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British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.

Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic employees strapped in for the ride, touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 poised to begin commercial operations next year.

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” an exuberant Branson, 70, said shortly after embracing his grandchildren following the flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

The success of the flight also gave the flamboyant entrepreneur bragging rights in a highly publicised rivalry with fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon online retail mogul who had hoped to fly into space first aboard his own space company’s rocket.

“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”

Space industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers were on hand for a festive gathering to witness the launch, which was livestreamed in a presentation hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert. Joining the reception was another billionaire space industry pioneer, Elon Musk, who is also founder of electric carmaker Tesla.

Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid performed his forthcoming single “New Normal” after the flight.

The gleaming white spaceplane was carried aloft attached to the underside of the dual-fuselage jet VMS Eve (named for Branson’s late mother) from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the aptly named town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic leases a large section of the facility.

Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane was released from the mothership and fell away as the crew ignited its rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 53 miles (86 km) high.

The spaceplane’s contrail was clearly visible from the ground as it soared through the upper atmosphere, to the cheers of the crowd below.

At the apex of the climb with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity, before the spaceplane shifted into re-entry mode, and began a gliding descent to a runway back at the spaceport. The entire flight lasted about an hour.

“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth,” Branson said in a video from space.

Back at a celebration with supporters from a stage outside Virgin Galactic’s Gateway to Space complex at the spaceport, he and crewmates doused one another with champagne.

Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pinned Virgin-produced astronaut wings onto the blue flight suits worn by Branson and his team. Official wing pins from the Federal Aviation Administration will be presented later, a company spokesman said.

High-cost tickets

Virgin Galactic has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022. One of those flights will carry four Italian astronauts-in-training, according to company CEO Michael Colglazier.

He said 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 (roughly Rs. 1.86 crores) per ticket for the exhilaration of supersonic flight, weightlessness, and the spectacle of spaceflight.

Branson has said he aims ultimately to lower the price to around $40,000 (roughly Rs. 29.7 lakhs) per seat as the company ramps up service, achieving greater economies of scale. Colglazier said he envisions eventually building a large enough fleet to accommodate roughly 400 flights annually at the spaceport.

The Swiss-based investment bank UBS has estimated the potential value of the space tourism market reaching $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,340 crores) annually by 2030.

Proving rocket travel safe for the public is key.

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.

Space race

Branson’s participation in Sunday’s flight, announced just over a week ago, typified his persona as the daredevil executive whose various Virgin brands – from airlines to music companies – have long been associated with his ocean-crossing exploits in sailboats and hot-air balloons.

His ride-along also upstaged rival astro-tourism venture Blue Origin and its founder, Bezos, in what has been popularised as the “billionaire space race.” Bezos has been planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.

Branson has insisted he and Bezos are friendly rivals and were not racing to beat one another into space.

“We wish Jeff the absolute best and that he will get up and enjoy his flight,” Branson said at a post-flight press conference.

Blue Origin, however, has disparaged Virgin Galactic as falling short of a true spaceflight experience, saying that unlike Unity, Bezos’s New Shepard tops the 62-mile-high-mark (100 km), called the Kármán line, set by an international aeronautics body as defining the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.

However, US space agency NASA and the US Air Force both define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 50 miles (80km).

A third player in the space tourism sector, Musk’s SpaceX, plans to send its first all-civilian crew (without Musk) into orbit in September, after having already launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.

The spaceplane’s two pilots were Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci. The three other mission specialists were 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.

All recounted afterward being mesmerised by the view through Unity’s windows. Mackay described the immense blackness of space against the brightness of Earth’s surface, “separated by the beautiful blue atmosphere, which is very complex and very thin.”

“Cameras don’t do it justice,” he told reporters. “You have to see it with your own eyes.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021


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Asteroid 2023 BU Made Fourth Closest Approach to Earth

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Asteroid 2023 BU Made Fourth Closest Approach to Earth

There are hundreds of millions of asteroids in our solar system, which means new asteroids are discovered quite frequently. It also means close encounters between asteroids and Earth are fairly common. Some of these close encounters end up with the asteroid impacting Earth, occasionally with severe consequences.

A recently discovered asteroid, named 2023 BU, has made the news because today it passed very close to Earth.

