An artists’s conception shows SpaceX’s Starship craft on Mars. (SpaceX Illustration) NASA is helping SpaceX get a fix on potential landing sites on Mars for its Starship super-spaceship, with an emphasis on Arcadia Planitia and Amazonis Planitia, regions where deposits of water ice may be found. Another focus of NASA’s reconnaissance campaign in , a mountainous area just west of Arcadia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Pictures of the candidate sites were captured from orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in June and July, and included in last month’s roundup of MRO imagery. Science writer Robert Zimmerman , and dubbed them , , , and . Sites 2 and 3 are a stereo pair of images. The other three sites on Zimmerman’s list have stereo pairs as well. Zimmerman said that his contact at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory declined to discuss the images due to a non-disclosure agreement, and that SpaceX hasn’t responded to his request for comment. (Comment is scarce this weekend due to Labor Day, but we’ll add anything we hear from JPL or SpaceX to this report.) Arcadia Planitia has been on SpaceX’s list of potential Mars landing areas. SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer, Paul Wooster, told NASA’s what the company was looking for during a virtual meeting conducted a year and a half ago. Here’s an excerpt from : “SpaceX’s current landing site candidates for Mars were shown, having been chosen to provide access to near-surface ice, few landing site hazards (such as large rocks), and enough space for potentially growing a sizeable outpost. The ice sites are in high mid-latitudes and the search for lower latitude candidates, which are preferred, continues. Previously, MEPAG had been told that SpaceX could transport for-fee payloads to the Mars surface.” Wooster told the MEPAG meeting that there’d probably be capacity for secondary payloads on what’s now known as the Starship spacecraft, but that the details would have to wait until the launcher capabilities were “firmly established.” Zimmerman noted that there’s strong evidence for the presence of buried glaciers, known as lobate debris aprons, in the region that was imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In a given at a NASA workshop in 2015, researchers called Arcadia Planitia “one of the few regions where abundant shallow ice is present at relatively low latitude.” The targeted locations are relatively flat, and the climate is relatively mild. And for what it’s worth, if that’s where SpaceX is planning to build a settlement, there’s a potential attraction for scientists and tourists not far away: . Like Arcadia, Phlegra Montes is thought to , but the terrain is more rugged. It’s too early to say whether SpaceX’s first Mars-bound Starship will head for the Arcadia-Amazonis region or for Phlegra Montes. But the fact that NASA is taking a closer look on SpaceX’s behalf suggests those places are definitely in the running. When will that first Mars mission take off? SpaceX put a prototype for its Starship spacecraft, known as Starhopper, to its , and if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way, Starships could begin flying to the Red Planet by the mid-2020s — at first with cargo, and then with people. Musk is during an update on Sept. 28, which is the 11th anniversary of . So stay tuned. Check out this map of the Arcadia-Amazonis sites, plus raw images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Click on the ‘expand’ arrows for a larger view: Tip o’ the hat to .
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is showing off a picture of his Blue Origin space venture’s BE-4 rocket engine going full blast during a hot-fire test in Texas. “BE-4 continues to rack up time on the test stand,” Bezos said in an accompanied by a picture of today’s full-power engine test. A post shared by (@jeffbezos) on Aug 2, 2019 at 8:24pm PDT Getting the BE-4 into operation is crucial to Blue Origin’s space ambitions. The rocket engine, which runs on liquefied natural gas and packs 550,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff, is destined for use on Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket. It’s also . Both those rockets are currently scheduled to have their maiden launches in 2021. Bezos’ company tends to play its cards closer to the vest than rival billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has been letting its fans pass along and Starship hops in South Texas over the past few months. Blue Origin has been testing BE-4 engine components at its West Texas proving ground for more than two years, and the course has not always run smooth. In May 2017, for instance, , resulting in the loss of hardware. The fact that he’s sharing a picture of the full-power firing on a summery Friday night suggests that the test program is on track. But it also suggests there are more test firings to go. Bezos has said more than once that he’s annually. Just in the past few days, Bezos , and it’s a sure bet that some of that cash is going toward the BE-4. When the BE-4 gets an honest-to-goodness thumbs-up, that’ll clear the way for engine production to shift from Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., to a in Huntsville, Ala. That, in turn, will set the stage for New Glenn rocket assembly to move ahead at Blue Origin’s . Bottom line? Keep an eye on and for word that the BE-4 has passed its final test.
An artist’s conception depicts GJ 357 d orbiting its host star. (Cornell University Illustration / Jack Madden) Astronomers are sharing a flood of findings from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, including the detection of a potentially habitable super-Earth far beyond our solar system. The planet is said to circle an M-type dwarf star called GJ 357, about 31 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra. Known as GJ 357 d, the world is at least six times more massive than Earth — and orbits the star every 55.7 days, at a distance that’s only 20% as far away as Earth is from our own sun. With that orbit, GJ 357 d would be broiling-hot if it were in our solar system. But its parent star is so much dimmer than our sun that the super-Earth could conceivably be just warm enough to have liquid water. That characteristic serves as the definition for habitable zones around alien suns. “This is exciting, as this is humanity’s first nearby super-Earth that could harbor life – uncovered with help from TESS, our small, mighty mission with a huge reach,” astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger, who’s the director of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute, . The findings relating to the GJ 357 system are detailed in research papers published by the journal and the . Detecting GJ 357 d was a complex operation. It started with data from the TESS satellite, which was and scans the skies for the telltale signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. The same transit-tracking technique was used by to identify thousands of candidate planets. TESS’ readings indicated that the dwarf star harbored a super-close-in planet dubbed GJ 357 b, which makes a complete orbit in just 3.9 Earth days. Assuming that the planet lacks an atmosphere, scientists estimated GJ 357 b’s equilibrium temperature to be in the range of 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). “We describe GJ 357 b as a ‘hot Earth,’ ” Enric Pallé, an astrophysicist at the , said in a . “Although it cannot host life, it is noteworthy as the third-nearest transiting exoplanet known to date and one of the best rocky planets we have for measuring the composition of any atmosphere it may possess.” To get a better fix on the toasty planet, astronomers turned to ground-based observations. Those observations were analyzed using a different method, which measures the ever-so-slight wobbles in a star’s position caused by the gravitational tug of its planets. In addition to confirming GJ 357 b’s existence, the analysis determined that two other planets orbited the star in farther-out orbits. One was GJ 357 c, a too-hot planet that’s at least 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits the star every 9.1 days. The other was GJ 357 d. If GJ 357 d lacks an atmosphere, its equilibrium temperature would be uncomfortably chilly, around 64 degrees below zero F (-53 degrees C). But if it has an atmosphere, as expected for a rocky planet at that distance, temperatures would be more moderate — and the prospects for life would be much sunnier. “With a thick atmosphere, the planet GJ 357 d could maintain liquid water on its surface like Earth, and we could pick out signs of life with telescopes that will soon be online,” Kaltenegger said. The studies about GJ 357 and its planets were published in conjunction with the , conducted this week at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. The TESS mission is led and operated by MIT, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More than a dozen other partners contribute to the mission. Earlier in the week, the TESS team reported the detection of three exoplanets circling TOI 270, another M-type dwarf star that’s about 73 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. (For what it’s worth, TOI stands for “TESS Object of Interest.”) The innermost planet, TOI 270 b, appears to be a hot super-Earth that’s similar to GJ 357 b. In a scientists say the other two planets, TOI 270 c and d, are about half the size of Neptune — and are likely to be similar to that gas giant in composition. Such “mini-Neptunes” don’t exist in our solar system. “An interesting aspect of this system is that its planets straddle a well-established gap in known planetary sizes,” said Fran Pozuelos, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liège in Belgium. “It is uncommon for planets to have sizes between 1.5 and two times that of Earth for reasons likely related to the way planets form, but this is still a highly controversial topic,” Pozuelos . “TOI 270 is an excellent laboratory for studying the margins of this gap and will help us better understand how planetary systems form and evolve.” All this is just the start: TESS’ primary mission is due to last another year, and the data analysis could go on for years longer. In addition to Pozuelos, the authors of the Nature Astronomy paper, are Maximilian Günther and Ian Waite. Pallé and Kaltenegger are among 76 authors of the Astronomy & Astrophysics paper, Principal author is Rafael Luque. In addition to Kaltenegger, Luque and Pallé, the authors of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, include Jack Madden, Zifan Lin, Sarah Rugheimer, Antigona Segura and Néstor Espinoza.
