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Amazon readies factory to build Project Kuiper satellites

Amazon says it’ll open a 172,000-square-foot production facility in Kirkland, Wash., to manufacture thousands of satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

The factory will eventually turn out one to three satellites per day, Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services, said today during a Washington Post online chat. “Maybe even a little more than that,” he added.

Eventually, Amazon plans to have 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit, and half of those spacecraft have to be launched by 2026 to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission’s license requirements.

In order to meet that schedule, “we have to build the manufacturing capabilities that look more like consumer electronics or automobiles and less like the traditional space industry,” Limp explained.

The new facility marks an expansion from Project Kuiper’s 219,000-square-foot research-and-development facility in Redmond, Wash. Limp said the “first phase” of satellite production is already underway in Redmond.

“We’ve started integration and final assembly of our first two prototype satellites,” he said. “Those should be done by the end of Q4, and we’re in test right now.”

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Fireball lights up Pacific Northwest skies (and webcams)

What was that flash in last night’s skies?

Westward-looking skywatchers in locales ranging from Oregon through Western Washington to British Columbia reported seeing a fireball light up the surroundings at 10:18 p.m. PT Oct. 12. And the reason we can time the event precisely is because of the timestamps on all the webcam videos that were posted to Twitter and YouTube.

“OK, that was insane,” Michael Snyder, a weather watcher at Alaska Airlines who also maintains a YouTube channel called Pacific Northwest Weather Watch, said in a tweet. “Dead center screen, there had to be others that saw that monster.”

Indeed there were. Some observers took advantage of the night-sky to indulge in a little black humor about the Mariners’ loss to the Astros in this week’s baseball postseason playoffs.

“Meteor? Satellite? That Astros homer finally returning to Earth? (Sorry),” Jack Clemens joked in a tweet.

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Universe Today

America’s first space tourist signs up for a moon trip

Twenty-one years after becoming the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station, California financial analyst Dennis Tito and his wife, Akiko Tito, are taking on a new space adventure: a trip on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket around the moon and back.

The Titos are the first customers to be named as crew members for what’s slated to be SpaceX’s second crewed round-the-moon mission. A time frame for that flight hasn’t been announced, but it’s due to come after the Polaris Program’s first flight of Starship in Earth orbit and the “dearMoon” lunar mission planned by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. If the Starship development program proceeds as SpaceX hopes, those first two flights could lift off by the mid-2020s.

Dennis Tito, an 82-year-old former NASA engineer who made his fortune in finance, would be in line to become the oldest human to go into orbit. He would beat the record set by senator-astronaut John Glenn when he flew on the shuttle Discovery at the age of 77. (Star Trek actor William Shatner, who rode a Blue Origin spaceship last year at the age of 90, holds the record for suborbital spacefliers.)

Tito is already in the history books by virtue of his flight to the ISS in 2001. Russia’s Roscosmos space agency had previously flown privately funded travelers to the Mir space station, but Tito was the first American to buy his own ticket for a spaceflight, and the first commercial passenger to visit the ISS.

Most private-sector spacefliers would bristle at the term “space tourist,” but Tito’s status during the 2001 flight comes closest to fitting that description. “I spent most of my time in Zvezda, the service module, where I listened to opera, shot video and stereographic photos of the Earth out of the porthole, helped prepare food and talked with the crew during meals,” he recalled at a congressional hearing.

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Memo points to Blue Origin expansion around its HQ

The workforce at Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture, has been growing by leaps and bounds — and so has the need for office and lab space.

A memo laying out a real-estate sales offering suggests that Renton, Wash., the Seattle suburb right next door to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, is a prime destination for many of the company’s 3,000-plus employees in the area. The memo was issued last month by Jones Lang LaSalle, the sales adviser for the sellers, and was brought to light this week by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

The focus of the offering is The Landmark, a Renton office complex that’s up for sale at a price that hasn’t been publicly disclosed. The property, with 274,931 square feet of rentable space, had been purchased by California-based Redwood-Kairos Real Estate Partners in 2015 for $45 million.

Blue Origin’s stable presence at The Landmark is one of the big selling points. “The Landmark is strategically located just 10 minutes from Blue Origin’s headquarters,” JLL’s memo says.

According to the memo, Blue Origin occupies 83% of the space in two Landmark buildings, at 1600 Lind Ave. SW and 1600 E. Valley Road. Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based company specializing in public-sector software, takes up another 13%. “Since Blue Origin signed their initial lease in July 2021 for 92,834 square feet, they have taken every available space and negotiated tenant relocations (Wizards of the Coast) to allow for a 227,033 square-foot footprint today (more than doubling in size in less than a year),” JLL said.

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Amazon switches its first satellites to a new rocket

The first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet network are now due to launch on the first-ever flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket early next year, rather than on ABL Space Systems’ rocket.

Today’s announcement comes in the wake of schedule slips for ABL as well as for United Launch Alliance — slips that mean ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule lines up better with Amazon’s satellite deployment schedule.

The prototypes — known as Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 — are designed to test how the different components of a full 3,236-satellite constellation will work together. Results of the test will help Amazon refine its design for the production satellites.

