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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced earlier this week that he will be flying to space aboard his space company Blue Origin’s New Shephard vehicle on July 20, accompanied by his brother Mark Bezos. This was supposed to make senior Bezos the first ‘space billionaire’ to actually go into space. But it now seems that another ‘space billionaire’ is eyeing the ‘first’ in this modern space race. A report citing sources says that Virgin Galactic is planning to send Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, on a suborbital flight aboard his space company Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in the first week of July (the 4th of July weekend). How is that for a celebration?

But Virgin Group, as reported by Parabolic Arc, has said that the flight was still subject to obtaining an operator’s licence from the authorities at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Branson’s flight, if everything goes as per the plan, will take off at least two weeks before that off Bezos.

A company spokesman reportedly said in a statement on Tuesday that the company was still in the process of analysing data from their successful May 22 flight, adding that they expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall.

“At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight. An objective from the last flight was to collect data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s licence,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying in the report.

The report says Virgin Galactic is said to have announced the plan for Branson’s flight as a response to Blue Origin’s scheduled July 20 flight, but that they had been planning it even before the announcement from Bezos’s company came on June 7.

As for Bezos and Blue Origin, the aerospace company he founded in 2000, the launch calendar has been marked. The New Shephard vehicle scheduled to carry the Bezos brothers — and the winner of an online auction for a spare seat — has flown at least 15 times in the past, but with nobody aboard it.

Bezos also shared an Instagram post telling his followers why he decided to fly to space. In the post, he wrote, “Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space. On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”

The third person to accompany Jeff and Mark Bezos still has to go through a bidding war. A blog post on Blue Origin’s website says the bidding for the space seat will conclude with a live online auction on June 12. Those interested in bidding in the live auction have to register by June 10. The blog added that so far “nearly 6,000 participants from 143 countries” had bid.

New Shepard will launch on July 20, reach Karman Line at 100-km mean sea-level, and then descend back to Earth, all in a matter of 11 minutes. The Karman Line is the recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

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Indian-Origin Engineer Amit Kshatriya to Head NASA’s Moon to Mars Programme




Indian-Origin Engineer Amit Kshatriya to Head NASA's Moon to Mars Programme

Amit Kshatriya, a decorated Indian-American software and robotics engineer was appointed as the first head of NASA’s newly-established Moon to Mars Programme that will help the agency ensure a long-term lunar presence needed to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap to the Red Planet.

Kshatriya will serve as NASA’s first head of the office, with immediate effect, the agency announced on Thursday.

The new office aims to carry out the agency’s human exploration activities on the Moon and Mars for the benefit of humanity, a NASA press release said.

“The golden age of exploration is happening right now, and this new office will help ensure that NASA successfully establishes a long-term lunar presence needed to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap to the Red Planet,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“The Moon to Mars Programme Office will help prepare NASA to carry out our bold missions to the Moon and land the first humans on Mars,” Nelson explained.

The new office resides within the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, reporting to its Associate Administrator Jim Free, it said.

As directed by the 2022 NASA Authorisation Act, the Moon to Mars Programme Office focuses on hardware development, mission integration and risk management functions for programmes critical to the agency’s exploration approach that uses Artemis missions at the Moon to open a new era of scientific discovery and prepare for human missions to Mars, according to the press release.

This includes the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, supporting ground systems, human landing systems, spacesuits, Gateway, and more related to deep space exploration.

The new office will also lead planning and analysis for long-lead developments to support human Mars missions, it said.

In his new role, Kshatriya will be responsible for programme planning and implementation for human missions to the Moon and Mars.

Kshatriya directed and provided leadership and integration for the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programmes, as well as associated Artemis Campaign Development Division initiatives linking the agency’s Moon to Mars objectives, it said.

Previously, Kshatriya served as the acting deputy associate administrator for the Common Exploration Systems Development Division.

Kshatriya began his career in the space programme in 2003, working as a software engineer, robotics engineer, and spacecraft operator primarily focused on the robotic assembly of the International Space Station.

From 2014 to 2017, he served as a space station flight director, where he led global teams in the operations and execution of the space station during all phases of flight.

In 2021, he was assigned to NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate as an assistant deputy associate administrator, where he was an integral part of the team that returned a spacecraft designed to carry humans to the Moon during the Artemis I mission.

Son of first-generation Indian immigrants to the US, Kshatriya holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and a Master of Arts in Mathematics from The University of Texas at Austin.

Kshatriya was born in Brookfield, Wisconsin, but considers Katy, Texas, to be his hometown.

He was decorated with the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for actions as the lead flight director for the 50th expedition to the space station, as well as the Silver Snoopy — an award that astronauts bestow for outstanding performance contributing to flight safety — for his actions as lead robotics officer for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Dragon demonstration mission to the orbiting laboratory, the release added.

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Neuralink Searching for Human Trials Partner for Brain Implant Testing




Neuralink Searching for Human Trials Partner for Brain Implant Testing

Elon Musk‘s brain implant company Neuralink has approached one of the biggest US neurosurgery centers as a potential clinical trials partner as it prepares to test its devices on humans once regulators allow for it, according to six people familiar with the matter.

Neuralink has been developing brain implants since 2016 it hopes will eventually be a cure for intractable conditions such as paralysis and blindness.

It suffered a blow in early 2022, when the US Food and Drug Administration rejected its application to progress to human trials, citing major safety concerns, Reuters reported earlier this month.

The company has since been working to address the agency’s concerns, and it is unclear if and when it will be successful.

Neuralink has been talking to Barrow Neurological Institute, a Phoenix, Arizona-based neurological disease treatment and research organization, to help carry out the human trials, the sources said.

The talks may not result in a team-up. Neuralink has also discussed partnering with other centers, added the sources, who requested anonymity to discuss the confidential deliberations.

Reuters could not verify the latest status of the talks. Neuralink representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Francisco Ponce, director of Barrow’s Center for Neuromodulation and Neurosurgery Residency Program, declined to comment on Neuralink but said Barrow was well-positioned to conduct such implant research because of its long track record in the field.

The FDA declined to comment on Neuralink’s efforts to find a partner for its clinical trials.

Neuralink’s latest efforts come as it faces two known US federal probes into its practices.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General began looking into potential animal-welfare violations at Neuralink last year. Current and former employees have detailed concerns to Reuters about the company’s rushed animal experiments, resulting in needless suffering and deaths.

The US Department of Transportation has said it is investigating the potential mishandling of hazardous pathogens during the company’s partnership on animal trials with University of California, Davis between 2018 and 2020.

Barrow has helped standardize brain implant surgeries in which the patient can remain asleep, a key step in making it more acceptable to a broad set of the population, Ponce said.

This is in line with Musk’s vision for Neuralink’s brain chip. The billionaire CEO of Tesla and majority owner of Twitter has said Neuralink’s brain implants will become as ubiquitous as Lasik eye surgery.

The devices Barrow has been implanting so far are different than Neuralink’s. Barrow works with deep brain stimulation devices, which received FDA approval in 1997 to help reduce Parkinson’s tremors and have been implanted in more than 175,000 patients.

Neuralink’s implant is a brain computer interface (BCI) device, which uses electrodes that penetrate the brain or sit on its surface to provide direct communication to computers. So far, no company has received US approval to bring a BCI implant to the market.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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IISc Team Working on Antennas to Empower 6G Technology for V2X Communications




IISc Team Working on Antennas to Empower 6G Technology for V2X Communications

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) are working on designing antennas that can empower 6G technology, which is instrumental in realising efficient V2X (Vehicle to Everything) communications. In a recent study, the team, led by Debdeep Sarkar, Assistant Professor at the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering, shows how self-interference in full-duplex communication antennas can be reduced, and consequently the movement of signals across the communication network can be faster and more bandwidth-efficient.

“Such full-duplex antennas are particularly helpful for applications that require almost instantaneous relay of commands, like driverless cars”, Bengaluru-based IISc said in a statement on Friday.

Full-duplex antennas consist of a transmitter and a receiver to send and receive radio signals.

Traditional radio transceivers are half duplex, which means that they either use signals of different frequencies for sending and receiving or there is a time lag between the signal transmitted and the signal received.

This time lag is needed to ensure that there is no interference – the signals going back and forth should not cross paths with each other, similar to two people talking to each other at the same time, without pausing to listen to the other. But this also compromises the efficiency and speed of signal transfer.

In order to transmit data much faster and more efficiently, full-duplex systems are required, where both the transmitter and receiver can operate signals of the same frequency simultaneously. For such systems, eliminating self-interference is key. This is what Sarkar and his IoE-IISc postdoctoral fellow, Jogesh Chandra Dash, have been working on for the past few years, the statement said.

“The broad objective of the research is that we want to eliminate the signal that is coming as self-interference,” says Sarkar.

There are two ways to cancel self-interference – passive and active. Passive cancellation is done without any additional instrument, by just designing the circuit in a certain way (for example, increasing the distance between the two antennas).

Active cancellation relies on additional components like signal processing units to cancel out the self-interference. But the components needed for these steps can make the antenna bulky and expensive. What is needed, instead, is a compact, cost-efficient antenna which can be easily integrated into the rest of the circuitry of any device.

The antenna developed by Sarkar and Dash, by virtue of its design, relies on passive interference, allowing it to operate as a full-duplex system. It consists of two ports, either of which can act as transmitter or receiver. The two ports are isolated from each other by electromagnetic tools called metallic vias. Metallic vias are holes drilled into the metal surface of the antenna which disrupt the electric field. In this way, the team managed to cancel out most of the interference passively, alongside achieving a cost-effective and compact design.

“We are eliminating all the conventional techniques for self-interference cancellation, and we are integrating a very simple structure that can be installed in a car,” says Dash.

In the immediate future, the team plans to optimise their device so that it can entirely remove passive interference, and reduce the overall size of the antenna. Then, it can easily be fixed onto a vehicle where it can transmit and receive data at very high speeds, bringing driverless operation as well as 6G mobile connectivity closer to reality, the statement added.

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