This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. Baja California and Mexico are visible in the background. This image has been de-distorted and color corrected. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0) It may be “mission accomplished” for the , but its privately funded LightSail 2 mission is far from over. Five weeks after LightSail 2’s launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the nonprofit membership society celebrated the spacecraft’s ability to raise the highest point of its orbit by a little more than a mile (1.7 kilometers), using the force of sunlight pressing against its 18.4-foot-wide, 4.5-micron-thick reflective Mylar sails. Demonstrating solar sail steerability was the point of the decade-long campaign to build and fly LightSail 2 and its predecessor, . The project’s estimated $7 million cost was covered by contributions from Planetary Society members and other donors. “On behalf of the tens of thousands of people around the world who came together to help the dream of solar sailing move forward, we’re thrilled to declare mission success for LightSail 2,” Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts, who serves as program manager for LightSail, told journalists today at a teleconference. The sail maneuvered itself in response to commands beamed up from Earth to take advantage of the push of the sun’s photons, in a way that’s similar to what sailboats do when they take advantage of the wind. LightSail 2 isn’t the first solar sail to get a push from the sun: That distinction belongs to Japan’s Ikaros spacecraft, which in 2010. But the Planetary Society’s executive director, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), said LightSail 2 showed that the job could be done using a 3U CubeSat spacecraft that’s about the size of a loaf of bread. This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. The sail is almost fully deployed here and appears warped near the edges due to the spacecraft’s 185-degree fisheye camera lens. The image has been color corrected and some of the distortion has been removed. The sun is visible at center. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0) If the technology can be perfected, solar sailing could be suitable for a wide range of fuel-free space applications — for example, keeping spacecraft steady above Earth’s poles or at gravitational balance points in deep space. Sail-borne spacecraft could also be directed from one solar system destination to another, or out of the solar system altogether. Nye said his favorite solar sailing destination would be the planet next door. “We’d ferry cargo to Mars and look for signs of life, and change the course of human history. How about that?” he said. Nye noted that the late astronomer Carl Sagan, one of the Planetary Society’s co-founders, promoted the idea of using a solar sail to send a spacecraft to Comet Halley back in the 1970s. Sagan happened to be one of Nye’s mentors. “I’ve been charmed or thrilled by this idea ever since I heard about it 40 years ago,” Nye said. LightSail 2 a week ago, after a series of orbital checkouts. Purdue aerospace engineer David Spencer, LightSail 2’s mission manager, said the orbit was raised in a series of steps. The biggest step lifted the spacecraft a little more than 900 meters (half a mile). Spencer said LightSail 2’s capabilities would undergo further testing during maneuvers that are due to continue through August. But there’s a limit: Every time there’s a rise in the maximum altitude of LightSail 2’s elliptical orbit (known as the apogee) there’s a corresponding drop in the minimum altitude on the other side of the orbit (known as the perigee). “For simplicity, the plan was never to circularize the orbit, only to raise apogee by thrusting on one side of the orbit, which also drops perigee,” the Planetary Society’s Jason Davis . Years of computer simulations. Countless ground tests. They've all led up to now. The Planetary Society's crowdfunded LightSail 2 spacecraft is successfully raising its orbit solely on the power of sunlight. Details at — Planetary Society (@exploreplanets) Eventually, the atmospheric drag at perigee will cancel out LightSail 2’s orbit-raising capability and pull it back toward Earth. The Planetary Society expects the spacecraft to meet its downfall in less than a year. But before it burns up, Spencer wants to do a final experiment. “Once we get down to the point of re-entry, I’d like to see if we can actually control the re-entry point somewhat by changing the orientation of the solar sail,” he told GeekWire. “That’s an experiment that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done before.” There’s more solar sailing on the horizon: NASA plans to put a solar sail on , an asteroid-observing mission that’s due for launch as a secondary payload on the. “The NEA Scout engineers have been working with us,” Spencer said. Meanwhile, the Planetary Society is planning a competition to select its next crowdfunded space mission. “We are involved in other, we believe, game-changing technologies for planetary exploration,” Nye said. As an example, he pointed to the society-supported , which would stir up a sampling of soil from the lunar surface and capture it for chemical analysis. “This international formal proposal competition is what we’re doing next,” he said.
