Tag Archives: Charles Simonyi

Our favorite Seattle astronomy events from 2015

Happy New Year from Seattle Astronomy! Yesterday we ran down our top five news stories of the past year. Today, let’s take a look back at our top talks and events from 2015.

Comet Hunter

Scheiderer and MachholzRenowned comet hunter Don Machholz was the keynote speaker last year at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Machholz has discovered eleven comets visually, without the aid of CCD cameras and other modern aids, and that’s the record. He does it the old-fashioned way, sitting at the eyepiece for hours at a time and sweeping the sky for something that wasn’t there before.

Machholz told a wonderful tale about his techniques of comet hunting and about the intensely personal reasons that drove him to the quest. It was an informative, touching, and often hilarious presentation filled with images and music.

It’s all relative

Jeffrey Bennett at the UW's physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Last year was the international year of light and marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jeffrey Bennett toured the country to help us better understand relativity, and stopped in at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society to give a well-received talk about the concepts of relativity. Bennett is an engaging lecturer and his book, What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter, (Columbia University Press, 2014) is a big help, too, that makes a topic that is so mind-bending and daunting to so many truly accessible to a broader audience.

We did a preview interview with Bennett as well.

Physics pioneer

Jim Peebles

Science is mostly about brainpower and creativity, and testing, but there’s some luck involved, too. Case in point: back in 1965 Jim Peebles and colleagues at Princeton were on the hunt for what we now know as the cosmic microwave background, the lasting signature of the Big Bang. Up the road at Bell Telephone Labs, Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias had found the CMB, but didn’t realize what they had! To the latter went the Nobel Prize, but Peebles has been in the forefront of research on the CMB for the past 50 years. We now know a lot about the history of our universe, except for the first fleeting moments that remain a mystery. Peebles talked about that history at a UW lecture in May.

Space tourist

SimonyiCharles Simonyi shelled out a lot of cash to fly to the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule with the Russians—speculation is that his tab for two trips, in 2007 and 2009, came to about $60 million. Simonyi gave a talk at the University of Washington in September about the practicalities of space travel, and when it might be possible for those of us with somewhat lesser means.

The answer, sadly, is not that soon, but Simonyi envisions a day when the cost of launching a kilogram of mass into space might be driven down to $100, and that might make the cost of space travel something that more people could consider.

Simonyi’s story was an entertaining one that was as much about the training for his two trips to space as it was about the technical aspects of getting there.

Dark matter and the dinosaurs

Lisa RandallHarvard particle physicist and author Lisa Randall has a new hypothesis about what may have killed the dinosaurs on Earth. It’s a surprisingly simple notion, at least once you get past the fact that it depends on a new sort of particle that we haven’t yet detected.

Randall spoke at Town Hall Seattle in November about her ideas and her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). The theory in a nutshell: suppose that there’s a type of dark matter that interacts with light. Such dark matter could collapse into a disk, just like our galaxy. As our solar system orbits the galaxy, we periodically go up and down through the galactic plane. Passing through the plane would also move us through this disk of dark matter, which could gravitationally dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud and send them hurtling our way.

It is an interesting idea that Randall says she’ll devote much time to testing in the coming years.

Honorable mention on our list: the lecturers of the Big Bang and Beyond series at the UW, including Andy Connolly, Miguel Morales, Julianne Dalcanton, and Adam Frank; George Musser, who spoke about his book Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); and Curiosity rover chief engineer Rob Manning, who gave a talk based on his tome Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Simonyi shares space experiences at UW

Your Seattle Astronomy correspondent has at least one thing in common with software executive and billionaire philanthropist Charles Simonyi: neither of us expects to be able to receive spousal clearance for a flight in space. Simonyi has a couple of legs up, having already taken Soyuz flights to and from the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a talk titled “Practicalities of Orbital Space Tourism” last week at the University of Washington. It was the first of a series of lectures scheduled this fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university’s Department of Astronomy.

