An artist’s conception shows what the surface of the reported planet known as Barnard’s Star b might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser) The astronomical team that found the nearest exoplanet at Proxima Centauri has done it again with the reported detection of a super-Earth orbiting Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to our own. The discoverers acknowledge, however, that they’re not completely sure yet. “After a very careful analysis, we are 99 percent confident that the planet is there,” Spanish astronomer Ignasi Ribas, lead author of a published today by the , said in a. “However, we’ll continue to observe this fast-moving star to exclude possible, but improbable, natural variations of the stellar brightness which could masquerade as a planet.” Assuming it exists, Barnard’s Star b would be at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth, tracing a 233-Earth-day orbit. It would be as close to its parent star as Mercury is to our own sun — but because Barnard’s Star is a dim red dwarf, surface conditions would be far too chilly for life as we know it. The surface temperature would be about 275 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-170 degrees Celsius). The dimness of Barnard’s Star also explains the difficulty and the slight uncertainty surrounding the detection. Astronomers had to combine nearly 800 observations from seven different instruments, spanning 18 years’ worth of archives, to trace faint variations in the spectral characteristics of starlight from Barnard’s star. Patterns in those spectral variations can point to the gravitational wobbles induced by a planet orbiting an alien star. , known as the radial velocity method, led to the very first detections of extrasolar planets in the mid-1990s. More recently, most exoplanets have been detected using a different technique known as the transit method. Ribas, who is the director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and a research at Spain’s Institute of Space Sciences, noted that there have been many previous searches for planets around Barnard’s Star, and even announcements of discoveries. “Not one has ever been confirmed,” he said in a . “The thing is that the candidate planet we found is so small and so far from its host star that its effect on the star is really, really tiny.” The key observations came from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher on the ESO’s 3.6-meter La Silla telescope in Chile, also known as , plus the instrument at the Calar Alto Observatory in southern Spain. Despite this particular planet’s seeming inhabitability, the reported detection raises hopes that astronomers could get a closeup look at the type of exoplanet considered most likely to have conditions conducive to life. In a , University of Buenos Aires astronomer Rodrigo Diaz said the next generation of telescopes should be able to capture direct images of the planet and measure its light spectrum. “Using this spectrum, the characteristics of the planet’s atmosphere — such as its winds and rotation rate — could be inferred,” Diaz wrote. “This remarkable planet therefore gives us a key piece in the puzzle of planetary formation and evolution, and might be among the first low-mass exoplanets whose atmospheres are probed in detail.” Ribas and his colleagues are part of the , which is surveying a wide swath of red dwarfs for evidence of planets. The collaboration announced its first big find, , in 2016. Proxima b is 4.2 light-years from Earth is at least 30 percent more massive than Earth. It might be potentially habitable, although there are . Rocky super-Earths are thought to be. Thus, closer studies of Proxima b, Barnard’s Star b and other super-Earths should help scientists come closer to figuring out whether the conditions for life are rare or common in the universe. “Much of the universe is still a complete mystery,” Ribas said. “At the moment we are exploring it long-distance, from Earth, but perhaps someday in the distant future we will really be able to visit these planets, so we need to find out more about them first.” Ribas is among more than 60 authors of the study published in Nature, Teams of semi-professional astronomers coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers also contributed to the detection.
Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrier airplane taxis down a runway at Victorville Airport in California with a LauncherOne rocket slung under one of its wings. (Virgin Orbit via Twitter) British billionaire Richard Branson’s notched another milestone over the Veterans Day weekend: the first high-speed taxi test of its modified Boeing 747 mothership with a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath its wing. In a tweet posted today, Virgin Orbit said the Nov. 11 ground test revved up the plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to a speed beyond 110 knots (125 mph) on a runway in Victorville, Calif. That’s fast enough to simulate an aborted takeoff. “We also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto LauncherOne for the first time,” the company said. Branson signaled his approval in a . “Congratulations to all the team on more exciting progress,” he wrote. Zoom, zoom, zoom, was on the move again — this time for our very first high-speed taxi test. Not only did we ramp all the way up to more than 110 knots, we also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto for the first time. — Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) Virgin Orbit is taking a step-by-step approach to testing the LauncherOne air-launch system, which relies on the 747 serving as a flying launch pad. Cosmic Girl is designed to carry a two-stage rocket up to an altitude of about 35,000 feet, then drop the rocket from its carrier pylon. Seconds after release, LauncherOne would fire up its engines to send payloads weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) into low Earth orbit. The test run serves as another hint that captive-carry tests are near, to be followed by drop tests. If everything goes right, the first launch could take place before the end of the year. Virgin Orbit is using the air-launch approach because it allows for payloads to be sent into a wide variety of orbital inclinations, potentially with less than a day of pre-launch preparation. Virtually any airport big enough to host a 747 can host Cosmic Girl, which adds to the system’s rapid-response capability. Future customers include , which is working on a constellation of satellites for global internet access; and , which handles the logistics for small-satellite launches. For what it’s worth, last weekend’s tests tickled Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit — and a few of his Twitter followers: I mean, conceivably *some day* it might become uninteresting to see a 70 foot long rocket strapped under the wing of a 747 hurtling down the runway. But today is not that day. Great work, team! — William Pomerantz (@Pomerantz) Actual footage of during the maneuver: — Karen Rucker (@karen_darlin)
