Have you played Atari today? Once a jingle’s catchphrase as well as a legitimate query, a resurrected version of the brand is hoping you’ll soon be asking that question again with the forthcoming Ataribox.
Available to pre-order on Thursday for a special price via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the Ataribox is shaping up to be an amalgam of retro gaming console and living room PC. Details are mostly sketchy at this point, but we do know that it will be powered by some variant of Linux OS and will include over 100 Atari classic games pre-installed.
Unfortunately for retro gaming fans, the full list of games isn’t known yet, nor do we know other key information like the Ataribox’s shipping date or its pricing (though VentureBeat reports it will sell somewhere between $250 and $300). Atari Interactive has been leaking dribs and drabs through social media, such as the inclusion of titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Breakout.
The company has updated the design for its console while retaining touches from the vintage 2600 — in addition to an option with black trim and red glowing Atari logo, you can get the Ataribox with the faux wood trim of the original. The joystick also resembles the 2600’s, but with a revamped look that’s more 2017 than 1980.
But by choosing to build the Ataribox as a Linux-running mini PC, Atari is giving itself the opportunity to stay current with new games, unlike many of the plug-and-play retro consoles. Though we don’t know the precise configuration, we’ve been promised a system with an AMD processor customized for the console and the ability to play mid-range games.
Will the Ataribox be a hit like Nintendo’s SNES Classic mini was? Or will it fizzle out like many other living room PCs that came before it, despite the retro trappings? The price will clearly be an issue — even if it’s technically a PC, it could winding up costing as much as some versions of the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, not to mention that many potential buyers would only want it to play the old Atari games. We’ll get a better idea starting on December 14, as the Indiegogo campaign kicks off and Atari will see how just many people will rush to open their wallets to grab an Ataribox.
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After a day-long meeting Friday, an advisory panel for the US Food and Drug Administration voted 22 to 0 to recommend issuing an Emergency Use Authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot, refrigerator-stable COVID-19 vaccine.
If the FDA accepts the panel’s recommendation and grants the EUA—which it likely will—the country will have a third COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use. Earlier this week, FDA scientists released their review of the vaccine, endorsing authorization.
Agency watchers expect the FDA to move quickly on the decision, possibly granting the EUA as early as tomorrow, February 27. The FDA moved that fast in granting EUAs for the two previously authorized vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines.
Additionally, an advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that makes recommendations on vaccine use has scheduled an emergency meeting for this Sunday to discuss the vaccine’s use, further bolstering speculation that the federal government will move quickly to authorize and roll out the vaccine. If all of the pieces fall in line, doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine could begin shipping out to vaccination sites early next week.
The rollout won’t be a big burst of new doses right away, though; it will likely be a slow roll. In congressional testimony this week, a Johnson & Johnson executive said that the company would provide 4 million doses after the EUA, with a total of 20 million ready by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June. Still, with the vaccine only requiring a single-shot, those 100 million doses equate to 100 million people protected.
According to a detailed FDA review of Phase III clinical trial data submitted by Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine was 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 at 28 days after vaccination. (Johnson & Johnson defined moderate cases to include cases that had two symptoms, such as cough and fever, which would have been classified as simply “symptomatic” infections in other trials.)
The international trial, which involved over 44,000 participants in various trial sites, had different efficacies in different places. In the US, the overall efficacy was slightly higher, at 72 percent. But in places where variants of concern are widely circulating, the efficacy fell. It was 64 percent effective in South Africa, and 61 percent effective in Latin America.
Reassuringly, the efficacy against severe and critical disease was high across the board, in all the trial locations and across age groups. Efficacy against severe disease was 85 percent overall 28 days after vaccination. By location, efficacy against severe disease in the US was at 86 percent, 82 percent in South Africa, and 88 percent in Brazil. In a further analysis, there were zero hospitalizations among vaccinated participants and 16 in the placebo group. As of February 5, there were seven COVID-19-related deaths in the trial, all of which were in the placebo group.
In addition, Johnson & Johnson has a 30,000-person trial in progress testing whether adding a booster shot will further increase efficacy.
