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Cosmic Space

Chinese probe touches down safely on Mars

China scored another first for its space program today with the safe landing of the Tianwen-1 mission’s lander and rover on Mars.

“It is the first time China has landed a probe on a planet other than Earth,” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

The lander-rover spacecraft was brought to Mars aboard China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, which was launched last July and made its Red Planet rendezvous in February. For weeks, scientists used the orbiter to scout out potential landing sites, and settled on Utopia Planitia, the same plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

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NASA awards $105 million to boost space tech

Two Washington state companies have won grants of up to $750,000 each from NASA to take space-related technologies they’re already working on to the next stage of development.

The awards to Renton-based Stoke Space Technologies and Bellevue-based Sequoia Scientific are part of the latest batch of NASA Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grants. Nationwide, $105 million in awards were allocated to 140 projects proposed by 127 small businesses spread across 34 states and Washington, D.C.

The aim of the program is to encourage the development of innovations that could contribute to NASA’s efforts in human exploration, space technology, science and aeronautics — and could find commercial, non-NASA applications as well. All of the Phase II awardees previously received NASA SBIR Phase I awards that were worth up to $125,000 each.

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How BlackSky builds its intelligence network

Satellites for BlackSky’s constellation of Earth-watching spacecraft may be launched from as far away as New Zealand, but their path to orbit features prominent stops in the Seattle area.

BlackSky’s Global satellites are designed and built at LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, Wash., not far from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. handled the pre-launch logistics for May 15’s liftoff of two satellites atop a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle. And BlackSky itself splits its staff between Herndon, Va., and the company’s original home base in Seattle.

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Xplore will build satellites in Seattle area

Xplore, a Seattle-area startup that aims to build satellites for interplanetary missions, has a new address in Redmond, Wash. — in the same office complex that once housed the Planetary Resources asteroid-mining venture.

“Xplore’s 22,000-square-foot facility is tailor-made for satellite manufacturing,” Lisa Rich, the company’s founder and chief operating officer, said in a news release. “It is large, expandable and can currently accommodate the research, development, production and operation of 20 spacecraft per year.”

And when Rich says the location is tailor-made for satellites, she’s not just speaking figuratively: Several years ago, Planetary Resources built a pair of pathfinder Earth-observation satellites on the premises, representing a significant step toward creating a fleet of asteroid-scouting spacecraft.

One of the Arkyd-6 satellites was launched on an orbital demonstration mission in 2018. Unfortunately, Planetary Resources ran out of money later that year, and its assets were purchased by ConsenSys, a blockchain venture.

Xplore is due to move into the facility in June to start building ESPA-class XCraft satellites suitable for rideshare missions, as well as LightCraft spacecraft for deep-space missions.

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Cosmic Space

Japanese billionaire doubles down on space tours

For some people, once is not enough when it comes to traveling to space — even if each trip costs tens of millions of dollars. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is apparently one of those people.

Virginia-based Space Adventures announced today that Maezawa and his production assistant, Yozo Hirano, will be taking a 12-day trip to the International Space Station, and documenting the adventure for Maezawa’s YouTube channel.

The Japanese pair will fly to the station and back aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that’s due for launch on Dec. 8, under the command of Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin. All the medical checks have been made, and the trio is due to begin about three months of training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City in June, Space Adventures said.

“I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space?'” Maezawa said in Space Adventures’ news release. “I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel.”

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Orbite offers a taste of space — and earthly luxury

Wanna take a ride to space? There’s a smorgasbord of spaceflight shaping up for paying customers, ranging from the suborbital tours planned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to the orbital trips offered by SpaceX. What will those rides be like, and how will they differ from each other?

Starting in August, a Seattle-based startup called Orbite (pronounced “Or-beet,” French-style) will offer three-day orientation sessions to let customers sample the astronaut experience and find out for themselves.

“We’ll give them a ‘try before you buy’ experience, and educate them on the different offerings that are out there,” Orbite co-founder and CEO Jason Andrews, a veteran of Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, told GeekWire.

Andrews and Orbite’s other co-founder, French-born tech entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume, have set the schedule for astronaut orientation courses that’ll include virtual-reality simulations, a zero-G flight and a high-G flight — all designed to provide a taste of space without tying the participant down to a particular program.

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New book details Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX envy

When it comes to his Blue Origin space venture, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to say “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” But a new book claims Bezos was so concerned about the slow pace of progress five years ago that Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, was asked about becoming Blue Origin’s CEO.