Jeff Bezos announces that Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will be built at a $200 million Florida factory during a news conference in 2015. (Blue Origin Photo) The process that Amazon went through to choose New York, Northern Virginia and Nashville as key sites for expansion isn’t the first HQ2 exercise for CEO Jeff Bezos: You could argue that the pattern was set when Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture decided where it’d manufacture and launch its New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin’s selection process produced far less hype than the yearlong contest that Amazon conducted, and far fewer jobs were at stake. But like the HQ2/3/4 arrangement announced today, the exercise ended up producing multiple winners — as well as disappointed suitors. The saga of Blue Origin’s expansion , six years after Blue Origin’s founding, when the company set up a test facility and launch pad on 18,600 acres of ranchland in West Texas. Obviously, it wouldn’t do to try launching rockets from the headquarters and production facility that Blue Origin had just opened up in Kent, Wash., not far from Interstate 5. Blue Origin’s next major move came in 2015, when it was considering where to build a huge manufacturing facility for the orbital-class New Glenn. The suborbital New Shepard spacecraft were and continue to be built in Kent, but New Glenn required something bigger. The competition came down to Florida vs. North Carolina, and although North Carolina (“First in Flight”) reportedly offered more financial incentives, Cape Canaveral won out. The fact that the Air Force was willing to offer Launch Complex 36 at the Cape as a pad for Blue Origin turned out to be a . To be sure, Florida wasn’t stingy with other sweeteners that carried dollar signs: State and local incentives . The result? Blue Origin invested more than $200 million to build a 750,000-square-foot rocket factory near the Cape, and followed up this year with (backed by millions of dollars in state reimbursements for infrastructure costs). It might have seemed as if Florida had the inside track for Blue Origin’s equivalent to HQ4: a separate factory for the company’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine, destined for use with New Glenn as well as with United Launch Alliance’s semi-reusable Vulcan rocket. But that choice was the subject of a low-key, years-long process that once again took financial incentives as well as location into account. Even Washington state, where the BE-4 engine is currently made, was in the running. At one point, a Blue Origin executive said state legislation aimed at extending tax incentives to spacecraft manufacturers would . (The legislation ended up languishing in limbo.) Last year, Blue Origin announced that, which has played a key role in rocket production since the days of Wernher von Braun in the 1950s. State and local incentives . That sum of $50 million pales in comparison with the that Amazon will get as a result of its expansion plans for New York, Northern Virginia and Nashville. But both cases point to a similar strategy: Incentives are part of the routine, but in the end, site selections reflect the regional specialties those sites can offer for Bezos’ ventures. Just as Blue Origin turned to Florida for launches and to Alabama for rocket engines, Amazon is likely to turn to its new HQ’s for their regional strengths: Software development in New York (which already for software jobs, just behind California and ahead of Washington state) Cloud computing in Northern Virginia (which is already the and ). Operational logistics in Nashville (which is close to and as well as Amazon’s ). In the long run, Amazon’s image as a Seattle company might well morph into multiple identities. Boeing, for example, can be associated with the Seattle area, or with Houston or Florida, or with Chicago, depending on whether you’re talking about planes, rockets or executives. Something similar might be said about Amazon … once the company has all its HQ’s in a row.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk watches February’s ascent of the Falcon Heavy rocket in a scene from National Geographic’s “Mars: Inside SpaceX.” (National Geographic / RadicalMedia via YouTube) Science fiction blends with fact in tonight’s double dose of Mars from National Geographic’s TV channel. Truth to tell, there’s more fact than fiction: The first show in the double feature is “Mars: Inside SpaceX,” which wraps a tale of past and future space exploration around an inside look at SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy launch in February. Then there’s the season premiere of “Mars,” the semi-scripted, semi-documentary series that’s serving up a second set of six episodes. Both shows are eye-openers. For “Inside SpaceX,” National Geographic had exclusive access to the rocket company’s facilities for February’s headline-grabbing launch. We see Musk showing his kids around the access tower at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A and weighing go/no-go decisions inside the mission control room. The back-and-forth in the control room clears up the mystery behind the countdown holds that popped up in advance of the Falcon Heavy’s liftoff. “You guys, I’m gonna give us a little more time to decide,” launch director Ricky Lim says at one point. “Yeah, hold the clock for now,” Musk replies. The key moment comes when Musk runs outside to watch the Falcon Heavy’s ascent. “That’s unreal!” he exults, with a smile of pure joy breaking out on his face. “Mars: Inside SpaceX” also tells the story of SpaceX’s sometimes-shaky beginnings, and provides historical context for Musk’s overarching aim of turning humanity into a multiplanetary species. “It’s one of those things that’s a reason to live,” Musk explains. The first episode in the second season of “Mars” turns the focus to the year 2042, five years after the conclusion of the first season. Life on Mars gets complicated for the Red Planet’s first residents and their not-for-profit research organization when a for-profit mining operation arrives and starts drilling. In addition to dealing with the basic challenges of life on a new world — such as pregnancy and birth, illness and death — the researchers and the miners have to figure out how to resolve the tension between exploration and exploitation. Scenes in the fictional narrative are intercut with on-camera interviews with present-day “Big Thinkers” (including Musk) and documentary footage that delves into contemporary parallels to the problems of 2042. For example, the tug of war over Martian territory sets the tone for reflecting on a . “There’s a constant push-pull between science and industry, and as a result, emotions run high,” Dee Johnson, showrunner for the second season, . “Although conflicting, their agendas are not mutually exclusive; with the advancement of science and exploration also comes industry and money-making.” Will terrestrial squabbles over resources provide lessons for future Martians? Or in a weird way, could the fictional frictions of 2042 teach us a thing or two about solving 2018’s troubles? As they say in Hollywood, and might well say someday in , stay tuned. “Mars: Inside SpaceX” and the second-season premiere of the “Mars” hybrid series both make their debut on the National Geographic Channel tonight. Check local listings for times. The first season of “Mars” is .
