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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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Government Eases Approval Process for FDI in Space Sector

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Government Eases Approval Process for FDI in Space Sector

India will allow 100% foreign direct investment in the manufacture of satellite systems without official approval and eased the rules for launch vehicles, a government statement said, aiming for a greater share of the global space market.

India’s space ambitions got a boost when it became the first country to land a spacecraft near the unexplored south pole of the moon in August – and the fourth to achieve a soft landing – just days after a similar Russian mission failed.

The government said in a statement late on Wednesday that foreign companies could invest in the manufacture of components and systems or sub-systems for satellites up to 100% without approval.

Foreign firms planning to build satellites in India would not require government approval up to 74% of the investment; for investment in launch vehicles, investment could go up to 49% without such approval, the statement said.

India has privatised space launches and is aiming for a five-fold increase in its share of the global launch market, which some expect to be worth $47.3 billion by 2032. India currently accounts for about 2% of the space economy.

The country hopes that liberalised rules for the space sector, long controlled by the government, will draw interest from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, among others.

The foreign direct investment policy reform is expected to boost employment and will allow companies to set up manufacturing facilities in India, the government said in the statement.

“This will give India access to the latest tech advances and much-needed funds, not only from the country but from international investors too,” said A.K. Bhatt, director general of the Indian Space Association.

Space-related India stocks such as Paras Defence and Space Technologies , MTAR Technologies, Taneja Aerospace and Aviation and Apollo Micro Systems climbed 2% to 5% on Thursday.

© Thomson Reuters 2024


(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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Neuralink Switches Location From Delaware to Nevada

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Neuralink Switches Location From Delaware to Nevada

Elon Musk‘s brain-chip implant company, Neuralink, changed its location of incorporation from Delaware to Nevada, according to the business portals of both states.

The development comes about a week after Musk said Tesla would hold a shareholder vote to transfer its state of incorporation to Texas from Delaware after a judge invalidated his $56 billion (roughly Rs. 4,64,880 crore) pay package.

However, switching the state of incorporation for Tesla could come with hurdles such as investor lawsuits, particularly if it was seen as a move to secure his pay package, legal experts said.

Musk said last week that Neuralink had implanted its first brain chip in a human patient, who was recovering well after the procedure.

Neuralink did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

In September 2023, the company received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for the first human trial of its brain implant for paralysis patients.

Those with paralysis due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may qualify for the study, it said but did not reveal how many participants would be enrolled in the trial, which will take about six years to complete.

The study will use a robot to surgically place a brain-computer interface (BCI) implant in a region of the brain that controls the intention to move, Neuralink said, adding that its initial goal is to enable people to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.

© Thomson Reuters 2024


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Elon Musk’s Neuralink Installs Brain Implant in Human for the First Time

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink Installs Brain Implant in Human for the First Time

Neuralink, the California-based neurotechnology company, has implanted a wireless brain chip in a human for the first time, revealed co-founder Elon Musk. The big development was revealed by Musk on January 29 via a series of posts on X (formerly known as Twitter). Neuralink has been working on creating implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). Last year in May, the company received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct human trials. In September 2023, the neurotechnology firm began its human trial recruitment.

Announcing in a post, Musk said, “The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.” He also revealed separately that the first BCI product by the company had been named Telepathy. The brain chip enables the control of a computer or a smartphone just by thinking, claimed the co-founder. Interestingly, the company posted a video on YouTube in 2021 where a monkey could be seen controlling a game of ping-pong with his mind, after being implanted with the chip.

“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal,” he added. The first users of the product will be those who have lost the use of their limbs.

While Neuralink received its FDA approval to conduct human trials last year, it rejected an application to pursue the same in 2022. At the time, the regulatory body had cited major safety concerns involving “the device’s lithium battery; the potential for the implant’s tiny wires to migrate to other areas of the brain; and questions over whether and how the device can be removed without damaging brain tissue,” as per a report by Reuters.

In a 2019 presentation, Musk explained that Neuralink BCIs were composed mostly of polyimide alongside a thin gold or platinum conductor. These were inserted into the brain through an automated process performed by a surgical robot. The chip contains a high number of ultra-thin nodules with wires called probes. The endings of these probes contain electrodes that are capable of locating and reading electrical signals in brain. These signals are then wirelessly transmitted to a device which can convert it into electronic commands to control a device.

In the past, the company has conducted extensive tests on animals and has claimed a high success rate. While performing a successful brain chip implant is a major milestone, the success of the product will be determined by its long-term performance and lack of side effects.


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