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Fiction Science Club

Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

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GeekWire

SpaceX expands its footprint in the Seattle area

SpaceX is leasing a 124,907-square-foot building complex that’s under construction in Redmond Ridge Business Park, east of Seattle, according to the latest industrial real estate market report from Kidder Mathews. Kidder Mathews, which listed the property for lease, says construction is slated for completion this fall.

The construction site, which takes in the business park’s Buildings 4 and 5 and offers up to 300 extra parking places nearby, is just a block away from SpaceX’s existing facilities at Redmond Ridge. Those facilities serve as the headquarters for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite development and manufacturing operation.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to provide global broadband internet access via a network of thousands of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. More than 1,400 satellites already have been launched — including 60 that were sent into orbit today — and Starlink has been gradually expanding its “Better Than Nothing” beta offering.

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Fiction Science Club

Could the God Theory be our ultimate salvation?

In retrospect, it seemed almost sacrilegious.

There we were — on Good Friday, the day that ushers in Christianity’s holiest weekend — talking with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about the possibility that humanity’s salvation will come from a scientific gospel that’s yet to be written.

A gospel that Kaku calls the God Equation.

The way he sees it, our far-flung descendants will be able to take advantage of the God Equation to leave our tired old universe behind.

“One day, stars will blink out. It’ll get super cold. We’ll all freeze to death as it becomes near absolute zero. Well, that’s trillions of years from now. And I think at that point, we’re so advanced, we’ll harness the Planck energy — the energy at which universes can be created — and we’ll create a bubble of our own,” he explained.

“We’ll leave our universe and go to a younger universe where we can mess that universe up as well,” he said.

You could argue that’s the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation. Is that sacrilegious? You’ll have to decide for yourselves after listening to the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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GeekWire

After sky show, SpaceX picks up its rocket droppings

The atmospheric re-entry and breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket upper stage created a fiery display in the skies above the Pacific Northwest a week ago, but not all of those shooting stars burned up on the way down.

At least one big piece of the rocket — a roughly 5-foot-long composite-overwrapped pressure vessel — fell onto private property in southwest Grant County in Central Washington, the county sheriff’s office reported today in a tweet.

Kyle Foreman, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told GeekWire that the property owner left a message reporting the debris last weekend. Based on the reports about March 25’s meteor show, SpaceX’s rocket re-entry loomed as the likeliest cause for the commotion.

“The sheriff’s office checked it out on Monday, and SpaceX staff came over on Tuesday and retrieved it,” Foreman said.

He was unaware of any other reports of fallen rocket debris — and in its tweet, the sheriff’s office made clear that it considered the case closed. “Media and treasure hunters: we are not disclosing specifics,” it said. “The property owner simply wants to be left alone.”

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Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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GeekWire

Amazon launches accelerator for space startups

Amazon Web Services is raising the curtain on AWS Space Accelerator, a four-week business support program that’s open to space startups seeking to use Amazon’s cloud computing services.

AWS and Seraphim, a London-based investment group focusing on the space industry, will select 10 companies to participate in the accelerator program during the month of June. Applications are being accepted starting today, and proposals are due by April 21.

“Startups provide a catalyst for bold new experimentation in the space industry,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS’ aerospace and satellite solutions, said in a blog posting. “We are proud to announce the AWS Space Accelerator as part of our ongoing commitment to help startups succeed, and to shape the future of aerospace.”

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Engineer and teacher join billionaire’s space crew

The crew is set for a philanthropic space flight that’s being funded by a tech billionaire — and Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash., can thank a college buddy for being part of it.

Sembroski will take part in the Inspiration4 space adventure organized by Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, by virtue of an online sweepstakes that attracted nearly 72,000 entries and raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Sembroski, Isaacman and two crewmates are due to ride into orbit later this year in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Although Sembroski bought tickets for the raffle, he didn’t actually win it: Instead, a friend from his college days at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was chosen, according to The New York Times. The friend, who is remaining anonymous, decided not to go to space — and donated the ticket to Sembroski, a dedicated space fan.

Sembroski said he was stunned to learn he’d be taking his friend’s place. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh, I’m going to space? You picked me? Wow. Cool.’ I mean, it was a moment of shock,” he said today during a news briefing at SpaceX’s Florida facility.

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GeekWire

Pacific Northwest meteor mystery gets solved quickly

Was it a meteor? A broken-up satellite? Maybe a UFO? Leave it to an astronomer to identify what caused the light show that was visible over a wide stretch of the Pacific Northwest around 9 p.m. PT tonight.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert satellite-tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quickly figured out that the meteoric display was actually the breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage, left over from a launch that took place three weeks ago.

“The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now re-entering after 22 days in orbit,” McDowell tweeted.

It’s fitting that the re-entry of a rocket stage from a Starlink satellite launch provided a moment of marvelment from Seattle to Portland and beyond. After all, those satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and it’s conceivable that members of the Starlink team caught the show.

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GeekWire

Way-out technologies win NASA’s support

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.