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rises from its launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab via YouTube) Rocket Lab executed its second orbital mission today, sending six small satellites and an experimental drag sail into orbit from an oceanside launch pad in New Zealand. Liftoff of the Electron rocket came at 4:50 p.m. New Zealand time on Sunday (7:50 p.m. PT Saturday) at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula. This satellite launch mission was nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” in reference to its fully commercial nature as well as in tribute to , a New Zealand parody-pop duo. Rocket Lab’s business time had been postponed twice over the past eight months, due to concerns about a motor controller for the first-stage Rutherford engines. But this time around, the countdown went off without a hitch, and the three-stage rocket rose into the southern sky to enter a pole-to-pole orbit. Second-stage separation proceeded as planned. The rocket’s Curie kickstage, a mini-third stage, fired up about an hour later to put the satellites in their intended orbits. The payloads included two , designed to monitor maritime traffic and weather; two , an Australian venture that’s building a satellite constellation for Internet of Things applications; a , part of a constellation that provides data for weather and climate research; and , an experimental satellite that was built by high-school students from Irvine, Calif., and will take low-resolution pictures of celestial objects. There was also a attached to the kickstage, built by Germany’s High Performance Space Structure Systems to test a technique for deorbiting small satellites more efficiently at the end of their operating life. After satellite deployment, the sail and the kickstage were meant to plunge through the atmosphere and burn up. Rocket Lab, which is headquartered in California but has a strong New Zealand presence, is pushing out on the frontier of space technology by using carbon-composite materials for its rocket casings, and by taking advantage of 3-D printing to manufacture its electric-pump-fed Rutherford rocket engines. The list price for launching 100 to 225 kilograms (220 to 500 pounds) of payload into low Earth orbit is $5 million. The company’s sent an Electron rocket into space, but not into orbit. The putting two Spire Lemur-2 and two Planet Dove Earth-observing satellites into orbit. That launch also sent up , an ornamental satellite that twinkled in the night sky (and irritated some astronomers) for months. Rocket Lab has higher ambitions for low-cost space missions: Its next launch, aimed at , could come within weeks. for at least three more Electron launches to follow. Last month, Rocket Lab said it would and start conducting Electron launches there in about a year. The company last year, boosting its valuation to more than $1 billion. One of its investors is Lockheed Martin, which on Scotland’s north coast. There’s a chance Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle could be used at that facility as well.
SpaceX’s satellite plan suggests that Starlink spacecraft would be placed in two different sets of orbits, starting with lower-orbit satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers. (PatentYogi via YouTube) SpaceX wants to lower the bar for its first batch of , with the aim of beginning deployment by the end of 2019. The revised plan is laid out for regulators at the Federal Communications Commission in filings that seek a lower orbit for 1,584 of the more than 4,400 satellites it envisions launching. The new target orbit would be 550 kilometers (342 miles) in altitude, as opposed to the 1,150-kilometer (715-mile) orbit described in SpaceX’s initial round of filings. The FCC , and would have to approve the revisions after putting them through a public comment period. In its filings, SpaceX said it was changing the plan based on its experience with Tintin A and B,. Those spacecraft, which were built at SpaceX’s satellite development facility in Redmond, Wash., have been undergoing testing for months. Some observers wondered why the Tintin satellites weren’t sent into a higher orbit as planned — and the revised constellation plan could provide an explanation. “This move will help simplify the spacecraft design and enhance the considerable space safety attributes of SpaceX’s constellation by ensuring that any orbital debris will undergo rapid atmospheric re-entry and demise, even in the unlikely event that a spacecraft fails in orbit,” SpaceX said in the . SpaceX said the plan for a lower orbit means 16 fewer satellites will be required — and will also reduce the potential for a traffic jam at the higher orbit, which is close to the altitude targeted by rival broadband constellations being considered by OneWeb, Boeing and Telesat. Starlink will require thousands of satellites because each satellite spends only a few minutes in contact with a given ground station as it passes over. But once enough satellites are in orbit, the constellation should provide global coverage, theoretically making low-cost broadband internet access available to billions of people who don’t have it today. Having the satellite in low Earth orbit as opposed to a much higher geostationary orbit reduces the lag time, or latency, for data transmissions. In May, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said with latency amounting to 25 milliseconds. “Good enough to play fast-response video games,” he tweeted. When the low-orbit constellation is fully deployed, latency could be reduced to as little as 15 milliseconds, “at which point it would be virtually unnoticeable to almost all users,” SpaceX said in today’s filing. SpaceX acknowledged that going lower will present some challenges. At least at first, the satellites will have to widen their transmission angles so that ground stations can be in communication when the satellites are just 25 degrees above the horizon, as opposed to 40 degrees under the original plan. Also, SpaceX has to convince the FCC