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TV crew gets inside look at Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources is known to show visitors around its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., but it’s not too often that an outside TV crew gets an inside look at the asteroid-mining venture. The Weather Channel shared such a look over the weekend – including a look through the window at the next microsatellite the company plans to put into orbit.

“So that’s it? That’s your spacecraft, right there?” correspondent Dave Malkoff asks Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer.

Yes indeed, that’s the Arkyd 6, a prototype satellite about the size of a cereal box that’s designed to beam down infrared images of Earth from orbit. The Arkyd 6 is due to launch next year as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, through an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

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The Force is strong with sci-fi shows on TV

Image: Cas Anvar
Like Han Solo, spaceship pilot Alex Kamal (played by Cas Anvar) has a complicated past in “The Expanse,” which has its TV premiere on Syfy tonight. (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

While you’re waiting for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to invade theaters this week, you can tune in a couple of other star wars on TV – with settings and themes that hit much closer to home than the goings-on in a galaxy far, far away.

Starting tonight, the Syfy channel is bringing two classic science-fiction sagas to the small screen: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” a novel about space aliens that was written before dawn of the Space Age; and “The Expanse,” a series of future-looking novels and short stories by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

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Meteors bring holiday cheer – if it’s clear

Image: Geminids
A Geminid meteor makes an impression in an all-sky photo captured in 2011. (Credit: NASA)

The most reliable meteor shower of the year reaches its peak tonight – but to catch the Geminids, you’ll have to find a patch of clear, dark sky.

That’s difficult to do in the Seattle area. There’s a glimmer of hope, however: Theweather outlook improves as Sunday night turns into Monday morning, and it gets a lot better by Monday night. With any luck, there’ll still be some Geminids to see. So let’s assume you do find clear skies sometime in the next couple of days.

The Geminids appear every year from Dec. 4 to 17. They peak on Dec. 13-14, when Earth passes right through the trail of cosmic grit and pebbles left behind by an asteroid or burned-out comet called 3200 Phaeton. When those bits of debris pass through the upper atmosphere, they leave bright meteoric trails behind.

This year is a good one because the crescent moon makes an early exit, leaving a nice glare-less sky to look up into. Under peak conditions, you could see as many as 100 meteors per hour, including showy fireballs.

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New Horizons’ Pluto close-up gets colorized

Image: Pluto in color
This enhanced color mosaic combines image data from two cameras on NASA’s New Horizons probe. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The Pluto pictures from NASA’s New Horizons probe just keep getting better and better: Feast your eyes on this colorized view of the border between the towering al-Idrisi mountains made of water ice, and the rippled nitrogen-rich plains of Sputnik Planum.

The view combines high-resolution black-and-white imagery from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI; and lower-resolution color data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera, or MVIC.

The two sets of images were taken about 25 minutes apart on July 14, while the piano-sized probe zoomed within 10,000 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface. Check out the full-size mosaic.

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Space station trio comes home for the holidays

Image: Kjell Lindgren
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren makes his first call home after descending to Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft today. (Credit: NASA TV)

It took some doing, but three crew members from the International Space Station returned to Earth today and are on their way home in time for Christmas.

NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, Russia’s Oleg Kononenko and Japan’s Kimiya Yui touched down on the steppes of Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz capsule at 7:12 p.m. local time (5:12 a.m. PT), marking the first time since 2012 that a space station crew came down after dark. It’s the sixth night landing for the Soyuz in the 15 years since astronauts started living on the station.

The shift to an after-dark landing was made to accommodate the Dec. 21 launch of an upgraded Progress supply ship.

The winter weather in Kazakhstan brought further complications.

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Planet X? Probably not, despite the buzz

Image: Distant world
An artist’s conception shows the dwarf planet Eris. Astronomers say an even larger world may exist on the solar system’s edge. (Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech)

An array of radio telescopes in Chile has picked up weird readings that appear to be coming from far-out objects – and that’s sparked a debate over whether they’re previously undetected worlds on the edge of our solar system, brown dwarfs, or just random glitches.

