“Space Atlas,” “Space Stations,” “All Over the Map” and “The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos” are among newly released coffee-table books with cosmic themes. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) If you’re going to give somebody a book for the holidays, why not go big? In this age of ebooks, smartphones and tiny houses, there’s less need (and less room) for shelves of inch-thick volumes lining the walls. But it’s still nice to have a colorful, glossy-paged book to peruse during the commercials while you’re watching the latest episode of “Mars.” And if it’s a big book about a big subject, that’s even better. Here are five big-format books on out-of-this-world subjects to put on your gift list, or to consider giving to folks who are crazy about the cosmos: There are lots of reasons to keep this wide-ranging, picture-packed survey of factual and fictional space stations — written by Gary Kitmacher, Ron Miller and Robert Pearlman — handy over the coming year. We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the International Space Station’s start, and the expected debut of commercial space taxis will focus fresh attention on the ISS. There’s also a lot of talk about the Gateway that NASA and its partners are talking about building in lunar orbit. And if you want to feast your eyes on Space Wheels, O’Neill habitats and other classic sci-fi visions of the future, “Space Stations” has you covered. This second edition of what’s now become a classic off-Earth atlas runs the gamut from constellation star guides to annotated planetary maps based on the latest wave of space missions (including Messenger’s voyage to Mercury and New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto). Because it’s a National Geographic production, there are lots of magazine-quality photos and sumptuous graphics. Written by James Trefil with a foreword by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin (with an explanation of his cycler concept for trips to Mars). Astronomy writer David Dickinson and Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain team up on a book you won’t just want to keep on your coffee table. This guide has something for anyone with even the slightest interest in the skies above: easy-to-follow advice for finding the good stuff in the night sky, fun activities to deepen your appreciation of cosmic wonders, full rundowns on eclipses and other key events to watch for when the skies are clear, and lots of tales and trivia to muse over when they’re not. Mapping the cosmos is just one of the topics addressed in this entertaining, colorful look at historical maps and the stories behind them. Space fans will revel in the tale surrounding a century’s worth of road atlases for Mars’ (non-existent) canals, There are also entries for the history of moon maps, the solar system maps that NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions provided for the aliens, and the fictional Death Star diagrams. But wait … there’s much, much more. Co-authors Betsy Mason and Greg Miller provide a cornucopia of cartography that spans subjects ranging from a street map for ancient Rome and a 15th-century guide to the parallels between medieval maps of Britain and contemporary charts of the Seven Kingdoms in “Game of Thrones.” “Apollo: VII-XVII” takes a mission-by-mission look at Apollo’s space expeditions. (NASA / teNeues Publishing) This holiday season kicks off prime time for Apollo moonshot anniversaries, starting with Apollo 7’s first crewed test mission and Apollo 8’s audacious yuletide trip around the moon in 1968. Co-authors Floris Heyne, Joel Meter, Simon Phillipson and Delano Steenmeijer presents carefully curated photos from each of the 11 missions in chronological order. It’s all about the pictures here: Background text is kept to a minimum, and the captions are grouped together at the end of each section. There’s also a in a larger format with thicker paper (and a fatter price tag). With a foreword by Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham. More books for Apollo’s big year Because the coming year will be a big year for moonshot memories, here are five more Apollo books to moon over: The ultimate space story gets the graphic-novel treatment, blending historical facts about the Apollo 11 moon landing with docudrama-style suspense. The saga of NASA’s glory days, illustrated with artifacts from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. This collection of 3-D imagery literally brings another dimension to the Space Race, climaxing with the Apollo moon landings. 3-D viewer included. Not just the Apollo photos, but other big and beautiful Hasselblad frames that chronicle missions ranging from Gemini to the space shuttle and the International Space Station. It won’t be out until January, but if your pocketbook can stand it, you’ll want to put this comprehensive review of NASA’s history on your list for after the holidays. And in a pinch, the 468-page coffee-table book . Big topics with fewer pictures If you’re looking for science books that aren’t so big in size but still handle big subjects, here are five suggestions: Stories from Quanta magazine chart the frontiers of physics, including quantum mechanics and black holes. Space.com’s Michael Wall addresses big cosmic questions — for example, are we alone? — in a Q&A format. Deborah Blum follows up on “The Poisoner’s Handbook” with the origin story for the fight against unsafe food. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest hard-sci-fi novel is set just 30 years from now, when China has set up bases on the moon. Carl Zimmer delves into the story of heredity and its impact on identity, which goes way beyond just genes.
NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, at right, takes a group selfie with Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev and Germany’s Alexander Gerst on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo) Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for big gatherings around the dinner table, but this year’s feast on the will be served to only three people. And only two of them have the day off. That’s because two spacefliers who were supposed to be in orbit at this time of year missed out on their ride: NASA’s Nick Hague and Russia’s Alexey Ovchinin just minutes after their launch on Oct. 11 due to a Soyuz rocket malfunction. The next crew won’t arrive until next month. As a result, NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor is the only one on the station who has traditionally observed American Thanksgiving. German astronaut Alexander Gerst is , even though the closest thing to Thanksgiving in Germany, a harvest festival known as , is usually celebrated in September or October. And for the third crew member, Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev, Thursday is just another workday. In a conducted three weeks ago, Auñón-Chancellor said she misses Hague and Ovchinin. “Sure, we would love to see them up here, but more important, they’re safe on the ground,” she said. Are you thawing out your turkey? The space station crew is preparing for Thanksgiving, too! Tomorrow, an American, European and Russian will celebrate together in space with their own special meal. Happy Thanksgiving from the International Space Station! — Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) There could be an upside to the smaller crowd: bigger servings of the space station’s , with irradiated smoked turkey leading the list. Shelf-storable fixings have been on the space station for weeks, but they’ll be supplemented by fresh fruit, ice cream and other goodies that came up to the space station over the weekend in two robotic cargo deliveries, as well as . “We’ve got everything from turkey to candied yams to stuffing to special spicy pound cakes,” Auñón-Chancellor said in a . “We’re very excited.” Prokopyev will join Auñón-Chancellor and Gerst for the feast after his work shift ends. And there’s another upside to Thanksgiving in space: . Instead, there’ll be extra time to check in with family and friends more than 200 miles below. “Thanksgiving is a time to spend with those whom you love, whomever that might be,” Auñón-Chancellor told viewers. “And so we’ll be enjoying this meal together, but then also calling our loved ones back on planet Earth.”
An artist’s conception shows the Mars Insight lander on the Red Planet’s surface, with its seismometer deployed at left and its heat-measuring “mole” deployed at right. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration) After a 300 million-mile, six-month interplanetary cruise, NASA’s is heading for a plain-vanilla arrival at the Red Planet on Monday — and the team behind the mission couldn’t be more pleased. “We’re expecting to have a very plain day on Mars for the landing, and we’re very happy about that,” said Rob Grover, the engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who’s in charge of Mars InSight’s entry, descent and landing. That’s not only because the weather is relatively clear, but also because Mars InSight is on track to land in a no-drama region of Mars known as Elysium Planitia, which is Latin for “Paradise Plain.” “It may not look like paradise, but it is very flat. … It’s an excellent place for landing,” Grover said today. “As landing engineers, we really like this landing site.” Grover and other InSight team members provided a preview of the landing today at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. The mission’s name is actually an acronym of sorts, standing for “INterior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.” The lander’s instruments are designed to provide unprecedented data about the Red Planet’s inner structure, seismic activity and heat flow from the interior. Pasadena may be the earthly epicenter for the $850 million mission, but NASA has upped its game for fans who want to follow the action remotely. The space agency has set up that positively bristles with animations, infographics, backgrounders and an that are keyed to the landing. In Seattle, the Pacific Science Center is hosting a of mission activities — while at the Museum of Flight, video coverage of the landing will be , with live commentary from space curator Geoff Nunn. NASA’s coverage begins at 11 a.m. PT Monday, with touchdown expected at around noon PT and a post-landing conference set for no earlier than 2 p.m. PT. Video will be streamed online via and , plus and . NASA’s , and social-media channels will get in on the party as well. What will viewers see? NASA will provide a play-by-play account of the spacecraft’s approach, leading up to a crucial plunge that lasts nearly seven minutes. When the lander hits the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield, it’ll be traveling more than 12,000 mph and heating up to temperatures as high as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. In the latter phases of the descent, the heat shield will pop off, the probe’s parachute will pop open, the landing legs will deploy and 12 descent thrusters (produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s team in Redmond, Wash.) will fire up to ease the lander down onto Elysium Planitia. The descent will be monitored by that have been flying in formation near the InSight lander since . The MarCO probes aren’t designed to land on Mars themselves. Rather, they’re equipped with communication equipment to relay data about InSight’s descent back to Earth. JPL engineer Anne Marinan shows off a full-scale mockup of the MarCO flyby spacecraft with its communication antenna and solar panels deployed. MarCO stands for “Mars Cube One,” in recognition of its status as the first breed of interplanetary CubeSats. (NASA via YouTube) NASA doesn’t strictly need MarCO-A and MarCO-B to work for mission success. MarCO’s main job is to test miniaturized CubeSat technologies that could become part of the routine for future robotic exploration missions. After flying past Mars, the twin solar-powered spacecraft will continue into deep space and could be available for a follow-up mission that’s yet to be determined. InSight’s first hours of activity will be tracked by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey orbiter as well. But because of the orbiters’ positions with respect to Earth, it could be more than five hours before ground controllers hear whether InSight has opened its two sets of solar arrays. That’s a key requirement for mission success. If InSight doesn’t get its power-generating system working, its batteries would last “not much more than one Mars day,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL. What will scientists get? The first picture from InSight is set to be taken by the robotic probe’s Instrument