Simonyi

Space tourist Charles Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a lecture Sept. 29, 2015 at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Simonyi acknowledged that the cost of going into Earth orbit is prohibitive for almost every individual. Speculation is that he shelled out $25 million to go on his 2007 flight and another $35 million to return to the ISS two years later. On top of the financial cost, he spent eight months training for the first flight, learning the spacecraft, studying Russian, and going through a dizzying and often invasive series of medical tests and examinations. His second flight took just three months of training because he already knew a lot.

Would he go again?

“Now I have a family to think about,” Simonyi said, smiling at his wife seated in the second row of the lecture room at Kane Hall.

“I would have to do eight months training again,” he said, because the Russians are using a different spacecraft. “I think I’m getting too old for that. It’s not easy and that would be a big obstacle.”

Still, the draw is great.

“Let’s assume the price didn’t go up, they didn’t require training, my wife lets me go,” he said to laughter. “I would do it!”

Simonyi said a big reason he wanted to fly in space was to support space exploration. Space tourists pumped more than $100 million into the Russian space program at a time that it was strapped for cash. He also did it to popularize science, he said, though interestingly he’s a bit skeptical about sending humans to space to do science because of the enormous cost. The believes simple wanderlust is a great reason to go into orbit.

“A tourist is a very honest broker. The tourist says, ‘Send me to space and I will pay you,'” Simonyi noted. “I think space tourism will be a major factor in promoting space travel because of this self-justifying property that it has.”

Soyuz TMA-14

This Soyuz capsule TMA-14, which took Charles Simonyi to the International Space Station in 2009, is on display at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Some astronauts get a big thrill at the moment of launch into space, but Simonyi found it to be fairly routine to be sitting in the capsule at blastoff.

“It’s not as dramatic as you think from the inside,” he said. “From the outside it’s incredible; I’ve seen it. From the inside it’s like being in an elevator and somebody pushed the button.”

It’s hard to say when space tourism will fall into the price range of those of us whose net worths are less than Simonyi’s $1.4 billion. He noted that these days it costs about $10,000 to send a kilogram of mass into orbit. If the price could be driven down to about $100 per kilogram, then a space tourist might get to orbit for $100,000, which Simonyi called a “reasonable ticket.”

“That’s what the suborbital people are basically pricing their services at,” he noted. “It’s a lot of money, but if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience I think people would consider it seriously.”

“Those numbers are not here, and they’re not going to be here for quite a while,” Simonyi said. “That is the bad news.”

Further reading:

Company aims to turn sci-fi of asteroid mining into profitable fact

Planetary Resources, Inc. held a coming-out party at Seattle’s Museum of Flight Tuesday morning, with co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis spelling out the simple, yet audacious, aim of the company.

“The vision of Planetary Resources is to make the resources of space available to man both in space and here on Earth,” he said.

Planetary Resources

The leadership of Planetary Resources, Inc. gathered at the Museum of Flight April 24 for a news conference to talk about the company's plans to mine asteroids. From L-R: Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson, Chris Lewicki, and Tom Jones. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Diamandis acknowledged the wild, science-fiction nature of the notion of sending robots to asteroids to mine them for the resources we need on Earth and to further explore space. In fact, he gives sci-fi credit for shaping his personal dreams, held since his early teens, of being an asteroid miner.

“Part of it is the spirit of extraordinary writers and artists like Heinlein and Clarke and Bonestell who envisioned what the future would look like,” he said. “Ultimately my passion about opening up space makes the vision of asteroid mining not only a reality, but something that we need to do.”

The company is on a fast track. Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman, said they plan to launch their first spacecraft within 24 months, and seemed a bit taken aback at the enthusiastic applause the announcement generated.

“This company is not about paper studies. This company is not about thinking and dreaming about asteroid mining,” Anderson said. “This company is about creating a space economy beyond the Earth. It’s about building real hardware. It’s about doing real things in space to move the needle forward.”

The concept is attractively simple. Use private investors and innovators to drive down the cost of space exploration. Get the technology up in space to start examining the nine thousand near-Earth asteroids to determine which might be rich in water and precious minerals useful here on the home planet and to those who may further explore space. Send up robots to mine those materials and bring them home.