Readings from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, have led to the posting of at least two research papers on the arXiv pre-print server. Historically, some of the studies that scientists post to arXiv go on to make a splash, while others fizzle out.

One study, submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, reports detecting an object in submillimeter wavelengths that’s close to the same position in the sky as the Alpha Centauri binary-star system, and moving along with it.

Could it be yet another star associated with Alpha Centauri? The researchers rule out that scenario on the grounds that it hasn’t been seen before in other wavelengths.

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Lawmakers geek out over space industry

Image: Blue Origin celebration
Employees at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., cheer as they watch the landing of the company’s New Shepard test spaceship on Nov. 23. “How do we steal that video?” Lt. Gov. Brad Owen joked after watching a clip showing the celebration. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Washington state legislators got an introduction to the state’s space industry today at Seattle’s Museum of Flight – and voiced amazement at how much is going on.

“I feel so illiterate in this field, it’s unbelievable,” state Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, remarked at one point during today’s meeting of the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations. Afterward, Hewitt said he knew “100 percent” more about the field than he did at the start of the hearing.

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, marveled when she heard Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Roger Myers list all the missions his company in which his company has played a part, ranging from the Apollo missions to the moon, to the space shuttle program, to robotic missions that have visited every planet (yes, including Pluto).

“I would wager that most of the people in this state do not know what you’re doing in Redmond,” Chase told Myers.

That was the point of today’s hearing, presided over by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen: to let legislators know that there’s much more than Boeing to the state’s profile in the aerospace industry.

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Those weird spots on Ceres? Probably water ice

Image: Ceres' Occator Crater
This color-coded representation of Ceres’ Occator Crater shows differences in surface composition, highlight bright patches inside the crater. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

For months, scientists have puzzled over weirdly bright spots of material shining on the asteroid Ceres, but now they say the spots are probably made of salty ice.

That determination, based on a detailed analysis of spectral data from NASA’s Dawn orbiter, comes in a paper published today by the journal Nature. Dawn’s images highlight one particular patch in a 106-mile-wide impact basin known as Occator Crater, but other spots are spread across the surface of the 590-mile-wide dwarf planet.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” the study’s principal author, Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, said in a NASA statement. He and his co-authors suggest that cosmic impacts dig up enough surface material to expose the shiny ice.

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Cygnus delivers goodies to space station

Image: Cygnus spaceship
A photo tweeted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly shows the International Space Station’s robotic arm about to grab onto a commercial Cygnus cargo ship. (Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA)

The International Space Station’s astronauts got their Christmas presents early today, in the form of HoloLens augmented-reality headsets from Microsoft and more than 7,000 pounds of other nice stuff, courtesy of a Cygnus commercial cargo ship.

Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus arrived at the station three days after Sunday’s launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Florida. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren used the station’s robotic arm to grab onto the 20-foot-long (5.1-meter-long) capsule at 3:19 a.m. PT and bring it in for its berthing.

In a tweet, space station commander Scott Kelly joked that the delivery arrived “just in time for Christmas.”

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Highest skydiver looks beyond his record

Image: Alan Eustace
Former Google executive Alan Eustace recounts his jump from the stratosphere at the University of Washington, with a photo of his descent in the background. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

One year after setting the world altitude record for a jump from the stratosphere, former Google executive Alan Eustace says the sky isn’t the limit – and neither is his record.

“There’s no reason you can’t go higher,” Eustace told GeekWire today after a talk at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering. The event was part of the UW School of Computer Science and Engineering’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Eustace, a longtime airplane pilot whoretired from his post as Google’s senior vice president for knowledge in March, took on the self-financed “StratEx” skydiving mission to follow through on his passion for adventure and spaceflight. (He declined to tell how much the adventure cost him, other than to say “it was more than it should have cost.”)

The record-setting ride on Oct. 24, 2014, began with Eustace in a custom-made pressure suit, dangling from the end of a high-altitude balloon as it rose up from Roswell, N.M. Over the course of two and a half hours, he went into the stratosphere, up to an altitude of 135,890 feet (25.7 miles, or 41.4 kilometers).

“You can really start to see the beautiful Earth below, see the darkness of space,” he recalled during today’s talk.

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