“Our prototype satellites will be ready this year, and we look forward to flying with ULA,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, said today in an Amazon update.

The original plan called for the Kuipersats to launch this year on one of the first flights of ABL’s RS1 rocket — but California-based ABL ran into delays in its test program, resulting in schedule shifts. And this week, ULA said it would delay the debut of its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket at the request of its primary payload customer, Astrobotic.

ULA said Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic asked for more time to finish work on its Peregrine lunar lander, which was chosen to fly to the moon as the first mission for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The launch had been set for late 2022, but it’s now planned for the first quarter of 2023. The Kuipersats will be sent into low Earth orbit as secondary payloads.

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Universe Today

DART probe’s effect on an asteroid wows astronomers

NASA says its DART spacecraft caused a larger-than-expected change in the path of its target asteroid when they collided two weeks ago — marking a significant milestone in the effort to protect our planet from killer space rocks.

Ten months after it was launched, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test’s refrigerator-sized robotic probe crashed into a 560-foot-wide asteroid called Dimorphos on Sept. 26, as it circled a bigger asteroid known as Didymos. The paired asteroids were 7 million miles from Earth at the time, and posed no threat to Earth before or after the smashup.

Before the crash, DART’s science team said they expected the collision to reduce the time it took for Dimorphos to go around Didymos by about 10 minutes. NASA would have regarded any change in excess of 73 seconds as a success.

After the crash, detailed observations from ground-based observatories showed that the orbit was actually 32 minutes shorter — going from 11 hours and 55 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes. That’s three times as much of a change as scientists were expecting. Scientists also said Dimorphos appears to be slightly closer to Didymos.

“This is a watershed moment for planetary defense, and a watershed moment for humanity,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today. “All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have.”

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Universe Today

Enigmatic Europa gets its extreme closeup from Juno

Over the course of a brief two-hour opportunity, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a rare close look at Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a hidden ocean — and perhaps an extraterrestrial strain of marine life.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, but this week brought the best opportunity to look at Europa, which is the prime target for investigation by NASA’s Europa Clipper probe in the 2030s.

On Sept. 29, the orbiter buzzed over the moon’s surface at a velocity in excess of 52,000 mph (23.6 km per second), and at an altitude of 352 kilometers (219 miles).

That’s as close as any spacecraft has come to Europa since the Galileo orbiter’s 218-mile flyby in 2000.

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Universe Today

NASA and SpaceX will look into giving Hubble a big boost

NASA and SpaceX say they’ll conduct a feasibility study into a plan to reboost the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope to a more sustainable orbit, potentially at little or no cost to NASA.

The plan could follow the model set by last year’s Inspiration4 mission, an orbital trip that was facilitated by SpaceX and paid for by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman as a philanthropic venture. Isaacman, who is now spearheading a privately funded space program called Polaris in cooperation with SpaceX, says he’ll participate in the feasibility study.

“We could be taking advantage of everything that’s been developed within the commercial space industry to execute on a mission, should the study warrant it, with little or no potential cost to the government,” Isaacman said at a news briefing.

If the six-month feasibility study turns into an actual mission, a spacecraft could be sent up to Hubble to lift the telescope from its current altitude of 330 miles to the 370-mile orbit it was in when it was deployed in 1990. Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that could add another 15 to 20 years to the telescope’s life.

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NASA’s DART probe hits the bull’s eye on an asteroid

Ten months after NASA’s DART spacecraft was aimed at a mini-asteroid, the probe hit the bull’s eye today in a practice round for planetary defense that got an assist from engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

DART — an acronym that stands for “Double Asteroid Redirection Test” — was designed to find out how much impact a projectile could have for diverting a potentially threatening asteroid away from Earth.

In this case, the object posed no actual threat. DART’s target was Dimorphos, an asteroid the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid that’s in orbit around a half-mile-wide asteroid called Didymos. Both celestial bodies are on a path that ranges out beyond Mars’ orbit and comes close enough to Earth’s orbit for study. At the time of today’s impact, the double-asteroid system was nearly 7 million miles from our planet.

The mission team clapped and cheered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland as near-real-time imagery from the spacecraft’s DRACO camera showed Dimorphos looming larger in the metaphorical windshield. The DART spacecraft body, which NASA says weighed about 1,260 pounds and was roughly the size of a vending machine, struck the mini-moon at an estimated velocity of 14,000 mph.

“Oh, fantastic!” Lori Glaze, the director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said as the camera went dead. “Now is when the science starts.”

After the impact, APL director Ralph Semmel joked about the spacecraft’s destruction. “Never before have I been so excited to see a signal go away,” he said.

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NASA decides to roll its moon rocket back to safety

With Hurricane Ian bearing down on the Florida coast, NASA has decided to move its multibillion-dollar Space Launch System moon rocket to safety.

For days, NASA and weather forecasters had been watching the storm take shape in the Caribbean Sea, and they made advance preparations for a rollback from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Over the weekend, mission managers decided not to proceed with a third attempt on Sept. 27 to launch the 322-foot-tall, 5.7 million-pound rocket on NASA’s Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission. And today they decided to go ahead with the rollback.