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GeekWire

These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Space

Pentagon awards $282 million for satellite constellation

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems will share $281.6 million in contracts from the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to build the first 20 satellites for a new military data network with global reach.

The network will be capable of sending targeting data directly from a remote-sensing satellite in space to a weapons platform on the ground, making use of laser communications between satellites in low Earth orbit. By the late 2020s, the system is expected to play a key role in countering emerging threats such as hypersonic attack vehicles.

The National Defense Space Architecture is the first major project for the Space Development Agency, which was created last year to foster military technologies on the high frontier.

“This is a very important step toward building the National Defense Space Architecture. It represents one of the Space Development Agency’s first major contract activities, and it might also highlight the importance of SDA — its ability to quickly obligate appropriate funds and execute toward their mission,” Mark Lewis, acting deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters.

“As the Netflix ‘Space Force’ series likes to say, space is hard,” he said. “Space is hard, but sometimes we make it harder than it has to be. The SDA is showing us that sometimes we don’t need to make it that hard.”

The two Colorado-based companies receiving awards today will build 10 satellites each for the first phase of the project, known as Tranche 0. Lockheed Martin is due to receive $187,542,641 under the terms of a firm, fixed-price contract. York Space Systems, a relative newcomer in the satellite industry, will receive $94,036,666.

Tranch 0’s data-transport-layer satellites are to be launched no later than September 2022, with a “capstone” demonstration of the mesh network’s capabilities planned in late 2022 or early 2023.

SDA Director Derek Tournear said today’s contracts represent the first step for a network that will comprise hundreds of satellites by 2026.

“We’re pushing on completely developing a new architecture that breaks the old model,” Tournear said. A big part of the new model will involve relying on commercial providers and “spiral development” to add innovations as the constellation is built out, he said.

“We’ll see this as an era of new space, basically showing the concept that you can utilize commoditized components in a very rapid manner to meet military utility and military specifications,” Tournear said.

Each set of 10 spacecraft will include seven equipped with the hardware for four laser-enabled optical cross-links between satellites. The other three satellites will have two optical cross-links, plus a standard Link 16 transceiver to communicate with ground installations.

Tournear said the satellites will be interoperable with other commercial and military space assets — including remote-sensing spacecraft, military communication satellites and commercial telecom constellations. He told me his team is talking with ventures including SpaceX, which already has launched hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband network. (Other parts of the U.S. military are testing Starlink’s capabilities for military applications.)

The Space Development Agency says the satellites will be sent into orbits ranging from 600 to 1,200 kilometers (370 to 740 miles) in altitude. That’s higher than the altitude that was recommended last week for minimizing negative effects on astronomical observations. But Tournear noted that the Tranch 0 satellites will be smaller and less numerous than, say, Starlink satellites.

The first batches of satellites won’t make use of the brightness-reducing measures that SpaceX has been implementing, he said. But there’ll be many more satellites to come.

“We’re going to be building out roughly one satellite a week for each of the [orbital] layers … and then launching them out on a cadence that allows us to replenish and add new capabilities that we’re going to be soliciting,” Tournear said.

In its contract announcement, the Department of Defense said the work of building the Tranche 0 satellites would be done in seven U.S. states plus Germany, Canada and Spain.

About 3.3% of York’s work is to be performed in Bothell, Wash., the Pentagon said. Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited has partnered with York previously, and Tethers CEO Bob Hoyt told me that his company has been in on some of York’s proposals for the National Defense Space Architecture. But he said he hasn’t yet heard whether Tethers Unlimited will play a role in the contract awarded today.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin team hands NASA a lunar lander mock-up

An all-star space industry team led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has assembled a mock-up of its proposed lunar lander right where it’ll do the most good, in a training area at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The full-scale engineering module showcases Blue Origin’s Blue Moon descent element, which Bezos unveiled last year; as well as the ascent element designed by Lockheed Martin. It stands more than 40 feet tall in Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, alongside mock-ups of the space shuttle, space station modules and next-generation space capsules.

Members of the industry team — from Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin as well as Northrop Grumman and Draper — will collaborate with NASA engineers and astronauts to test out the lander’s usability and make any necessary tweaks in preparation for crewed lunar landings that could begin as early as 2024. The tweaks could address such details as the size of the hatch, the placement of the windows and the arrangement of the controls.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Kymeta buys a company to boost satellite services

Kymeta Corp. — the satellite antenna venture that’s based in Redmond, Wash., and backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — has extended its reach into the service side of the satellite industry by acquiring Lepton Global Solutions.

