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GeekWire

Orion spacecraft takes its last close look at the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that’s meant to put the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles to the lunar surface during what’s expected to be the final large maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to succeed in order to bring the uncrewed spacecraft back to Earth intact. The only other firings on the schedule are aimed at making tweaks in the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to blaze a trail for future crewed missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and ranged as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are filled by three mannequins that have been hooked up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that might affect future fliers.

There’s also an experimental, Alexa-style AI assistant code-named Callisto, which was built for NASA by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, including “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, have been using Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Debbie Korth, NASA’s Orion deputy program manager, said Callisto’s users found the system to be “very interactive, very engaging in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes, play music, ask questions.”

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Cosmic Space

Scientists say we were caught in a black hole’s bull’s-eye

Nine months ago, astronomers observed a flash that they said came from a mysterious object that seemed to flare with the brilliance of a quadrillion suns, located 8.5 billion light-years from Earth.

Now they say they’ve figured out what that object was.

In a pair of studies published by Nature and Nature Astronomy, researchers report that the event was probably sparked when a supermassive black hole suddenly consumed a nearby star. The event’s violent energy was released in the form of a relativistic jet of blazing-hot material that headed in Earth’s direction.

The jet didn’t do us any damage. But its bull’s-eye directionality produced a phenomenon called “Doppler boosting,” also known as the headlight effect. That made the jet’s flash look brighter than it would have if the jet went in a different direction.

Scientists say the flash, which was designated AT2022cmc when it was detected by the Zwicky Transient Facility in February, is only the fourth known example of a Doppler-boosted tidal disruption event.

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Universe Today

Quantum data gets sent through a simulated wormhole

For the first time, scientists have created a quantum computing experiment for studying the dynamics of wormholes — that is, shortcuts through spacetime that could get around relativity’s cosmic speed limits.

Wormholes are traditionally the stuff of science fiction, ranging from Jodie Foster’s wild ride in “Contact” to the time-bending plot twists in “Interstellar.” But the researchers behind the experiment, reported in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature, hope that their work will help physicists study the phenomenon for real.

“We found a quantum system that exhibits key properties of a gravitational wormhole, yet is sufficiently small to implement on today’s quantum hardware,” Caltech physicist Maria Spiropulu said in a news release. Spiropulu, the Nature paper’s senior author, is the principal investigator for a federally funded research program known as Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics.

Don’t pack your bags for Alpha Centauri just yet: This wormhole simulation is nothing more than a simulation, analogous to a computer-generated black hole or supernova. And physicists still don’t see any conditions under which a traversable wormhole could actually be created. Someone would have to create negative energy first.

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GeekWire

How data analysis is done on an orbiting satellite

For the past 10 months, Amazon Web Services has been running data through its cloud-based software platform on what’s arguably the world’s edgiest edge: a satellite in low Earth orbit.

The experiment, revealed today during AWS’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, is aimed at demonstrating how on-orbit processing can help satellite operators manage the torrents of imagery and sensor data generated by their spacecraft.

“Using AWS software to perform real-time data analysis onboard an orbiting satellite, and delivering that analysis directly to decision makers via the cloud, is a definite shift in existing approaches to space data management,” Max Peterson, AWS’ vice president of worldwide public sector, said today in a blog posting. “It also helps push the boundaries of what we believe is possible for satellite operations.”

AWS’ experiment was done in partnership with D-Orbit, an Italian-based company that focuses on space logistics and transportation; and with Unibap, a Swedish company that develops AI-enabled automation solutions for space-based as well as terrestrial applications.

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GeekWire

Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule sets a record with far-out lunar orbit

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule successfully executed an engine burn to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission, and it set a distance record on the 11th day.

During the Nov. 25 course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s European-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The firing ensured that Orion will trace what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit, ranging out as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. Today, the capsule broke the 248,655-mile record for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by spacecraft designed to carry humans to space and bring them home safely. The previous record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After making half of a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire its engine again to start setting itself up for the homeward trip, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule gets great views as it buzzes the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule rounded the moon today, marking a crucial milestone in a weeks-long Artemis 1 mission that’s preparing the way for sending astronauts to the lunar surface.

As the uncrewed spacecraft maneuvered for its outbound powered flyby, it sent back a spectacular set of images that showed the moon looming larger in its metaphorical windshield, and a tiny blue Earth setting beneath the lunar horizon.

Artemis 1 flight director Judd Frieling said flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center felt “giddy” when they saw the pictures come down. “They’re just happy that all of the hard work and dedication that they’ve spent for years — many, many, many years — is really paying dividends,” he told reporters.

Mission manager Mike Sarafin said the flight was proceeding with “no concerns,” other than a few glitches with its power system and its star trackers.

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GeekWire

Greg Bear, 1951-2022: Author influenced the sci-fi world

Greg Bear, a Seattle science-fiction author who played a leading role in defining how global audiences saw future final frontiers, died Nov. 19 of complications following heart surgery.

Astrid Bear, the 71-year-old writer’s wife, said he died peacefully in a Seattle-area hospital. “He was not alone,” she wrote in a message to friends.

Born in San Diego, Greg Bear had his first short story published in 1967 and began writing full time in 1975. He wrote more than 50 books — including award-winning series, a Star Trek novel and a Star Wars novel, plus a trilogy set in the Halo video-game universe. His final novel, “The Unfinished Land,” was published last year.

Bear’s influence on the science-fiction community extended far beyond the written page: He was one of the founders of San Diego’s Comic-Con International and served a two-year stint as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, now known as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Bear was a guest on podcasts and talk shows including “The Daily Show,” and once appeared as himself in the “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip.

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GeekWire

Defense Innovation Unit explores Northwest tech frontier

If space is the next frontier for national security, then the Pacific Northwest may well be the new frontier for that next frontier.

That’s the word from Steve “Bucky” Butow, an Air Force brigadier general who is now director of the space portfolio at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“I really think that the best news story out of the Pacific Northwest is just how impactful this region is in the new space economy,” Butow told me. “It’s not widely recognized, but I think that’s going to be changing here in the near future.”

Butow and his teammates at the DIU got an on-the-ground look at Seattle’s tech frontier this week during a series of meetings and site visits in the region. Among the tour’s highlights were meetings with executives at Amazon and Microsoft (which just won contracts to help build the Pentagon’s Hybrid Space Architecture), a roadshow workshop with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors, and a stopover at SpaceX’s satellite facility in Redmond, Wash.

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GeekWire

Gravitics raises $20M to build space station modules

A space venture called Gravitics has emerged from stealth with $20 million in seed funding and a plan to build space station modules at a 42,000-square-foot facility north of Seattle, in Marysville, Wash.

As NASA makes plans to phase out the International Space Station in the 2031 time frame, Gravitics and its backers are betting on a rush to launch commercial outposts to low Earth orbit. The operators of those outposts just might need subcontractors to provide the hardware.

Gravitics’ main offering will be a super-sized module known as StarMax. The general-purpose module would provide up to 400 cubic meters (14,000 cubic feet) of usable habitable volume — which represents nearly half of the pressurized volume of the International Space Station.

Multiple StarMax modules could be linked together in orbit like Lego blocks. “We are focused on helping commercial space station operators be successful,” Colin Doughan, Gravitics’ co-founder and CEO, said today in a news release. “StarMax gives our customers scalable volume to accommodate a space station’s growing user base over time. StarMax is the modular building block for a human-centric cislunar economy.”