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GeekWire

NASA funds big ideas from small businesses

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research. One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight’s latest orbital tug debuts on SpaceX launch

A new type of controllable orbital transfer vehicle built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. made its debut today when SpaceX sent dozens of satellites into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission, which is part of the company’s rideshare program, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:35 p.m. ET (11:35 a.m. PT):to send 59 small spacecraft to space. Minutes after stage separation, the Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster made a rare land-based touchdown at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from the launch site.

The piggyback spacecraft were to be deployed from the rocket’s upper stage into low Earth orbit, or LEO, over the course of a little more than an hour. One of those spacecraft is Spaceflight’s Sherpa-AC1, the latest in the company’s line of Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles, also known as space tugs.

Sherpa tugs are designed to go out from their launch vehicles and deliver an assortment of small satellites to different orbits. The tugs can also carry hosted payloads, which do their thing while remaining attached to the tug.

The Sherpa-AC adds capabilities for attitude control (hence the “AC”) and tracking. An onboard flight computer keeps track of the tug’s location in space, and a command and control system can keep the spacecraft pointed in the right direction. There’s also a two-way communication system, an electrical power system and a basic thermal control system.

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GeekWire

Space startups get a cloud-based boost from Amazon

For the 10 startups participating this year in Amazon Web Services’ Space Accelerator program, the sky is not the limit.

One company is building the next generation of ultra-high-resolution satellites for Earth observation. Another startup is developing electric propulsion systems for spacecraft and satellites in low Earth orbit. And yet another venture is working on a new type of space capsule that could someday carry cargo and crew to the moon.

“This year’s finalists brought forward pioneering ideas that will draw valuable insights from the depths of the ocean floor to the surface of the moon, and nearly everything in between,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS for Aerospace and Satellite Solutions, said today in a blog post.

Today’s announcement about the Class of 2022 follows up on last year’s inaugural Space Accelerator program. Hundreds of startups applied to take part in the program’s second year, and AWS worked with the AlchemistX accelerator management program to select these 10 finalists.

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GeekWire

Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking one more big step toward being cleared to carry astronauts to orbit. But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged during a post-docking teleconference for journalists.

Despite a few glitches, Lueders and other leaders of the NASA and Boeing teams said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with its May 19 launch from Florida and continuing with today’s hours-long series of orbital maneuvers.

“We’ve learned so much from this mission over the past 24 hours,” Lueders said.

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GeekWire

Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off for second test flight

Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.

Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”

Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.

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Universe Today

UFO hearing brings a few answers and more questions

For the first time in more than half a century, Congress conducted a public hearing into the state of the Pentagon’s study of unidentified aerial phenomena — which is the new name for mysteries once known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, told a hearing organized by the House Intelligence subcommittee on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and counterproliferation that military reports about UFOs — sorry, I mean UAPs — have been “frequent and continuing.”

Today’s hearing follows up on a Pentagon report that was issued last year and listed 144 UAP sightings that have been reported since 2004. The report pledged to take such sightings more seriously than in the past. “Since the release of that preliminary report, the UAP task force database has now grown to contain approximately 400 reports,” Bray said. “The stigma has been reduced.”

However, the hearing also made clear that the Department of Defense is still keeping mum about the detailed workings of its UAP detection and assessment process due to national security concerns. Bray and the hearing’s other witness — Ronald Moultrie, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security — deferred some of lawmakers’ questions to the closed session that followed the open hearing.

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Cosmic Space

See our galaxy’s black hole — and hear what’s next

After years of observation and weeks of rumor-mill rumblings, astronomers today unveiled their first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*.

Technically, the picture from the Event Horizon Telescope project doesn’t show light from the black hole itself. After all, a black hole is a gravitational singularity so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its grip. Rather, the picture shows the “shadow” of a black hole, surrounded by the superheated, glowing gas that surrounds it.

