Watch Patrick Stewart grow bored of his winery in first ‘Star Trek: Picard’ trailer

Yes, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is indeed coming back. We knew this from previous announcements, but CBS All Access turned heads at this year’s San Diego Comic Con with an actual trailer of Sir Patrick Stewart Picarding his heart out. He says “engage!” for god’s sake.

From what I can grasp from this trailer, the plot of this Picard-centric follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation is that Jean-Luc has retired to a quiet life running a winery but quickly realizes that he’s not through adventuring. For some reason, he has Data stored in pieces in a drawer. He’s convinced to come out of retirement with what looks like a fairly rag-tag crew. Then Data is back somehow.

All of which is to say that this looks awesome and I wish it was here now instead of its “early 2020” release date on the CBS streaming service.

NASA’s Orion crew capsule is officially complete and ready to prep for its first Moon mission

NASA’s 50th anniversary celebrations weren’t limited to just remembrances of past achievements – the space agency also marked the day by confirming that the Orion crew capsule that will bring astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program is ready for its first trip to lunar orbit, currently set for sometime after June 2020.

Orion won’t be carrying anyone for its first Moon mission – instead, as part of Artemis 1, it’ll fly uncrewed propelled by the new Space Launch System, spend a total of three weeks in space including six days orbiting the Moon, and then return back to Earth. Once back, it’ll perform a crucial test of high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, to demonstrate the efficacy of the Orion capsule’s thermal shielding prior to carrying actual crew for Artemis 2 in 2022, and ultimately delivering astronauts back to the lunar surface with Artemis 3 in 2024.

This isn’t Orion’s first trip to space, however – that happened back in 2014 with Exploration Flight Test 1, another uncrewed mission in which Orion spent just four-hours in space, orbiting the Earth twice and then returning to ground. This mission used a Delta IV rocket instead of the new SLS, and was meant to test key systems prior to Artemis.

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On the anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule for the Artemis 1 mission to the Moon is declared finished.

NASA contractor Lockheed Martin, which is responsible for the Orion spacecraft’s construction, also noting that the combined crew module and service module are currently being properly integrated, and then will undergo a series of tests before returning to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of the year to begin the final preparations before launch.

Elon Musk says Starship prototypes will have first test flights in ‘2 to 3 months’

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that both the Texas and Florida Starship prototype rockets being developed by the private space company will fly “in 2 to three months,” which is an aggressive timeline considering the planned untethered flight of its Starhopper demonstration prototype missed its target of running this past week.

SpaceX is developing two Starship prototypes in parallel, at both its Texas and Florida facilities, in what is sometime referred to in the technology industry as a ‘bake-off.’ Both teams develop their own rockets independently, in an attempt to spur a sense of internal competition and potentially arrive at combined progress that wouldn’t be possible with just a single team working together on the task.

Earlier this month, Musk stated that the inaugural untethered test of its Starhopper (Hopper for short) Starship tech demo prototype would happen this past Tuesday, July 16. Those plans were derailed when a preliminary test firing of its engines resulted in a large fireball captured on camera by many local observers. Musk later said on Twitter that this was the result of a “post test fuel leak” but added that there was actually no significant damage to the sub-scale Starhopper itself.

The SpaceX CEO then continued with a new timeline for the untethered test, saying it should happen sometime this coming week instead. That’s definitely a required step for the company to take ahead of any test flights of the more complete Starhopper prototypes.

Those initial test will be sub-orbital flights, Musk said on Friday, with orbital tests to follow some “2 to 3 months” after those first test flights 2 to 3 months from today – so, that puts the earliest orbital test flights for Starship at just 4 to 6 months from now. Based on how Musk’s stated timelines match up with reality, you should definitely consider that an extremely optimistic assessment.

Musk also shared some detail about how Starship will launch – it’ll use a launch structure, which is currently under construction at another site, much like Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy does today.

Hold the first Moon rock ever collected with your smartphone

NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in a variety of ways today, but here’s one you can experience no matter where you are, provided you have a modern smartphone. NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) department has released a fully detailed model of the first ever sample of lunar soil and rock, bagged by Astronaut Neil Armstrong during humanity’s first-ever trip to the Moon’s surface.

The rock is fully manipulable provided you visit this link on a smartphone with the capability to display interactive 3D field on the web, so you can twist and turn it using touch to get a better look. It has an incredible level of detail, (“research-grade,” in fact, according to ARES, and is part of a larger effort to make more of the organization’s larger library of lunar and antarctic meteroite samples available to more people, both for research and for education.

3d models verticalThese 3D models are created using extremely high resolution photography that captures high megapixel images of the actual samples from 240 different angles, which can offer resolution as detailed as just 30 to 60 microns (doubt the width of a human hair).

But that’s just a start – software uses computer vision to ensure the 3D image provides accurate volume and text true information, and a process that involves the use of X-rays to get a cross-section image without actually slicing up the samples is also employed to ensure fully accurate representation.

