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LISA Pathfinder blazes trail to test relativity

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The LISA Pathfinder probe lifts off from French Guiana. (ESA photo)

The LISA Pathfinder probe is heading for a vantage point a million miles from Earth to help look for gravitational waves and add a missing piece to the evidence for general relativity.

The European Space Agency said an Italian-built Vega rocket sent the spacecraft into low Earth orbit from ESA’s spaceport on the South American coast, at Kourou in French Guiana, at 04:04 GMT today (8:04 p.m. PT Wednesday).

Over the next two weeks, LISA Pathfinder will go through a series of maneuvers to set a course for L1, a gravitational balance point between Earth and the sun. The spacecraft is due to reach L1 in mid-February and begin its scientific mission in March.

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Season’s readings: 12 gift books for geeks

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NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins reads a book titled “Max Goes to the Space Station” in 2014 during a space station outreach activity called Story Time From Space. (Credit: NASA / STFS)

In this age of e-readers, there are still occasions when it’s nice to have a book printed on actual paper – like holiday giving, for instance. But which book works best as a gift for a science geek?

In honor of the 12 days of Christmas, here are a dozen recently published science books that have been well-received and are well-suited for gift wrapping. And if you still want to save a tree, some of them work just fine as e-books as well.

Get the full list from GeekWire.

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XCOR co-founders launch Agile Aero startup

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In a 2013 photo, Jeff Greason inspects XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx rocket engine while Doug Jones looks on. Greason is creating a new venture called Agile Aero, while Jones is staying on with XCOR. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

XCOR Aerospace pioneered the rapid development of rocket propulsion systems, and now three of XCOR’s founders are starting up a new venture called Agile Aero to do something similar for advanced aerospace vehicles.

Agile Aero has surfaced just a week after XCOR announced the departure of chief technologist Jeff Greason and chief engineer Dan DeLong. Greason and DeLong are teaming up with Aleta Jackson, another co-founder and aerospace veteran who left XCOR this month.

“It’s the Three Musketeers again,” Greason told GeekWire. XCOR’s fourth co-founder, Doug Jones, is staying on as the company’s chief test engineer.

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An out-of-this-world deal for Cyber Monday

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Spaceflight’s Cyber Monday deal will deliver satellites to orbit in 2018. (Credit: Spaceflight)

Here’s a Cyber Monday deal from Seattle-based Spaceflight for the space geek on your list: Purchase a satellite launch for one-third off, at the low, low price of $200,000.

The only catch is that you’ll have to wait until 2018 for the satellite to be delivered. But that’s the way it is with travel plans, whether you’re heading to a vacation resort or putting a 3U CubeSat in a sun-synchronous orbit 310 miles (500 kilometers) above the planet. “Booking early is the best for both parties,” said Phil Brzytwa, Spaceflight’s business development manager.

Through the end of the year, Spaceflight is offering up to 36 CubeSat spots on the company’s SHERPA satellite port at $200,000 (marked down from the list price of $295,000), and it’s not clear how long they’ll last.

“Already this morning we’ve had seven inquiries from all around the planet, and my inbox is filling up,” Brzytwa told GeekWire. There’s a limit of four CubeSats per customer.

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Newly signed law lays out space resource rights

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Artwork shows a spacecraft mining an asteroid. (Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries)

President Barack Obama today put his signature on a law supporting the rights of space miners to extract, use and sell resources from asteroids, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies – giving space-minded entrepreneurs something extra to be thankful for.

“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said in a news release. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

Anderson’s company has said the asteroid mining industry could eventually grow to trillions of dollars a year – but that’s dependent on the establishment of a spacefaring infrastructure that can use the off-earth water and other raw materials from near-Earth asteroids.

It’s also dependent on the establishment a legal infrastructure that lets miners keep what they get. That’s what the newly signed law, known as the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R.2262), is expected to start doing.