Executives for the two companies said the move should strengthen their hand as they pursue contracts for government and military communications systems.

“Having a turnkey satellite service provider like Lepton accelerates Kymeta’s ability to successfully penetrate U.S. military and government customers in partnership with a well-established brand, deep channel experience and network support for those verticals,” Walter Berger, Kymeta’s president and chief operating officer, said today in a news release.

Rob Weitendorf, managing partner at Lepton, said he was excited to become part of Kymeta’s corporate family.

“We think the Kymeta antenna has changed the satellite marketplace, especially in the mobility world inside the government, whether it be for the U.S. Army or Coast Guard, or the Border Patrol or the U.S. Forest Service,” he told GeekWire. “The need for connectivity in the government marketplace has never been stronger.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Books

Join the CLUB Club with Asimov’s Foundation books

Classic science-fiction tales from the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick are in the midst of a revival, thanks to streaming-video series such as “War of the Worlds,” “Brave New World” and “Man in the High Castle.”

Now one of the sci-fi world’s best-known sagas, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, is being reimagined for an Apple TV+ series due to premiere in 2021.

The saga had its genesis almost eight decades ago, and the action is set more than 10,000 years in the future. But the themes of the work — centering on the decline and fall of a high-tech empire, Machiavellian machinations and unintended consequences — are, if anything, more relevant than ever in the here and now.

That’s what makes the Foundation series the perfect literary work for the revival of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

The CLUB Club goes back to the foundation of Cosmic Log. In contrast to book clubs that promote pricey new publications, our aim is to highlight books with cosmic themes that should be available at used-book shops as well as local libraries.

Over the past 18 years, we’ve issued more than 60 CLUB Club selections — many of them suggested by Cosmic Log readers. And to celebrate the return of the CLUB Club, we’re giving you the full list at the end of this item.

We’re also presenting a book giveaway, so keep reading!

“Foundation” dates back to a series of short stories that were published in Astounding Magazine starting in 1942. In the 1950s, those stories were published as a book trilogy — and in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov produced two sequels and two prequels.

The key concept is psychohistory, the idea that the mass behavior of billions of people can be predicted and shaped centuries in advance. The series’ foundational character, Hari Seldon, uses psychohistory to foresee the fall of a galactic empire. He also comes up with a plan to reduce the resulting dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium.

That idea may have seemed far-fetched in 1942. But in this age of micro-targeted messaging, demographic data analysis, disinformation campaigns and social-media groupthink, the concept is less weird and perhaps more worrisome.

The latter half of the Foundation Trilogy highlights another concept: the potential for one individual with a talent for inspiring loyalty and fear to throw the course of history on a different track. That concept is as relevant today as it was in the midst of the Second World War.

Asimov’s masterwork ended up having an influence on luminaries ranging from conservative politician Newt Gingrich to liberal economist Paul Krugman. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thought so much of the Foundation Trilogy that he agreed to tuck digitized copies of the books aboard the Tesla Roadster that was launched toward Mars on a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. “They’re amazing,” he tweeted.

Who am I to argue with Elon Musk on this?

To celebrate the revival of the CLUB Club, as well as the centennial year of Asimov’s birth, let’s have a trivial giveaway. This giveaway is “trivial” not only because it involves a trivia question, but also because there’s a relatively trivial sum at stake.

The prize is a $4 Amazon e-gift card that can be put toward the purchase of the Foundation Trilogy — or, frankly, any other purchase. I’ll send that amount to the first person answering the quiz question correctly in a comment below, based on submitted time stamp.

Here’s the question:

The Foundation series features a fictional reference work that has also popped up in books written by Carl Sagan and Douglas Adams. What is the two-word name of that reference work?