that the revised plan would create no more interference for ground-based networks and geosynchronous satellite networks than the original plan would have. The company presented pages of graphs showing that would be the case. Read SpaceX’s key FCC filings: and SpaceX clearly wants the FCC to expedite approval of the revisions: When the agency gave its original approval, it said the thumbs-up was contingent on favorable findings from the International Telecommunications Union, the global authority on telecom satellite orbits. But in today’s filings, SpaceX said it wasn’t optimistic about getting the ITU’s go-ahead on a timely schedule. It offered orbital data based on ITU simulations as a substitute, in hopes of getting a waiver of the FCC’s original requirement. The FCC is due to consider a different aspect of SpaceX’s satellite plan , during a time frame that SpaceX said it was planning to beat the deadlines laid out by the FCC in its original approval. “SpaceX intends to launch its first batch of satellites to begin populating a new orbital shell before the end of 2019,” it said. At least half of the 4,400-plus satellites are required to be in operation by March 29, 2024. In today’s filings, SpaceX gave a shout-out to its Redmond operation, which to accelerate the pace of satellite development. “SpaceX was able to move from opening its satellite technology development office in Redmond, Washington, to building, launching and operating its own spacecraft in orbit in an unprecedented three and a half years,” the company said. In other SpaceX news: NASA’s has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as a Category 3 launch vehicle. Such vehicles are certified to support NASA’s highest cost and most complex scientific missions. “LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another key milestone in our close partnership with NASA,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “We are honored to have the opportunity to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services to the country’s most critical scientific payloads.” In a series of tweets, Elon Musk said SpaceX would design a Falcon 9 upper stage to serve as a scaled-down testbed for the that’s meant to take on missions to the moon and Mars within the next decade. The “mini-BFR Ship” would that would be required for atmospheric re-entry of the full-scale spaceship. “Aiming for orbital flight by June,” Musk said. The re-entry tests would be conducted in parallel with . Reuters is quoting two unnamed sources as saying that SpaceX has circulated pricing information on a that will put cash on the company’s balance sheet. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is leading the deal, and commitments are due Nov. 16, Reuters reported. that Goldman Sachs pulled out of an when SpaceX sought wide latitude to raise additional debt.
A picture taken from the International Space Station shows Japan’s robotic HTV-7 cargo ship being released from the station’s Canadian robotic arm. (ESA Photo / Alexander Gerst via Twitter) A balky computer system is working again on the International Space Station, thanks to a reboot, the Russian space agency reported today. “The system was tested for one and a half turns of the station’s flight around the Earth (about two hours),” . “In fact, all systems tested out properly.” The computer, one of three redundant systems, . The other two systems continued to operate normally, and operations on the orbital outpost were unaffected. Roscosmos said there was no need to replace the system that suffered the glitch. Roscosmos didn’t go into detail about the cause of the computer crash. The glitch was the latest in a string of technical issues affecting Russian space hardware. In August, the space station’s crew had to that’s currently docked to the station. And last month, a Soyuz rocket of two new crew members to the station. The quick resolution of this week’s computer problem means the three spacefliers aboard the space station can turn their attention more fully to a pair of robotic cargo deliveries scheduled to be made next week by a Russian Progress supply ship and a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo carrier. In preparation for those deliveries, an uncrewed Japanese HTV-7 cargo ship was. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s spacecraft, filled with trash, is due to burn up during atmospheric re-entry on Saturday — but not before releasing a small capsule designed to test JAXA’s ability to return research payloads to Earth.
Blue Origin’s Rob Meyerson speaks at the 2016 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in New Mexico. (ISPCS via YouTube) , who was the president of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture until this year, says he’s left the company. Since January, Meyerson has served as senior vice president, in charge of advanced development programs such as the lunar lander system and the . In an email, he told GeekWire that Friday was his last day at the company, which grew from 10 employees to more than 1,500 during his tenure. Meyerson said he was “taking some time off to determine my next steps.” The came to Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin in 2003 from Kirkland, Wash.-based Kistler Aerospace, where he was a senior program manager, according to his LinkedIn website. Before Kistler, Meyerson was an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas for 12 years, working on the space shuttle and space station programs as well as the X-38 crew rescue vehicle program. As president at Blue Origin, Meyerson had a public profile second only to Bezos’. During a Senate subcommittee hearing in April 2017, for example, he . But in September 2017, aerospace executive , and Meyerson switched roles just a few months later. Meyerson is leaving during a crucial time for Blue Origin: The company is gearing up for the first passenger flights on its early next year, preparing for production of its and (with ), and putting its hand in for as part of NASA’s lunar initiatives. Blue Origin is also among .
