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Lauren Sanchez plans to ride her beau’s spaceship

Lauren Sanchez is planning to follow in the footsteps of her billionaire boyfriend, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by taking a trip aboard the suborbital rocket ship built by Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. And she plans to bring an all-female crew with her on the mission, which she hopes will take place by early 2024.

Sanchez discussed the space mission, her experience as a helicopter pilot and a media producer — and her relationship with Bezos — in a wide-ranging interview published today by WSJ. Magazine.

The relationship between Sanchez and Bezos — and Bezos’ divorce from his wife MacKenzie Scott — fueled a wave of tabloid stories in 2019. Two years later, Bezos took a ride on Blue Origin’s first crewed spaceflight with Sanchez watching from the wings. Sanchez said Bezos will be “cheering us all on from the sidelines” when she takes her turn aboard the New Shepard spaceship.

“As much as he wants to go on this flight, I’m going to have to hold him back,” she told the magazine.

Sanchez said her five crewmates will be “women who are making a difference in the world and who are impactful and have a message to send.” Their identities haven’t yet been revealed.

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NASA and DARPA team up on nuclear rocket program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken on NASA as a partner for a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could someday send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners — including Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech — on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin plus another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now DARPA and NASA will be working together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which call for a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan envisions an in-space demonstration in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release.

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GeekWire

Fireball lights up Seattle’s skies as webcams watch

It’s cool to see a fireball — but even cooler to capture it on video. At least that’s the way Seattle engineer/photographer Corey Clarke sees it.

Clarke’s webcam happened to be pointing in the right direction to record the fireball’s flash through wispy clouds at around 11 p.m. PT Monday night. His day job at ServiceNow focuses on hardware reliability, but he’s also a photographer who specializes in wildlife shots, landscapes and views of the night sky.

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Stratolaunch’s mammoth plane begins its big year

Stratolaunch, the air-launch company founded by the late Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, today conducted its second captive-carry test flight with the world’s largest airplane and a piggyback payload. The six-hour outing from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port marked further progress toward the first launch of the Talon-A hypersonic flight vehicle.

Today’s flight gave Stratolaunch’s team a chance to rehearse procedures for releasing a separation test vehicle from the twin-fuselage Roc aircraft in midflight — and eventually launching rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles for government and commercial applications. “We are excited for what’s ahead this year as we bring out hypersonic flight test service online for our customers and the nation,” Stratolaunch CEO Zachary Krevor said in a news release.

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Universe Today

UFO update says Pentagon’s case count is rising rapidly

new report to Congress says the Pentagon’s task force on UFOs — now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs — has processed more reports in the past couple of years than it did in the previous 17 years. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the midst an alien invasion.

The unclassified report was issued this week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, in collaboration with the Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO. The office was created by congressional mandate, and this week’s report serves as an update to a preliminary assessment of the Pentagon’s UAP reports issued in 2021.

That assessment said there were 144 reports relating to aerial anomalies sighted by military service members between 2004 and 2021. “There have been 247 new reports and another 119 that were either since discovered or reported after the preliminary assessment’s time period,” the newly released report says. That brings the total to 510 UAP reports as of last Aug. 30.

The authors of the report say the increase in the reporting rate “is partially due to a better understanding of the possible threats that UAP may represent, either as safety of flight hazards or as potential adversary collection platforms, and partially due to reduced stigma surrounding UAP reporting.”

Either way, U.S. intelligence and military officials say they see that as a good thing. “This increased reporting allows more opportunities to apply rigorous analysis and resolve events,” the report says.

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Universe Today

Webb pioneer gives advice to future telescope builders

After a quarter-century of development, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a smashing success. But senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel-winning physicist who’s played a key role in the $10 billion project since the beginning, still sees some room for improvement.

Mather looked back at what went right during JWST’s creation, as well as what could be done better the next time around, during a lecture delivered today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

The seeds for JWST were planted way back in 1989, a year before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Mather said the scientists who were planning for what was initially known as the Next Generation Space Telescope took a lesson from the problems that plagued Hubble — problems that required an on-orbit vision correction.

“No. 1 lesson from Hubble program was, figure out how you’re going to do this before you do it, and make sure the technologies are mature,” he said.

The JWST team designed a segmented mirror that could be folded up for launch, and then unfolded in space to create a 21-foot-wide reflective surface. An even wider sunshade blocked out the sun’s glare as the telescope made its observations from a vantage point a million miles from Earth.

Mather cycled through the new space telescope’s greatest hits — including a deep-field view with a gravitational-lensing galaxy cluster that brought even more distant objects into focus. “There is actually a single star which is magnified enough that you can recognize it in the image,” Mather said. “When we talked about this in the beginning, I thought the odds of this happening are too small. … I am completely stunned with this result.”

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GeekWire

Webb Space Telescope scores big at astronomy meet-up

It’s not yet clear whether the Seahawks will be in the Super Bowl, but Seattle is in the spotlight this week for the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” — and there’s already an obvious choice for MVP.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is taking center stage at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which has drawn more than 3,400 masked-up registrants to the Seattle Convention Center to share astronomical research and figure out their next moves on the final frontier.

The twice-a-year AAS meetings are often compared to scientific Super Bowls — although the fact that this week’s meeting came on the heels of the soccer world’s biggest event led the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab to call it the “World Cup of Astronomy and Astrophysics” instead.

This is the second post-pandemic, in-person meeting for AAS, following up on last June’s AAS 240 meeting in Pasadena, Calif. The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope was launched a little more than a year ago, but the telescope’s first full-color images and science data weren’t released until July — a month after AAS 240. That makes this week’s gathering something of a coming-out party for JWST.

Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who serves as JWST’s operations project scientist, said there’s “nothing but good news” about the telescope’s performance. “The science requirements are met or exceeded across the board,” she said during a plenary lecture. “It’s just all so gorgeous.”

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GeekWire

A flying boat for Titan? It could happen…

NASA says it’ll distribute up to $2.45 million to 14 teams in support of experimental projects that would be right at home in the pages of a science-fiction novel — including a plan to send a flying boat to study the smoggy atmosphere and hydrocarbon-rich lakes of Titan.

The unconventional Titan probe was proposed by a former Boeing mechanic in Gig Harbor, Wash., who says his space venture — Planet Enterprises — is “pretty much a one-man band,” at least for now.

Two other researchers based in the Seattle area also won Phase 1 grants in the latest round of awards by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each nine-month Phase 1 study grant is worth $175,000, and successful projects could go on to win additional funding during follow-up phases.

The NIAC program is designed to support out-of-this-world ideas that could eventually become reality. “These initial Phase 1 NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters, explained in a news release.

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Universe Today

Tech star supports a tribute to Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy

Efforts to create a memorial celebrating the legacy of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played a pointy-eared alien named Spock on “Star Trek,” have shifted to warp speed nearly eight years after his death.

A six-figure contribution from Rich Miner, the co-founder of Android, is energizing the campaign to create an illuminated 20-foot-high sculpture depicting Spock’s famous “Live Long and Prosper” hand gesture. The sculpture would be placed at Boston’s Museum of Science, near the West End neighborhood where Nimoy grew up.

Nimoy’s daughter, Julie Nimoy, and her husband David Knight are working with the museum to hit a $500,000 fundraising goal for the project. Thanks to Miner’s contribution, Knight said that the stainless-steel monument, designed by artist Tom Stocker and sculptor David Phillips, could begin taking shape as early as this year.

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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.