En route to Mars, Elon Musk will build satellites in Seattle

Elon Musk and former Google executive Greg Wyler have a plan to build hundreds of small satellites, and as of today it looks like they will be built in Seattle.

The Seattle SpaceX engineering office will employ several hundred to a thousand people, according to Bloomberg. Musk and Wyler first announced their preliminary plans in November to build 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds, each costing less than $1 million to produce.

“We’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets,” Musk said at a press conference at SpaceX headquarters, Bloomberg reported.

At 250 pounds, the satellites would fall in size between traditional communications satellites weighing several tons and the tiny shoebox-sized alternatives favored by modern startups. A fleet of 700 satellites has never been done.

Wyler, who previously ran Google’s satellite division, is now the founder of WorldVu Satellites. He owns a portion of the radio spectrum, which the satellites could use to provide internet to previously inaccessible parts of the world.

The satellites would generate revenue that would go toward Musk’s dream to colonize Mars, plus teach his team the details of space communication. He said during a Reddit AMA last week that he plans to reveal further details about the SpaceX craft that would carry the first humans to the planet in the mid-2020s by the end of this year.

Martian methane spikes could hint at life (but probably not)

Methane, in small quantities, is a constant on Mars. The scientists behind the Curiosity rover have seen that for years now. But a paper published Tuesday details that NASA is seeing something else too: pockets of methane at concentrations 10 times higher than normal. That could indicate some form of life activity below the soil, or something more boring.

“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” Curiosity rover science team member Sushil Atreya said in a release. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Science agencies are interested in methane because the vast majority of it on Earth originates from living organisms. The four methane spikes Curiosity found over two months could pinpoint spots where life is, or once was, emitting methane. Or, as Atreya said, it could be water and rock creating and then trapping pockets of gas.

At the very least, the methane finds bring Curiosity in line with what the spacecraft circling Mars have seen. And there is proof there is much more to be discovered on the red planet.

The team also determined that some of the organics — molecules of carbon and generally hydrogen — discovered by Curiosity really did come from Mars. Some traveled on the rover from Earth, casting doubt that the rest were Martian. Organics can also be a marker of life (or not).

After passing a big test, what’s next for Orion on the way to Mars?

NASA’s Orion space capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean this morning after spending 4.5 hours doing two loops around Earth. This was only the first spaceflight test of many that will eventually enable Orion to carry astronauts to an asteroid and then Mars.

The asteroid trip will not happen until the 2020s. A visit to Mars and its moons is scheduled for the 2030s. In the meantime, NASA will crunch the data collected by the 1,200 sensors attached to this initial Orion craft.

“We’re already working on the next capsule,” Lockheed Martin’s Orion program manager Mike Hawes said in a blog post. “We’ll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today.”

The Orion spacecraft after splashdown.

The Orion spacecraft after splashdown.

The U.S. Navy, NASA and Lockheed Martin got to work this morning fishing the Orion capsule out of the ocean. But NASA has already logged one thing that went wrong with the flight: Only three of its five airbags deployed during the splashdown. That was more than enough to keep it safe, however, so overall the flight went very well.

The sensor data will provide more information in the coming weeks, such as how Orion dealt with the increase in temperature while reentering Earth’s atmosphere and if it was damaged by radiation. Oh, and they’ll note if cute trinkets on board like a Captain Kirk action figure made it back safely.

The next Orion spaceflight will take place in 2018, when Orion is scheduled to fly around the moon. It will return to the moon in 2021 with astronauts on board, at which point nearly 50 years will have passed since the last manned lunar flight.

Curiosity reaches its major destination: Mount Sharp

NASA Mars Curiosity rover

The Curiosity rover has been rolling across Mars’ surface for two years now, stopping regularly to analyze samples of Martian rocks and conduct other experiments. But the whole time it has been traveling toward its primary goal: Mount Sharp, a huge mountain that could explain what happened in the earliest days of the planet’s atmosphere. Curiosity has now arrived at the mountain and will begin inspecting its lower slopes.

NASA launches MAVEN Mars orbiter

The spacecraft will spend 10 months journeying to Mars, where it will focus on the planet’s upper atmosphere. The data it collects could help explain the disappearance of water on the planet.