Update: We have a winner! Congrats to Kathy Coyle…

In case you’ve already gotten all the way through the Foundation series, here are 66 other CLUB Club selections you can check out using your e-gift card or your library card:

  • “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell (June 2002 selection)
  • “Alice in Quantumland” by Robert Gilmore (July 2002)
  • “Mr. Tompkins” series by George Gamow (August 2002)
  • “Manifold: Time” by Stephen Baxter (September 2002)
  • “Dreamer” by Richard L. Miller (October 2002)
  • “Earth” by David Brin (November 2002)
  • “Roadside Picnic” by A. and B. Strugatsky (December 2002)
  • “Strange Matters” by Tom Siegfried (January 2003)
  • “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis (February 2003)
  • “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein (March 2003)
  • “The Copper Crown” by Patricia Kennealy (April 2003)
  • “Dragon’s Egg” by Robert L. Forward (May 2003)
  • “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene (June 2003)
  • “Contact” by Carl Sagan (July 2003)
  • “A Skywatcher’s Year” by Jeff Kanipe (August 2003)
  • Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (September 2003)
  • “Book of the New Sun” series by Gene Wolfe (September 2003)
  • “The Best of AIR” by Marc Abrahams (October 2003)
  • “Flare” by R. Zelazny and Thomas T. Thomas (November 2003)
  • “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes (November 2003)
  • “Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet” by Paul Raeburn (December 2003)
  • Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher (January 2004)
  • “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (February 2004)
  • “Bad Astronomy” by Phil Plait (March 2004)
  • “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh (April 2004)
  • “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (May 2004)
  • “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein (June 2004)
  • “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by P.K. Dick (July 2004)
  • “Idlewild” by Nick Sagan (August 2004)
  • “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (October 2004)
  • “Science and Theology” by J.C. Polkinghorne (November 2004)
  • “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter (December 2004)
  • “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester (January 2005)
  • “Killing Star” by C. Pellegrino and G. Zebrowski (February 2005)
  • “The Forge of God” by Greg Bear (March 2005)
  • “Short History of Nearly Everything” by B. Bryson (April 2005)
  • “The Red One” by Jack London (May 2005)
  • “N.Y. Times Book of Science Questions and Answers” (June 2005)
  • “Heavy Weather” by Bruce Sterling and “Forty Signs of Rain” by Kim Stanley Robinson (August 2005)
  • “Chaos” by James Gleick (October 2005)
  • “A Brief (or Briefer) History of Time” by Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow) (November 2005)
  • “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle (December 2005)
  • “1491” by Charles C. Mann (January 2006)
  • “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card (February 2006)
  • “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels (March 2006)
  • “Prey” by Michael Crichton (April 2006)
  • “Hellstrom’s Hive” by Frank Herbert (May 2006)
  • “Inferno” by Jerry Pournelle (August 2006)
  • “This Place Has No Atmosphere” by Paula Danziger and “Countdown for Cindy” by Eloise Engel (September 2006)
  • “Orbit” by John J. Nance (October 2006)
  • “Time and Again” by Jack Finney (November 2006)
  • “God in the Equation” by Corey Powell (December 2006)
  • “Conversations on Consciousness” by S. Blackmore (Jan. 2007)
  • “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” by Bouquet (April 2007)
  • “Supernova” by Roger Allen and Eric Kotani (May 2007)
  • “The Twilight of Briareus” by Richard Cowper (June 2007)
  • “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks (July 2007)
  • “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (August 2007)
  • “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott and “The Fourth Dimension” by Rudy Rucker (December 2007)
  • “The Year 1000” by D. Danziger and R. Lacey (November 2009)
  • “Creation” by Randal Keynes (January 2010)
  • “In Search of Time” by Dan Falk (February 2010)
  • “Space” by James Michener (September 2011)

What’s your favorite cosmic reading matter? Pass your suggestion along in a comment, and it just might be featured as a future CLUB Club selection.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Slush on Ceres widens hopes for water worlds

Even before NASA’s Dawn probe mapped Ceres in detail in 2015, scientists suspected that the dwarf planet was a water world. Now they’ve traced Ceres’ upwellings of salty slush and mud to reservoirs deep beneath the surface.

The details came out this week in a package of papers published by Nature Astronomy, Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications. The findings serve as a fitting coda to an 11-year mission that almost didn’t happen, but ultimately succeeded in solving many of the mysteries surrounding Ceres as well as its sister asteroid Vesta.

For example, consider the bright spots in Ceres’ Occator Crater, which some have likened to “alien headlights.” The reflectivity is due to a crust of sodium carbonate, a salt left behind by the evaporation of briny water that percolated up to the surface.

Gravity readings gathered during the latter days of Dawn’s mission led scientists to conclude that the brine came from a reservoir that’s 25 miles deep and hundreds of miles wide.

