As Virgin Galactic finalises plans for founder Richard Branson to join five others on a test flight to the edge of space on July 11, the British billionaire said his wife may be nervous about the launch but he himself wasn’t the least bit afraid.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for 17 years,” Branson said in an interview on Tuesday from Spaceport America near the remote town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
He said pre-flight preparations only add to the excitement ahead of Sunday’s scheduled launch, which will be taking place one week before his 71st birthday.
“Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment,” he said.
The launch of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane over the desert will mark the space tourism company’s fourth crewed test mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But it will be the first to carry a full complement of space travelers, consisting of Branson, two pilots, and three mission specialists.
Unity will be launched at an altitude of about 50,000 feet from a Virgin Galactic carrier plane, then soar on its own rocket power to the boundary of space, where the crew will experience about 4 minutes of weightlessness before beginning a descent back to Earth.
The trip is not without the inherent hazards of spaceflight. An earlier prototype of the rocket plane crashed during a 2014 test flight over California’s Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Asked how his family reacted to the news last week that he would join Sunday’s crew, Branson said his children – adventurous like him – were excited, but suggested his wife, Joan, while supportive, was more wary.
“My wife is the sort of person who would be terrified on a Virgin Atlantic airplane,” he said. “She’s the last person who would want to do something like this. But she’s known me since I tried to balloon across the Atlantic or the Pacific or around the world, and she still seems to love us.”
He laughed as he quoted his wife telling him: “‘If you’re foolish enough to do these wonderful things, you can do it, but I won’t be going to your funeral.'”
By joining the flight on July 11, Branson has positioned himself to beat rival entrepreneur Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.
Bezos, founder of the retail giant Amazon, will be on board the suborbital flight of the New Shepard spacecraft of his own private rocket company, Blue Origin, on July 20.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging space tourism business.
Branson denied he and Bezos were in a contest to see who would go up first, however.
“I just wish him and people going up with him all the very best. I look forward to talking to him about his ride when he comes back,” Branson said of Bezos. “I spoke to him two or three weeks ago, and we both wished each other well.”
Success for both ventures is considered key to fostering a burgeoning industry that aims to eventually make space tourism mainstream, at least for high-paying customers.
Virgin has said two additional test flights of its vehicle are planned before the company begins commercial service in 2022, and Branson said he anticipates offering paid flights on a “regular basis” next year.
He also said he was confident there was plenty of room in the market for his venture and Bezos’ company to compete.
“Neither of us are going to be able to build enough spaceships to satisfy the demand,” Branson said.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
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
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.
Elon Musk Denies Report on Plans for Saudi, UAE Funding for SpaceX
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, on Friday denied a media report from earlier this week that said investors from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were planning to invest in a multi-billion dollar funding round in the company.
A unit of Saudi Arabia’s investment fund and an Abu Dhabi-based company are planning to invest in a multi-billion dollar funding round for SpaceX, the Information had reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the discussions.
Musk tweeted “not true” responding to the report.
The funding round is expected to value the rocket maker at about $140 billion (roughly Rs. 11,54,384 crore), the report added.
SpaceX raised $2 billion (roughly Rs. 16,491 crore) in 2022 and $2.6 billion (roughly Rs. 21,438 crore) in 2020, according to venture capital firm Space Capital.
Meanwhile, Amazon announced last week that it plans to launch its first Internet satellites to space in the first half of 2024 and offer initial commercial tests shortly after, as it prepares to vie with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and others to provide broadband Internet globally.
Amazon’s satellite Internet unit, Project Kuiper, will begin mass-producing the satellites later this year, the company said. Those will be the first of over 3,000 satellites the technology giant plans to launch in low-Earth orbit in the next few years.
“We’ll definitely be beta testing with commercial customers in 2024,” Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon devices, said at a conference in Washington.
With plans to pump more than $10 billion (roughly Rs. 82,400 crore) into the Kuiper network, Amazon sees its experience producing millions of devices from its consumer electronics powerhouse as an edge over rival SpaceX, the Musk-owned space company whose Starlink network already has roughly 4,000 satellites in space.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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