Two years after its , NASA’s is closing in on a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu and sending back pictures that provide one gem of a 360-degree view. Last Friday, OSIRIS-REx captured imagery over the course of a four-hour, 11-minute period to take in a from a distance of about 122 miles. The view is whetting astronomers’ appetite for even closer looks at Bennu, which is currently about 80 million miles from Earth. Over the next few weeks, OSIRIS-REx will carefully survey the quarter-mile-wide asteroid’s terrain as it edges closer. During December, it’ll execute three flybys, coming within just a few miles of the surface. And early next year, it’ll settle into a close-in orbit and conduct a months-long survey. All that’s just a buildup for the main event: the probe’s descent to the surface in mid-2020 for the collection of samples that will be packed up for delivery to Earth in 2023. The principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, was struck by Bennu’s variations in surface reflectance, which hints at a diverse composition: “Those dark areas have got the team buzzing with excitement!” Now with full coverage – here is a complete rotation of Bennu with the colors stretched to accentuate the reflectance variations. — Dante Lauretta (@DSLauretta) There’s also a boulder in Bennu’s southern hemisphere that looks as if it’s due to the asteroid’s weak gravitational pull, Lauretta said in a different tweet. These features add to the intrigue surrounding the OSIRIS-REx mission, which is expected to provide insights into how the solar system was formed, , and how future space explorers can take advantage of what asteroids have to offer. For what it’s worth, OSIRIS-REx is a tortured acronym that stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer. OSIRIS-REx isn’t the only game in town when it comes to asteroid exploration: Japan’s is in the midst of its own survey of another diamond-shaped asteroid that looks a lot like Bennu, only twice as wide. Hayabusa 2 is due to grab bits of asteroid Ryugu next year and bring them back to Earth in 2020, well before OSIRIS-REx’s delivery.
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua might look like. Or does it actually look more an alien light sail? (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser) ‘Oumuamua is long gone from the inner solar system, but the has been rekindled, thanks to a . The paper, suggesting that the cigar-shaped object could have been an alien light sail, sparked headlines as well as skepticism from colleagues claiming that the astronomers were jumping to conclusions. Among the skeptics is Doug Vakoch, who heads up , a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the study of alien contact. (The acronym stands for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”) “I’d love to think that ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial spacecraft that whipped past Earth, propelled by a stream of photons hitting its solar sail. But we need to be wary of conjuring up an explanation that fits the data gathered at one point in time, when we have no opportunity for follow-up observations,” Vakoch told me in an email. The claims from Shmuel Bialy and Avi Loeb of the are based on an analysis of ‘Oumuamua’s orbital trajectory, which brought it inward from interstellar space, around the sun, and then back outward in late 2017. Researchers found that the object was subject to a bit of extra acceleration that couldn’t be explained by gravitational influences. If ‘Oumuaumua (which was given a Hawaiian name meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first”) was a comet, the extra push might have been caused by the rocket-style effect of outgassing. And in fact , based on an analysis they published in the journal . Bialy and Loeb, however, say ‘Oumuamua showed no outward signs of outgassing while it was under observation. Instead, they consider whether the acceleration could have been caused by solar radiation pressure on the object. Their calculations showed that such could be the case, but only if the object was a broad sheet of material less than a millimeter thick. “One possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a [piece of] debris from advanced technological equipment,” the authors write. Such a sheet could have survived the trip from another star system and would account for the object’s unusual dimensions, they say. “Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” they add. Talk about clickbait … As you could imagine, some publications had a field day with the astronomers’ tentative claims. “Mysterious interstellar object Oumuamua ‘SENT BY ALIENS’ to survey galaxy – Harvard,” . It’s natural for Loeb to think about alien light sails, considering that he chairs the advisory committee for the $100 million . Starshot is aiming to send fleets of (and any planets that exist there) sometime in the next couple of decades. The research paper even refers to Starshot in its discussion of the alien lightsail hypothesis. But if you follow the late Carl Sagan’s dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, then proving the hypothesis may be a lost cause. Even Bialy and Loeb acknowledge that ‘Oumuamua is now too distant to observe, either with existing telescopes or space probes. Instead, they suggest keeping watch for other oddballs like ‘Oumuamua. “Deep wide-area surveys of the type expected with the will be particularly powerful in searching for additional members of ‘Oumuamua’s population of objects,” they write. “A survey for lightsails as technosignatures in the solar system is warranted, irrespective of whether ‘Oumuamua is one of them.” Vakoch agreed. ” ‘Oumuamua is a modern-day — something so freakish that it just might be from an advanced civilization, but so elusive that we’ll never know,” he told me. “SETI is an inherently conservative science, and ‘Oumuamua just doesn’t satisfy the stringent requirements for a confirmed detection of alien technology.” At least it got Elon Musk’s attention. Here’s a roundup of tweets reflecting on the ‘Oumuamua mystery: Oh hi guys … lol — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) Love Oumuamua jokes — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) So if you see a headline saying that “scientists claim…” and it’s one paper and it’s an EXTREMELY BIG CLAIM, please keep in mind that the only thing you can conclude is that the authors of the paper (probably) didn’t see a reason the idea had to be 100% false. — Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) I realize it is appealing to believe that the solar-sailing aliens will save us all but unfortunately our current situation is that we have to actually go out and . — Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) There have been Qs about the difference in 'Oumuamua's observed outbound trajectory vs its predicted path (see below.) This is most likely a result of outgassing, even if the particles were too large to detect. Confirmed? No. But still likelier than ALIENS — Jason Major (@JPMajor) My publicist asked me for a quote on the 'Oumuamua story making the rounds. Here it is: "No, 'Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it." Feel free to use that, , ! — Paul M. Sutter (@PaulMattSutter) If "it's never aliens" is the thing I'm most remembered for in my career… that's fine. — Miriam Kramer (@mirikramer) In a little detail, for those who have asked me: Shmeul and Avi's paper propose that an alien lightsail is pretty much the only explanation they can come up with for 'Oumuamua. But this depends on assumptions: — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) (A) modelling the observations indicate an orbit with non-gravitational acceleration (seems secure, but