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Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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Cosmic Space

Uranus and Enceladus top planetary scientists’ to-do list

Uranus has long been the butt of jokes, but the ice giant is finally getting its day in the sun, thanks to a recommendation in the National Academies’ newly released survey of potential interplanetary missions.

The decadal survey, drawn up by teams of scientists, serves as a roadmap for research in planetary science and astrobiology over the next 10 years. And the survey’s highest priority for multibillion-dollar flagship missions is to send an orbiter and a piggyback atmospheric probe to Uranus (preferably pronounced “urine-us,” not “your-anus”). Launch would come as early as 2031 or 2032, when the orbital mechanics are optimal for a multibillion-mile cruise.

In preparation for this decadal survey, a team of scientists led by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drew up preliminary plans for a mission to Uranus or its ice-giant neighbor, Neptune.  Separately, Purdue University researchers developed a mission concept called OCEANUS (Observatory Capture Exploring the Atmospheric Nature of Uranus and Neptune) that included a Saturn flyby as well as a years-long study of Uranus.

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GeekWire

Astra and LeoStella make a deal for ion drives

Astra Space says it’s made a deal with Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella to provide multiple electric propulsion systems for LeoStella’s small satellites, with deliveries due to begin later this year.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

LeoStella is a joint venture between BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space that builds satellites for BlackSkyLoft Orbital and other customers. California-based Astra Space’s main business line has to do with launching rockets, but last year the company acquired Apollo Fusion, which makes electric propulsion systems.

Electric propulsion systems, also known as ion drives, can provide a gentle but steady oomph for spacecraft by shooting out beams of ions. The Astra / Apollo Fusion systems can make use of xenon or krypton.

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Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends first all-private crew to space station

For the first time ever, a non-governmental spaceship is taking a fully non-governmental crew to the International Space Station.

Axiom Space’s quartet of spacefliers blasted into orbit at 11:17 a.m. ET (8:17 a.m. PT) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Zero-G and we feel fine,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the Ax-1 mission for Axiom. That comment echoed what space pioneer John Glenn said 60 years earlier when he became the first American in orbit.

The launch marked another milestone in the move toward privately supported space missions. It was the first mission flown under the provisions that NASA drew up three years ago for hosting private astronauts on the space station.

Three millionaire investors from three different countries — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe — paid fares estimated at $55 million to spend about 10 days in orbit. They’ll conduct more than two dozen science experiments and technology demonstrations, do some outreach activities, and spend leisure time enjoying the view and experiencing the zero-G environment.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos’ ventures team up on space station effort

Amazon and its cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, say they’re joining forces with another company founded by Jeff Bezos to support the development of a commercial space station known as Orbital Reef.

Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is one of the leaders of the Orbital Reef project, along with Colorado-based Sierra Space. Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering and Arizona State University are also part of the consortium.

Last December, Orbital Reef won a $130 million award from NASA to move ahead with the design of an orbital outpost that could fill the gap when the International Space Station is retired in the 2030-2031 time frame. Two other teams — led by Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman — also won NASA funding to flesh out their space station concepts.

In a blog posting, AWS said it would provide services and technology tools to support Orbital Reef’s development from the engineering design phase to on-orbit networking and operations. Amazon would contribute its expertise in logistics to streamline delivery and inventory management of space station supplies.

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GeekWire

Xplore acquires mission control software company

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore says it’s acquired the assets of Kubos Corp., the creator of cloud-based mission and flight control software for satellites.

Xplore’s co-founder and CEO, Jeff Rich, said in a news release that Kubos’ Major Tom software platform would be used for Xplore’s first space mission, due for launch as early as this fall, “and for all future missions.”

Financial terms of the acquisition were not released — but Xplore is taking on key Kubos employees, including co-founder and ex-CEO Tyler Browder, as part of the deal. “I’m delighted to join the Xplore team as business development director for mission operations,” Browder said. “In my new role I will continue to build and grow the Major Tom platform into an expanded service offering.”

Founded in 2017, Xplore aims to provide “space as a service” — a business model that offers data products, sensor tasking, mission operations software and payload hosting to customers. The company is developing the hardware for its missions, including Xcube nanosatellites and Xcraft satellite platforms, at its 22,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Redmond.

Its first planned mission is designed to put hyperspectral and high-resolution video imagers into low Earth orbit. Xplore has said future missions could go to farther-out destinations, including the moon, Mars, Venus and asteroids.

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AI gets tested on space station, starting with gloves

“Check my spacewalking gloves, HAL.”

The HAL 9000 computer that starred in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and made such a mess of maintenance issues on the Discovery One spaceship — isn’t on the job on the International Space Station. But Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are teaming up with NASA to put artificial intelligence to work on mundane orbital tasks, starting with the chore of checking spacewalkers’ gloves for wear and tear.

That’s just one of two dozen experiments in AI, cloud and edge computing that have been run on HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 since the hardware was sent to the space station a year ago.

“We’re bringing AI to space and empowering space developers off the planet with Azure, and it’s enabling the ability to build in the cloud and then deploy in space,” Steve Kitay, senior director of Azure Space at Microsoft, told me.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight Inc. encounters successes and setbacks

Thanks to its role in handling pre-launch logistics, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. can claim a share of the credit for two successful satellite deployments that took place within 24 hours this week — but it’s also facing a rift in relations with SpaceX, one of its longtime launch partners.

First, about the successes: On Friday, SpaceX launched 40 satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, as part of a mission known as Transporter-4. Spaceflight Inc. handled the arrangements for flying several of those satellites.

Spaceflight also played a supporting role in today’s launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Two Earth observation satellites were successfully sent into orbit for BlackSky, a Virginia company that was once Spaceflight’s corporate sibling and still has a significant workforce based in Seattle. Spaceflight Inc.’s role and the Seattle angle were recognized in Rocket Lab’s mission patch for the launch, which includes the Space Needle in its design.

“Thanks for another great launch day!” Spaceflight told Rocket Lab in a tweet. In contrast, Spaceflight’s interactions with SpaceX have become less cordial and more complicated over the past few months.

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Husband and wife score a first on Blue Origin space trip

Say hello to the final frontier’s latest power couple: Marc and Sharon Hagle, who became the first husband-and-wife team to fly on a commercial spaceship today during a suborbital trip provided by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

The Hagles and four other spacefliers blasted off from Launch Site One in Texas aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship at 8:58 a.m. CT (6:58 a.m. PT) after a series of holds. There was no immediate word about the reason for the holds.

The flight profile for today’s mission — which is known as NS-20 because it was the 20th flight for the company’s reusable New Shepard launch system — followed the precedent set by three previous crewed flights: The hydrogen-fueled booster lofted the crew capsule to an unofficial altitude of 66.5 miles (107 kilometers), giving the sextet a few minutes of weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of a curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

After stage separation, the autonomously controlled booster touched down on a landing pad, not far from the launch pad, while the crew capsule floated down to make a parachute-aided landing amid the West Texas rangeland. The flight took a little more than 10 minutes from the booster’s launch to the capsule’s landing.

Cries of “Woo-Hoo” could be heard from the crew over the capsule’s communication channel just after touchdown. Sharon Hagle gave a fist pump — and gave a hug and a kiss to her husband — as the couple emerged from the capsule.