‘Star Trek’ exhibit relives 50 years of the future

Image: Starship Enterprise
A model of the Starship Enterprise hangs from the EMP Museum’s ceiling. (GeekWire photo by Kevin Lisota)

From several yards away, the bridge of the Starship Enterprise looks as if it was beamed down from the 23rd century into the “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds” exhibition that opens Saturday at Seattle’s EMP Museum.

But up close, you can tell it’s a 50-year-old movie prop, with rocker switches from the ’60s and bits of plastic peeling off the control console.

In a weird way, that’s a big part of the golden-anniversary exhibition’s appeal. When the TV show had its premiere in 1966, “Star Trek” was all about a bright and shiny future. It still is, but the exhibition also casts a spotlight on the social issues and foibles that have shaped the saga over the course of five decades.

“Star Trek” is famous not only for its optimistic vision of spaceflight and technology, but also for its allegorical references to the civil rights movement and cultural diversity, East-West tensions and the rise of environmentalism, gender identity and same-sex relationships.

“All these are ingredients that you can see get funneled into ‘Star Trek,’” museum curator Brooks Peck said today during a preview of the exhibit. And they’re funneled into the exhibition as well.

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First Mars crews will steer robots from orbit

Image: Mars orbital habitat
Is this how the first human missions to Mars will unfold? NASA’s chief favors doing extended operations from orbit, rather than starting out with a crew landing on the surface. (Credit: NASA)

The first humans to reach Mars almost certainly won’t go down to the surface, but will manage fleets of rovers from Martian orbit.

That’s the view of Andy Weir, the author behind a wildly popular space saga titled “The Martian.” But it’s also the view of NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, and lots of other mission planners. NASA’s current plan calls for the first crews to set up shop around Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

The landing vs. orbiting issue came up today during a space-themed session at Transformers, a daylong conference organized by The Washington Post in the nation’s capital. Weir’s novel (and the movie it inspired) focuses on an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet’s surface, but the engineer-turned-author said the initial flights to Mars would probably follow a safer storyline.

He noted that robotic missions to Mars, such as the ones involving NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, require a long latency period between sending commands and getting back the results coming out of those commands. That’s due to the distance between the rovers and their controllers on Earth.

“The biggest benefit to having an astronaut on the surface, in terms of the science, is that that astronaut has a brain,” Weir said. “An astronaut doesn’t have a five- to 20-minute latency in communicating what he or she wants to do on the surface of Mars. So the very first humans-to-Mars-area mission, I suspect, will be a whole bunch of rovers on the surface of Mars, and humans in orbit controlling them. What do you think?”

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Astronauts reflect on future final-frontier films

Image: Terry Virts on ISS
NASA astronaut Terry Virts aims his camera through the Cupola, the best window on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

“A Beautiful Planet” is a 3-D visual feast for the eyes, but the astronauts who filmed the IMAX space extravaganza made sure that’s not all it is.

For example, NASA astronaut Terry Virts said he recalled the feeling of life on the International Space Station as he watched the movie today at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. “When I was going down into the Soyuz to say goodbye, I can feel what that suit felt like. Just how to move in weightlessness,” he said.

His crewmate, Kjell Lindgren, was struck by the sounds of a spacewalk.

“The microphone captured the sound coming through the structure of the suit,” he told GeekWire. “The anchors banging around, the sound of the breathing, just the suit flexing, the joints slipping on each other. Just the sensation of what it’s like to move outside, and to see these guys moving around outside. That’s what it feels like. It’s very visceral.”

When a spacewalker’s tether pulled taut, the resulting twang drew a gasp from the audience – as if they were watching a “Gravity”-type thriller, not a real-life documentary about the space station and our planet below.

That’s the kind of scene that producer/director/editor Toni Myers, who’s been in on 10 IMAX movies, loves to spring on filmgoers. “There’s such a thing as a golden eight seconds, and that was one of them,” she said.

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Space station celebrates its 100,000th orbit

Image: International Space Station
The International Space Station has circled Earth more than 100,000 times. (NASA photo)

The International Space Station registered its 100,000th orbit around the planet today, providing NASA with a news hook for looking at what humanity’s farthest-out outpost has done over the past 17 years.

“During that time, over 1,922 research investigations have been performed,” NASA said in a Tumblr post marking the occasion. “More than 1,200 scientific results publications have been produced as a result.”

Among the best-known studies are those documenting the long-term health effects of spaceflight – findings that serve as cautionary tales for future trips to Mars. Even before the first elements of the space station were launched in 1998, researchers knew that extended stays in weightlessness resulted in bone and muscle loss. But space station studies showed that long-term spacefliers suffered vision impairment and headaches as well.

Future research will look at ways to mitigate or compensate for such health issues, including electromagnetic shields to guard against space radiation.