As for side effects, the vaccine has a “favorable safety profile,” according to the FDA. The most common side effects seen among the 44,000 or so participants were injection site pain (49 percent), headache (39 percent), fatigue (38 percent), and myalgia (33 percent). There were 15 cases of blood-clotting-related conditions among vaccinated participants, compared with 10 in the placebo group. There were also six cases of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) among the vaccinated and zero in the placebo group. It’s unclear if these conditions were related to the vaccine.
While anaphylaxis has been a rare but documented occurrence with the mRNA vaccines, it appears to be less of a risk with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. There was a single case of a severe hypersensitivity reaction two days after vaccination that was considered likely related to the vaccine. But the reaction was not classified as anaphylaxis.
With worrisome coronavirus variants seemingly emerging and spreading everywhere, lead vaccine makers are wasting no time in trying to get ahead of the growing threat.
This week, Moderna and partners Pfizer and BioNTech announced they have kicked off new vaccine clinical trials aimed at boosting the effectiveness of their authorized vaccines against new, concerning SARS-CoV-2 variants—primarily B.1.351, a variant first identified in South Africa.
In a set of studies published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, both the Moderna mRNA vaccine and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine spurred antibodies in vaccinated people that could neutralize the B.1.351 variant. But the levels of those neutralizing antibodies were significantly lower than what was seen against past versions of the virus. (Both vaccines performed well against the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, which is expected to become the dominant strain in the US next month.)
Though the vaccine makers still expect the current vaccines will protect against B.1.351 and other variants—at least averting severe disease and deaths—they’re preparing for the worst. The good news is that the mRNA vaccine design is relatively easy to tweak against the variants.
The variants carry dangerous mutations in critical areas of their spike protein, which appear to render the viruses more transmissible and virulent than the original SARS-CoV-2. Adjusting the current vaccines to target the variants involves simply editing the code of the spike mRNA molecule used in both of the vaccines so that it matches the variants’ mutations. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have each said that such adjustments could take mere weeks to pull off.
But the vaccine makers are starting their battle against the variants with an even simpler strategy: Giving people a third shot of the current vaccines. The thinking is that a third dose on top of the current two-dose regimen could further raise levels of antibodies and other protective immune responses. As mentioned above, data so far suggests that the vaccines do spur the production of neutralizing antibodies against the variants—they’re just at relatively low levels. A third shot—aka a second booster—could further boost the levels and increase protection.
More of the same
On Thursday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had started a trial testing out the three-shot strategy. They’re drawing upon 144 people who were vaccinated six to 12 months ago in their Phase I trial. After the third shot, the companies will watch for side effects as well as levels of antibodies in the participants. As the companies put it, the trial will “assess the boostability” of the vaccine.
“While we have not seen any evidence that the circulating variants result in a loss of protection provided by our vaccine, we are taking multiple steps to act decisively and be ready in case a strain becomes resistant to the protection afforded by the vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “This booster study is critical to understanding the safety of a third dose and immunity against circulating strains.”
In the meantime, the companies are also working on plans to roll out a trial of a B.1.351-specific vaccine.
Moderna, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its variant-specific vaccines. It has already manufactured a B.1.351-specific vaccine, which it has shipped to collaborators at the National Institutes of Health for the start of clinical trials. In addition, Moderna will also test a combo vaccine that contains both the original vaccine and the B.1.351-specific component. Lastly, the company has already begun a trial testing a third shot of its current vaccine.
“As we seek to defeat COVID-19, we must be vigilant and proactive as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. “Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic. Moderna is committed to making as many updates to our vaccine as necessary until the pandemic is under control.”
In advance of results from this new round of trials, the US Food and Drug Administration this week issued new guidance on how vaccine makers could obtain authorization for their updated vaccines. In short, the regulatory agency made clear that companies can submit data from smaller trials—relative to the massive ones they needed to prove effectiveness for their initial authorizations. The trials can also focus on immune responses seen in participants to evaluate effectiveness rather than the number of COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people compared with those in a placebo group.
