put death from the skies on the big screen. The killer-comet theme returns in “Greenland,” a big-budget movie that’s making its debut on premium video-on-demand this weekend. But the plot twists are dramatically different.

There’s a different look to the movie as well, thanks in part to the research that was done by visual effects supervisor Marc Massicotte.

“The movies of the past have had a large creative influence on the direction we wanted to take, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat what had been done,” he told me. “We wanted to update and also be as close [as possible] to what reality as we know it now is.”

Massicotte discussed his vision of doomsday for the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.  And to even out the proportion of science to fiction, I also checked in with Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation. Remy’s group focuses on the threats posed by asteroids and comets, as well as strategies to head off such threats — none of which involve Bruce Willis.

“Every movie that talks about this subject is a way to educate the public and raise awareness about the issue,” Remy told me. “The science in the movies may not be correct, but certainly the discussion and the education aspect — you know, the fact that these things do happen — we think is a plus.”

Massicotte was especially taken by the idea that incoming space objects may not hit the ground at all, but instead break apart as they plunge through the atmosphere, setting off a powerful airburst.

That was the case for the Tunguska blast that flattened half a million acres of Siberian forest in 1908, and for the Chelyabinsk meteor that injured hundreds of Russians in 2013.

For Massicotte, the fact that an airburst would look so good on the big screen was a bonus. “You’d have an asteroid that would come in and have an airburst — and in nighttime it would pretty much light up the sky, and light up its whole environment as if we were in total daytime, having beautiful shifting shadows and shadow play on vehicles that were driving at night on the road,” he said.

Several other choices were made with a nod toward scientific findings. For example, the filmmakers went with a killer comet rather than a killer asteroid, because comets are typically harder to track than asteroids. Virtually all of the near-Earth asteroids capable of causing mass extinctions are already being monitored, thanks largely to an effort that started around the time that “Armageddon” made its debut.

Even better, the comet in “Greenland” is an interstellar object, which plays off the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid in 2017. And the filmmakers set up the plot so that the comet broke up as it rounded the sun, turning a single object into thousands of unpredictable pieces.

As Massicotte and his teammates created the visuals for the movie’s latter scenes, they took their cues from the wildfires that were sweeping over Australia while the movie was being made. That explains the reddish sky that gives everything an eerie glow as the world burns.

“Considering the time frame within the film, the time that has passed, the amount of impacts that have hit the Earth and the devastation of ongoing fires from these impacts, we wanted to show how it had started to affect the climate,” Massicotte said.

There are also parallels to yet another real-world crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The movie’s name, “Greenland,” refers to the location of a huge military shelter that was held over from the Cold War. Who decides which people survive? How do the deciders enforce their will? The failings and sacrifices that come to light in the course of the comet crisis may strike a chord for those concerned about COVID-19.

The script for “Greenland” doesn’t include parts for the brave astronauts who try to subdue the killer comet — which is pretty much how it would be in real life.

Remy said that none of the three generally accepted methods for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid would involve sending humans. One calls for a kinetic impactor to smash into the asteroid, changing its course just enough to result in a miss. Another would use a “gravity tractor” to tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.

“The third one, which we hope we never have to use, is a nuclear standoff,” Remy said, “where you don’t blow it up, like in ‘Armageddon,’ but where you would explode it near the asteroid, and then the explosion will push the asteroid away.”

Scientists still have a lot to learn about comets, asteroids and interstellar objects — and about the best ways to keep our planet safe from cosmic threats — but perhaps the most promising plot development is that scientists are quick learners.

This month, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe delivered fresh samples from a carbon-rich asteroid that’s likely to help scientists figure out how such asteroids are put together. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is carrying an even bigger load of asteroid samples back to Earth. And a future mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will actually try out the kinetic impactor method for diverting an asteroid.

Even Massicotte is fascinated by the real-life science behind big-screen tales of killer asteroids and comets. “It’s all these little aspects that I’m still very curious about and would love to learn more about, obviously,” he told me. “It has shone a light on our little place in the universe — and how we’re not so indestructible.”

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.