Jeff Bezos shows off a mockup of the Blue Moon lunar lander in May. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture, , has been selected to participate in three partnerships with NASA to advance technologies that could come into play for — and eventually for Mars missions as well. The projects were included in a newly released list of public-private partnerships that have been forged with 13 companies under the terms of an , or ACO. NASA issued the announcement last October. The arrangement doesn’t involve the transfer of funds, but rather the sharing of expertise, facilities, hardware and software for technologies that could be the focus of future contracts. “NASA’s proven experience and unique facilities are helping commercial companies mature their technologies at a competitive pace,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s , explained today in a . “We’ve identified technology areas NASA needs for future missions, and these public-private partnerships will accelerate their development so we can implement them faster.” All three of Blue Origin’s partnerships focus on its , which had its and could be in operation on a timetable that’s consistent with . The company, based in Kent, Wash., will collaborate with NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center on a navigation and guidance system for landings at a variety of locations on the moon. It also will partner with Johnson and Glenn Research Center on a fuel cell system that could provide uninterrupted power for the Blue Moon lander during the two-week-long lunar night. In its third partnership, Blue Origin will work with Marshall Space Flight Center and Langley Research Center to evaluate and mature high-temperature materials for liquid rocket engine nozzles that could be used on lunar landers. NASA listed 16 other partnerships involving a dozen other companies: Advanced Communications, Navigation and Avionics Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, will partner with Goddard to advance lunar navigation technologies. The collaboration will help mature a navigation system between Earth and the moon that could supplement NASA’s and support future exploration missions. Vulcan Wireless of Carlsbad, California, will partner with Goddard to test a CubeSat radio transponder and its compatibility with NASA’s . Advanced Materials Aerogel Technologies of Boston will work with Glenn Research Center to improve properties of for rocket fairings and other aerospace applications. The material can result in 25% weight savings over soundproofing materials currently used in rocket fairings. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, will work with Langley to test materials made from metal powders using solid-state processing to improve the design of spacecraft that operate in high-temperature environments. Spirit AeroSystem Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, will partner with Marshall to improve the durability of low-cost reusable rockets manufactured using friction stir welding. This welding method, already being used for NASA’s , results in a stronger, more defect-free seal compared to traditional methods of joining materials with welding torches. Entry, Descent and Landing Anasphere of Bozeman, Montana, will partner with Marshall to test a compact hydrogen generator for inflating heat shields, which could help deliver larger payloads to Mars. Bally Ribbon Mills of Bally, Pennsylvania, will perform thermal testing in the at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The facility will be used to test a new seamless weave for a mechanically deployable carbon fabric heat shield. Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nevada, will partner with Langley to capture infrared images of the company’s as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, traveling faster than the speed of sound. Sierra Nevada Corp. will also work with Langley to mature a method to recover the upper stage of a rocket using a deployable decelerator. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, will work with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to advance their technology to land large rockets vertically on the moon. This includes advancing models to assess engine plume interaction with lunar regolith. In-Space Manufacturing and Assembly Maxar Technologies of Palo Alto, California, will work with Langley to build a breadboard – a base for prototyping electronics – for a deployable, semi-rigid radio antenna. In-orbit assembly of large structures like antennas will enhance the performance of assets in space. Such capabilities could enable entirely new exploration missions that are currently size-constrained and reduce launch costs due to improved packaging. Power Maxar Technologies will test lightweight solar cells for flexible solar panels using facilities at Glenn and Marshall that mimic the environment of space. The technology could be used by future spacecraft to provide more power with a lower mass system. Propulsion Aerojet Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, California, and Marshall will design and manufacture a lightweight rocket engine combustion chamber using innovative processes and materials. The goal of the project is to reduce manufacturing costs and make the chamber scalable for different missions. Some of Aerojet’s engine development work is done in Redmond, Wash. Colorado Power Electronics Inc. of Fort Collins, Colorado, will partner with Glenn to mature power processing unit technology that extends the operating range of , which are primarily used on Earth-orbiting satellites and can also be used for deep-space missions. By integrating their technology with NASA and commercial Hall thrusters, the company expects to provide a propulsion system that can significantly increase mission payload or extend mission durations. SpaceX will work with Glenn and Marshall to advance technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company’s . Other Exploration Technologies Lockheed Martin will partner with Kennedy to test technologies and operations for autonomous in-space plant growth systems. Integrating robotics with plant systems could help NASA harvest plants on future platforms in deep space.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, at left, discusses the plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as three of his associate administrators — William Gerstenmaier, Jim Reuter and Thomas Zurbuchen — look on during a town hall at NASA headquarters. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky) Will NASA’s fly with Congress? The Artemis program’s implications are still sinking in on Capitol Hill, but there’s already a political problem having to do with where the money’s supposed to come from. Trump administration officials confirmed that the $1.6 billion being sought as a “down payment” for accelerating the push to the moon would be taken from a roughly $8 billion reserve account for the popular Pell Grant program, which funds education for millions of low-income students annually. Due to the economy’s rebound from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the number of Pell Grant recipients has been declining in recent years, leading to a buildup in reserves. Because of that, taking money from the reserves would not affect current recipients, who will be receiving up to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year.. “This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Wesley Denton told . However, that glosses over the fact that the carryover reserve is meant to buoy the Pell Grant program through hard times, and avoid the multibillion-dollar shortfalls that were experienced during the last recession. And the White House aims to shift far more than the $1.6 billion. When other reallocations are taken into account, the proposed reallocation adds up to $3.9 billion, which is roughly half of the reserve. Organizations such as the and the were quick to register protests. Jon Fansmith, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, that depleting the reserve would “undercut the stability of a program that’s really critical for helping students afford college.” And in a letter to Senate and House education subcommittee leaders, the APLU said such a move would be “deeply misguided and contrary to the national interest.” “Pell Grants help ensure we have a pipeline of talented students, many of whom will become the next generation of scientists and engineers who strengthen U.S. competitiveness in space and all other areas of scientific discovery and innovation,” . Education advocacy groups aren’t the only ones registering their concern. The proposed funding shift is also getting thumbs-down from some members of the space community, including former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez … I’m all for space travel and returning to the moon but not at the expense of education! If the Pell Grant money is a surplus how about increasing the size of grants so college grads don’t graduate with so much debt? — Jose Hernandez (@Astro_Jose) … And Chris Lewicki, former president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, who stayed on after an acquisition to co-found ConsenSys Space: I was also the beneficiary of a Pell Grant, which directly led to me getting the education necessary to work at NASA. This is not a funding solution. — Chris Lewicki (@interplanetary) Does it have to be Artemis vs. Pell Grants? Not necessarily. As with every other budget proposal from the White House, this week’s supplemental budget requests are subject to the give-and-take of the legislative process. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, noted that today during a town-hall meeting at the space agency’s D.C. headquarters. “The way the process works — and I know a little bit about it — is that the administration makes a proposal to Congress. But that’s what it is, it is a proposal,” Bridenstine said. “Then it’s over to Congress to say what they want to accept, what they don’t want to accept, what they want to ‘plus-up.’ ” Congress is already talking about , which could accommodate NASA’s request while leaving the Pell Grants as is. Increasing the caps is the strong preference of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who’s the (and one of the recipients of today’s letter from the APLU). For what it’s worth, the House Appropriations Committee by $150 to try to keep pace with inflation. Even with that boost, the grants’ spending power has declined over the years to the point that it covers less than a third of the price of attending a typical four-year institution. by increasing spending on Pell Grants and other need-based aid programs for students.
