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Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company will launch its first flight carrying the billionaire, two pilots, and three mission specialists to the fringes of space.

The VSS Unity spaceplane will be launched in mid-air after dropping from the belly of its mothership at an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km) before its rocket fires the craft and its crew into sub-orbital space 50 miles (80km) above the Earth.

The British entrepreneur announced his plan to reach space nine days before Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is set to launch aboard his own mission. Although there are questions about whether Virgin Galactic‘s maximum altitude of 80km actually qualifies as space.

The mothership took off from the Spaceport America runway in New Mexico approximately an hour later than initially planned due to bad weather.

Once the VSS Unity spaceplane reaches its maximum altitude and the crew experience a few minutes of microgravity, the rocket motor will turn and the crew will glide to a landing.

As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows and stabilises the craft as it plummets further down through the atmosphere towards the Earth.

Last December Virgin Galactic aborted a landmark test flight of its rocket-powered space plane, despite everything getting the all-clear a minute before launch.

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The Unity 22 mission will be the company’s first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin but will be the 22nd flight test for rocket plane VSS Unity.

Taking off from a spaceport in New Mexico, the crew will be evaluating the “cabin environment, seat comfort, the weightless experience and the views of Earth that the spaceship delivers” in the commercial cabin.

Virgin Galactic is expected to complete several more test flights before beginning commercial launches.

Ultimately the company aims to be operating multiple space tourism flights a year, and already has more than 600 customers for the $250,000 (£189,000) seats – including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger has died aged 100

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Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger has died aged 100

Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger has died aged 100.

He passed away at his home in Connecticut on Wednesday, according to a statement from Kissinger Associates Inc.

The veteran politician had major influence on American foreign policy under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Born in Germany in 1923, Mr Kissinger fled the Nazi regime with his family as a teenager and settled in the US in 1938.

During eight years as a national security adviser and secretary of state, Dr Kissinger was involved in major foreign policy events including the first example of “shuttle diplomacy” seeking peace in the Middle East, secret negotiations with China to defrost relations between the burgeoning superpowers and the instigation of the Paris peace talks seeking an end to the Vietnam conflict.

Mr Kissinger with President Gerald Ford and Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1975
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Dr Kissinger with President Gerald Ford and Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1975

In 1973 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War.

However, Dr Kissinger, along with President Nixon, also bore the brunt of criticism from the US’s allies following the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975 as the remaining US personnel fled what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

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Henry Kissinger meeting President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this year. Pic: AP
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Henry Kissinger meeting President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this year. Pic: AP

His influence over US diplomacy – which continued long after he left office – has not been without controversy, and some activists called for him to be prosecuted for war crimes.

He remained active in politics, even after his 100th birthday in May, attending meetings in the White House, publishing a book on leadership styles, and testifying before a Senate committee about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

In July 2023 he made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

During his early life, after becoming a naturalised US citizen in 1943, Dr Kissinger joined the US Army the same year and was awarded a Bronze Star.

He would go on to serve with US counter intelligence in occupied Germany.

Dr Kissinger earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees at Harvard University, where he taught international relations for almost 20 years before President Nixon appointed him national security advisor in 1969.

Henry Kissinger with Richard Nixon and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir
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Henry Kissinger with Richard Nixon and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir

He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Nancy Maginnes Kissinger, two children by his first marriage, David and Elizabeth, and five grandchildren.

According to the statement from Kissinger Associates: “He will be interred at a private family service. At a later date, there will be a memorial service in New York City.”

Senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney paid tribute to Dr Kissinger on X describing him as a “great one” and saying: “Fortunate indeed is America for his lifetime of diplomacy, wisdom, and love of freedom.”

Winston Lord, former US ambassador to China and Dr Kissinger’s one time special assistant said: “The world has lost a tireless advocate for peace.

“America has lost a towering champion for the national interest. I have lost a cherished friend and mentor.

“Henry blended the European sense of tragedy and the American immigrant’s sense of hope.”

