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Decades after burnishing his reputation as a wealthy daredevil mogul in a series of boating and hot-air balloon expeditions, Richard Branson is poised to promote his burgeoning astro-tourism venture by launching himself to the final frontier.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic is due on Sunday to send the company’s passenger rocket plane, the VSS Unity, on its first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space, with the British billionaire founder among the six individuals strapping in for the ride.

The gleaming white spaceplane will be borne by a twin-fuselage carrier jet dubbed VMS Eve (named for Branson’s mother) to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where Unity will be released and soar by rocket power in an almost vertical climb through the outer fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.

At the apex of its flight some 55 miles (89km) above the New Mexico desert, the crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.

If all goes according to plan, the flight will last about 90 minutes and end where it began – on a runway at Spaceport America near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences.

Virgin’s Unity 22 mission marks the 22nd test flight of the spacecraft, and the company’s fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

But it will be the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.

Milestone and publicity

Although the mission is seen as a potential milestone in helping transform citizen rocket travel into a mainstream commercial venture, spaceflight remains an inherently hazardous endeavor.

An earlier prototype of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

If successful, Sunday’s flight will also give Branson bragging rights to besting rival Jeff Bezos and his space company, Blue Origin, in what has been popularised as a “billionaire space race.” Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon.com, is slated to fly aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.

Branson’s official job on his flight is to “evaluate the private astronaut experience,” and his observations will be used to “enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers,” according to Virgin’s press materials.

But Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst for the Virginia-based consulting firm Teal Group, said the Branson and Bezos ride-alongs were each “a bit of a publicity stunt.”

“If they succeed, their ventures will be taken more seriously,” Caceres said. “There’s plenty of multimillionaires in the world that would like to go up on an adventure, so long as they see it as relatively safe.”

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, along with fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are competing head-to-head in the emerging business of space tourism, though Musk has a big head start.

SpaceX, which plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, has already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station.

Branson, 70, insists there is plenty of demand from wealthy would-be citizen astronauts to go around, and that he had no intention of trying to upstage Bezos.

‘Not a race’

“It’s honestly not a race,” Branson told Reuters in an interview earlier this week. “If it’s a race, it’s a race to produce wonderful spaceships that can make many more people be able to access space. And I think that’s both of our aims.”

The spaceplane’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, will control the ignition and shutoff of the ship’s rocket engine, and activate the vehicle’s “feathered” tail maneuver for re-entry.

The three other mission specialists are Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Virgin Galactic’s lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Sirisha Bandla, a research operations and government affairs vice president.

The Virgin brand, including Branson’s airline and former record label, has long been associated with exploits of derring-do by its flamboyant founder. Branson set a new record for the fastest boat crossing of the Atlantic in 1986, a year after his initial attempt ended with a Royal Air Force helicopter rescue when his vessel capsized.

In 1987 he made a record-breaking Atlantic crossing by hot-air balloon, though again he had to be rescued from the sea. He went on to break at least two other air-balloon speed records but failed to complete any of three bids to circumnavigate the globe by balloon.

As for Sunday’s flight, Branson said this week that he is excited, “and I really don’t think there’s anything there to be scared about.”

Assuming the mission goes well, Virgin has said it plans two further test flights of the spaceplane before beginning commercial service next year.

The company has said it has received more than 600 flight reservations, priced at around $250,000 (roughly Rs. 1.9 crores) per ticket, but hopes eventually to slash the cost of each seat to $40,000 (roughly Rs. 29.8 lakhs).

© Thomson Reuters 2021


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Neuralink Expected to Begin Human Trials in Six Months, Elon Musk Says

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Neuralink Expected to Begin Human Trials in Six Months, Elon Musk Says

Elon Musk said on Wednesday a wireless device developed by his brain chip company Neuralink is expected to begin human clinical trials in six months.

The company is developing brain chip interfaces that it says could enable disabled patients to move and communicate again. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas, Neuralink has in recent years been conducting tests on animals as it seeks US regulatory approval to begin clinical trials in people.

“We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human but we’ve submitted I think most of our paperwork to the FDA and probably in about six months we should be able to upload Neuralink in a human,” Musk said during a much-awaited public update on the device.

The event was originally planned for October 31 but Musk postponed it just days before without giving a reason.

Neuralink’s last public presentation, more than a year ago, involved a monkey with a brain chip that played a computer game by thinking alone.