An artist’s conception shows astronauts exploring the moon after landing. (NASA Illustratiion) The White House is asking Congress for $1.6 billion more than the $21 billion it previously requested for NASA’s budget, to fund what’s now known as the Artemis program to put American astronauts on the moon by 2024. “This initial investment, I want to be clear, is a down payment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters today. He and other NASA officials got on the line for a hastily called teleconference after about the supplemental request: Under my Administration, we are restoring to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) The money would go toward ramping up NASA’s previous plans for crewed missions to the moon starting in 2028. Bridenstine said that 2028 would stand as the target for “sustained operations” on the lunar surface, but that the $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020 would help NASA to marshal its forces for a single touchdown near the moon’s south pole in 2024. Bridenstine, a former Oklahoma GOP congressman, acknowledged that 2024 was chosen as the deadline in part so that the first human mission to the moon in more than 50 years would come while Trump was still in office. Such a plan would reduce the “political risk” of changes in NASA’s exploration agenda, as has happened in the past, he said. , a special assistant to Bridenstine focusing on lunar missions, emphasized that “we’re going to try to make this nonpartisan … from the start.” Bridenstine added that he’s already talked about the plan with members of Congress. “I think there’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the aisle,” he said. To sweeten the deal, Bridenstine announced a catchy name for the program at the very end of the teleconference. He noted that in Greek mythology, Apollo had a twin sister named Artemis, who served as the goddess of the moon. “Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified,” Bridenstine said. “I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon. I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role that the next women to go to the moon see themselves in today.” NASA’s revised plan scales down its previous plan for a platform in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway, so that it focuses more tightly on the needs for a single mission putting two astronauts on the surface in 2024. The redesigned Gateway will consist of a power and propulsion element, or PPE, and a mini-habitat also known as a utilization module. To get down to the lunar surface and back, NASA will need a transfer module, a descent module for landing, and an ascent module to come back up from the surface. Bridenstine said the effort will also require NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and the Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European-built service module. Of all those components, only the Orion has flown in space, during an uncrewed test flight in 2014. The SLS is due for its first uncrewed test flight in 2020, with a crewed round-the-moon flight in 2023 and the climactic Artemis launch in 2024. Tonight NASA provided a : Human lunar landing system: $1 billion to support the development of a commercial lunar landing system capable of carrying astronauts. That expense will be partially offset by slimming down the Gateway platform, saving $321 million, NASA said. SLS and Orion: $651 million to accelerate development. Exploration technology: $132 million to speed the development of technologies such as solar electric propulsion and conversion of lunar polar ice to water. Lunar science: $90 million to enable increased robotic exploration of the moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission. Bridenstine said NASA was still working on estimates for what it would need beyond the 2020 budget to hit the 2024 deadline, and to prepare the way for more sustained operations at the moon by 2028. He emphasized that one of the primary goals for lunar operations was to blaze a trail for voyages to Mars. “We need to learn how to live and work on another world,” Bridenstine said. “The moon is a three-day journey home, so if something goes wrong, we know we can make it home. We proved that with Apollo 13. … When we go to Mars, we have to be willing and able to live and work on another world for a couple of years. That’s why the moon is so valuable. It’s so important to use it as a proving ground so we can eventually take our missions to Mars.” NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said the architecture for the Artemis program would be open to commercial and international partners. “You’ll see a series of flights in that period between 2024 and ’28,” he said. Just a few days after Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, unveiled its design for a lunar lander potentially capable of carrying humans, Bridenstine emphasized that commercial moon ventures would be welcome. “They can build a lander that just integrates with the Gateway, robots, rovers, landers,” he said. “We want this to be open architecture. … I’m talking about the way we do docking, the way we do data, the way we do avionics, the way we do life support. All of these pieces would be interoperable, published on the internet, for anybody who wanted to participate in our sustainable return to the moon.”
This artist’s conception shows Hermeus’ hypersonic aircraft. (Hermeus Illustration) Atlanta-based says it’s won some high-profile seed funding for its effort to develop aircraft capable of flying more than five times the speed of sound The startup’s advisers includes , the former president of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ in Kent, Wash. And there’s at least one more Blue Origin connection: Hermeus’ chief technology officer, Glenn Case, worked as a propulsion design and development engineer at the company for four and a half years. Hermeus, which was founded last year, is setting its sights on earthly hypersonic flight rather than the space frontier. It’s working on the propulsion technology for aircraft capable of flying faster than 3,000 mph. That could cut flight time between New York and London from seven hours to 90 minutes. “We’ve set out on a journey to revolutionize the global transportation infrastructure, bringing it from the equivalent of dialup into the broadband era, by radically increasing the speed of travel over long distances.” co-founder and CEO AJ Piplica said today in a and Hermeus’ advisers. The financing round was led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from private investors. ““Hermeus is developing an aircraft that not only improves the aviation experience with very reduced flight times, but also has the potential to have great societal and economic impact.” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures. The investment amount was not disclosed. For what it’s worth, Hermeus in a $100,000 “Rise of the Rest” pitch contest that was sponsored by Steve Case’s and conducted in Florida. The company is also partnering with the . Before starting up Hermeus, the company’s four co-founders — including Glenn Case as well as Piplica, chief product officer Mike Smayda and chief operating officer Skyler Shuford — worked together at , where they led the development of the Air Force’s . The resumes for and also include stints at SpaceX is defined as travel at greater than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. It’s one of the aerospace industry’s hottest frontiers, thanks in part to in military applications. Last year, Boeing HorizonX joined in with Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems to invest $37.3 million in British-based Reaction Engines, which is working on its own hypersonic propulsion system. Meanwhile, Spokane, Wash.-based HyperSciences used a to raise $9.2 million for . In today’s announcement of the seed round, Meyerson touted Hermeus’ connections to the commercial space industry. “With experience from the best of New Space companies, the Hermeus team is well-positioned to disrupt the hypersonics industry,” he said. In addition to Meyerson, Hermeus’ advisory board includes: , former executive vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. , former CEO of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, with earlier leadership roles at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army Intelligence Master Plan Office. , founder of Sparkplug Capital and managing director at Shearwater Aero Capital. , former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. , founder and CEO of ZYCI and former director of technical operations at Northwest Airlines.
An artist’s conception depicts a crewed mission to Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration / 2004) As NASA shifts the focus of its space exploration effort to the moon, the advocates of Mars exploration and settlement have a message for future lunar explorers: Don’t get too comfortable. “I do think the moon should be included in the plan for human expansion into space,” Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and author of a new book titled “The Case for Space,” told GeekWire. “But we don’t want it to become an obstacle for further human expansion into space.” Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, takes a similar stance. “If we spend years and years and years getting there, and then we decide we’re going to stay there for a long time, it could delay Mars by decades,” he said. Future Mars exploration will be grabbing a share of the spotlight once more this week at the annual , sponsored by Carberry’s nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. Among the speakers on the agenda are NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, other officials from NASA and the European Space Agency who are planning Mars missions, and Paul Wooster, who’s leading SpaceX’s charge to the Red Planet. The three-day conference will be , starting at 8:30 a.m. ET (5:30 a.m. PT) on Tuesday. Bridenstine has been talking a lot more about the moon than Mars lately. “This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay,” . Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon as well as the privately held Blue Origin space venture, has been — most recently last week, when he laid out his latest roadmap for . SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is also on the moon bandwagon, even though Mars settlement remains his long-term goal. “We should have a lunar base by now,” . “What the hell is going on?” The moon looms larger thanks to a push from the White House and Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the recently reconstituted National Space Council. The Trump administration’s timetable calls for putting American astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024, which represents a significant speed-up in NASA’s plans. NASA is still working on an estimate for how much extra an accelerated moon program will cost, and it’s not yet clear how the request for more money will be received by Congress. Why the rush? On one level, it’s an effort to demonstrate America’s continuing dominance in space, amid challenges from China. On another level, planting the U.S. flag on the moon once more would guarantee a historic achievement for what the White House hopes will be President Donald Trump’s second term. But in the big picture, the moon serves as a proving ground for farther-out space odysseys. The fact that it’s a mere 240,000 miles away, rather than the tens of millions of miles for Mars, reduces the risk and expense for crewed missions. Mars advocates such as Zubrin and Carberry agree with the argument up to that point. But they’re wary about how NASA intends to execute the plan. “The question for Trump and Pence is, are they willing to do what has to be done?” Zubrin said. In Zubrin’s view, NASA’s current approach to moon missions is the wrong way to do it. The mission architecture calls for the construction of an outpost in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway, which would be the base of operations for trips going down to the surface. Zubrin sees the Gateway as a “Lunar Orbit Tollbooth” that’s an unnecessary waste of money. In his book, he outlines an alternate mission architecture that uses SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets, plus a yet-to-be-designed Lunar Excursion Vehicle, to transport payloads and people to the moon without a layover in lunar orbit. If it’s adopted, the Moon Direct architecture could arguably eliminate the need for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. That argument is sure to spark pushback in Congress, which has already funded billions of dollars in development costs for SLS and NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule. But the way Zubrin sees it, relying instead on commercial ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin is exactly what has to be done. “The thing that could enable the moon and Mars in the coming decade is this entrepreneurial space revolution,” he said. “NASA has only barely begun to make use of it.” Officials at NASA have come around to the view that a permanent presence on the moon is a necessary stepping stone in humanity’s outward push. But Carberry and Zubrin aren’t so sure. They worry that the costs of settling the moon and setting up the infrastructure that’s necessary to extract water ice and other resources could siphon away the funds and political will for Mars missions. “If we’re building a base on the moon, then I can’t imagine going to Mars anytime soon,” Carberry said. Zubrin, meanwhile, took aim at NASA’s proposal to send astronauts to Mars via the lunar Gateway, on a future spaceship called the Deep Space Transport. “That’s not feasible, and furthermore, it’s not even attractive,” he said. For decades, Zubrin has advocated a Mars Direct plan that, like Moon Direct, calls for a series of robotic and crewed missions to the Red Planet without side trips — and he argues that the idea is getting traction thanks to SpaceX’s efforts. “Musk wants to go to Mars,” Zubrin noted. “You don’t see him talking about building a lunar orbiting space station to enable his plan. No one who actually wants to go to Mars would insert such requirements into their mission plan.” For evidence that NASA’s plan needs to go through a paradigm shift, Zubrin points to an, which concludes that the . A more realistic date would be 2037, the study said. The study, commissioned by NASA in response to a congressional mandate, attributes the extra delays to the technological risks involved in developing the Deep Space Transport. Space exploration costs are estimated at more than $217 billion through 2037 — including $120.6 billion specifically for the elements that’d be needed to get to Mars. The rest of the money would go toward development of hardware for Mars surface missions, plus operations in low Earth orbit and on the moon. Meanwhile, Musk is talking about sending SpaceX’s first crewed mission to Mars in the mid-2020s. Even Musk admits that his timetables are often overly optimistic, but Zubrin says the success of SpaceX and other commercial ventures is likely to force policymakers to “take a second look” at their plans for future giant leaps. “We’ve had a shot heard round the world here. … This is going to enable human exploration and settlement of the solar system,” he said. “It will enable it sooner if NASA embraces it fully.”
Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, D.C., this week. (Blue Origin Photo) It’s our choice: a finite world with limited resources, or an infinite universe with unlimited potential. Those were the options presented by Jeff Bezos this week he laid out his plan to colonize the Moon as a first step toward a future with as many as a trillion people in space. Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s private space venture, at an event in Washington, D.C., this week, and said it was working to help the country achieve the Trump administration’s goal of putting U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2024. Blue Origin is one of multiple companies expected to compete for the NASA contract to go back to the moon. But a lunar colony would be just the first step in Bezos’ larger aspirations for humans in the solar system. GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, Alan Boyle, was there for the announcement, and he called in for this special edition of the GeekWire podcast. Listen above, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for an edited transcript, along with highlights from Jeff Bezos’ remarks at the Blue Moon unveiling. Todd Bishop: Alan, where are you, and what are you covering this week? Alan Boyle: Well, I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m actually calling from a park that’s near the place where Jeff Bezos had his big production to introduce the Blue Moon lunar lander. This happened on Thursday afternoon. It was a big production. Deep blue lights in a darkened ballroom at the Washington Convention Center, and it was all done up in a spacey décor showing off this lunar lander which is probably twice as high as Jeff Bezos was on stage. It was a Hollywood-style reveal, or I might say an Elon Musk-style reveal. Todd Bishop: Yes, and Elon Musk actually had a response, which we’ll get to later. In the meantime, give us the big picture here, because , you were actually interviewing him on stage, and he did reveal that Blue Origin, his commercial space venture, intended to go to the moon. As his signature line goes now, he said, “We will go back to the moon, this time to stay.” What was new in what you heard yesterday and what’s the significance? Alan Boyle: Right. He used that line again with Thursday’s presentation. If you’re really looking at it on a technical level, there were more details available. For example, they’re developing a new type of engine called the BE7 hydrogen-fueled engine that would be used on this lunar lander, and could be refueled using hydrogen recovered from lunar ice. Also, some specifics about how payloads would be sent back and forth. The concept was tweaked with a stretched version. This version of the lander can be stretched to be a little bit bigger and capable of carrying the hardware that folks would need to land astronauts on the surface. That is a significant twist that this is actually being offered to bring humans to the lunar surface as the administration wants to do in 2024. Jeff Bezos during Blue Moon unveiling: “Vice President Pence just recently said it’s the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years. I love this. It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago.” Todd Bishop: What is Jeff Bezos’ big picture goal here? What’s he trying to accomplish and why is he trying to do it? Alan Boyle: Well the biggest picture is having millions of people living and working in space, which is another classic Jeff Bezos catch line. This is about how you get there, what are the steps. Jeff spent a good amount of time during Thursday’s presentation talking about the step-by-step approach, how Blue Origin is working on this suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd that may start taking people to space later this year. They’re working on an orbital class rocket called New Glenn which would be able to put satellites into orbit and perhaps go beyond Earth orbit. Then there’s Blue Moon which would facilitate perhaps a permanent settlement on the moon as Jeff would like to see. From there you just take advantage of the resources and try to push further out into the solar system. Jeff Bezos: The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes we have unlimited resources. We get to choose. Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth? This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy. If we’re out in the solar system, we can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization. Alan Boyle: Jeff actually talked about this idea of O’Neill cylinders which, again, he’s brought up before. He talked about this in quite a bit of depth at a presentation at the Museum of Flight in Seattle a couple of years ago. These are self-standing, free flying rotating habitats in space that would be able to accommodate a city’s worth of people and all their things. This is part of the grand vision. It goes back to the concept advanced by one of Jeff Bezos’ mentors, Gerry O’Neill, who came up with this book called The High Frontier where he talked about these cylinders serving as habitats for people living in outer space. That’s a pretty big picture. Jeff Bezos: What could this future look like? Where would a trillion humans live? Well, it’s very interesting. Somebody named Gerry O’Neill, a physics professor, looked at this question very carefully and he asked a very precise question that nobody had ever asked before. It was is a planetary surface the best place for humans to expand into the solar system? He and his students set to work on answering that question. They came to a very surprising, for them, counterintuitive answer: no. Why not? Well, they came up with a bunch of problems. One is that other planetary surfaces aren’t that big. You’re talking about maybe a doubling at best. It’s not that much. They’re a long way a way. Round-trip times to Mars are on the order of years. Launch opportunities to Mars are only once every 22 months, which is a very significant logistics problem. Last, you’re far enough away that you’re not going to be able to do real-time communications with Earth. You’re going to be limited by speed-of-light lag. The kids sitting here and probably some of the adults, too, don’t even think about playing Fortnite with somebody on Earth, because it’s not going to work. Todd Bishop: Put this in the scheme of everything that’s going on in terms of commercial space. Because if I remember correctly, Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. Jeff Bezos wants to go to moon. Where are we, big picture, and where does this Blue Moon mission fit in? Alan Boyle: It’s kind of concentric circles moving out. There’s a lot happening in Earth orbit relating to constellations of satellites and also commercial methods of putting people into low Earth orbit, specifically the International Space Station and SpaceX and Boeing are involved in that. I was at a satellite conference during this past week during the build up to Jeff Bezos’ announcement, and there’s a lot going on with mega constellations, thousands of satellites that would provide ubiquitous access to the internet and high speed data. Then you go to the moon and because the moon is targeted by the Trump Administration for 2024 and NASA is onboard that bus, everyone is looking to the moon. Even Elon Musk says that the Starship spaceship that he’s developing would be suitable as a lunar lander. Starship could be seen as a big-budget competitor to Blue Origin’s Blue Moon. Then the moon is seen as a stepping stone further outward to Mars. That’s where Elon Musk’s main focus is. It’s not so much a focus for Jeff Bezos. He says that Earth is the best planet. If you’re looking at space as a plan B, it’s really more about preserving Earth as humanity’s plan A to put more of the industry into outer space and leave Earth as more of a residential district in our interplanetary metropolis. After Mars, you’re looking farther and farther out, and then you get into the science fiction realm, or at least you’re talking about what’s going to happen in the 22nd century. A lot of folks are speculating where do you go from there. It gets less and less real sounding the further out you move. Todd Bishop: What were your impressions of the Blue Moon lander, seeing the mock up in person? Alan Boyle: I was frankly kind of astonished because I’ve seen renderings of the lander before, and I kind of imagined it as something that had a top on it like a tabletop, that it’s like a billiards table in space. This is huge. I was amazed to see how big the full-sized mock-up is. It’s more like, oh gosh, I don’t know if there’s a vehicle that quite compares to it in size. Bigger than a helicopter that’s for sure. Think about a helicopter maybe scaled up to twice the size. That was the thing that struck me the most. That was the show stopper for me, just to see the curtain literally being pulled away and to see this huge thing with Jeff Bezos giving a guided tour. Jeff Bezos: This is Blue Moon. It’ll soft land, in a precise way, 3.6 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The stretched tank variant of it will soft land 6.5 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The deck is designed to be a very simple interface, so that a great variety of payloads can be placed onto the top deck and secured. On the left-hand side you can see our star tracker, so that this vehicle can autonomously navigate in space. On the right-hand side, you’ll see an optical communications system that gives us gigabit bandwidth back to Earth. It’s a laser that transmits data back to Earth. We also have X-band for 10 megabit radio. A depiction of the Blue Moon lander on the Moon. (Blue Origin Image) Todd Bishop: It’s got four legs and a giant sphere in the middle. It’s basically got a propulsion cone at the bottom of it. Alan Boyle: That’s the BE7 engine. Then those large spheres are propellant tanks for the liquid hydrogen and the liquid oxygen. Jeff Bezos: Liquid hydrogen. Why are we using liquid hydrogen? This is not how Apollo did it. Why are we using liquid hydrogen as our fuel? Couple of reasons. One, it’s very high performance and so that helps a lot when you’re landing on the moon. After you’ve got to carry all of your propellant to the moon. Second reason we’re losing liquid hydrogen is because ultimately we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon and use them. Alan Boyle: There’s a frame around it and there are electricity generating fuel cells in the frame that would take advantage of some of the hydrogen that comes off the propellant tanks. Then there’s a big deck on top, and the top flat deck is where you could put up to four rovers the size of, say, NASA’s Curiosity rover, or in the stretched version you could put what’s called an ascent stage on there, and that would be analogous to the ascent stage that the Apollo astronauts used to lift off from the lunar module during the Apollo missions. Todd Bishop: Is it coincidence that this is coinciding with the build up to the Apollo 11 anniversary, the landing on the moon? Alan Boyle: Well, it’s a good hook, and there is a lot of talk about what might be done in the next few years. Of course, the 2024 date is looming large in the plans for lunar missions. It just so happens that if Donald Trump is reelected 2024 would come toward the end of that second term, and so that’s one of the reasons why it has a little bit of a political cast to it. There are a lot of question marks about whether 2024 was doable. Before the latest push led by Vice President Mike Pence, 2028 was being talked about as the timeframe for a human landing on the moon. They are really going to have to rush it, and NASA is expected to tell Congress in the next week or two how much this is going to cost, and then the real debate begins over how doable this is going to be. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, shows off a mockup of the New Shepard suborbital space capsule during a 2017 conference in Colorado. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) Todd Bishop: As you’ve been reporting, Jeff Bezos is selling about a billion dollars worth of Amazon stock per year to invest in Blue Origin his space venture. There’s this funny sort of joke among his friends that the reason he started Amazon was to basically get into space, to support this space venture. I don’t know how much of a joke that actually is. Alan Boyle: He said he would neither confirm nor deny, but you know that he’s got a smile on his face as he says that, as he said to me a couple of years ago. Todd Bishop: One thing that struck me from his presentation was he was talking about customers, people who would use this Blue Moon lunar lander to get their own payloads onto the moon. It was a reminder that this is not philanthropy for him. Jeff Bezos: We also have already a bunch of customers for Blue Moon, many of whom are in the audience. They’re going to be deploying science missions to the moon as well. People are very excited about this capability to soft land their cargo, their rovers, their science experiments onto the surface of the moon in a precise way. There is no capability to do that today. Alan Boyle: I think for Jeff Bezos this is one of the things where he started really with his presentation. He started with this idea of there are a lot of things you can do to help humanity. As you know, the Bezos family has been involved in some of those philanthropic ventures. There are other things that are longer range that can help humanity and that’s where he classifies this space effort, that it’s worth spending some money on this. I know that there’s a lot of question about how much he’s spending and whether this money could be better spent back on Earth. Previously: I think Jeff would probably say, “Well, I’m doing that and other people are doing that. You have to take care of this long range effort as well.” In terms of the customers, these are people who would be mostly flying scientific payloads or engineering payloads perhaps to test equipment in the lunar environment. The impression I get is that Blue Origin would very much like to have NASA be the anchor customer for this. NASA is going to be putting out a solicitation for lunar lander concepts that could be used for human space missions, and Blue Origin definitely wants to get in on that. I got the impression just from the enthusiasm with which Jeff has talked about this over the years and this week as well that even if Blue Origin did lose out to some other company like Lockheed Martin or a SpaceX for having that human lunar lander contract from NASA, I get the impression that work would continue on Blue Moon for other purposes. It’s just that this is kind of the marquee mission, and Jeff would like to be in on this as he would love to be in on, it seems, everything from the cloud to retail. Todd Bishop: You were mentioning those constellations earlier, the satellites that are going to be all around the Earth providing internet access. Amazon itself has not related to Blue Origin directly but potentially working with them possibly down the road. Alan Boyle: That’s an interesting play, and there was a lot of talk about that at the satellite conference, and I’m sure I’m going to try to write up more of my thoughts in a coherent manner about that in the next week or so. Amazon has its own purposes for having these satellites in space. One person compared it to a self-licking ice cream cone, because Amazon could use that satellite network to extend its reach in terms of selling stuff through Amazon.com or providing cloud services or even streaming services for Prime Video. It’s a delicate thing, because Amazon is a publicly held company and you can’t just say automatically that Blue Origin would get the contract for those launches because the shareholders want to make sure that it’s not a self-dealing sort of situation for Jeff Bezos where he is inappropriately using one money from a public venture to shore up his private ventures. That’s going to be a delicate matter as Project Kuiper, Amazon’s satellite effort, proceeds. Todd Bishop: Big picture, what would be your key takeaways from what you saw? Alan Boyle: Blue Origin is really serious about this moon thing, and it’s not just a PowerPoint. That’s been known internally for several years. In fact, some of the people from Blue Origin said, “At last I can talk about this thing that I’ve been working on for three years.” This is real, and it may be a mock-up now, but the amount of effort that Blue Origin is putting into this will, I think, make this a reality. In terms of what it’s used for, that’s yet to be seen. Jeff Bezos is clearly committed to this and like Elon Musk who made a little bit of fun about how much Jeff has been promising but not delivering yet, but, just like Elon, Jeff really once he latches on to something he’s not going to let go. I don’t think he’s going to let go of the moon based on what we saw on Thursday. Todd Bishop: This is a family podcast, so I won’t quote Elon Musk’s tweet or the Photoshopped version of the moon lander that he tweeted. Alan Boyle: It’s basically Elon saying, “Jeff, you’re such a tease.” We’ll leave it at that. Oh stop teasing, Jeff