maybe there's something weird with the observations that is throwing us off…) — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) (B) The Rafikov paper cited by Shmeul and Avi looks at the most obvious non-grav explanation, gas boiling off the asteroid acting like a rocket and pushing it – 'outgassing'. Rafikov claims to rule this out, given fairly reasonable (but not absolutely certain?) assumptions — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) (C) the next most common kind of non-gravitational acceleration for orbiting objects is radiation pressure acting on big flat sail-shaped objects. We don't know of any natural objects of the right size which would have that high an A/m ratio. (Doesn't mean there aren't any) — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) (D) If it's not gravity, outgassing or light pressure, they can't think of any other force that could be causing the acceleration. (Doesn't mean there can't be one we haven't thought of). — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) So, all of A,B,C,D mean 'Oumuamua's still a bit of a mystery. But our Bayesian prior probability for it being aliens is quite low (zero if you are ) . The probability that one of A,B,C,D is wrong is low, but not as low. So it's (much) more likely that it's not aliens. — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) Something to note about the paper though: Avi is the lead science person on Project Starshot, trying to figure out how to send exactly such a lightsail to Alpha Cen. So it's reasonable for him to be thinking about other species having done it first and what it would look like — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) The way to read this paper is that here's the lightsail guy going "Hey, if you are into lightsails, note that 'Oumuamua looks just like a lightsail would look". Which is very very very very different from "it's probably a lightsail". — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589)
A black-and-white view of the International Space Station is overlaid with telemetry data in an image from an approaching Soyuz craft in 2014. (NASA TV) One of the three computers on the Russian side of the International Space Station has crashed, but orbital operations are unaffected because the two other systems are in working order, Russia’s space agency reported today. “To restore the computer to work, it is necessary to restart it,” Roscosmos . That will happen on Thursday. Roscosmos said the two other computer systems are sufficient for safe operation of the station indefinitely, but it wants the third one back online “to ensure the reliability” of next week’s scheduled docking with an uncrewed Russian Progress cargo spacecraft. The computer glitch was the latest in a string of technical failures involving Russian space hardware. In August, the space station’s crew had to that’s currently docked to the station. And last month, a Soyuz rocket of two new crew members to the station. Last week, Russian investigators traced the rocket failure to a bent sensor and , leading up to the delivery of a different set of spacefliers in December. In the meantime, the Russians are planning a spacewalk this month to check out the Soyuz air leak from the outside.
A full-scale fuel preburner for Stratolaunch’s PGA rocket engine undergoes a test firing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (Stratolaunch Photo) , the space venture founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it has successfully completed the first hot-fire test of a key component for its hydrogen-fueled PGA rocket engine. The full-scale hydrogen preburner was fired up last Friday at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, less than a year after design work started. “This is the first step in proving the performance and highly efficient design of the PGA engine. The hot-fire test is an incredible milestone for both the propulsion team and Stratolaunch,” Jeff Thornburg, vice president of propulsion at Stratolaunch, said today in a news release. The preburner typically begins the combustion process in a rocket engine and drives the fuel pumps to bring the engine up to full power. The PGA’s preburner is fabricated exclusively through additive manufacturing, also known as metal 3-D printing. That allows for rapid prototyping on a much faster scale than traditional manufacturing methods. Stratolaunch didn’t disclose how long Friday’s firing lasted, but the company said the duration and power levels of the preburner tests would be increased over the coming months. When completed, the hydrogen-oxygen engine should produce 200,000 pounds of liftoff thrust for a that Stratolaunch is developing in-house. The first in-house rocket, known as the Medium Launch Vehicle or MLV, is due to fly in 2022. Stratolaunch is also working on the world’s largest airplane at its facility at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. Flight tests of the twin-fuselage, 385-foot-wingspan plane are , with the aim of using it as a platform for air-launched rockets by as soon as 2020. The first launches would make use of Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rockets rather than the MLV. The takes its name from the initials of Paul G. Allen, who created Stratolaunch in 2011 and after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Payload development engineer Marko Baricevic of Tethers Unlimited Inc. conducts flight certification tests at Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA Photo / Emmett Givens) There’s nothing new about having a 3-D printer in space, but how about a 3-D printer that also recycles plastic to turn old stuff into new? Just such a gizmo is due to be delivered to the International Space Station next week. Bothell, Wash.-based built the device, which is about the size of a mini fridge and is known as the Refabricator, in cooperation with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. After months of testing, the Refabricator is on the payload manifest for Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo resupply flight, scheduled for liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility on Nov. 15. If all proceeds according to schedule, the uncrewed Cygnus craft should arrive at the station a couple of days after launch. Once the cargo is unloaded, the Refabricator will be installed and put through a series of test prints. The plan calls for standardized samples to be printed out, using plastic feedstock. Those samples can then be recycled back into filament through a process that Tethers Unlimited calls “Positrusion.” Researchers will check how the quality of the 3-D printing job holds up over the course of several cycles of printing and recycling. Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator is a recycler and 3-D printer in one unit, which is about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator. This is the tech demonstration unit that underwent tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo / Emmett Given) Tethers Unlimited fabricated the Refabricator under the terms of a $2.5 million Phase 3 contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. The first 3-D printer designed for use in space was built by Made In Space and . Eventually, NASA intends to beam up the plans to make (and recycle) components in space rather than having to send up the components themselves. That type of in-space manufacturing capability will come in especially handy for astronauts on long-duration trips to the moon and Mars. Tethers Unlimited is also involved in a , aimed at manufacturing and recycling 3-D printed items produced from a variety of materials, including metal as well as plastic. Made In Space, meanwhile, is working on a different system for .