And technically, the picture may not match what folks might see with their own eyes up close. Rather, the readings come from eight observatories around the world that combined their observations in radio wavelengths.

Nevertheless, the new view of Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short (pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), serves to confirm in graphic terms what astronomers have long suspected: that our galaxy, like many others, has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

Today’s revelations follow up on the Event Horizon Telescope’s first-ever black hole image, which was released in 2019 and showed the supermassive black hole at the center of M87, an elliptical galaxy about 55 million light-years away.

Sgr A* is much closer — a mere 27,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius. But there’s nothing to fear from this black hole: It’s relatively quiescent, in contrast to the galaxy-gobbling behemoths that are standard science-fiction fare.

Our galaxy’s black hole is thought to hold the mass of 4 million suns within an area that’s roughly as big around as Mercury’s orbit. Checking those dimensions against the image data serves as a test of relativity theory. Spoiler alert: Albert Einstein was right … again.

“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower said in a news release. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.”

The EHT’s findings about Sgr A* are the subject of a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters — and to whet your appetite for all that reading material, here are three videos that summarize the past, present and future of black hole imaging:

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch marks May the 4th with fifth flight test

Stratolaunch took the “fifth” on May the 4th, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Today brought the fifth flight test for Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide carrier aircraft, known as Roc (in a nod to the giant bird of Middle Eastern mythology).

Roc ranks as the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, and is designed to carry and release the company’s rocket-powered Talon-A hypersonic vehicles for military and commercial applications.

Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, founded the venture in 2011 — but after Allen’s death in 2018, ownership was transferred to a private equity firm. Like Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, Stratolaunch takes advantage of air-launch technology pioneered during the award-winning SpaceShipOne campaign that Allen bankrolled nearly two decades ago.

Roc took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:39 a.m. PT today for a flight that lasted four hours and 58 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 22,500 feet. Stratolaunch took note of the Star Wars Day connection in a post-landing tweet. “The force is strong in this plane,” the company said.

The test’s prime objective was to check the aerodynamic performance of a new pylon added to Roc’s center wing section.

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Universe Today

Rocket Lab catches (and releases) a rocket

Rocket Lab has just joined SpaceX in the club of space companies that can launch an orbital-class rocket booster and bring it back alive.

In a sense, the California-based company one-upped SpaceX by having a helicopter snag the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket with a cable and a hook as it floated past on the end of a parachute, 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

So what if the pilots of the customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter had to release the booster moments later, due to concerns about the way their load was behaving as it swung from the hook?

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GeekWire

Citizen astronaut is still seeking out new frontiers

KIRKLAND, Wash. — It’s been seven months since Chris Sembroski splashed down at the end of the world’s first all-civilian orbital space mission, but his drive to seek out new frontiers is still going strong.

The 42-year-old data engineer from Everett, Wash., won his spot on last September’s philanthropic Inspiration4 space trip thanks to a friend of his who won a lottery, but weighed too much to take advantage of the prize.

For months, Sembroski took time off from his day job at Lockheed Martin to train with his three crewmates: Jared Isaacman, the billionaire tech CEO who organized and paid for the mission; Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who now works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Sian Proctor, a geology professor who parlayed her talents in art and business to win a “Shark Tank”-style contest.

Their training included a Mount Rainier climb, zero-G and high-G airplane rides, and hours upon hours of instruction from SpaceX. It all came to a climax with the foursome’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, followed by three days of experiments and outreach activities that raised more than $240 million for St. Jude.

A follow-up series of space missions, known as the Polaris Program, is expected to blaze more new trails for citizen astronauts — and generate even more contributions for cancer research.

Sembroski, meanwhile, is starting a new job as a data analytics engineer at DB Engineering in Redmond, Wash. In an interview conducted last week during a space industry social event at SigmaDesign’s Kirkland office, Sembroski talked about how he found out he was getting a free trip to orbit, what he experienced during the mission, and what he expects from his next adventure.