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Moon Express aims for 2017 launch to moon

Image: Richards and MX-1
Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards shows off a model of the MX-1 lunar lander in 2013. (Credit: Moon Express via YouTube)

Moon Express says it has reserved three lunar lander launches from a startup called Rocket Lab starting in 2017, with an eye toward putting robots on the moon’s surface and winning the lion’s share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

If the mission is successful, Moon Express could become the first privately backed venture to achieve a soft lunar landing.

“This will be the space equivalent of the four-minute mile,” Moon Express’ co-founder and CEO, Bob Richards, told GeekWire on Thursday. “This is a new era we just could have dreamed about as kids.”

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GeekWire

Spaceflight buys SpaceX rocket for satellites

Image: SpaceX launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off in April, sending cargo to the International Space Station. The payloads included Planetary Resources’ A3R satellite, which was flown under an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight. (Credit: SpaceX)

In the first deal of its kind, Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s buying a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will be set aside exclusively for launching other people’s small satellites into orbit.

The first dedicated rideshare launch is due to go into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during the latter half of 2017, said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch business. Sun-synchronous orbits are particularly popular for Earth imaging satellites, and Spaceflight anticipates buying a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 every year to service the market.

“By purchasing and manifesting the entire SpaceX rocket, Spaceflight is well-positioned to meet the small-sat industry’s growing demand for routine, reliable access to space,” Blake said in a statement issued Wednesday.

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GeekWire

NASA vet sees ‘endless’ frontier for space biz

Image: Lori Garver
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight)

Former NASA official Lori Garver’s resume is filled with highlights from politics and government service – going back to John Glenn’s presidential campaign – but when it comes to America’s space program, her heart’s with commercial ventures.

“The opportunities in commercial space are endless,” she told GeekWire. “Government opportunities are not endless.”

Garver, who helped draw up the Obama administration’s space policy and served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, will lay out the opportunities for commercial space ventures – and the limitations of government space efforts – at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

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GeekWire

Dark Martian streaks linked to liquid water

Image: Recurring slope lineae
Scientists say these dark streaks, shown flowing downhill in a false-color image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, were formed by flowing water. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

For years, scientists have puzzled over dark streaks that appear and disappear on the surface of Mars – and now they’re confident enough to assert that the streaks are caused by trickles of salty water.

Their findings, published Monday in Nature Geoscience, serve as the best evidence yet that liquid water still occasionally flows on the Red Planet. The research is likely to spark a new wave of speculation about life on Mars – but it’s not likely to justify the breathless reports that circulated in advance of the study’s release.

“Has NASA found life on Mars?” one headline asked over the weekend. The short answer is no. Nevertheless, NASA thought enough of the study to call it a “major science finding” and schedule a news briefing about it.

John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said the results make it “even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Mars, to explore the question, ‘Is there current life on Mars?’” NASA’s long-range plan calls for astronauts to start visiting Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

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GeekWire

Make the most of the supermoon eclipse

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A total lunar eclipse shines dully over Seattle’s Space Needle in 2008. (Credit: Clane Gessel)

Sunday’s super-sized total lunar eclipse is special for a couple of reasons, but it’s extra-special for places like Seattle, where the timing is perfect for family viewing.

“I love it when these astronomical events are at a good time,” said Alice Enevoldsen, an astronomy educator whose home base is in West Seattle. “It’s in the evening … but not yet bedtime for little kids.”

Lunar eclipses are among the most accessible astronomical events out there: When Earth casts its shadow on the full moon’s disk, half the world can watch it — and the show usually lasts for an hour or more, in contrast to the mere minutes of duration for a total solar eclipse. (Check out this interactive feature to learn more about lunar eclipses.)

This eclipse is making headlines in part because it takes place when the full moon’s apparent size is at its maximum for the year — a so-called supermoon. Supermoons are about 7 percent bigger and 16 percent brighter than the average full moon. NASA says the most recent supermoon lunar eclipse was in 1982, and the next time will be in 2033. (However, depending on your definition of a “supermoon,” such an eclipse came in 1997 and is due in 2021 as well.)

For Seattleites, Sunday’s show begins with moonrise at 6:54 p.m. PT, when the eclipse’s partial phase is already well under way. If you’re lucky, you can catch the show’s climax at 7:11 p.m., when the last sliver of the moon’s bright disk gives way to a dull red glow.

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GeekWire

Astronaut gives thumbs-up on ‘The Martian’

Image: Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon stars as a stranded astronaut in “The Martian.” (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Martian” isn’t due to hit theaters until Oct. 2, but the highly anticipated man-vs.-Mars movie is already sparking some scientific nitpicking. So here’s some advice from NASA astronaut Michael Barratt: Don’t get hung up on what the filmmakers got wrong.

“I would just ask everybody to get past that, because there are so many things they got right,” Barratt, a flight surgeon and two-time spaceflier who has been compared to Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, said during a panel at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

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Universe Today

New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.

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GeekWire

Asteroids loom as a new Klondike

Asteroid-hunting telescope
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid-hunting telescope in Earth orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Seattle could profit from the rush for resources in outer space much as it did during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s: by selling goods and services to the fortune-seekers.

At least that’s the vision laid out by entrepreneurs who are laying the groundwork in Seattle — and in space — for what they hope will be a multitrillion-dollar asteroid mining industry.

“I do believe that the first trillion is going to be made in space,” Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said via video during a Seattle Space Entrepreneurs reception at Kirkland’s Marina Park on Thursday.

Chris Lewicki, the company’s president, noted that Seattle became a boomtown because of its location as the “Gateway to the Gold Fields” in Alaska. The city’s merchants made their fortunes by provisioning tens of thousands of would-be miners for the outward journey.

He and Diamandis told Thursday’s gathering of about 150 entrepreneurs and space geeks that Seattle is in a similar position today — not so much because of the region’s geography, but because of its intellectual resources.

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GeekWire

Some of Pluto’s names may not fly

Image: Pluto
The heart-shaped area that’s prominent in this New Horizons picture of Pluto is known as Tombaugh Regio. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Some of the best-known names on Pluto — ranging from the Sputnik plains to the Hillary and Norgay mountains and the dark Cthulhu Regio — may never appear on the International Astronomical Union’s maps, due to a tiff over terminology.

Those are just a few of the informal names that have raised questions from members of the IAU panel charged with approving the nomenclature for the dwarf planet’s geographical features. The names were selected by the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto after a months-long online naming campaign at OurPluto.org.

“Frankly, we would have preferred that the New Horizons team had approached us before putting all these informal names everywhere,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

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GeekWire

Ceres’ pyramid gets its close-up

Image: Ceres' pyramid
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The mountain, located in the southern hemisphere, stands 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

NASA’s mission to that other dwarf planet, Ceres, has delivered a fresh bird’s-eye view of one of the asteroid’s most mysterious features: a cone-shaped, 4-mile-high “pyramid” mountain whose sides are covered with bright material.

The Dawn mission’s principal investigator says those shiny sides may be connected to Ceres’ other big mystery: the bright spots that shine out from the mini-world’s dark surface.

“The bright material on the mountain and in the bright spots are probably the same material,” UCLA’s Christopher Russell told GeekWire in an email. “How the material got on the sides of the mountain and also in the bottom of the craters is unknown.”

Which begs the question: What is that stuff?

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