Cindy McCain, the wife of late Senator John McCain said: “Henry Kissinger was ever present in my late husband’s life.

“While John was a POW and in the later years as a Senator & statesman.

“The McCain family will miss his wit, charm, and intelligence terribly.”

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US military aircraft with six people on board crashes off Japanese island

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US military aircraft with six people on board crashes off Japanese island

At least one person has died after a US military aircraft crashed off the coast of a Japanese island.

Six crew members were on board the Osprey aircraft when it crashed on Wednesday.

The Japanese coastguard said one crew member had been found – and was later pronounced dead – along with grey-coloured debris believed to be from the aircraft.

They were found at sea around half a mile off the eastern coast of Yakushima.

The cause of the crash and the status of the other people on the aircraft were not immediately known.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel and a helicopter conduct search and rescue operation at the site where a U.S. military aircraft MV-22 Osprey crashed into the sea off Yakushima Island, Kagoshima prefecture 
Pic:Kyodo /Reuters
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The Japanese coastguard conduct a search and rescue operation. Pic: Kyodo/Reuters

Fishing boats in the area found three people in the surrounding waters, a representative of a local fisheries cooperative said. Their condition is unknown.

Another Osprey landed safely at the island’s airport on Wednesday, at around the time of the crash.

“The government will confirm information about the damage and place the highest priority on saving lives,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.

The Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but during flight can rotate its propellers forward and cruise much faster like an aeroplane.

A US CV-22 Osprey takes off from Iwakuni base, western Japan, on 4 July, 2018. Pic: AP
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A US Osprey aircraft taking off in Japan in 2018. Pic: AP

US and Japanese officials said the aircraft belonged to Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo.

In Okinawa, where about half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based, Governor Denny Tamaki told reporters he will ask the US military to suspend all Osprey flights in Japan.

In August, a US Osprey crashed off the coast of northern Australia, killing three Marines and seriously injuring five others.

Another crash-landed in the ocean off Japan’s southern island of Okinawa in December 2016, prompting a temporary US military grounding of the aircraft.

It also comes after five US service members were killed after their aircraft suffered a “mishap” during a routine air refuelling mission in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

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Elon Musk accused of promoting ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory

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Elon Musk accused of promoting 'Pizzagate' conspiracy theory

Elon Musk has been accused of promoting a long-debunked conspiracy theory which alleged high-profile Democrats ran a paedophile abuse ring from a Washington pizza restaurant.

The billionaire posted and later deleted a meme referencing “Pizzagate” on X on Tuesday, NBC News reports.

It was an image from TV show The Office, with fake dialogue superimposed on to the scene to make it look like the characters were arguing about whether the conspiracy was real.

“Does seem at least a little suspicious,” Musk wrote.

His post was seen by NBC News – Sky’s US partner network – before it was taken down.

The conspiracy began during the 2016 US election to smear Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, and led to a man entering the pizza restaurant in question with an assault rifle.

It has previously been promoted by the likes of Alex Jones and former staff of Donald Trump.

NBC News reports Musk has replied to X posts about Pizzagate at least four times since 20 November.

They feature unfounded insinuations that journalists were involved.

No evidence has ever been uncovered that a child trafficking ring was being run from the pizzeria, or that Democrat politicians were involved and journalists covered it up.

Musk is a regular critic of the media and purveyor of conspiracies, including that aliens built the pyramids.

Last year, shortly after buying the platform formerly known as Twitter, he posted a link to an article featuring an unfounded rumour about an attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

More recently, he has been accused of endorsing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. It led to major advertisers pulling promotions from X and criticism from Israeli politicians.

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Musk shown Hamas attack scene by PM

The SpaceX owner has since visited the country to be shown the scene of Hamas’s attack on 7 October.

He has also sued a media watchdog group which alleged adverts from the likes of Disney and Warner Bros were appearing next to neo-Nazi and white nationalist content on his platform.

Sky News has contacted X for comment.

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