Context Camera, which can capture a of the lander’s surroundings. But such pictures are likely to be about as plain as a plain can be. InSight’s most important findings are expected to come from its three main scientific instruments. A will receive signals from Earth and send them back again, producing fluctuations that scientists can use to track the position of the lander precisely in space. “In particular, we’re tracking the north pole of the planet and watching it wobble as the planet rotates,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said. “The wobble of that north pole is tied to the interaction between the planet and its core.” Close analysis of the readings can tell scientists how big Mars’ core is, and what it’s made out of. “That’s very critical in terms of understanding the history of the planet,” Banerdt said. Scientists believe that Mars once had an environment more like Earth’s, but lost most of its atmosphere and water due to a . InSight’s robotic arm will set down another instrument, known as the , or SEIS. It’s a seismometer that can detect perturbations in the Martian crust with incredible precision. “Depending on exactly how you define it, it’s about half the radius of a hydrogen atom,” Banerdt said. SEIS is so delicate that it has to be contained in a vacuum chamber and shielded from Mars’ whisper-thin winds. Back in 2015, problems with the vacuum seal from 2016 to this year. But that delay’s nothing compared to how long JPL’s Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for the InSight mission, has been looking forward to getting the seismic data. “I personally have been waiting for this information for decades,” she said. The readings should reveal what kinds of seismic activity take place on Mars, how often earthquakes occur, and even how often and how forcefully meteors hit Mars. That kind of information could be useful to future Mars explorers. The third instrument is the or HP3 (“HP-cubed”), which is designed to take Mars’ internal temperature. HP3 is a “mole” that hammers its way down as far as 15 feet beneath the surface to see how heat is transferred from Mars’ depths to the surface. That’s an important question, because if there’s any life left on Mars, it’s likely to lurk beneath the surface where there’s a better chance of having access to warmth and liquid water. Once the instruments are deployed, NASA will be delivering regular snapshots of Mars as well as an unprecedented bonanza of and weather data. Just don’t expect two-day delivery, even though the big event takes place on Cyber Monday. Banerdt estimates it’ll be two or three months before all the instruments are set down on the ground and providing data — but he and the rest of the InSight team say it’ll be worth the wait. There may even be a surprise or two. “It’s always the things we don’t expect that turn out to be the most intriguing,” Smrekar said. NASA is planning to its final pre-landing news conference at 10 a.m. PT Sunday, followed by a NASA Social Q&A with the InSight team at 1 p.m. PT. Monday’s NASA TV coverage includes live interviews with mission experts from 3 to 7 a.m. PT, landing commentary beginning at 11 a.m., and a post-landing news conference no earlier than 2 p.m. ET. For an entertaining look at the InSight mission, , created by Seattle’s own Matthew Inman.
This color-coded image of the Jezero Crater delta combines information from two instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and the Context Camera. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JHU-APL) One week before the next Mars mission is due to land, NASA has chosen the landing site for its next next Mars mission. Jezero Crater will be where NASA’s will land on Feb. 18, 2021, the space agency announced today. “It’s a Thursday,” said Allen Chen, who’s leading the entry, descent and landing team for what’s currently known as NASA’s . That touchdown is due to come seven months after the mission’s launch in mid-July 2020. Jezero Crater is thought to be the site of an ancient river delta on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists say the 28-mile-wide crater’s rocks and soil may contain organic molecules and other traces of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago. “The delta is a good place for evidence of life to be deposited and then preserved for the billions of years that have elapsed since this lake was present,” Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley explained. That’s particularly important for because one of the rover’s tasks is to collect samples destined for return to Earth on a mission to be named later, most likely in the early 2030s. Scientists expect Mars 2020 to yield at least five different types of rock, including the kinds of clays and carbonates that are most likely to preserve chemical biosignatures. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, . Jezero Crater, whose name comes from the Serbian word for lake, won out over three other finalist sites near the Martian equator: Midway and Northeast Syrtis, plus Columbia Hills (which is where NASA’s Spirit rover roamed a decade ago). Midway and Northeast Syrtis are close enough that it’s possible the Mars 2020 rover could eventually roll that way from Jezero Crater, although mission managers say it’s way too early to decide whether to do so. NASA said Jezero won out because of its mix of scientific promise and accessibility. But landing safely isn’t a slam dunk: Scientists want to make sure the rover doesn’t land in a boulder field, a sand trap or on the edge of a cliff. Farley said Jezero and other sites had been considered too risky for previous Mars missions. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies,” he said. The six-wheeled, plutonium-powered Mars 2020 rover is built on the same basic design as NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars’ Gusev Crater for more than six years. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 would be lowered to the surface from a rocket-powered “Sky Crane” platform, which NASA says is the safest way to land a 1-ton payload. Mars 2020 will take advantage of technological advances that have been made since Curiosity was designed — including higher-resolution imagers, chemical life-detection instruments and even a . It’ll also have experiments to test technologies that future astronauts will need, such as producing oxygen from Mars’ thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere, and the equipment that’s needed to extract and store samples for future missions to pick up. The Red Planet has long been a hot spot for planetary exploration, thanks to Curiosity and NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers as well as a fleet of orbiters. It’ll be heating up even further a week from today with the arrival of NASA’s . And in the 2020s, NASA’s next rover is likely to be joined by the , which is part of the European-Russian . China is planning to get in on the action with its , also due for launch during 2020’s favorable launch opportunity.
Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket is hooked beneath the left wing of the modified 747 jet known as Cosmic Girl during the first captive-carry flight. (Virgin Orbit Photo) modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, has made its first test flight with a LauncherOne rocket tucked under its wing. The 80-minute captive-carry flight from California’s Victorville Airport and back came Sunday after months of step-by-step preparations, and represents a major step forward in Virgin Orbit’s plan to start sending satellites to orbit next year. In a , Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the outing was “a picture-perfect flight.” Victorville, a logistics airport that’s more than 60 miles from Los Angeles, was the nexus for Sunday’s flight because it’s between Virgin Orbit’s factory in Long Beach and its main launch site in Mojave. The first report about the flight came in the form of a video clip posted by a Twitter user with the handle Zia Aerospace, or , who was at the airport when Cosmic Girl took off. Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl first flight with rocket under wing. — Zia Aerospace (@zia_aero) “I was there just by chance dropping off a rental car … only armed with a camera phone,” Zia Aerospace . Other planespotters, including Michael Baylor, took notice of Cosmic Girl’s flight path over the Mojave Desert, . “I wonder if a rocket was under her wing?” . Confirmation of the first captive-carry flight, plus in-flight video and photos, came hours later from Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket is designed to drop from Cosmic Girl’s carrier pylon at an altitude of about 30,000 feet, and then fire up its engine to send payloads weighing as much as 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) to low Earth orbit. The same basic principle is behind other air-launched vehicles ranging from and Virgin Galactic’s to Northrop Grumman’s and . Captive-carry test flights are aimed at checking the aerodynamics of the Cosmic Girl mothership and its LauncherOne piggyback-rider before the rocket drops begin. During such flights, the rocket-powered craft remains firmly attached to its carrier plane. (And yes, SpaceShipTwo went through as well.) During Sunday’s flight, Virgin Orbit’s flight crew assessed the takeoff, landing, and low-speed handling and performance of the integrated system. “The vehicles flew like a dream today,” Virgin Orbit chief pilot Kelly Latimer, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said in today’s news release. “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments onboard the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. “From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators,” she said. Hart, a former Boeing executive who became Virgin Orbit’s CEO last year when it was , said he was “extremely proud” of Latimer and the rest of the team. “Their professionalism really shone through today, with our rocket and our plane up in the skies on a beautiful California day,” he said. Cosmic Girl is due to take on several more test flights in the weeks ahead — some with LauncherOne attached, and some without. The captive-carry flights will lead up to a test flight that involves dropping LauncherOne from its pylon without lighting up the engine. That dress rehearsal will provide valuable data about the aerodynamics of LauncherOne during its freefall through the atmosphere, and about Cosmic Girl’s performance during and after the release. Virgin Orbit’s drop test will set the stage for the first aerial lighting up of the rocket engines in the new year. Several more LauncherOnes are waiting their turn at the company’s Long Beach factory. When the air-launch system is ready for prime time, Virgin Orbit should be able to capable of launching payloads into any orbital inclination, from any locale with an airport big enough to accommodate Cosmic Girl. If the weather’s not great for launching, the plane could theoretically fly to clearer skies to execute its mission. And the advance time needed for launch could be as little as a few hours. Virgin Orbit already has customers lined up for LauncherOne, including Seattle-based and the . Those customers will no doubt be glad to see how Cosmic Girl is growing up. This is an updated version of a report first published at 5:02 p.m. PT Nov. 18.
A photo taken in October shows Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl jet on the runway with a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath its left wing. (Virgin Orbit Photo) modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, was spotted today taking off from California’s Victorville Airport with what appears to be a rocket under its wing. When you put that fact together with the flight tracking data for the outing, it seems to add up to the first captive-carry flight for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. The key evidence comes in the form of a video passed along by a Twitter user with the handle Zia Aerospace, or . Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl first flight with rocket under wing. — Zia Aerospace (@zia_aero) “I was there just by chance dropping off a rental car … only armed with a camera phone,” Zia Aerospace . Michael Baylor took notice of Cosmic Girl’s course, , and figured something was up: Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl performed another test flight today. I wonder if a rocket was under her wing?