Shotwell — who is second only to billionaire CEO Elon Musk at SpaceX — quickly rebuffed the entreaty, saying that “it wouldn’t look right,” according to tech journalist Brad Stone’s account in “Amazon Unbound.” That’s just one of the eye-openers from just one of the book’s chapters — the one that’s devoted to Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos as a privately held company in 2000.

“Amazon Unbound” follows up on Stone’s 2013 book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The earlier book touched upon Blue Origin’s genesis in Bezos’ childhood space dreams — and quoted a high-school girlfriend of his as saying Bezos founded Amazon solely to earn the money needed for his space venture.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos told me jokingly in the spring of 2016.

Stone’s new book suggests that just six months after that interview, Bezos was in no joking mood. Citing interviews with people who were familiar with Blue Origin’s workings, Stone writes that Bezos called in a succession of executives during several weeks in the fall of 2016 to discuss the space venture’s progress, or lack thereof.

The book depicts Bezos as frustrated with expenses that were bigger than he expected — and results that were coming more slowly than expected. In Stone’s telling, Blue Origin’s longtime president, Rob Meyerson, was caught in the middle: charged with following through on Bezos’ emailed instructions, but resented by demoralized members of his team.

Bezos’ dissatisfaction was fueled in part by the success of SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. While most of Blue Origin’s funding came directly from Bezos, SpaceX hustled to raise outside capital — including $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — and successfully snagged multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA. SpaceX was hopping ahead like the hare in Aesop’s Fables, while Blue Origin seemed to be plodding along like the tortoise. (And in fact, tortoises are part of Blue Origin’s coat of arms.)

There was a personal element to the rivalry. “Musk and Bezos were a lot alike — relentless, competitive, and absorbed with their self-images. But Musk eagerly sought the spotlight and cultivated a kind of cultlike adoration at his companies and among his fans. … Bezos, on the other hand, was more guarded,” Stone writes.

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Elon Musk jokes about his work and his quirks

Elon Musk made his mark tonight on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — not only as the richest host in the late-night skit show’s 46-year run, but also as the first host to acknowledge on the program that he has Asperger Syndrome.

That’s not exactly a surprise: For years, folks have noticed that the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla has the laser focus and social awkwardness that’s associated with Asperger’s. But Musk fully embraced his Aspieness during tonight’s monologue.

“I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host ‘SNL,’ or at least the first to admit it,” he said. “So I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But already I’m pretty good at running human in emulation mode.”

It’s true that Musk probably won’t make “SNL’s” greatest-hits clip show for the roles he played in the comedy skits — including an Icelandic TV producer, a Generation Z doctor, an electric-horse-riding cowboy and Wario (the “misunderstood” Mario Bros. video-game character). But he won the day with his self-deprecating humor.

The spaciest (and spiciest) moment came when Musk played himself, dealing with a Mars crisis involving Chad, the clueless slacker who’s a recurring character played by Pete Davidson. (Watch the clip all the way to the end — if you dare.)

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Cosmic Space

Starship survives its landing for the first time

SpaceX’s Starship prototype super-rocket stuck the landing today after a 10-kilometer-high test flight. And this time, it didn’t blow up.

The six-minute flight at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marked the first time in five tries that one of SpaceX’s 160-foot-tall prototypes survived a complete cycle of launch and landing.

The third attempt came close in March, but in that case, the rocket erupted in a fireball minutes after it landed.

No such setback occurred this time around. Propelled by three of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, the Starship SN15 prototype rose into a cloudy sky, hovered at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) as planned, and then flipped into a horizontal attitude in order to increase drag and reduce its speed as it descended.

Moments before reaching the ground, Starship re-ignited two of its engines, righted itself and landed on its feet. When the smoke cleared, the rocket stood tall on its landing pad, with flames licking at its side.

“The Starship has landed,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker declared. He said the post-landing fire was “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying, as we continue to work on the test vehicle design.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a three-word reaction to Starship’s successful flight: “Starship landing nominal!”

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Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat to space

You had to know the first open seat on a spacecraft built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture would be sold online — but auctioning it off for charity is an added twist.

After a week of buildup, Blue Origin today unveiled an auction site that will sell off a reservation on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for its first-ever crewed flight on July 20. That date is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

To add to the sense of history, today marks the 60th anniversary of Project Mercury’s first crewed spaceflight — a suborbital trip taken by New Shepard’s namesake, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, in 1961.

“In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere,” Blue Origin said in today’s announcement, referring to the 100-kilometer line that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. “They all say this experience changes them.”