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Three billionaire entrepreneurs – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson – are each vying to usher in a new era of private commercial space travel.

Here is how their rival ventures compare in the race to open up space travel.

Tickets

Bezos, Branson, and Musk have been investing billions of dollars in their space startups, each promising to ferry paying customers on rides to space – and it will cost a pretty penny to be part of it.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic is reported to have more than 600 ticket reservations already, priced around $250,000 (roughly Rs. 1.8 crores). It expects to begin a full commercial service in 2022 and eventually hopes to slash the ticket price to around $40,000 (roughly Rs. 30 lakhs).

Reuters reported in 2018 that Bezos’ Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least $200,000 (roughly Rs. 1.4 crores) for the ride, based on an appraisal of Branson’s rival plans and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed. Blue has not divulged its long-term pricing plans.

An as-yet unidentified person secured one of the seats on Blue’s first suborbital mission, slated for July 20, with a $28 million auction bid.

Musk’s SpaceX has already taken a crew to the International Space Station, and the company has plans to send an all-civilian crew into orbit in September. Musk has also said SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with its forthcoming Starship rocket in 2023.

Design

Virgin Galactic’s reusable SpaceShipTwo system will see its VSS Unity spaceplane lifted to altitude by a large carrier aircraft called VMS Eve before separating.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo shoots into suborbital space before separating. The rocket section returns to the launchpad, with the pressurised capsule falls back to earth under parachutes. It features six observation windows – the largest ever used in space.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule sits atop a reusable Falcon rocket which it uses to reach space.

Crew and passengers

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane can hold six passengers: two crew and four passengers.

Blue Origin’s craft can take six passengers and flies autonomously.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is capable of carrying up to seven people.

Itinerary

Virgin Galactic boasts a flight time of around 90 minutes from take-off to landing, including several minutes of weightlessness.

Blue Origin’s capsule suborbital flight is around 10 minutes after separation. Again, those on board experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before returning to Earth.

The SpaceX missions are expected to last three to four days from launch to splashdown.

Funding

Typical of Branson’s ventures, Virgin Galactic is publicly funded. Its shares peaked at almost $60 (roughly Rs. 4,480) following FAA approval in June 2021.

Blue Origin is privately owned, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos previously indicating he would sell around $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,470 crores) in Amazon stock annually to fund the venture.

SpaceX is also privately owned and has raised billions of dollars in successive funding rounds. Key investors include Alphabet and Fidelity. Musk says fees charged for SpaceX’s charter flights will go toward missions to the moon and eventually Mars.

© Thomson Reuters 2021


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Meta Unveils ‘Make-A-Video’ AI Text-To-Video Generator: Details

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Meta Unveils 'Make-A-Video' AI Text-To-Video Generator: Details

Meta has unveiled a new artificial intelligence system called ‘Make-A-Video’ that will allow users to generate short video clips by entering a text description of the desired scene. The announcement follows the company’s recent advancements in generative technology research, which seeks to give creators more creative control over artificially intelligent image generation. With the announcement, Meta has taken the technology a step further by including text-to-video generation capabilities apart from text-to-image. However, the company is yet to release access to users for the model.

The prompt-generated videos are five seconds or shorter and would contain no audio. However, Meta claims that a wide range of prompts is supported by the model.

Meta, while making the announcement through a blog post, stated that in a commitment to ‘open science’ it will be sharing details of the research behind the latest artificial intelligence generative technology while also confirming its plans to release a demo experience for users.

Generative AI research is pushing creative expression forward by giving people tools to quickly and easily create new content,” said Meta in a blog post announcing the work. “With just a few words or lines of text, Make-A-Video can bring imagination to life and create one-of-a-kind videos full of vivid colors and landscapes,” added the parent company to Facebook and Instagram.

In the research paper describing the model at work, the company notes that ‘Make-A-Video’ demo model utilises pairs of images, captions, and unlabeled video footage sourced from WebVid-10M and HD-VILA-100M datasets that includes stock video footage created by sites like Shutterstock and scraped from the web that together spans hundreds of thousands of hours of footage.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to describe the work as “amazing progress,” while adding that “it’s much harder to generate video than photos, because beyond correctly generating each pixel, the system also has to predict how they’ll change over time.”

However, there have been concerning issues raised around AI generative media, with some suggesting that it could lead to a rise in misinformation, propaganda, and non-consensual pornography, as seen in the case of AI image generative systems and deepfakes, according to a report by The Washington Post. Meta says it wants to be “thoughtful” about how they build such generative models and hence plans to limit access to them. However, a timeline on the demo experience and clarity on how access would be limited is yet to be known.