Spaceflight mission managers rehearse CubeSat integration into one of the flight dispensers that will be used during the SmallSat Express mission. (Spaceflight Photo) There’s a grand convergence coming Monday for the two subsidiaries of Seattle-based . , which handles launch logistics for small satellites, is gearing up for its most ambitious mission yet: the “dedicated rideshare” launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will deliver at least 64 satellites to a pole-to-pole, sun-synchronous orbit. The SSO-A mission, also known as the , is due for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California anytime between 10:31 and 11 a.m. PT Monday. Among the will be the first satellite designed for what’s expected to be a constellation of Earth-watching spacecraft for , Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary. BlackSky already has one prototype satellite in space, , and the venture also markets multispectral imagery from a . But its will kick things up a notch in terms of image resolution as well as near-real-time delivery of on-demand imagery. This mission is also a milestone for SpaceX. The upgraded Block 5 first-stage booster destined for Monday’s launch has flown twice already, in and so this will mark the first three-time booster flight (with a launch from each of SpaceX’s three operational launch pads). SmallSat Express’ liftoff will also break SpaceX’s record of 18 launches in a calendar year — a record set just last year. If all goes as planned, the first-stage booster will go through a complex set of post-separation maneuvers to touch down on SpaceX’s West Coast landing ship. This infographic from Spaceflight gives the stats on SSO-A’s sats. Click on the image for a larger version. Spaceflight’s in-flight choreography promises to be as complex as SpaceX’s. Once the second stage reaches orbit, a flurry of satellites will be sent out from the base of the payload stack and from two free-flying satellite deployers. The lead payloads are two that are about the size of a mini-fridge and weigh about 250 pounds, but other satellites are as small as tissue boxes. In addition to the SkySat spacecraft and the BlackSky Global satellite, here are a dozen other notable payloads: Artist Trevor Pagler and the Nevada Museum of Art are sending up a nanosatellite with a sheet of reflective plastic packed inside. When the sheet is unfurled, it should shine in the night sky after sunset and before sunrise . A 24-karat-gold, Egyptian-style canopic jar is being flown as an art project for sculptor Tavares Strachan and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This nanosatellite carries the cremated remains of loved ones that will be , , , : Several satellites are being flown for Coast Guard and military researchers to test advanced technologies and study the space environment. This Earth-imaging satellite, flown for Capella Space, will help the company fine-tune its synthetic-aperture radar imaging system. Audacy will test a miniaturized Ka-band radio system that could serve as the foundation for the world’s first commercial relay satellite network. Three satellites will monitor radio signals to keep track of ships at sea, including . Developed by high-school students from Irvine, Calif., to test an electric propulsion system and a laser communication system. Developed by middle-school students at Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to test a lab-on-a-chip experiment aimed at assessing the viability of thawed-out bacteria in space. The course to the SmallSat Express’ launch has not always run smooth. Spaceflight struck its dedicated-rideshare deal with SpaceX, but setbacks in the launch schedule have forced . Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, said his team started charging “change fees” for customers who needed to switch from one launch vehicle to another due to schedule pressures. Some of those change fees have helped subsidize the cost for other satellite operators who filled open spots on the satellite deployers. It’s similar to the way airlines and discount-travel websites like Priceline offer last-minute deals to fill empty seats on passenger airplanes. “We’ve changed to a system that’s a lot more like airlines, frankly” Blake told GeekWire. “We’re toying with the idea of flex fares, all that kind of thing.” Another issue has to do with the way Spaceflight plans to deploy all those satellites from free-flying spacecraft. quoted an expert on orbital debris, CelesTrak’s T.S. Kelso, as saying Spaceflight’s method seemed “irresponsible.” “It jeopardizes the time and resources of many of the small operators who may never even hear from their satellites,” Kelso said. Is filling up a SpaceX Falcon 9 flight worth all worth the trouble, especially when Spaceflight has smaller rockets such as India’s PSLV and Rocket Lab’s Electron to choose from? It’s a gnarly question, even for Blake. In a , he said putting together the SmallSat Express mission was “an incredibly complex undertaking” and suggested “it is more likely that small- and medium-sized launch vehicles will become the vehicles of choice for future dedicated rideshare missions.” But in our follow-up interview, Blake laid out a more nuanced view: To his mind, the Falcon 9 is like a bus, while the smaller Electron is like a taxi. “If a lot of people want to go from Kirkland to downtown Seattle [and] they all want to go at 7:30 in the morning so they can get to work, the bus is a great solution to that. If you want to go somewhere at a time when not everybody wants to go, or if you want to go someplace that not many people want to go to … then you’re better off going in a taxi,” he said. In a similar way, the Falcon 9 makes sense for a busload of satellite operators who are all willing to send their spacecraft to sun-synchronous orbit at the same time. But satellite operators who are facing time constraints or have special needs would be better off paying the higher per-kilogram cost for an Electron launch, Blake said. In either case, Spaceflight can arrange the ride. “We do rideshare on all the different vehicles,” Blake said. BlackSky is something a special case, due to its status as Spaceflight’s corporate sibling under the broader aegis of Spaceflight Industries. “We know more about them,” Blake acknowledged. But he said BlackSky doesn’t get special treatment. “We treat them as much as we can like any other customer,” Blake said. BlackSky Global-2 will be going up on the Falcon 9, while Global-1 is due to launch from India a week later as a secondary payload on a PSLV rocket. The numbers seem confusing only because when BlackSky was planning the first steps for its constellation, the PSLV launch was scheduled first. Global-3 and Global-4 are due to take flight early next year, on another PSLV and an Electron. Twenty more satellites are expected to follow in the next year or two, filling out the Phase 1 constellation and setting the stage for still more to come. BlackSky already has developed a cloud-based constellation orchestration system called Gemini to automate many of the tasks required to manage what will become more than a score of satellites. In a , written for BlackSky’s website, software development manager Casey Peel said he and his teammates were ready for the next chapter of their own satellite saga. “We’re excited to put Gemini to work when the rubber meets the road with the upcoming Global launches,” Peel wrote.