If somehow you don’t have a smartphone but you do have those basic red/blue 3D glasses, then you can also view the image below in eye-popping detail. Meanwhile, NASA’s also opening up its lab of Moon rock samples to geologists for the first time, so they can study them directly in person, after years of keeping them under strict lock and key.

Moon bricks could keep the lights on and the heat up in Lunar colonies

There may be no “dark side” of the Moon, but when and where it is dark, it’s dark — and stays that way for two weeks. If we’re going to have colonists up there, they’ll need to stay warm and keep the lights (among other things) on for the long lunar night. Turns out bricks made of Moon dust could be part of the solution.

Of course they will use the readily available solar power during the lunar day, and you might think that they could just charge up some batteries to last them through the night. But batteries are large and heavy — not the kind of thing you want to pack for a trip to the Moon.

How else could lunar colonies store energy? The European Space Agency partnered with Azimut Space to find out whether a sort of improvised geothermal energy solution would be feasible.

The one thing they’ll have a lot of up there is dust — lunar regolith, to be precise. And thanks to samples brought back by the Apollo missions, we’re pretty familiar with the stuff. So the team simulated some using terrestrial materials to see what they could do with it.

“In this study, we used Earth rock with comparable properties to Moon rock, crushed into a powder until the particles matched the size of those in the lunar regolith,” said the ESA’s Aidan Cowley, who oversaw the project.

The faux-regolith was compressed into bricks, which were then wired up and heated using current like what they might be able to pull from solar cells on the Moon’s surface. The brick was then placed in an imitation lunar environment — near-vacuum and around -150 degrees C — and hooked up to a system that could withdraw heat from the bricks and convert it to electricity.

Artificial regolith brick in a vacuum chamber“Using lunar regolith to store heat on the Moon would provide us with an abundance of readily-available material meaning space travelers wouldn’t need to take much from Earth,” said Azimut’s Luca Celotti.

The ESA write-up says only that the process “worked well,” which isn’t particularly descriptive. I’ve contacted Azimut for more information. It seems, however, that if the method had worked but poorly, we wouldn’t be hearing about it at all.

There are plenty of fundamental challenges in creating what amounts to an enormous, crude battery out of Moon dust, but if it works even marginally well it could become an important part of the energy and heat storage suite that any lunar colony would have to employ.

China’s Tiangong-2 space station is officially no more

Chinese space station’s Tiangong-2 has officially ended its mission, and the orbital research facility’s entire existence. The platform de-orbited and burned up as planned at just after 9 AM ET on Friday, coming down over the South Pacific Ocean, as confirmed by the official Chinese space agency.

The station weighed around 9 U.S. tons at the time it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, but even so it was small enough that it almost entirely burned up in the process. Tiangong-2 was relatively small for a space station (when measured against the ISS), consisting of just a research module with enough space on board for only two astronauts on board.

After about 1,000 days in space, Tiangong-2 had exceeded its planned lifespan, and China’s space agency planned this de-orbit – in contrast to Tiangong-1’s de-orbit last year, which was not planned (though ultimately not a risk to anyone on the ground, either). Both of these, and the forthcoming Tiangong-3, are intended as temporary orbital stations designed for testing key technologies in pursuit of the ‘real’ Chinese space station – which is set to begin its mission life in 2020 with the launch of the Tianhe-1 core module.

Virgin Orbit signs agreement to launch small satellites for the UK’s Royal Air Force

Virgin Orbit, the small satellite launch company backed by billionaire Richard Branson, has signed an initial agreement to develop small satellite launch capabilities for the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). The deal, which is part of the RAF’s Artemis project, will see Virgin Orbit aim to launch hardware provided by Guildford, UK-based Surrey Satellites in a demo mission.

This is in keeping with Virgin Orbit’s stated hope to bring spacecraft launch capabilities to the UK. The closest the UK has come is when it launched a British satellite aboard a British rocket in 1971 – but that took off from a launchpad in Australia. Virgin Orbit announced a deal to build a new Spaceport from which its modified 747 launch aircraft will take-off in Cornwall, with a target open date of early next decade.

Virgin Orbit’s method for launching doesn’t involve terrestrial rockets at all, which helps a lot with the cost of infrastructure (since you basically just need a traditional airfield). Basically, a smaller rocket is attached to the wing of a modified Boeing 747, which then separates at a high cruising altitude and blasts the rest of the relatively short way to low-Earth orbit carrying light payloads.

The method doesn’t work to get big, heavy satellites into space (which, somewhat ironically in this case, are the kind typically sent up by government and military agencies). But it’s perfect for sending smaller satellites, which have become popular because of their cost benefits in terms of both construction and launch price.