We now know how many of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband data satellites, developed in Redmond, Wash., can be crammed into the nose cone of a Falcon rocket. The answer to the ultimate question is 60. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk showed how five dozen satellites fit, just barely, inside a Falcon fairing today in a tweet: First 60 Starlink satellites loaded into Falcon fairing. Tight fit. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) The Starlink project is from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as next week. The demonstration mission will mark another step toward the deployment of thousands of satellites designed to provide low-cost global internet access. These first satellites are equipped with antennas and networking equipment to communicate with ground stations in a variety of locations, including three in Washington state. But as SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reported at this week’s Satellite 2019 conference, they won’t demonstrate the satellite-to-satellite links that knit the constellation together. That will have to wait for future deployments. For what it’s worth, 60 satellites won’t set a record for a single rocket launch, or even a single Falcon 9 launch. Last December’s , organized by Seattle-based Spaceflight, put 64 satellites on a Falcon 9. In follow-up tweets, Musk added a few more details about the launch, the satellites and their role in the Starlink constellation: If static fire
Spaceport America is becoming the true base of operations for Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic Photo) After two successful crewed test flights to a 50-mile-high space milestone, Virgin Galactic says it’s shifting its operations from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America — lock, stock and spaceship. Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, made the announcement in Santa Fe today, in the company of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state dignitaries. The company said the transfer is beginning immediately and will continue over the summer, to minimize the disruption for the school-age children of employees. More than 100 staff members are affected by the move, . The shift follows through on a promise that Virgin Galactic made more than a decade ago, in exchange for New Mexico’s that ended up costing more than $200 million. “New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport,” Branson said. “Today, I could not be more excited to announce, that in return, we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline. Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good.” Grisham called today’s announcement of the move “an incredibly exciting development for both our state’s economic future and the future of aerospace in general.” “With these workers here and with these plans firmly in place, I’m certain New Mexico will serve as the launchpad for the rapid industry growth we’ve been expecting for so many years,” she said. “Today marks the beginning of the next chapter of aerospace in New Mexico.” Virgin Galactic has been conducting flight tests of its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and SpaceShipTwo rocket plane at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port . The program went through a , killing one of the pilots and seriously injuring the other. But it when test pilots rocketed beyond the 50-mile altitude mark and . A to astronaut-worthy altitudes in February. Now SpaceShipTwo crew members will start calling New Mexico their home. But Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing venture, , will remain in Mojave to manufacture more WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes. As a parting gift, TSC will finish out the cabin interior of VSS Unity, the SpaceShipTwo plane that’s been used for testing. About 700 would-be fliers have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve a ride on SpaceShipTwo. The shift to New Mexico serves as a signal that passenger flights are on track to begin later this year..For what it’s worth, Branson has said , the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission’s liftoff.
Jeff Bezos shows off a mockup of the Blue Moon lunar lander. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos today laid out the architecture for missions to the moon that would support NASA’s goal of landing astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. The game plan for Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, calls for continuing work on the company’s Blue Moon lunar lander and a new breed of hydrogen-fueled rocket engine known as the BE-7. Blue Origin has been discussing the lander concept with NASA for years, and plans to propose Blue Moon in response to a solicitation that NASA is due to issue this month. During today’s invitation-only event here at the Washington Convention Center, Bezos said that sending humans to the moon by 2024 and establishing a permanent lunar settlement would be in sync with his own vision for humanity’s future in space. “I love this — it’s the right thing to do,” Bezos said. “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started this three years ago. It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” Bezos said Blue Origin already has been in touch with customers who’d be interested in sending payloads to the lunar surface on Blue Moon, including Airbus, Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PARC, Southwest Research Institute, Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology and Germany’s OHB. “People are very excited about this capability,” Bezos said. The showstopper came when Bezos pulled the wraps off a full-size mockup of the Blue Moon lander. “This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the moon,” he said. A cargo version of lander could deliver 3.6 metric tons of payload to the lunar surface, while a “stretch tank” version of the craft could put 6.5 metric tons on the moon. Bezos said the stretch version would provide enough carrying capacity to accommodate astronauts. The stretch lander was shown with an ascent module on top, while an illustration of the cargo lander had a rover sitting on top. Blue Moon would be equipped with a crane system, or davit, to lower payloads from the lander’s deck to the surface. Both versions would be equipped with a single BE-7 engine, capable of 10,000 pounds of thrust. Bezos said hot-fire tests of the BE-7 are due to begin this summer. Other companies such as have proposed lunar lander concepts, and it’s far too early to say which concept will win out. But based on Bezos’ comments today, Blue Origin seems likely to proceed with Blue Moon in any case. Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said Bezos’ moon plans were “very ambitious, very impressive.” “I can’t wait until they move forward with this,” Stallmer told GeekWire. Bezos shied away from referring to a specific mission, but he said the moon’s polar regions would be promising places for off-Earth settlement because the permanently shadowed craters in those areas are thought to contain substantial reserves of water ice. That ice could be processed to provide drinking water, oxygen for breathable air and hydrogen for rocket fuel. He said Earth will always be “the best planet” for our species, but repeated his view that over the decades ahead, increasing demand for energy and resources will require humanity’s expansion out into the solar system. “The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources,” he said. His long-range vision calls for establishing outposts on the moon and Mars, and in city-sized spaceships that rotate to produce artificial gravity. Such spaceships are known as O’Neill habitats — in honor of Princeton physicist and space settlement advocate Gerry O’Neill, one of Bezos’ college mentors. To realize that vision, launch costs will have to be reduced through rocket reusability, and technologies will have to be developed for use of in-space resources, Bezos said. “Lifting all of our resources off Earth just isn’t going to work,” he said. Working on the space access challenge has been the main focus of Blue Origin since its founding in 2000, but the company’s efforts are just now getting traction. For the past four years, Blue Origin has been flight-testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests. Bezos said the company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dream of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos has said he that claim. Bezos often says his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take centuries to get to that point. “Who is going to do this work? Not me. These kids in the front row — you’re going to do this, and your children are going to do this,” Bezos said today, referring to students in attendance from D.C. International School and Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School. To get the next generation started off on the right foot, Blue Origin is creating an educational group known as the Club for the Future. The group’s first activity is “Postcards From Space,” which gives kids the opportunity to write down or draw their own vision for having millions of people living and working in space on the back of a stamped, self-addressed postcard. The first 10,000 postcards received at Blue Origin’s Kent headquarters before July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, will be packed aboard a New Shepard spaceship for a suborbital flight to space and back — and then mailed back to the addressee. For more information on the Club for the Future and the “Postcards From Space” project, .