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket lights up the night at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. (NASA via YouTube) Two uncrewed cargo craft are now en route to the International Space Station, thanks to the launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spaceship atop an Antares rocket. Liftoff came right on time at 4:01 a.m. ET (1:01 a.m. PT) today at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA said the Antares’ ascent should have been visible from a stretch of America’s East Coast ranging from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, given acceptable weather conditions and viewing elevation. A round of applause could be heard at Wallops’ launch control center when spacecraft separation was announced. The rocket’s red glare came less than 15 hours after Russia’s robotic Progress spaceship . The close timing was the result of a couple of weather-caused delays for the Cygnus launch. The Progress is due to rendezvous with the station on Sunday, followed by the Cygnus’ arrival on Monday. About 7,400 pounds of cargo is on its way to the station aboard the Cygnus, which has been christened the S.S. John Young in honor of the . That cargo includes crew supplies (with ice cream and fruit for holiday goodies), plus station hardware and science experiments. Among those experiments are: built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited. Refabricator will test techniques to turn waste plastic into the raw materials for newly manufactured items — a capability that will come in handy for future bases on the moon and Mars. An experiment aimed at , which are the main mineral components of many meteorites and are believed to be the building blocks of our solar system. The experiment could help scientists gain insights into the primordial origins of chondrules. A that’s expected to produce research-quality samples of a protein called leucine-rich repeat kinase 2, or LRRK2. The protein is closely associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease, and it’s thought to be easier to grow large, regularly shaped crystals of LRRK2 in zero gravity. The study is funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. A lab-on-a-chip experiment that will, and a miniaturized centrifuge that’s . For more about the experiments aboard the Cygnus, check out the detailed rundowns from and the . Once the Cygnus is hooked up to the station, it’ll remain berthed there until February. Then it’ll be set loose to deploy several nanosatellites and descend to a fiery doom during atmospheric re-entry.
A global contest will give the 1974 Arecibo Message a reboot. (Arecibo Observatory Illustration) The Arecibo Observatory today kicked off a student-focused competition to design a new message to beam to extraterrestrials, 44 years to the day since the first deliberate message was sent out from Arecibo’s 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope.. “Our society and our technology have changed a lot since 1974,” Francisco Cordova, the observatory’s director, . “So if we were assembling our message today, what would it say? What would it look like? What one would need to learn to be able to design the right updated message from the earthlings? Those are the questions we are posing to young people around the world through the New Arecibo Message – the global challenge.” It’s not just about the message, however: Competitors will have to solve brain-teasing puzzles in order to qualify, get instructions, register and submit their designs. Along the way, they’ll learn about space science, the scientific method and Arecibo’s story. “We have quite a few surprises in store for participants, and we will be sharing more details as the competition progresses,” Cordova said. The contest is open to teams from around the world, in classes ranging from kindergarten to college. Each team should consist of five students plus an adult mentor – for example, a teacher, professor or professional scientist. The first challenge will be posted on Dec. 16. “Teams should wait until the release of the first on December 16, since they will need to solve that challenge to be able to register,” Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, told me in an email. “Meanwhile, team leaders should subscribe to the for updates and start forming their own teams.” Clues and follow-up activities will be rolled out periodically over the next year, and the winning team is due to be revealed next fall during a celebration of the Arecibo Message’s 45th anniversary. That first Arecibo Message was designed by astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI, in league with other astronomers including Carl Sagan. The message took the form of a 1,679-bit radio transmission, sent out from the Arecibo telescope in the direction of the M13 star cluster in the constellation Hercules. The 1974 Arecibo Message was laid out as a 23-by-73 bit grid. Colors have been added to this version to aid in interpreting the message. Click on the image for a detailed interpretation on Wikipedia. (Cornell / NAIC / NSF / Arecibo Illustration) Those bits were meant to be put together into a 23-by-73-bit grid. The shapes shown on the grid represent a variety of concepts ranging from the numbers 1 through 10 to the chemical constituents of DNA, our solar system’s planets and the telescope itself … plus a stick figure that stands for humanity. Since that transmission, the three minutes’ worth of radio waves have rippled out to a distance of 44 light-years, or less than 0.2 percent of the way to M13. Experts acknowledge that it’s extremely unlikely the message will ever be detected and decoded by an alien civilization. “It was a purely symbolic event to show we could do it,” , a professor emeritus at Cornell University who was a research associate at Arecibo when the message was sent. Other types of messages have been sent out periodically since then, but experts are still debating how wise it is to broadcast our existence. Most famously, the late physicist Stephen Hawking said letting extraterrestrials know where we are could turn out as badly for us as Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World turned out for Native Americans. The downside of alien contact is explored in a book trilogy by Chinese science-fiction author Liu Cixin that . On the other side of the argument, there’s Douglas Vakoch, who has been