Sure, it may sound easy.

“It’s very difficult, no question,” Diamandis said, “but the return economically and the benefits for humanity are extraordinary.”

Anderson agreed.

“There will be times when we fail, there will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again. But we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about it, we’re just going to do it.”

Planetary Resources is based in Bellevue, Wash. Chris Lewicki, the company’s president and chief engineer, said they looked at a lot of places before settling on the Seattle area.

Arkyd

A model of the Arkyd 101, the space telescope Planetary Resources plans to launch within the next 24 months to start prospecting for asteroids to mine. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Some of our investors were here, some of our partners were here, and it’s a beautiful place to live,” Lewicki said in explaining the choice. “All of the infrastructure and the industry that’s in the area is what we need to be able to do this.”

The company has been in existence since 2009 under the name Arkyd Aeronautics. Planetary Resources spacecraft will bear the Arkyd name. Part of the reason they’re going public with a big splash now is that they need to hire more engineers, according to Lewicki. Diamandis added that the game has changed.

“There’s a rising tide going on right now in commercial space,” he said, noting the booming investment in launch technology and in lunar and asteroid missions. Having more capital is a big deal. “That changes the equation and allows us to go much further much faster than ever before in opening up space for the benefit of all.”

The investors, for the most part, remained on the sideline, though one of them, Ross Perot, Jr., praised the effort by telephone and Charles Simonyi was on hand to make a few remarks.

“I don’t think this would be an appropriate investment for NASA,” Simonyi said of the venture. “I think that this is where private enterprise comes in. The genius of the system is that private investors can take the risks.”

“I’m very excited about what you guys are doing, I’m very proud of you and feel privileged to be a part of it,” he added.

They’ve certainly generated some buzz. A large group of reporters turned out for the news conference and hundreds of people chipped in $25 for lunch to hear about it first hand. It’s fair to say most of them are boosters. It will be interesting to watch the dream unfold.

 

Company’s big goal to expand Earth’s resource base

Planetary Resources logo

A new company to be formally launched tomorrow during a news conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight will take wing with the ambitious goal to “expand Earth’s resource base.”

A news release from Planetary Resources, Inc. through the museum calls the company:

…a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity’s prosperity…[T]he company will overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.

This may sound pretty lofty, but the company may have the coin to pull it off. The release lists an impressive group of investors, including billionaire space tourist and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi; Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt; film maker James Cameron; K. Ram Shriram, an early Google investor and founder of Sherpalo; and Ross Perot, Jr., chairman of Hillwood Development Corporation and The Perot Group.

As reported here last week, the April 24 news conference and luncheon will include presentations by Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, Ltd.; Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation; Astronaut Tom Jones; and Chris Lewicki, former NASA Mars rover and lander flight director and mission manager. All are now listed as investors in and/or advisors to Planetary Resources, Inc.

Seattle Astronomy will attend the event Tuesday and file a full report.

Seattle Museum of Flight set to reveal future of space exploration

The Museum of Flight is promising a glimpse at the future of space exploration at an event next Tuesday, April 24. An invitation sent to museum patrons last week touted the “opportunity to discover what the next great advancement of humanity will be.” The invite went on to say:

A new company will be unveiling its mission to revolutionize current space exploration activities and ultimately create a better standard of living on Earth. Don’t miss your opportunity to be among the first to find out what’s next from the world’s leading commercial space pioneers and the people who will chart the future.

Simonyi Gallery

The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle will be the site of a news conference and luncheon Tuesday, April 24 about the future of space exploration. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The April 24 event in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the museum gets under way at 10:30 a.m. and includes a news conference and luncheon with presentations. The lineup of space luminaries scheduled to attend includes:

  • Charles Simonyi, billionaire space tourist and museum benefactor
  • Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, Ltd.
  • Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., chairman of the X Prize Foundation
  • Astronaut Tom Jones, Ph. D.
  • Chris Lewicki, former NASA Mars rover and lander flight director and mission manager

After the luncheon, starting at about 1:30 p.m., Diamandis and Jones will sign books for attendees. Diamandis is a co-author of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think and Jones penned several books, including Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System and Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.