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Magnetoshell gets in on NASA’s way-out funding

Image: Magnetoshell aerocapture concept
MSNW’s magnetoshell aerocapture concept could help ease spaceships into orbit. (Credit: MSNW)

A system that would use magnetic fields to ease a spacecraft into orbit after an interplanetary journey has won a $500,000 grant from NASA’s advanced research program for MSNW, a company based in Redmond. Wash.

The money for MSNW is one of eight Phase II awards made through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, also known as NIAC. Other projects look into such way-out ideas as suspended animation, beamed energy for interstellar travel and a satellite-airplane hybrid that could stay up in the air for months at a time.

MSNW’s magnetoshell aerocapture system is designed to take advantage of aerodynamic drag as well as magnetized plasma to slow a spacecraft down and as it dips through a planet’s atmosphere.

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2007 OR10 deserves a better name

Image: Dwarf planets compared
An illustration lines up the solar system’s four largest dwarf planets, with 2007 OR10 in the middle of the pack. (Credit: Andras Pal / Konkoly Observatory, Ivan Eder / Hungarian Astronomical Association, NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Observations made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope suggest that the icy world known as 2007 OR10 is bigger than astronomers thought –and that’s adding to the pressure to give the probable dwarf planet an official name, nine years after its discovery.

Some of the suggestions pick up on the recent controversy over a British ship-naming contest in which Boaty McBoatface emerged as the overwhelming favorite. So how about Dwarfplanety McDwarfplanetface, or Plutoid McPlutoface?

The cause of all this mirth is a research paper in the Astronomical Journal that provides a new size estimate for 2007 OR10, which lies far out in the Kuiper Belt, the broad ring of icy material just beyond Neptune. The object traces an eccentric orbit that takes 547.51 Earth years to complete, and ranges as far out as 66.9 times Earth’s distance from the sun (6.2 billion miles).

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Boeing delays its astronaut trips to 2018

Image: Boeing Starliner hull
The hull of a CST-100 Starliner structural test vehicle is assembled inside Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

A top Boeing executive said today that the company plans to start sending crews into orbit aboard its CST-100 Starliner space taxi in 2018, which represents a slight delay in NASA’s previous development schedule.

“We’re working toward our first unmanned flight in 2017, followed by a manned astronaut flight in 2018,” Leanne Caret, who is Boeing’s executive vice president as well as president and chief executive officer of Boeing’s defense, space and security division, said at a briefing for investors.

Previously, Boeing said both test flights, uncrewed and crewed, were scheduled for 2017. Just this week, Aviation Week reported that Boeing was sticking to the 2017 schedule, even though it’s been working through challenges related to the mass of the spacecraft and aeroacoustic issues related to integration with its United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

In a follow-up to Caret’s comments, Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan told GeekWire that those factors contributed to the schedule slip. In addition, NASA software updates have added more work for developers.

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SpaceX Dragon returns year-in-space samples

SpaceX splashdown
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule descends toward the Pacific at the end of its parachutes. (Credit: SpaceX)

A month after delivering an expandable prototype habitat and other goodies to the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean today  with tons of equipment and scientific samples.

Among the roughly 3,700 pounds of cargo are freezers containing blood, saliva, urine and stool samples from astronaut Scott Kelly, who served as an experimental subject during a nearly yearlong stint on the station. Those samples will be studied to see how long-term spaceflight affected Kelly’s metabolic functions, including the function of the gut bacteria in his bowels.

The results could affect how NASA plans for even longer journeys to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

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Software helps scientists double planet count

Image: Planet diversity
A graphic shows the diversity of planets. (Credit: NASA)

The scientists behind NASA’s Kepler mission are using statistics to put their campaign to identify new planets into overdrive: New software that automates the process has verified 1,284 candidates as genuine planets rather than celestial “impostors,” more than doubling its database of confirmed worlds.

“This is the most exoplanets that have ever been announced at one time,” Princeton University researcher Timothy Morton said today during a teleconference revealing the latest counts.

Kepler’s official tally of potentially habitable planets close to Earth’s size took a jump as well, from 12 to 21.

NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan hailed the rapid progress. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth,” she said in a statement.

The dramatic acceleration in the planet hunt is due to a statistical method pioneered by Morton and his colleagues, and described in a paper published in theAstrophysical Journal.

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Blue Origin and SpaceX revisit rocket landings

Image: Blue Origin view
A view from the “vent cam” on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital booster shows a West Texas landscape during an April 2 flight, plus a “toasty brown” ring fin at the top. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Will seeing a spaceship land on its feet ever get old? The novelty is still there in newly released videos from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, showing new perspectives on their most recent rocket landings.

Blue Origin’s video recaps the April 2 flight of its New Shepard suborbital space vehicle, as seen from a camera pointing out from one of the booster’s vents. The 2:38 clip begins with a shot of the curving blue Earth below the blackness of space – a view that paying passengers could see as early as 2018.

Then there’s the supersonic descent back through the atmosphere. If you look closely at the full-frame, high-definition video, you might be able to pick out the Rio Grande River running through the West Texas landscape surrounding Blue Origin’s launch and landing site.

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