focusing on the idea of sending messages to extraterrestrials as the president of . Vakoch argues that any aliens who could pick up on intentional Arecibo-style transmissions would already know we exist, based on other radio signals we’ve been sending out for decades. “I wish I could tell people that somehow we are going to be safer if we don’t transmit,” Vakoch , “but in good conscience, I can’t.” To mark this date in SETI history, Google is featuring an on its search page in lots of locales around the world, including Puerto Rico but not including the U.S. mainland. If you’re not in the zone, you can still check out the animated artwork and get the story behind it via . Our Arecibo Message was featured in today's doodle. Wait for the official announcement of the – the global challenge!It is coming today! Keep tuned and get ready!!! — Arecibo Observatory (@NAICobservatory) The Arecibo Observatory is operated by the University of Central Florida in partnership with Sistema Ana G. Mendez Universidad Metropolitana and Yang Enterprises Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The planetary radar program is supported by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program.
Spaceflight’s team gathers in front of SpaceX’s facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during preparations for a dedicated-rideshare launch. (SpaceflightInc via Twitter) Seattle-based laid out the status of a debt restructuring plan this week in advance of its most ambitious satellite launch operation to date. on Tuesday describe an offering of $29.9 million in debt instruments and options for other securities, with five investors participating to date. The filing said $22 million of the offering has been sold, with $7.9 million remaining. Spaceflight Industries spokeswoman Jodi Sorensen told GeekWire in an email that the filing was triggered when the company finished up a restructuring deal. “Part of that funding ($15M) went through restructuring, making it more available to us, while the current investors did invest another $7M,” she explained. “So some is from restructuring, some is net new investment.” Further details about the restructuring deal were not immediately available, but we’ll update this item with anything more we hear. Spaceflight Industries’ previous investors include , the late billionaire Paul Allen’s venture capital fund, as well as a French-Italian joint venture known as , Japan’s Mitsui & Co. Ltd., Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management, RRE Venture Capital and Razor’s Edge Ventures. Spaceflight Industries has two service subsidiaries: , which deals with satellite launch logistics; and , which offers geospatial data services on its Spectra software platform and is gearing up to have its own Earth-observing satellite constellation put in orbit. The company is also involved in a to manufacture satellites for BlackSky at a facility in Tukwila, Wash. The joint venture, , has been tasked with building 20 satellites for the constellation over the next year or two. After years of preparation, Spaceflight is getting ready for Monday’s scheduled launch of 64 satellites from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The Seattle company has been in charge of signing up customers and managing spacecraft integration on a custom-built, multi-tiered deployment structure. Among the payloads will be the first BlackSky Global satellite to go into orbit. Spaceflight says the mission to sun-synchronous orbit, known as SSO-A or the SmallSat Express, will be the largest single rideshare mission launched using a U.S.-based rocket. For what it’s worth, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, holds the record for most satellites launched on a single rocket, thanks to a .
Electron rockets are under construction at Rocket Lab’s production facility in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab Photo) Fresh on the heels of a successful satellite launch, today announced that it has received $140 million in new investment. Rocket Lab said the Series E financing round was led by Future Fund and closed last month, well in advance of last weekend’s “It’s Business Time” mission. The Electron rocket launch from the California-based startup’s pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula . The new round brings Rocket Lab’s total funding to $288 million and puts the company’s valuation well past a billion dollars, extending its status as a startup “unicorn.” This month’s launch was only the second successful orbital mission for Rocket Lab, which was founded by New Zealand-born CEO Peter Beck in 2006. The made it to space but didn’t make it to orbit. This January, the , setting the stage for a fully commercial follow-up. “It has been a big year for Rocket Lab, with two successful missions to orbit and another about to roll out to the pad, but it’s even more significant for the global small satellite industry that now has a fully commercial, dedicated ride to space,” . “This funding also enables the continued aggressive scale-up of Electron production to support our targeted weekly flight rate. It will also see us build additional launch pads and begin work on three major new R&D programs.” Last month, Rocket Lab opened a rocket production facility in New Zealand and at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Future Fund had invested in Rocket Lab previously. Other existing investors contributing to the Series E round include Greenspring Associates, Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (Data Collective), Promus Ventures and K1W1. A new investor, ACC, also contributed to the round. “We were fortunate enough to follow Rocket Lab’s journey from their initial engine program to the first launch, the factory scale-up and now the start of commercial operations, all of which happened in record time,” said Sven Strohband, who is a partner and chief technology officer at Khosla Ventures as well as a member of Rocket Lab’s board. Although Rocket Lab’s status as a space unicorn is notable, it’s not the space industry’s most highly valued company in private hands. SpaceX, founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is thought to be valued at . Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is the founder and sole owner of his Blue Origin space venture, which makes it virtually impossible to estimate valuation. However, Bezos has acknowledged that .