The SpaceShipOne rocket plane is illuminated in blue light at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Saturday night lighting served as a tribute to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who backed the prize-winning SpaceShipOne project. (NASM / Steven VanRoekel Photo) It wasn’t just : Back east in the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum cast a blue spotlight on the history-making SpaceShipOne rocket plane in honor of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who provided the money that helped it fly to space. Allen, who passed away last month at the age of 65 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, invested $28 million in the SpaceShipOne effort to power the project to victory in the for private-sector spaceflight in 2004. In his autobiography, “Idea Man,” Allen said he came out ahead on the deal — not just because of his share of the prize money, but also because of licensing fees for the technology and the tax break he received from . Since 2005, the rocket plane has been hanging from the National Air and Space Museum’s ceiling in a place of honor, near Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane. Last week, when former Microsoft executive Steven VanRoekel read about the plan to pay tribute to Allen by focusing blue spotlights on Seattle-area landmarks, a cyan-tinted light bulb went off over his head: Why not do the same with SpaceShipOne? VanRoekel, who served a stint as the and recently became chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, was the perfect person to make the link: He helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014-2015 Ebola virus epidemic in Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it was in that capacity that he reconnected with Allen. “He was one of the first philanthropists to ,” VanRoekel recalled in an email to GeekWire. VanRoekel also happens to be on the Air and Space Museum’s board of directors, so he asked the museum to consider getting in on the blue-light special in Allen’s honor. “They came through with flying color(s),” he wrote. The museum’s new director, Ellen Stofan, thanked VanRoekel for his suggestion in an email. “I think SpaceShipOne looks appropriately beautiful,” she wrote. This weekend, the Seattle skyline is glowing blue to honor the life and accomplishments of Paul Allen. Following Seattle's lead, we will be illuminating SpaceShipOne, the privately developed space vehicle funded by Allen, in blue light. — National Air and Space Museum (@airandspace) The legacy that Allen helped build with SpaceShipOne continues: The rocket plane’s heritage is reflected in Virgin Galactic’s , which is undergoing key tests at Mojave Air and Space Port in California; and in Virgin Orbit’s , which is being prepared for its first captive-carry tests. In 2011, Allen went on to found what could literally be characterized as the biggest spinoff from SpaceShipOne. His is getting ready for the first flight of the world’s largest airplane, which is designed to carry rockets in an arrangement that’s similar to the way SpaceShipOne was carried by its White Knight mothership. White Knight is at the in Everett, Wash., and the museum has a as well. Will Stratolaunch’s super-plane someday find a home beside SpaceShipOne at the Smithsonian? If so, they’re gonna need a bigger museum.
