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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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GeekWire

Blue Origin sells suborbital space seat for $28 million

An open spot on the first-ever crew to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship was auctioned off today for $28 million, which is millions more than the International Space Station’s first paying tourist reportedly paid 20 years ago.

It took about eight minutes for RR Auction to wind up the bidding at its Boston headquarters. That’s a couple of minutes less than the expected duration of the New Shepard mission, set for July 20 at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. And it’s a few minutes more than the yet-to-be-identified winner is expected to spend in zero-G during the flight.

The winner, currently known only as Bidder No. 107, will experience about three minutes of weightlessness and a big-picture view of the curving Earth below the black sky of space. It’ll be one of the priciest per-minute trips in history. But it’ll also go down in the space history books, in part because Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, will be one of the crewmates.

It didn’t take long for speculation about the winner’s identity to begin — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Bezos’ biggest billionaire space rival, thrown into the mix.

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GeekWire

To the moon! Amazon boosts space startups

The first 10 companies to participate in Amazon Web Services’ accelerator program for space-centric startups are targeting territory ranging from low Earth orbit to the surface of the moon and Mars.

Today’s announcement follows up on the unveiling of the AWS Space Accelerator in March. Amazon chief technology officer Werner Vogels said the 10 ventures were selected out of more than 190 proposals from 44 countries.

“These companies from the United States and Europe cover a wide range of space capabilities with impact here on Earth today, as well as on humanity’s approach to working and living in space in the future,” he wrote in a blog posting.

Over a four-week span, the companies will be provided with hands-on technical training in machine learning, high-performance computing and other tools of the cloud computing trade. They’ll hear from mentors about business development and investment, and they’ll receive $100,000 in AWS Activate credit for cloud services.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic downplays billionaire space race

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march on Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes down to which billionaire flies first on their own suborbital spaceship?

There’s been some buzz about that question in the wake of this week’s announcement that Bezos will be among the first people to travel to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson was quick to tweet his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also told followers to “watch this space.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier — who’s long reported on Virgin Galactic’s ups and downs from its home base in Mojave, Calif. — quoted an unnamed source as saying that the company was working on a plan to put Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for a trip beyond 50 miles in altitude over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

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GeekWire

Relativity raises $650M for a bigger 3D-printed rocket

Relativity Space, the space venture that got its start in Seattle and is now working on 3D-printed rockets in California, says it’ll build a bigger launch vehicle with the aid of a similarly huge $650 million Series E funding round.

The startup says its fully reusable, two-stage Terran R rocket will be capable of launching more than 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit. That’s 16 times the listed payload capacity of its first-generation Terran 1 rocket, which is due to make its debut this year, and equal to the capability of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

“From our founding days in Y Combinator just five years ago, we planned on 3D printing Terran 1 and then Terran R – a 20X larger fully reusable rocket – on our ‘Factory of the Future’ platform,” Tim Ellis, CEO and co-founder of Relativity, said today in a news release. “Today we are one step closer to this goal.”

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Fiction Science Club

The meaning of life, death … and black holes

Why are black holes so alluring?

You could cite plenty of reasons: They’re matter-gobbling monsters, making them the perfect plot device for a Disney movie. They warp spacetime, demonstrating the weirdest implications of general relativity. They’re so massive that inside a boundary known as the event horizon, nothing — not even light — can escape its gravitational grip.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of black holes is their sheer mystery. Because of the rules of relativity, no one can report what happens inside the boundaries of a black hole.

“We could experience all the crazy stuff that’s going on inside a black hole, but we’d never be able to tell anybody,” radio astronomer Heino Falcke told me. “We want to know what’s going on there, but we can’t.”

Falcke and his colleagues in the international Event Horizon Telescope project lifted the veil just a bit two years ago when they released the first picture ever taken of a supermassive black hole’s shadow. But the enduring mystery is a major theme in Falcke’s new book about the EHT quest, “Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, the Universe, and Us” — and in the latest installment of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of fact and science fiction.

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GeekWire

Astra makes space deals as it gets set to go public

Astra, the California-based space startup that’s aiming to merge with a blank-check company founded by Seattle telecom pioneer Craig McCaw, has set a July 1 target date to go public on Nasdaq.

That’s the word from Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder, chairman and CEO. “We will start mailing proxy statements today for shareholders of $HOL to vote ahead of the shareholder meeting on 6/30,” Kemp said in a LinkedIn posting. $HOL is the symbol for Holicity, McCaw’s special purpose acquisition company in Kirkland, Wash.

The Astra-Holicity SPAC deal values Kemp’s company at $2.1 billion.

Astra’s Rocket 3.2 launch vehicle made it to space during a test launch from Alaska in December but narrowly missed reaching orbit. Since then, the company has been preparing for its next launch — and racking up business deals.

Last month, Astra announced an agreement to work on a multi-launch mission for Planet’s Earth observation satellites in 2022. And today, Astra said it would acquire Apollo Fusion in a transaction valued at up to $145 million. The deal is due to close after Astra goes public.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos will be on Blue Origin’s first space crew

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he and his brother Mark will fly to space next month on the first crewed flight of his space venture’s suborbital spaceship.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos wrote today in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The surprise announcement comes even as Blue Origin, the space company Bezos founded 21 years ago, is auctioning off one of the six seats on next month’s flight. The high bid currently stands at $3.2 million, and the final price is due to be set at a live online bidding round on June 12.

Blue Origin says it’s received bids from nearly 6,000 participants from 143 countries. The proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Blue Origin’s educational foundation, the Club for the Future.

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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.”