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, sending the Es’hail-2 satellite into space. (SpaceX via YouTube) SpaceX sent the Es’hail-2 telecommunications satellite into orbit today, then brought the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster back down for an at-sea landing. The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after a trouble-free countdown. The only break from SpaceX’s recent routine was the fact that the launch came during daylight hours, at 3:46 p.m. ET (12:46 p.m. PT). Minutes after launch, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated from the first stage and continued the push to geostationary transfer orbit. That freed up the first stage to go through an autonomous sequence of commands and touch down on SpaceX’s drone ship, “Of Course I Still Love You,” which was standing by hundreds of miles from shore in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the second go-round for that particular first stage. The first go-round came in July when the booster helped launch the Telstar 19 Vantage satellite and came back down for recovery and refurbishment. Getting Es’hail-2 to its proper place in geostationary orbit requires a series of orbital maneuvers, which started a little more than a half-hour after launch with a second-stage engine burn and satellite deployment. The Japanese-built Es’hail-2 satellite is the second in a series of spacecraft designed to provide satellite TV and secure communication services across the Middle East and North Africa. Both Es’hail satellites are operated by Qatar’s state-owned Es’hailSat telecom venture. Es’hail-2 also carries that will facilitate conventional analog ham radio as well as experimental digital communications, including amateur television. Today’s launch was the 18th for SpaceX this year. matching last year’s record with more than a month still to go. It was also SpaceX’s first-ever launch during the month of November. There’s a ahead, including a Russian Progress cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station that’s due to start on Friday, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply mission that’s currently set for launch early Saturday, and a West Coast SpaceX launch on Monday that’s aimed at delivering more than 60 small satellites to orbit as part of a dedicated-rideshare mission facilitated by Seattle-based Spaceflight.
An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (OneWeb Illustration) The Federal Communications Commission today gave the go-ahead for SpaceX to operate a constellation of more than 7,500 broadband access satellites in very low Earth orbit — and also gave the go-ahead for other satellite constellations chasing similar markets. SpaceX’s meshes with a complementary plan to put more than 4,400 satellites in higher orbits for Ku- and Ka-band service. Last week, SpaceX filed an amended application instead of the originally specified 715-mile orbits. The different orbital altitudes are meant to provide a mix of wide-angle and tightly focused transmission beams for global broadband access. SpaceX could start offering satellite internet services as soon as 2020, if all goes according to plan and the company sticks to its launch schedule. SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., for the Starlink constellation. The first Starlink prototypes were . , the FCC said today’s action will give SpaceX “additional flexibility to provide both diverse geographic coverage and the capacity to support a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users in the United States and globally.” The FCC also granted SpaceX’s request to : 37.5-42.0 GHz for space-to-Earth communications, and 47.2-50.2 for Earth-to-space links. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has noted the market for telecommunications services is, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said satellite service revenue would help. Three other low-Earth-orbit satellite constellations were cleared for U.S. market access in separate FCC orders: Toronto-based Kepler Communications won clearance to offer global connectivity for the Internet of Things, especially sensors and other intelligent devices. Kepler’s proposed 140-satellite constellation is licensed by Canada. Kepler and . Telesat Canada was cleared to offer high-speed, low-latency communication services in the United States using its future 117-satellite constellation, which is licensed by Canada. Telesat . Luxembourg-based LeoSat won the FCC’s go-ahead to provide satellite broadband services in the United States, including high-speed connectivity for enterprises and underserved communities. LeoSat’s proposed 78-satellite constellation will operate under France’s filings with the International Telecommunication Union and a planned authorization from the Netherlands. In addition to the companies that were the subject of today’s actions, the international OneWeb consortium is planning to put hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit to provide low-cost global internet access. The FCC , and OneWeb’s first satellites could be launched from Arianespace’s spaceport in French Guiana . The proliferation of plans for low-Earth-orbit constellations is one of the factors behind the FCC’s newly announced moves to and .
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.