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SpaceX wins out over Blue Origin for moon landings

In a surprise move that was dictated by budget constraints, NASA is awarding $2.89 billion to SpaceX alone for the development of its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system for astronauts — leaving out Alabama-based Dynetics as well as a team led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

If all proceeds according to plan, SpaceX would demonstrate Starship’s capabilities during an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface, and then follow up with a crewed demonstration mission for NASA’s Artemis moon program in the mid-2020s.

“NASA’s Artemis program is well underway, as you can see, and with our lander award today, landing the next two American astronauts on the moon is well within our reach,” Steve Jurczyk, the space agency’s acting administrator, said today during a teleconference announcing the award.

In a tweet, SpaceX said it was “humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration.”

NASA also plans to set up a follow-up competition for future crewed lunar landings that would be provided as a commercial service. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that could serve as another “on-ramp” for Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics.

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GeekWire

How a goniometer gizmo will help Mars missions

The 3-foot-wide contraption that was built in First Mode’s Seattle workshop looks like something from a science-fiction movie, complete with spinning cogwheels and a flashing light beam — and it really does have an out-of-this-world purpose: helping scientists interpret readings from Mars.

Even the word that describes the gizmo has a sci-fi sound: “goniometer.”

Today, First Mode‘s engineering team delivered the 3-D goniometer to Western Washington University’s Mars Lab in Bellingham, Wash., where it’ll be used in connection with NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.

First Mode worked with Western to design the goniometer under the terms of a $302,000 contract from NASA, and it’s already picked up a suitably NASA-esque name. It’s known as the Western TANAGER, with an acronym that stands for “Three-Axis N-sample Automated Goniometer for Evaluating Reflectance.”

The name pays tribute to the Western Tanager, a bird that can be spotted in Washington and other Western states. “I tied it in by saying that with bird feathers, their color depends both on the pigment but also on the angle that you look at it,” First Mode systems engineer Kathleen Hoza told GeekWire.

Western’s new goniometer may look like something Buck Rogers would use in the 25th century, but such devices actually go back to the 16th century. Goniometers are designed to make precise measurements of angles, much like the protractors used in elementary school.

The Western TANAGER kicks things up a notch by measuring angles in three dimensions. Why is that important for Mars? Because knowing the precise angles of reflection for the sunlight that hits Martian rocks could help scientists unlock some of the Red Planet’s geological secrets.

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GeekWire

Stand-in spacefliers rehearse Blue Origin roles

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its New Shepard reusable suborbital spaceship — but for the first time, living, breathing humans practiced all the steps leading up to launch and following landing.

“This is as real as it can get without … sending them on a trip to space,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the countdown to liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

Bezos was more succinct in an Instagram post from the scene. “It’s time,” the billionaire wrote. He followed up on that assessment with Blue Origin’s motto: “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”

In addition to testing the rocket and rehearsing the on-the-ground procedures for flying passengers, Blue Origin provided a sneak peek at its arrangements for future crewed spaceflights.

During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile, rising to a height beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line” that serves as the international boundary of outer space. The capsule’s maximum altitude was 347,574 feet (105 kilometers).

At the end of the trip, New Shepard’s booster touched down autonomously on its landing pad, while the uncrewed crew capsule landed with the aid of its parachutes and retro rockets.

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Fiction Science Club

Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

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GeekWire

SpaceX expands its footprint in the Seattle area

SpaceX is leasing a 124,907-square-foot building complex that’s under construction in Redmond Ridge Business Park, east of Seattle, according to the latest industrial real estate market report from Kidder Mathews. Kidder Mathews, which listed the property for lease, says construction is slated for completion this fall.

The construction site, which takes in the business park’s Buildings 4 and 5 and offers up to 300 extra parking places nearby, is just a block away from SpaceX’s existing facilities at Redmond Ridge. Those facilities serve as the headquarters for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite development and manufacturing operation.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to provide global broadband internet access via a network of thousands of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. More than 1,400 satellites already have been launched — including 60 that were sent into orbit today — and Starlink has been gradually expanding its “Better Than Nothing” beta offering.

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Fiction Science Club

Could the God Theory be our ultimate salvation?

In retrospect, it seemed almost sacrilegious.

There we were — on Good Friday, the day that ushers in Christianity’s holiest weekend — talking with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about the possibility that humanity’s salvation will come from a scientific gospel that’s yet to be written.

A gospel that Kaku calls the God Equation.

The way he sees it, our far-flung descendants will be able to take advantage of the God Equation to leave our tired old universe behind.

“One day, stars will blink out. It’ll get super cold. We’ll all freeze to death as it becomes near absolute zero. Well, that’s trillions of years from now. And I think at that point, we’re so advanced, we’ll harness the Planck energy — the energy at which universes can be created — and we’ll create a bubble of our own,” he explained.

“We’ll leave our universe and go to a younger universe where we can mess that universe up as well,” he said.

You could argue that’s the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation. Is that sacrilegious? You’ll have to decide for yourselves after listening to the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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GeekWire

After sky show, SpaceX picks up its rocket droppings

The atmospheric re-entry and breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket upper stage created a fiery display in the skies above the Pacific Northwest a week ago, but not all of those shooting stars burned up on the way down.

At least one big piece of the rocket — a roughly 5-foot-long composite-overwrapped pressure vessel — fell onto private property in southwest Grant County in Central Washington, the county sheriff’s office reported today in a tweet.

Kyle Foreman, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told GeekWire that the property owner left a message reporting the debris last weekend. Based on the reports about March 25’s meteor show, SpaceX’s rocket re-entry loomed as the likeliest cause for the commotion.

“The sheriff’s office checked it out on Monday, and SpaceX staff came over on Tuesday and retrieved it,” Foreman said.

He was unaware of any other reports of fallen rocket debris — and in its tweet, the sheriff’s office made clear that it considered the case closed. “Media and treasure hunters: we are not disclosing specifics,” it said. “The property owner simply wants to be left alone.”

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Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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GeekWire

Amazon launches accelerator for space startups

Amazon Web Services is raising the curtain on AWS Space Accelerator, a four-week business support program that’s open to space startups seeking to use Amazon’s cloud computing services.

AWS and Seraphim, a London-based investment group focusing on the space industry, will select 10 companies to participate in the accelerator program during the month of June. Applications are being accepted starting today, and proposals are due by April 21.

“Startups provide a catalyst for bold new experimentation in the space industry,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS’ aerospace and satellite solutions, said in a blog posting. “We are proud to announce the AWS Space Accelerator as part of our ongoing commitment to help startups succeed, and to shape the future of aerospace.”