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NASA, SpaceX to Explore Ways to Extend Hubble Telescope’s Lifespan

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NASA, SpaceX to Explore Ways to Extend Hubble Telescope's Lifespan

NASA and SpaceX have agreed to study the feasibility of awarding Elon Musk’s company a contract to boost the Hubble Space Telescope to a higher orbit, with a goal of extending its lifespan, the US space agency said Thursday.

The renowned observatory has been operating since 1990 about 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth, in an orbit that slowly decays over time.

Hubble has no on-board propulsion to counter the small but still present atmospheric drag in this region of space, and its altitude has previously been restored during Space Shuttle missions.

The proposed new effort would involve a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

“A few months ago, SpaceX approached NASA with the idea for a study whether a commercial crew could help reboost our Hubble spacecraft,” NASA’s chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters, adding the agency had agreed to the study at no cost to itself.

He stressed there are no concrete plans at present to conduct or fund such a mission until the technical challenges are better understood.

One of the main obstacles would be that the Dragon spacecraft, unlike the Space Shuttles, does not have a robotic arm and would need modifications for such a mission.

SpaceX proposed the idea in partnership with the Polaris programme, a private human spaceflight venture led by payments billionaire Jared Isaacman, who last year chartered a SpaceX Crew Dragon to orbit the Earth with three other private astronauts.

“This would certainly fit within the parameters we established for the Polaris programme,” Isaacman said in response to a question about whether reboosting Hubble could be the goal for a future Polaris mission.

Asked by a reporter whether there might be a perception that the mission was contrived in order to give wealthy people tasks to do in space, Zurbuchen said: “I think it’s only appropriate for us to look at this because of the tremendous value this research asset has for us.”

Arguably among the most valuable instruments in scientific history, Hubble continues to make important discoveries, including this year detecting the farthest individual star ever seen — Earendel, whose light took 12.9 billion years to reach us.

It is currently forecast to remain operational throughout this decade, with a 50 percent chance of de-orbiting in 2037, said Patrick Crouse, Hubble Space Telescope project manager.


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Cosmicflows-4: These Astronomers Mapped Distances of 56,000 Galaxies

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Cosmicflows-4: These Astronomers Mapped Distances of 56,000 Galaxies

Astronomers have assembled the largest-ever compilation of high-precision galaxy distances, called Cosmicflows-4. Galaxies, such as the Milky Way, are the building blocks of the universe, each comprised of up to several hundred billion stars. Galaxies beyond our immediate neighborhood are rushing away, faster if they are more distant, which is a consequence of the expansion of the universe that began at the moment of the Big Bang. Measurements of the distances of galaxies, coupled with information about their velocities away from us, determine the scale of the universe and the time that has elapsed since its birth.

“Since galaxies were identified as separate from the Milky Way a hundred years ago, astronomers have been trying to measure their distances,” said Brent Tully, astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Now by combining our more accurate and abundant tools, we are able to measure distances of galaxies, and the related expansion rate of the universe and the time since the universe was born with a precision of a few per cent.”

From the newly published measurements, the researchers derived the expansion rate of the universe, called the Hubble Constant, or H0. The team’s study gives a value of H0=75 kilometers per second per megaparsec or Mpc (1 megaparsec = 3.26 million light years), with very small statistical uncertainty of about 1.5 percent.

There are a number of ways to measure galaxy distances. Generally, individual researchers focus on an individual method. The Cosmicflows program spearheaded by Tully and Kourkchiincludes their own original material from two methods, and additionally incorporates information from many previous studies. Because Cosmicflows-4 includes distances derived from a variety of independent, distinct distance estimators, intercomparisons should mitigate against a large systematic error.

Astronomers have assembled a framework that shows the universe’s age to be a little more than 13 billion years old, however, a dilemma of great significance has arisen in the details.

Physics of the evolution of the universe based on the standard model of cosmology predicts H0=67.5 km/s/Mpc, with an uncertainty of 1 km/s/Mpc. The difference between the measured and predicted values for the Hubble Constant is 7.5 km/s/Mpc – much more than can be expected given the statistical uncertainties. Either there is a fundamental problem with our understanding of the physics of the cosmos, or there is a hidden systematic error in the measurements of galaxy distances.

Cosmicflows-4 is also being used to study how galaxies move individually, in addition to flowing with the overall expansion of the universe. Deviations from this smooth expansion arise due to the gravitational influences of clumps of matter, on scales ranging from our Earth and Sun up to congregations of galaxies on scales of a half billion light years. The mysterious dark matter is the dominant component on larger scales. With knowledge of the motions of galaxies in response to the mass around them, we can recreate the orbits that galaxies have followed since they were formed, giving us a better understanding of how the universe’s vast, dark-matter-dominated structures have formed over the eons of time.


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