Mars Society President Robert Zubrin provides a guided tour of future space missions during a talk at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) For decades, rocket scientist Robert Zubrin has been a voice crying in the Martian wilderness. But now the president of the Mars Society is pleading the case for a cause that’s much closer than the Red Planet: low-cost lunar exploration and settlement. Zubrin’s lays out his latest plan, known as “Moon Direct,” this week in a tech journal called , and he’s in Seattle today to talk about it in conjunction with the . The expo also features demonstrations of a highlighting one of Zubrin’s longest-running projects, the , a testing ground for space settlement that was built in Utah back in 2001. If Zubrin gets his way, such outposts could be built on the moon and on Mars as well, on time scales far sooner and costs far lower than NASA projects. The problem is, Zubrin doesn’t always get his way. Since the 1990s, he’s advocated for a mission architecture known as that would first send uncrewed rockets to Mars and follow up with later crewed missions. Each mission would make use of on-site materials to produce the fuel for the return trips. The Mars Direct plan didn’t get much traction, and Zubrin says that’s NASA’s fault. “The manned space science program has been adrift in this period,” he said during a Friday night presentation at the University of Washington. Now NASA is turning its attention to missions to the moon — but Zubrin is worried that, once again, NASA is taking the wrong approach. “They have a ridiculous program right now called the Deep Space Tollbooth … er, Gateway,” he said. The , also known as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway or just the Gateway, is supposed to take shape in the mid-2020s in lunar orbit. It would serve as a platform for trips to the moon’s surface and onward to Mars. Zubrin, however, said the Gateway is an unnecessary stopping point on the way to lunar settlement. “If you want to go to the moon, go to the moon,” he said. He’s not alone in that view: During testimony to the National Space Council in June, retired astronaut Terry Virts made a similar argument against NASA’s plan. “Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars.” he said. The Moon Direct plan calls for using existing launch vehicles — specifically, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets — to send equipment and eventually people directly to the lunar surface. Uncrewed missions could make use of the Falcon Heavy, while crewed missions could start with a Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station or some other yet-to-be-built outpost in low Earth orbit. The plan calls for one puzzle piece that’s still missing: a Lunar Excursion Vehicle, or LEV, capable of landing two tons of payload onto the lunar surface. The LEV is what astronauts would ride from the Earth-orbiting platform to the lunar surface, and if the right infrastructure is in place, it could be refueled on the moon for making the return trip or traveling between sites on the moon. Zubrin estimates the cost of the initial missions to get things started at $1.5 billion, followed by a yearly cost of $420 million to keep things going. “The point is, the heavy-lift vehicles are only needed in the initial stages,” he said. That compares favorably with NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, which isn’t expected to start flying until 2020 at the earliest and may cost per liftoff. If moon missions can truly be done at lower cost, that would leave more money (and more willingness on the part of policymakers) to push onward to Mars. “The moon program does not have to be a tar baby that prevents you from doing anything else,” Zubrin said. There’s a chance that Zubrin’s campaign for Moon Direct will make him, once again, a voice crying in the wilderness. But there’s an added reason for hope that didn’t exist in the 1990s. The gap in human spaceflight has “created an opening for the entrepreneurial space companies,” including SpaceX as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, Zubrin said. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has talked about using his company’s yet-to-be-built Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, to support the development of a “Moonbase Alpha” as well as a city on Mars. Bezos has a similar vision for a , facilitated by Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built and rockets plus its . For now, those two billionaires are banking on their own plans for putting a permanent human presence on the moon and eventually on Mars. But if their plans somehow get stymied, it’s nice to know that Zubrin has a Plan B. Zubrin will talk about Mars Direct and Moon Direct during a reception, lecture and Q&A session at the Museum of Flight’s Charles Simonyi Space Gallery from 5:30 to 8 p.m. PT tonight. are $15 for general admission, $10 for museum members. The event is part of the museum’s schedule for , which offers space-themed lectures, panel discussions, demonstrations, special exhibits and art activities all day today. The daytime events are free with museum admission.
Elon Musk speaks at a space conference in 2016. (SpaceX Photo) Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is really psyched about the electric pickup truck he’s got on the drawing board — and he’s also cool with the and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ . Those are just a few of the talking points that emerged when he sat down for an 80-minute Q&A on Halloween, after months of cajoling from Recode alpha-geek Kara Swisher. The and the are online at Recode, so there’s no need to go into a lot of detail here. But here are five key quotes: Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin: “I think it’s great that Jeff is spending lots of money on space. And they are a competitor, but it’s good that he’s spending money on … that he’s spending a lot of money on developing rockets. I think it will encounter some challenges getting to orbit, it’s remarkably difficult getting to orbit. But he has the resources to overcome those difficulties.” Space Force: “This may be a little controversial, but I actually like the idea. I think it’s cool. You know, like, when the Air Force was formed, there was a lot of like pooh-poohing, and like, ‘Oh, how silly to have an Air Force!’ You know, because the aircraft in World War II were managed by the Army. … It’s basically defense in space. And then I think also it could be pretty helpful for maybe expanding our civilization … You know, expanding things beyond Earth.” Mission to Mars in 2024: “We’re still aiming for 2024. … I’m not sure if there’ll be people onboard or not. But there is a Mars rendezvous opportunity, ’cause you can only do a launch to Mars roughly every two years. So around the 2024 timeframe, there’s a rendezvous opportunity for Mars, which hopefully we can catch. … Hopefully, there are people on board. But I think there’s a pretty good chance of at least having an unmanned craft go to Mars.” Tesla pickup truck: “I can’t talk about the details, but it’s gonna be like a really futuristic like cyberpunk, ‘Blade Runner’ pickup truck. … If there’s only a small number of people that like that truck, I guess we’ll make a more conventional truck in the future. But it’s the thing that I am personally most fired up about. It’s gonna have a lot of titanium.” Elon Musk’s annus horribilis: “This year felt like five years of aging, frankly. The worst year of my entire career. Insanely painful. … It’s been because of the Model 3 production ramp. Myself and others at Tesla, we had to go in and fix the mistakes in the Model 3 production system, and there were a lot of them. … I think at Tesla we’re . Tesla’s not staring death in the face. We’re in, I think, a pretty good position.” Recode Daily: Kara Swisher interviews Elon Musk — Recode (@Recode)