Welcome to Edition 3.34 of the Rocket Report! I apologize for the unplanned hiatus last week. The Rocket Report’s Houston-based author lacked power until Wednesday night amidst a massive winter storm, and I had no reliable Internet until Friday afternoon. We still had no hot water at our house, but at least we’re no longer freezing. We’re back just in time to spew all manner of spicy launch news this week.
As always, Ars welcomes reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
KSLV-2 rocket on track for 2022 launch. As part of its budget for 2021 space activities, South Korea will spend $553 million for satellites, rockets, and other equipment. SpaceNews reports this funding will keep the country’s development of its natively build KSLV-2 rocket, nicknamed Nuri, on schedule for a launch next year.
Testing going well … Boasting four 75-ton liquid engines in its first-stage booster, the three-stage rocket is meant to carry a 1.5-ton satellite into low Earth orbit. The second stage has a single 75-ton engine, and the third stage has a seven-ton engine. A second round of combustion tests on the KSLV-2’s first-stage engines were conducted on Thursday, and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute said the 101-second test revealed no apparent problems with the engines’ durability. (submitted by Ken the Bin).
Firefly nabs launch contract. General Atomics said it has selected Firefly Aerospace to launch a small Earth-science satellite for NASA on an Alpha rocket in 2022. The company plans to launch its Orbital Test Bed 2 satellite on Firefly’s Alpha rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, SpaceNews reports.
Terms of the contract were not disclosed … OTB-2 will carry a NASA instrument, the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, intended to study particulate-matter air pollution in urban areas and help scientists understand its effects on human health. The spacecraft will operate in a polar orbit at an altitude of 740km. The Alpha rocket is due to debut later this spring. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
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Virgin Galactic delays next flight to May. Monday marked the second anniversary of the last powered flight above 80km (that flight was carried out by VSS Unity on February 22, 2019). On Thursday, Virgin announced its fourth-quarter and full year 2020 financial results. The company had net losses of $74 million, with no revenue, and retains $666 million in cash and cash equivalents on hand. It also finally released a timeline for its next powered spaceflight.
More checks required … The company had been expected to attempt a powered flight some time this month, but its financial report states that this has now been delayed. The program will “continue to prepare for [its] next rocket-powered spaceflight from Spaceport America, targeted for May 2021,” the company said, “completing modifications and conducting technical checks ahead of flight.” This increases the likelihood that commercial flights for space tourists will not begin until 2022, at the earliest.
Washington-based startup raises $9.1 million. Stoke Space Technologies—the Renton, Washington-based company founded by veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture—has attracted $9.1 million in seed investments for extending rocket reusability to new frontiers, GeekWire reports. The first goal will be to develop a new kind of reusable upper stage, Stoke co-founder and CEO Andy Lapsa told the publication.
High-powered advisors … “That’s the last domino to fall in the industry before reusability is commonplace,” Lapsa said. “Even right now, I think space launch is in a production-limited paradigm.” Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, an adviser to Stoke, goes so far as to say that the team reminds him of the Wright brothers. “Stoke has the right idea about ultra-low-cost access to space, and similar to the first manned flight, will change the world of transportation and national security forever,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Cornwall Spaceport not interested in tourism. Virgin Orbit is already a partner with Spaceport Cornwall, a horizontal launch facility in southwestern England. In recent days, some media reports have suggested that Virgin Galactic might become a tenant as well, offering customers short suborbital flights. However, at a meeting of the Cornwall Council this week, leader Julian German said there were no plans for space tourism, the Falmouth Packet reports.
If we’re being blunt about it … One council member, John Fitter, was more explicit, saying, “If we were to entertain this, it would be quite ridiculous and send out the wrong message to those people in Cornwall who could possibly be suffering on below the minimum wage and in poverty and allow people who have got vast millions of pounds to spend to up to space for half an hour and come back down again.” Another member called it an “absolute waste of money.”
Falcon 9 mishap blamed on “heat damage.” A Falcon 9 first stage failed to land after its most recent launch on February 15 because of “heat damage” it sustained, SpaceNews reports. “This has to do with heat damage, but it’s a running investigation,” said Hans Koenigsmann, a senior advisor for SpaceX. He added that SpaceX was “close to nailing it down” and correcting the problem. “That’s all I can say at this point in time.”