Jeff Bezos shows off “Blue Moon,” a lunar lander built by his space company Blue Origin. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Update, 5 p.m. ET: Bezos showed off the new Blue Origin BE-7 engine, which will hot fire for the first time this summer. He also called out Vice President Mike Pence’s 2024 lunar landing goal. “I love this — it’s the right thing to do,” Bezos said. “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started this three years ago. It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” “Blue Moon” is on offer to NASA as a potential descent vehicle in 2024. Update, 4:45 p.m. ET: Bezos unveiled “Blue Moon,” a new lunar lander built by Blue Origin over the past three years that can send payloads to the moon. It is fueled by liquid hydrogen and can soft-land between 3.6 and 6.5 metric tons on the moon. Bezos showed off features such as the communications systems and landing gear. “This vehicle is going to the moon,” he said. Update, 4:30 p.m. ET: Bezos began his presentation Thursday with his oft-repeated feelings about Earth — “the best planet” — and his thoughts on how we must expand into solar system. “The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources,” he said. To realize that vision, Bezos said there must be a radical reduction in launch costs and usage of in-space resources. “Lifting all of our resources off Earth just isn’t going to work,” he said. Bezos added: “We’re going to build a road to space, and then amazing things will happen.” Bezos talked about putting millions of people living and working in space. “Who is going to do this work? Not me. These kids in the front row — you’re going to do this, and your children are going to do this,” Bezos said, referring to students in attendance from D.C. International School and Latin American Montessori Bilingual School. Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos speaks at an invitation-only event in Washington D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Original story: WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is about to lay out an updated vision for his “other” multibillion-dollar venture, the Blue Origin rocket company, including plans for missions to the moon. Bezos is due to speak at an invitation-only event planned here in Washington at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) today. Details about his presentation were closely held in advance: The only hint that Blue Origin dropped on Twitter was a , the Endurance, sitting amid polar pack ice. That’s interpreted as an allusion to Bezos’ plans for lunar exploration, starting with robotic missions to the moon’s polar regions and moving ahead to on the lunar surface. A prime target for future lunar missions is Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole, which is thought to have substantial reserves of water ice in its permanently shadowed depths. For years, Blue Origin has been working on the design of a . The company suggested sending the lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, to Shackleton Crater in a in 2017. Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon or so, if there’s sufficient support from NASA. That time frame meshes with NASA’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon by 2024, in March. By the end of this month, the space agency intends to that could be ready in time to hit the 2024 schedule. Industry sources who gathered here for this week’s Satellite 2019 conference said they were sure that missions to the moon would figure in today’s talk, with the caveat that they didn’t have inside information about what Bezos would say. Going to the moon isn’t the only space odyssey on Bezos’ mind. Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests.The company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dreams of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos said he that claim. Bezos has repeatedly said his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take hundreds of years to get to that point. And if there’s any single person on Earth who can help make that dream come true, it would be Bezos, whose world-leading family net worth has been .
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and one of his Blue Origin rockets. (Blue Origin Photo) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is about to lay out an updated vision for his “other” multibillion-dollar venture, the Blue Origin rocket company, including plans for missions to the moon. Bezos is due to speak at an invitation-only event planned here in Washington at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) today. Details about his presentation were closely held in advance: The only hint that Blue Origin dropped on Twitter was a , the Endurance, sitting amid polar pack ice. That’s interpreted as an allusion to Bezos’ plans for lunar exploration, starting with robotic missions to the moon’s polar regions and moving ahead to on the lunar surface. A prime target for future lunar missions is Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole, which is thought to have substantial reserves of water ice in its permanently shadowed depths. For years, Blue Origin has been working on the design of a . The company suggested sending the lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, to Shackleton Crater in a in 2017. Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon or so, if there’s sufficient support from NASA. That time frame meshes with NASA’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon by 2024, in March. By the end of this month, the space agency intends to that could be ready in time to hit the 2024 schedule. Industry sources who gathered here for this week’s Satellite 2019 conference said they were sure that missions to the moon would figure in today’s talk, with the caveat that they didn’t have inside information about what Bezos would say. Going to the moon isn’t the only space odyssey on Bezos’ mind. Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests.The company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dreams of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos said he that claim. Bezos has repeatedly said his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take hundreds of years to get to that point. And if there’s any single person on Earth who can help make that dream come true, it would be Bezos, whose world-leading family net worth has been .
The curving Earth and the black sky of space serve as the backdrop for NetMotion Software’s balloon-borne contraption, outfitted with an iPad that maintained a Skype connection at an altitude of 85,000 feet. (NetMotion Software via YouTube) What’s the best way to show off your mobile networking technology? How about demonstrating that the technology can seamlessly switch between WiFi, cellular and satellite data connectivity while it’s flying on a balloon up to a height of 85,000 feet? That’s the answer that Seattle-based came up with when it sought to showcase its mobile video conferencing capabilities. In January, NetMotion engineers lashed an Apple iPad and an array of webcams, networking equipment and GPS trackers to a flightworthy frame, and attached the frame to a weather balloon. They set up a Skype video connection to a Microsoft Surface Book sitting in the back of their car. Then they let the contraption fly, fly away from their launch site at Mountains Edge Regional Park in Las Vegas. Thanks to the NetMotion Mobility software installed on the iPad, the Skype connection switched smoothly from the team’s personal WiFi hotspot to the iPad’s cellular LTE link at a height of 500 feet. “Typically a cell connection only goes up to 9,000 feet, but with Mobility we were able to go much further,” Marisa Smolka, senior marketing manager at NetMotion Software,. wrote in a summary of the experiment. “At 12,500 feet we switched from LTE to our satellite connection with our , which kept us connected up to 76,000 feet. … The call had a few blips or small pauses, but maintained a solid connection until we got to 76,000 feet.” The Skype connection cut out entirely at 85,000 feet, but the platform kept rising until just past 100,000 feet. Then the balloon popped, and the platform plummeted. During the hourlong flight, the winds took NetMotion’s contraption 95 miles to the east. It took until long after dark for Smolka and her teammates to locate the wreckage, near Dolan Springs in Arizona. But the ruggedized iPad was still about as solid as the Skype connection had been. NetMotion’s experiment was judged a success, but Smolka doesn’t recommend trying this at home. “The precision and attention to detail to launch a weather balloon and recover it was far more than I had expected,” Smolka wrote. “The launch itself is far more complicated than setting up the technology to prove that a Skype call in the atmosphere can work!” She and her teammates explain how it was done in this “extended cut” video: