Space leaders meet to set a course for research in orbit

About 900 members of the space community — including astronauts, government officials, researchers and industry professionals — are converging on Seattle this week for the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

But this week’s ISSRDC event is about more than just the ISS.

The 12th annual conference, which is being held in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, comes as NASA and its commercial partners are making plans for privately operated outposts that will take the place of the ISS when it’s brought down from orbit. That fiery retirement party is currently set for the 2030-2031 time frame..

“We’re at that critical juncture,” said Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS. The center manages the activities that the ISS takes on in its role as a national laboratory, and is the organizer of the ISSRDC.

For now, the ISS is one of only two space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. (The other one is China’s Tiangong space station.) But the next seven years are likely to see the launch of multiple commercial LEO destinations, which have come to be known as CLDs in NASA’s three-letter-acronym parlance. One of those CLDs could well be Orbital Reef, which is currently under development by a consortium that includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“This conference is a great opportunity for us to learn about future avenues of inquiry that could be advantageous for other government agencies, and ways for us to build on the science that’s been done previously, so that we can segue toward those CLDs,” O’Neill told me.


Farewell, L3Harris takes over Aerojet

Florida-based L3Harris today announced that it has completed its acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, two days after the Federal Trade Commission gave its OK for the deal.

The acquisition, which was valued at $4.7 billion when the agreement was announced last December, adds Aerojet’s expertise in rocket propulsion systems to L3Harris’ portfolio of space and defense technologies.

“I’m thrilled to welcome more than 5,000 employees to the L3Harris team today,” L3Harris’ chair and CEO, Christopher Kubasik, said in a news release. “With national security at the forefront, we’re combining our resources and expertise with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s propulsion and energetics capabilities to ensure that the Department of Defense and civil space customers can address critical mission needs globally.”

Going forward, Aerojet Rocketdyne will be known as “Aerojet Rocketdyne, an L3Harris Technologies company.” The upward-swooping rocket in Aerojet’s logo has been replaced by L3Harris’ buckyball logo, and Aerojet’s main internet domains — and — now redirect to

Fiction Science Club

How we’ll find the first evidence of extraterrestrial life

When will we find evidence for life beyond Earth? And where will that evidence be found? University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, the author of a book called “Worlds Without End,” is betting that the first evidence will come to light within the next decade or so.

But don’t expect to see little green men or pointy-eared Vulcans. And don’t expect to get radio signals from a far-off planetary system, as depicted in the 1992 movie “Contact.”

Instead, Impey expects that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — or one of the giant Earth-based telescopes that’s gearing up for observations — will detect the spectroscopic signature of biological activity in the atmosphere of a planet that’s light-years away from us.

“Spectroscopic data is not as appealing to the general public,” Impey admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “People like pictures, and so spectroscopy never gets its fair due in the general talk about astronomy or science, because it’s slightly more esoteric. But it is the tool of choice here.”

Universe Today

Witnesses play up the alien angle at UFO hearing

Three former insiders who have played a role in dealing with UFOs — or as they’ve now come to be known, unidentified anomalous phenomena — say the U.S. military knows more than what it’s been telling lawmakers about encounters with potentially alien technology.

During a House subcommittee hearing held today, one of the witnesses said he was told that non-human remains have been recovered from UAP incidents.

“As I’ve stated publicly already … biologics came with some of these recoveries,” David Grusch, a former intelligence officer who took on whistleblower status due to his claims, said in response to a question from Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.

“Were they, I guess, human or non-human biologics?” Mace asked.

“Non-human,” Grusch replied. “And that was the assessment of people with direct knowledge on the program I talked to, that are currently still on the program.”


Astronaut musicians create a show that’s out of this world

Astronauts have been making music in orbit for almost 60 years, but at least some of the members of a band called Bandella prefer to think of themselves as musicians who just happened to become astronauts.

“We were musicians before we got into the astronaut corps,” one of the band’s founders, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, told me.

Bandella’s Seattle concerts, set for July 29 at the Museum of Flight, won’t be your typical summer music tour. The event will feature some space-themed tunes — including David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which went viral when Hadfield recorded a tribute performance on the International Space Station in 2013. There’ll also be a Q&A session during which the musicians recount their experiences in space.

Hadfield said it’s only natural that astronauts bring music with them when they go into orbit. “We’re just people, multifaceted,” he said. “And when you’re a long way from home, you know, you need art and music in amongst all the busyness.”

It’s also natural for astronauts to share their out-of-this-world experiences via the creative channels that they’ve developed throughout their lives. “A lot of it goes back to when you have been so incredibly lucky to have had the experiences that the members of the band have had. What do you do with those experiences? How do you explain it, and make it part of your own life, and not just a weird perturbation?” Hadfield said.


Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans satellite processing facility

Construction is underway for a $120 million facility in Florida that will process Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites for launch — marking one more giant leap toward creating the company’s global broadband internet constellation.

Details about the facility came to light today at a ceremony hosted by Amazon and Space Florida, the state’s aerospace industry development agency, at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch and Landing Facility. That former space shuttle landing strip where Amazon’s 100,000-square-foot facility will take shape in the months ahead.

The construction project complements Amazon’s efforts to create a 172,000-square-foot satellite production facility in Kirkland, Wash., which will turn out thousands of satellites for Project Kuiper. Today Amazon said that facility will begin production by the end of this year.

Amazon’s plans call for setting up a 3,236-satellite constellation, with at least half of those satellites launched by mid-2026. The resulting network is meant to provide broadband internet access for tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved — and will facilitate satellite-based offerings from Amazon Web Services and the Seattle-based company’s other divisions.

Universe Today

Cosmic threats lead the list of public’s space concerns

Sending astronauts to the moon is OK — but more Americans think NASA should instead put a high priority on monitoring outer space for asteroids and other objects that could pose a threat to Earth, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey focusing on Americans’ perspectives on space policy.

The nonprofit research center’s report was released today, on the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It follows up on a similar survey that was done in 2018 to mark NASA’s 60th anniversary.

The earlier survey suggested that slightly more Americans saw monitoring climate change as a top priority (63% vs 62%). This year, the rankings were reversed, with 60% putting cosmic threats at the top of their list, as opposed to 50% for climate concerns. Only 12% of the respondents said sending astronauts to explore the moon was a top priority, and 11% said sending astronauts to Mars led their list. That translates into less support than those missions had five years ago.

The survey, conducted online from May 30 to June 4, is based on responses from 10,329 randomly selected U.S. adults who are part of the research center’s online panel. The results were weighted to reflect current demographics.


Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine fails during testing

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture confirmed that one of its BE-4 rocket engines suffered a significant anomaly during testing at its West Texas facility in late June.

The incident first came to light today in a report from CNBC, which quoted unnamed sources as saying that the engine detonated about 10 seconds into a test firing on June 30. CNBC said the engine was meant to be used for the second launch of United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. That launch, known as Cert-2, is meant to send Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane on an uncrewed cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin already has delivered two BE-4 engines to ULA for the first Vulcan launch, Cert-1, which is tasked with deploying the first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband network into low Earth orbit as well as sending Astrobotic’s robotic lunar lander on its way to the moon.

CNBC quoted a ULA spokesperson as saying that the newly reported anomaly was “not expected to impact our plans” for Cert-1. The BE-4 engines for Cert-1 were cleared for use after acceptance testing and a flight readiness firing test.

The cause of last month’s anomaly is under investigation, Blue Origin said today in an emailed statement.


NASA’s chief is coming to Seattle area for space summit

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will visit Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent, Wash., to get a firsthand look at the Seattle area’s growing space industry.

Tje Washington State Space Summit on July 5 will feature a trade show with nearly 20 regional space companies, plus a panel discussion that will focus on the economic opportunities opening up on the space frontier over the coming decade. The summit will be hosted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees NASA — and who played a leading role in passage of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act last year.

“Washington’s space industry has doubled in just four years, a success story our whole state can be proud of,” Cantwell said today in a news release announcing the summit. “More than 13,000 Washingtonians work in this growing industry, which will help send the first American woman to the moon and the first person to Mars.”

Cantwell said Nelson “will see for himself what new investments in the state can deliver for the nation – from high-rate composite aircraft manufacturing to building new space stations.” Boeing has been pioneering aerospace applications for carbon composites at its aircraft manufacturing facilities in the Seattle area, while Blue Origin and Marysville, Wash.-based Gravitics are among regional companies working on commercial space stations.

Nelson said that “NASA’s work with Washington commercial space companies and academic institutions demonstrates the power of investing in America.”

Universe Today

Italians fly on Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space trip

After almost two decades of ups and downs, Virgin Galactic sent its first customers to the edge of space aboard its VSS Unity rocket plane.

Today’s 72-minute-long Galactic 01 flight, which took three Italians on a suborbital research mission, marked the start of the company’s commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Two of the fliers, Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, are officers in the Italian Air Force. The third Italian, Pantaleone Carlucci, is an engineer at the National Research Council of Italy. The crew brought along 13 research payloads, focusing on biomedicine, thermo-fluid dynamics and materials science.