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Alien megastructure? Nothing to see here

Image: Comets and star
his illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Observations of the star KIC 8462852 by NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes suggest that its unusual light signals are probably due to dusty comet fragments that blocked the light of the star. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Recent infrared observations of a star that once showed a pattern of weird dimming have turned up no anomalous readings, astronomers say – and that supports the view that a comet blitz rather than the construction of an alien megastructure was behind the earlier observations.

The latest evidence, laid out in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, isn’t exactly surprising. The passing of a shattered comet was seen as the leading orthodox explanation for the star KIC 8462852’s strange behavior.

But there was also the unorthodox explanation. The readings from the star, gathered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and analyzed by a citizen-science project known as the Planet Hunters, created a stir because of a potential alien connection.

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Jeff Bezos spaces out: ‘I can’t wait to go!’

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Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, sprays champagne from a bottle after the successful landing of the New Shepard rocket booster on Monday. (Credit: Blue Origin via YouTube)

Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, says watching his Blue Origin rocket make a safe landing after flying into space rates as one of the greatest moments of his life, and he can’t wait to take a ride himself.

In an exclusive GeekWire interview, conducted on the morning after the New Shepard test mission, Bezos answered questions about what the flight means for Blue Origin, the space venture he founded … why he waited so long to start tweeting … and when the rest of us will get a suborbital space ride. He also stirred the pot in his rivalry with that other billionaire space geek, SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos tweets for the first time

The flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship on an uncrewed trip to space and back may be history-making, but here’s a first that’s almost as big for social media: Jeff Bezos’ maiden tweet.

One of Bezos’ biggest rivals in the space game is SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, who weighed in with an artful series of tweets that started out praising Blue Origin’s test flight but ended up downplaying it.

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Blue Origin sends rocket to space, gets it back

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship rises from its launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, successfully sent its New Shepard rocket ship to outer space for the first time on Monday – and even more amazingly, brought every piece back down to Earth for a soft landing.

“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket,” Bezos wrote in a blog posting that spread the news and shared a video.

Bezos makes a couple of cameo appearances in the video – including a shot showing him taking a seat in the control room before launch, and a post-landing scene in which he pops open a champagne bottle. (He’s the guy wearing the hat and sunglasses.)

The achievement arguably qualifies New Shepard as the “first fully reusable rocket” to go into space, said Jessica Pieczonka, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin. The flight comes after more than a decade of effort and several test flights at Blue Origin’s launch facility near Van Horn, Texas. The company is headquartered in Kent, Wash., and recently struck a deal for a $200 million launch and manufacturing complex in Florida.

Blue Origin’s aim is to reduce the cost of sending people and payloads to the final frontier – first, on suborbital up-and-down trajectories, and eventually into orbit and back. The venture follows through on Bezos’ childhood dream of spaceflight.

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General relativity gets a 100th birthday party

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Albert Einstein works at the blackboard during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. (F. Schmutzer via Wikipedia)

This week’s 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is a geeky cause for celebration, but what’s arguably the concept’s toughest test has just gotten under way.

General relativity was a follow-up to special relativity, Einstein’s big idea from a decade earlier. Back in 1905, he worked out a way to explain why the speed of light is constant, regardless of an observer’s point of view: It’s because space and time are not inflexible metrics, but interrelated dimensions that are measured differently depending on your perspective.

Special relativity explained a lot of the weirdness that physicists were puzzling over at the time, but the theory applied only to “special” conditions that didn’t involve acceleration – for example, how things fall in a gravitational field. On Nov. 25, 1915, Einstein laid out how the interplay of space and time gives rise to gravity and the fabric of the cosmos.

The theory passed its first big test in 1919, when observations during a total solar eclipse were found to be more consistent with Einstein’s view of gravity than with Isaac Newton’s. General relativity has been passing tests ever since. For example, if we didn’t take relativistic effects into account, our GPS readings would seem out of whack.

This week is prime time for centennial retrospectives on the theory and its implications. Here are a few to keep you entertained.

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