Musk is known for lofty goals such as colonizing Mars and saving humanity. His ambitions for Neuralink, which he launched in 2016, are of the same grand scale. He wants to develop a chip that would allow the brain to control complex electronic devices and eventually allow people with paralysis to regain motor function and treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s. He also talks about melding the brain with artificial intelligence.

Neuralink, however, is running behind schedule. Musk said in a 2019 presentation he was aiming to receive regulatory approval by the end of 2020. He then said at a conference in late 2021 that he hoped to start human trials this year.

Neuralink has repeatedly missed internal deadlines to gain US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to start human trials, current and former employees have said. Musk approached competitor Synchron earlier this year about a potential investment after he expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress, Reuters reported in August.

Synchron crossed a major milestone in July by implanting its device in a patient in the United States for the first time. It received US regulatory clearance for human trials in 2021 and has completed studies in four people in Australia.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Enters Lunar Orbit a Week After Artemis I Launch

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NASA's Orion Spacecraft Enters Lunar Orbit a Week After Artemis I Launch

NASA’s Orion spacecraft was placed in lunar orbit Friday, officials said, as the much-delayed Moon mission proceeded successfully.

A little over a week after the spacecraft blasted off from Florida bound for the Moon, flight controllers “successfully performed a burn to insert Orion into a distant retrograde orbit,” the US space agency said on its website.

The spacecraft is to take astronauts to the Moon in the coming years — the first to set foot on its surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

This first test flight, without a crew on board, aims to ensure that the vehicle is safe.

“The orbit is distant in that Orion will fly about 40,000 miles above the Moon,” NASA said.

While in lunar orbit, flight controllers will monitor key systems and perform checkouts while in the environment of deep space, the agency said.

It will take Orion about a week to complete half an orbit around the Moon. It will then exit the orbit for the return journey home, according to NASA.

On Saturday, the ship is expected to go up to 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, a record for a habitable capsule. The current record is held by the Apollo 13 spacecraft at 248,655 miles (400,171 km) from Earth.

It will then begin the journey back to Earth, with a landing in the Pacific Ocean scheduled for December 11, after just over 25 days of flight.

The success of this mission will determine the future of the Artemis 2 mission, which will take astronauts around the Moon without landing, then Artemis 3, which will finally mark the return of humans to the lunar surface.

Those missions are scheduled to take place in 2024 and 2025, respectively.


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ISRO’s RH200 Sounding Rocket Registers 200th Consecutive Successful Launch

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ISRO's RH200 Sounding Rocket Registers 200th Consecutive Successful Launch

ISRO on Wednesday announced that RH200, the versatile sounding rocket of the Indian space agency, has registered its 200th consecutive successful launch from the shores of Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has termed it a “historic moment”. It was witnessed by former President Ram Nath Kovind and ISRO chairman S Somanath, among others.

The successful flight of RH200 took off from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS).

“Indian sounding rockets are used as privileged tools for the scientific community for carrying out experiments on meteorology, astronomy and similar branches of space physics,” an ISRO statement said.

Campaigns such as Equatorial ElectroJet (EEJ), Leonid Meteor Shower (LMS), Indian Middle Atmosphere Programme (IMAP), Monsoon Experiment (MONEX), Middle Atmosphere Dynamics (MIDAS), and Sooryagrahan-2010 have been conducted using the sounding rocket platform for scientific exploration of the Earth’s atmosphere, it said.

The Rohini Sounding Rocket (RSR) series have been the forerunners for ISRO’s heavier and more complex launch vehicles, with a continued usage even today for atmospheric and meteorological studies, the national space agency headquartered here said.

“The 200th consecutive successful flight stands testimony to the commitment of Indian rocket scientists towards unmatched reliability demonstrated over the years,” it said.

Meanwhile, ISRO is all set to launch PSLV-C54/ EOS-06 mission with Oceansat-3 and eight nano satellites, including one from Bhutan, from the Sriharikota spaceport on November 26. The launch is scheduled at 11.56am on Saturday, the national space agency said on Sunday.

Last week, ISRO announced that the payload capability of India’s heaviest LVM3 rocket has been enhanced by up to 450kg with a successful engine test. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the CE20 cryogenic engine indigenously developed for Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) was subjected to a successful hot test at an uprated thrust level of 21.8 tonnes for the first time on November 9, according to the country’s national space agency.


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