Cost for the event is $25. You can find more information and pay online at the Museum of Flight website.

Seattle Astronomy will attend the event and post a full report.

Keep up on local astronomy events by following the Seattle Astronomy calendar.

Museum of Flight to receive keys to shuttle trainer

Officials of Seattle’s Museum of Flight will receive the “keys” to Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) at a ceremony tomorrow at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Museum President and CEO Doug King will be in attendance along with NASA officials.

According to a news release from the museum:

The ceremony will include an official signing of the Space Act Agreement that will transfer ownership of the trainer, which includes both a crew cockpit and shuttle cargo bay area, and was used to familiarize astronauts with shuttle cockpit controls and and emergency exit procedures over the life of the Space Shuttle Program.

The museum will accept responsibility for the Full Fuselage Trainer, and its transportation to Seattle. By donating Johnson Space Center’s shuttle training resources to outside partners, NASA hopes to find areas of common interest that will foster new technologies that improve life here on Earth, and pave the way for future human exploration in space.

Simonyi Gallery

The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at Seattle's Museum of Flight is the future home of NASA's Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. Museum officials will formally accept the keys to the trainer at a ceremony Jan. 19 in Houston. The trainer is expected to be on display in the gallery in June. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The museum staged an aggressive campaign to bring one of the retired space shuttles to Seattle, and built the $12 million, 15,500 square-foot Charles Simonyi Space Gallery as part of that effort. However NASA announced in April that the shuttles would go to New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and the Kennedy Space Center. The Museum of Flight received the Full Fuselage Trainer as something of a consolation prize. While it doesn’t have the cachet of a vehicle that actually has flown in space, the FFT does have some upside, as museum visitors will actually be able to go inside it and explore.

The Simonyi Gallery opened in December and has a number of its namesake’s artifacts on display. Exhibits will soon include the actual Soyuz capsule that brought the billionaire space tourist home from the International Space Station. Museum officials expect the FFT to be in town and on display this summer.

Seattle Museum of Flight gets Soyuz capsule from Simonyi

The new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at Seattle’s Museum of Flight has landed a cool new artifact: the Soyuz-TMA-13 reentry module that brought Simonyi back from a space tourist trip to the International Space Station in 2009. The announcement was made this morning at a ceremony naming the new space gallery for the high-tech pioneer and philanthropist, who kicked in $3 million of the $12 million cost to build it.

Soyuz

Charles Simonyi returned to Earth from the International Space Station in this Soyuz capsule in 2009. He's obtained the vehicle and given it to the Museum of Flight on a long-term loan. Photo: Space Adventures.

“The naming of the space gallery is a great honor for me and for my family,” said Simonyi in a news release. “I have the highest regard for the Museum of Flight and now that we are at the threshold of a great expansion of civilian spaceflight, I fully support the museum’s efforts to engage the public on the issue of space exploration with a focus on civilian space: past, present and future.”

The gallery was built as part of an effort to convince NASA to retire one of its space shuttles to Seattle. That hope was scuttled last spring, but the museum was awarded NASA Full-Fuselage Trainer as a consolation prize. The FFT, in which all shuttle astronauts trained for their missions, the Soyuz module, and other artifacts from Simonyi will be the centerpieces of the new gallery’s permanent display, expected to open in late spring.

Visitors to the museum can check out a new temporary exhibit that opens on Saturday. Many space-themed activities are on tap.

“This imposing new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery could not have become a reality without Dr. Simonyi’s continued support for The Museum of Flight and his vision about what our future can hold,” said Doug King, President and CEO of the museum. “While we are grateful for his monetary contribution, we truly named the space gallery in honor of Charles to recognize his commitment to aerospace education and his tireless enthusiasm for inspiring the next generation of space explorers.”