Nvidia recreates the Apollo 11 landing with real-time ray tracing

It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing, and Nvidia is using the anniversary to showing off the power of its current GPU technology. Using the RTX real-time ray tracing, which was the topic of the day at its recent GTC Conference.

Nvidia employed its latest tech to make big improvements to the moon-landing demo it created five years ago and refined last year to demonstrate its Turing GPU architecture. The resulting simulation is a fully interactive graphic demo that models sunlight in real-time, providing a cinematic and realistic depiction of the Moon landing complete with accurate shadows, visor and metal surface reflections, and more.

Already, Nvidia had put a lot of work into this simulation, which runs on some of its most advanced graphics hardware. When the team began constructing the virtual environment, they studied the lander, the actual reflectivity of astronaut’s space suits and the properties of the Moon’s surface dust and terrain. With its real-time ray-tracing, they can now scrub the sun’s relative position back and forth and have every surface reflect light the way it actually would.

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Idiot conspiracy theorists may still falsely argue that the original was a stage show, but Nvidia’s recreation is the real wizardry, potentially providing a ‘more real than archival’ look at something only a dozen people have actually experienced.

Chinese space station Tiangong-2 is about to burn up over the Pacific

The final hours for China’s Tiangong-2 space station are at hand, as the 8-ton piece of hardware will fall to earth, or rather sea, some time in the next 20 hours or so in a controlled deorbit manuever.  But unlike with its predecessor, it isn’t a mystery where this particular piece of space debris is going to fall.

Tiangong-2 is a small space station that was put into orbit in 2016 to test a number of China’s orbital technologies; it was originally planned to stay up there for two years, but as many a well-engineered piece of space kit has done, it greatly exceeded its expected lifespan and has been operational for more than a thousand days now.

Chinese Taikonauts have visited the station to perform experiments, test tools, orbital refueling, and all that sort of thing. But it’s not nearly as well equipped as the International Space Station, nor as spacious — and that’s saying something — so they only stayed a month, and even that must have been pretty grueling.

The time has come, however, for Tiangong-2 to be deorbited and, naturally, destroyed in the process. The China National Space Administration indicated that the 18-meter-wide station and solar panels will mostly burn up during reentry, but that a small amount of debris may fall “in a safe area in the South Pacific,” specifying a rather large area that does technically include quite a bit of New Zealand. (160-190°W long by 30-45°S lat)

They did not specify when exactly it would be coming down, except that it would be during July 19 Beijing time (it’s already morning there at the time of publishing). It should produce a visible streak but not anything you’ll see if you aren’t looking for it. This visualization from The Aerospace Company shows how the previous, very similar station would break up:

It’ll be different this time around but you get a general idea.

That’s much better than Tiangong-1, which stopped responding to its operators after several years and as such could not be deliberately guided into a safe reentry path. Instead it just slowly drifted down until people were pretty sure it would be reentering sometime in the following few days — and it did.

There was never any real danger that the bus-sized station would land on anyone, but it’s just fundamentally a little unnerving not knowing where the thing would be coming down.

This isn’t the last Tiangong; Tiangong-3 is planned for a 2020 launch, and will further inform the Chinese engineers and astronauts in their development of a more full-featured space station planned for a couple years down the line.

Controlled deorbit is the responsible thing to do, not to mention just plain polite, and the CNSA is doing the right thing here. All the same, Kiwis should probably carry umbrellas tomorrow.

SpaceX shares video of multiple Crew Dragon parachute recovery system tests

SpaceX is providing a closer look at some of its Crew Dragon parachute recovery system testing, with a new video compiling footage of a number of tests, including those flown from a cargo plane and a high-altitude balloon. The video shows a test version of their Crew Dragon capsule falling through the sky over desert testing ground, and deploying the multi-parachute array it’ll employ to coast gently back to Earth after its planned missions ferrying astronauts to space.

Elon Musk’s private space company has been testing the Crew Dragon parachute system for a while now, and we don’t know too much about its progress yet, beyond that it performed an “advanced development test” in April using a metal sled in place of an actual demonstration Crew Capsule that did not meet NASA’s expectations. Regardless, the test was seen as a “good one” by both parties because of the data it provided in terms of working toward an ultimately successful system.

SpaceX shows footage from seven different tests in the highlight video it shared today, which include both reliability and qualification tests. It still has yet to announce that its parachute system is approved for flight, however, and that’s a milestone that Boeing achieved for its rival Starliner crew craft in June.

Beyond the parachute system, SpaceX is undertaking a wide range of tests in order to quality its craft for crewed flight with NASA personnel on board. The company also recently detailed progress it made into an investigation of the cause behind its failed Dragon abort engine test in April, and the steps it’s taking to remedy the issue so that it can move forward with a crewed test launch.

SpaceX had been targeting a 2019 date for its first crewed test mission for Crew Dragon, and had previously been aiming to run that mission at the end of July. At this stage, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’ll see astronauts on board a SpaceX spacecraft before the end of the year.