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Supercomputer will extend the cloud to orbit

The sky’s not the limit for the cloud: Microsoft is partnering with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to bring Azure cloud computing to the International Space Station.

HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2, which is due for launch to the station as early as Feb. 20 aboard Northrop Grumman’s robotic Cygnus cargo ship, will deliver edge computing, artificial intelligence capabilities and a cloud connection to orbit on an integrated platform for what could be the first time.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars probe enters orbit, scoring another first

For the second time this week, a spacefaring nation put its first robotic probe in Martian orbit.

Today it was China’s turn: After a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise, China’s Tianwen-1 probe executed a 15-minute firing of its main engine, putting it into an elliptical orbit that comes as near as 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the surface of Mars every 10 days.

Tianwen-1’s success came less than 24 hours after the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft began orbiting the Red Planet.

Both nations have sent probes into space before, and China has put three probes on the surface of the moon. One of China’s moon probes even returned lunar samples to Earth. But these were the first successful Mars missions for each country. Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have put spacecraft into Martian orbit. Officials at NASA and ESA were among those tweeting their congratulations today.

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Blue Origin shows off a pathfinder lunar lander

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is testing a full-scale prototype of its cargo lunar lander, as part of its campaign to get a jump on heavy-duty deliveries to the moon.

In a video posted today to Twitter and Instagram, members of Blue Origin’s lander development team provided a status report.

The pathfinder lander has been taking shape at the factory that Blue Origin recently opened in Huntsville, Ala. That factory is responsible for manufacturing the descent element for a human-capable landing system, as well as the BE-4 engines for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

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Cosmic Space

Arab orbiter reaches Mars, kicking off a robot invasion

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope space probe went into orbit around Mars today after a months-long cruise, adding a new member to an exclusive international club.

Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have successfully sent spacecraft to Mars. One more nation, China, could join the club this week.

Word that the SUV-sized Hope probe successfully reached its destination after a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise was greeted with cheers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest building, lit up like a Red Planet billboard to mark the achievement.

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Telecom pioneer hitches up with rocket venture

Back in the 1990s, cellular telecom pioneer Craig McCaw bought into a vision of ubiquitous wireless service via a constellation of satellites, with an assist from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Almost a quarter-century later, McCaw’s Teledesic venture is long-dead, but the dream lives on — thanks to the impending merger of McCaw’s Holicity “blank check” company and Astra, one of the rising stars of the satellite launch industry.

The deal — which takes advantage of the trend toward using special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, to take startups public — values Astra at a double-unicorn level of $2.1 billion, and would unlock up to $500 million in cash proceeds.

Not bad for a space company that hasn’t yet quite made it to orbit.

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Will space become Jeff Bezos’ final frontier?

What will Amazon without Jeff Bezos as CEO look like? It could look a lot like Bezos’ biggest personal passion project — Blue Origin, which is working to send people and payloads on space trips ranging from suborbital hops to the moon and beyond.

There’s already speculation that Bezos’ decision to step back from the CEO role and serve as Amazon’s executive chairman will free him up to devote more time to Blue Origin. After all, he’s basically come around to admitting that he founded Amazon in part to earn the billions he’d need for his own space effort.

But Bezos has picked up a lot of other passions since his days in Princeton, when he headed the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

That’s reflected in the email he sent to Amazon employees, announcing a tectonic shift for the world’s richest individual (at least as of today … sorry, Elon Musk).

“As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” Bezos wrote. “I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”

The order in which Bezos lays out his list may well reflect the priority of his passions, especially considering that he’s a seasoned list-maker.

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Tech billionaire buys a SpaceX flight to orbit

A billionaire CEO who also happens to be a trained jet pilot is buying a days-long flight to orbit aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — and he’s setting aside the three other seats for a health care worker, a sweepstakes prize winner and the top tech contestant in a “Shark Tank”-style competition.

That means you, too, could fly to space if you’re lucky, or a techie.

Jared Isaacman, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of Pennsylvania-based Shift4 Payments, will command the Inspiration4 mission, which is due for launch as early as this year and is currently due to last two to four days.

“If you want to stay up longer, that’s fine, too,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Isaacman during a teleconference laying out the details.

The detailed flight plan hasn’t yet been set, but Musk made clear that Isaacman will have the final say. “Wherever you want to go, we’ll take you there,” Musk said.

Today’s announcement marks the latest twist for the nascent private spaceflight industry — which also counts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as a pioneer, by virtue of his role in founding Blue Origin. Bezos’ space venture aims to start putting people on suborbital space rides later this year. Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, is also working toward beginning commercial space operations.

Just last week, Texas-based Axiom Space announced it would be sending a crew on a privately funded mission to the International Space Station next year on a SpaceX Dragon craft. Inspiration4, in contrast, will be a free-flying mission with no space station stopover.

Musk said he expected flights like the one announced today to usher in an era of private-sector orbital spaceflight.

“This is an important milestone toward enabling access to space for everyone — because at first, things are very expensive, and it’s only through missions like this that we’re able to bring the cost down over time and make space accessible to all,” he said.

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Jeff Bezos kicks back with a fiery rocket engine test

If you’re hanging out in West Texas during a pandemic, there are few fireworks shows more thrilling than a test firing of your very own rocket engine. At least that’s the way Blue Origin’s billionaire founder sees it.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.

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Elon Musk and Amazon stir up a satellite battle

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon’s Project Kuiper escalated a different kind of Star Wars today, over the orbital parameters for their rival satellite constellations.

Musk complained that Amazon’s protest would “hamstring” SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites, while Amazon replied that SpaceX was seeking to “smother competition in the cradle if it can.”

It’s just the latest space spat between the world’s two richest individuals, pitting Musk against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s moon rocket test ends early, raising questions

NASA’s first full-up, on-the-ground test for the main engines on its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket ended prematurely today due to an automated shutdown.

“Today was an important day,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the test. “I know not everybody is feeling as happy as we otherwise could, because we wanted to get eight minutes of a hot fire, and we got over a minute.”

Despite the early shutdown,  NASA said the “Green Run” engine test produced valuable data in preparation for the first honest-to-goodness SLS launch, currently set for late this year.

That launch would kick off an uncrewed round-the-moon trip for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The mission, known as Artemis 1, is a key step in the plan to send astronauts around the moon on NASA’s Artemis 2 mission in the 2023 time frame, and then put them on the lunar surface by as early as 2024 during the Artemis 3 mission.

Today’s test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi focused on the SLS rocket’s core stage and its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines. The engines are refurbished leftovers from the space shuttle program, and had been used on shuttle missions going as far back as 1998.

Each of the engines delivers more than 400,000 pounds of thrust, adding up to 1.6 million pounds of thrust when all four engines are firing. When the Artemis 1 mission lifts off, the SLS’ solid rocket boosters will bring total thrust to more than 8 million pounds. In comparison, the Saturn V moon rocket’s first stage delivered 7.6 million pounds of thrust back in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA’s SLS team put months of work into the preparations for today’s test. More than 700,000 pounds of super-chilled hydrogen and oxygen were loaded into the core stage’s tanks for the engine firing. When the countdown reached zero, all four engines roared into life on cue, sending giant clouds of steam billowing into the air.