The mission was a success, however … Koenigsmann made his comments during a session of the 47th Spaceport Summit this week. He said he’s still confident that SpaceX will be able to fly each of its Falcon 9 cores at least 10 times. He also noted that the primary mission of the launch—deployment of Starlink satellites—was a success. Another Starlink mission is scheduled for this coming Sunday. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Turkey plans Somalia-based launch site. As part of a space program announced by the nation, Turkey plans to build a launch site in Somalia. The African country lies along the equator, and spacecraft would launch eastward from it over the Indian Ocean. African News reports that Somalia has been a key security partner to Turkey for the last decade and that this is an extension of that partnership.
Will X mark the spot? … Turkey appears to be targeting an initial launch by 2023, building a rocket in concert with international partners. Ultimately the country seeks to make a soft landing on the Moon by 2028. It is not clear whether these plans would involve SpaceX, whose founder, Elon Musk, and Turkey’s leaders have discussed joint space projects.
Blue Origin sets launch date for New Glenn. In a Thursday update on its website, Blue Origin said it planned to debut its large New Glenn rocket in the fourth quarter of 2022. “As major progress is being made on the New Glenn launch vehicle and its Cape Canaveral facilities, the schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers,” the company said. This is a delay from a previously announced timeline, but it’s not unexpected.
No military contracts yet … The recent decision by the US Space Force to not select New Glenn as one of two providers for National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement was a setback. Also, the company has more immediate issues to resolve: completing the BE-4 engine for United Launch Alliance, competing for Human Landing System contracts and, hopefully, launching humans on New Shepard later this year. Our advice is to not expect a launch before 2023, but when the huge rocket does fly, it will be a sight to behold. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Green Run hot fire test delayed. NASA said this week it would delay the second hot fire test of its Space Launch System rocket. The test firing was due to occur on February 25. “During checkout preparations over the weekend, engineers determined that one of eight valves (a type of valve called a prevalve) was not working properly. This valve is part of the core-stage main propulsion system that supplies liquid oxygen to an RS-25 engine,” the agency noted.
Test needs to run for at least four minutes … NASA and core-stage lead contractor Boeing will identify a path forward in the days ahead and reschedule the hot fire test. (Chris Bergin, of NASASpaceflight.com, suggests the hot fire test will now occur no earlier than March 16). The first hot fire test took place in January, but it was cut short after 67.1 seconds due to a pressure reading going outside of preset boundaries. The core stage has now been installed on the test stand at Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi, for more than 13 months. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
SLS launch delayed until 2022. During a recent call with reporters about the SLS core stage Green Run test, NASA’s Tom Whitmeyer discussed the schedule for the Artemis I flight. In an ideal world in which nothing went wrong, he said, the mission could launch in October 2021. That was unlikely to happen, he acknowledged. And since then, things have already gone wrong, such as with the prevalve issue in the item above.
Never tweet while drunk … Sources have told Ars that the realistic “no earlier than” date for Artemis I inside NASA is now February 2022, and this presumes a successful Green Run hot fire test in early March. We’re getting perilously close to the now somewhat infamous prediction I made in 2017 on Twitter—that the rocket would first launch in 2023.
China formally moves ahead with Long March 9. China has officially approved the development of a super-heavy lift rocket named the Long March 9, or CZ-9 vehicle. The decision was revealed on Wednesday by Chinese state television. China National Space Agency, Wu Yanhua, said the main purpose of the new rocket is for any “crewed lunar landing or crewed Mars landing missions” the country may undertake, Ars reports.
More powerful than Block 2 of the SLS … The country will target the year 2030 for a debut launch, consistent with previous timeline estimates. The rocket is planned to have a lift capacity of 140 metric tons, with the capability of sending 50 or more tons into lunar orbit. It would be an immense vehicle, with a 10-meter diameter core and 5-meter side boosters. China would also like to eventually make the rocket (or at least part of it) reusable.
Next three launches
Feb. 28: PSLV | Amazonia 1, Anand & SDsat | Satish Dhawan Space Center | 04:53 UTC