In one of the bright spots, known as Cerealia Facula, Dawn’s instruments detected a concentration of hydrated salt compounds. The fact that those compounds are still hydrated suggest that they must have reached the surface relatively recently — perhaps within the past few centuries. That suggests that the transfer of liquid material from Ceres’ deep reservoir is continuing.

“For the large deposit at Cerealia Facula, the bulk of the salts were supplied from a slushy area just beneath the surface that was melted by the heat of the impact that formed the crater about 20 million years ago,” Dawn principal investigator, Carol Raymond, explained in a news release. “The impact heat subsided after a few million years; however, the impact also created large fractures that could reach the deep, long-lived reservoir, allowing brine to continue percolating to the surface.”

Dawn’s scientists saw additional evidence for Ceres’ active, slush-based geology in the presence of conical hills reminiscent of earthly features known as pingos. On Earth, pingos are formed when pressurized groundwater freezes beneath the surface and pushes up the soil above. Similar geological structures have been observed on Mars.

On icy moons such as Europa, Enceladus and Titan, geological activity is primarily driven by gravitational interactions with their parent planets. The fact that Ceres is geologically active, even though its crust is not being flexed by a nearby planet, widens the possibilities for finding slush or liquid water deep within ice-rich worlds in the main asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt and elsewhere.

The data-gathering phase of Dawn’s mission ended in 2018, and the dead spacecraft is now silently circling Ceres. But decades or centuries from now, the scientific findings resulting from the mission just might guide explorers to new kinds of interplanetary watering holes.

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Cosmic Space

It’s prime time for the sky show in your backyard

Ready for a star party?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.

“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” a newly published handbook by science writer David Dickinson, can help you do it.

“I pitch it as a star party in a book,” Dickinson explained.

This week is the summer’s big week for skywatchers:

  • The Globe at Night campaign is asking citizen scientists to report what they see in evening skies, to assess the effects of light pollution.
  • The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the nights of Aug. 10-13.
  • Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
  • Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)

Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.

Backyard Astronomer's Field Guide
“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide” is spiral-bound for convenient use in the field. (Page Street Publishing / Laura Benton)

Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?

The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.

So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.

The double-double is famous, but somehow it was left out of the deep-sky catalog created by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 1700s. “I was always amazed that he missed things like the double-double,” Dickinson said.

You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).

To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:

What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?

The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.

Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.

Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.

As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.

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GeekWire

SpaceX launches Starlink and BlackSky satellites

After weeks of delay, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent up 57 more satellites for its Starlink broadband internet constellation, with two BlackSky planet-watching satellites hitching a ride.

The launch was originally scheduled for June, but had to be put off several times due to technical concerns, weather delays and range schedule conflicts. This time around, the countdown proceeded smoothly to liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. ET Aug. 7 (10:12 p.m. PT Aug. 6).

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Space

Hubble uses eclipse to practice hunt for alien life

Astronomers made use of the Hubble Space Telescope — and a total lunar eclipse — to rehearse their routine for seeking signs of life in alien atmospheres.

You’ll be relieved to know that the experiment, conducted on Jan. 20-21, 2019, determined that there are indeed signs of life on Earth.

The evidence came in the form of a strong spectral fingerprint for ozone. To detect that ultraviolet fingerprint, Hubble didn’t look at Earth directly. Instead, it analyzed the dim reddish light that was first refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, and then reflected back by the moon during last year’s lunar eclipse.

“Finding ozone is significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is itself a byproduct of life,” said Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colo., lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Other ground-based telescopes made spectroscopic observations at other wavelengths during the eclipse. They were looking for the fingerprints of different atmospheric ingredients linked to life’s presence, such as oxygen and methane.

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Astronomers hope future observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope, will be able to detect life’s fingerprints in the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. But that takes practice.

“One of NASA’s major goals is to identify planets that could support life,” Youngblood said in a Hubble news release. “But how would we know a habitable or an uninhabited planet if we saw one? What would they look like with the techniques that astronomers have at their disposal for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets? That’s why it’s important to develop models of Earth’s spectrum as a template for categorizing atmospheres on extrasolar planets.”

Check out the news release for further details, or delve into the research paper published today in The Astronomical Journal. And to learn more about how lunar eclipses work, check out this “Inconstant Moon” interactive (after you enable Flash in your browser).

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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GeekWire

NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

Get the full story on GeekWire.