Discovered on January 21 by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov in Crimea, 2023 BU passed only about 3,600 km from the surface of Earth (near the southern tip of South America) six days later on January 27.

That distance is just slightly farther than the distance between Perth and Sydney and is only about 1 percent of the distance between Earth and our Moon.

The asteroid also passed through the region of space that contains a significant proportion of the human-made satellites orbiting Earth.

All this makes 2023 BU the fourth-closest known asteroid encounter with Earth, ignoring those that have impacted the planet or our atmosphere.

How does 2023 BU rate as an asteroid and a threat? 2023 BU is unremarkable, other than that it passed so close to Earth. The diameter of the asteroid is estimated to be just 4–8m, which is on the small end of the range of asteroid sizes.

There are likely hundreds of millions of such objects in our solar system, and it is possible 2023 BU has come close to Earth many times before over the millennia. Until now, we have been oblivious to the fact.

In context, on average a 4-metre-diameter asteroid will impact Earth every year and an 8-metre-diameter asteroid every five years or so Asteroids of this size pose little risk to life on Earth when they hit because they largely break up in the atmosphere. They produce spectacular fireballs, and some of the asteroids may make it to the ground as meteorites.

Now that 2023 BU has been discovered, its orbit around the Sun can be estimated and future visits to Earth predicted. It is estimated there is a 1 in 10,000 chance 2023 BU will impact Earth sometime between 2077 and 2123.

So, we have little to fear from 2023 BU or any of the many millions of similar objects in the Solar System.

Asteroids need to be greater than 25m in diameter to pose any significant risk to life in a collision with Earth; to challenge the existence of civilisation, they’d need to be at least a kilometre in diameter.

It is estimated there are fewer than 1,000 such asteroids in the Solar System and could impact Earth every 5,00,000 years. We know about more than 95 per cent of these objects.

Will there be more close asteroid passes? 2023 BU was the fourth closest pass by an asteroid ever recorded. The three closer passes were by very small asteroids discovered in 2020 and 2021 (2021 UA, 2020 QG and 2020 VT).

Asteroid 2023 BU and countless other asteroids have passed very close to Earth during the nearly five billion years of the Solar System’s existence, and this situation will continue into the future.

What has changed in recent years is our ability to detect asteroids of this size, such that any threats can be characterised. That an object roughly 5m in size can be detected many thousands of kilometres away by a very dedicated amateur astronomer shows that the technology for making significant astronomical discoveries is within reach of the general public. This is very exciting.

Amateurs and professionals can together continue to discover and categorise objects, so threat analyses can be done. Another very exciting recent development came last year, by the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which successfully collided a spacecraft into an asteroid and changed its direction.

DART makes plausible the concept of redirecting an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth if a threat analysis identifies a serious risk with enough warning.


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Google Working on Fast Pair Setup, May Debut on Galaxy S23 Series: Report

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Google Working on Fast Pair Setup, May Debut on Galaxy S23 Series: Report

Google is reportedly working on the ability to set up an Android phone via the company’s Fast Pair feature. The capability could reportedly debut on a smartphone with the Samsung Galaxy S23 series that is expected to be unveiled by the South Korean conglomerate at its Galaxy Unpacked 2023 event on February 1. The upcoming flagship smartphone series from Samsung is expected to include the vanilla Samsung Galaxy S23, Galaxy S23+, and Galaxy S23 Ultra models.

Fast Pair is a feature that is part of Google Play Services that allows users to set up, connect, and pair new devices like headphones, Wear OS smartwatches, styluses, tracking tags, and other accessories automatically, with a single tap when nearby and turned on. According to a report by 9to5Gooogle, the Fast Pair feature has reportedly been updated by Google to also include support for setting up nearby smartphones.

The updated Fast Pair feature could reportedly debut on Samsung‘s upcoming flagship smartphone series, the Samsung Galaxy S23. With the Fast Pair feature enabled on an Android device, it could detect nearby devices that are compatible with Fast Pair including another Android smartphone and other accessories, as per the report. On detection of the specific device that is nearby, the feature will automatically redirect users to the process to install the relevant steps that need to be followed to move data between the two devices.

With nearby Android smartphones also being supported on Fast Pair, and reportedly featuring on the Samsung Galaxy S23 series, the smartphones in the series could detect nearby Android devices and prompt users to install the Samsung Smart Switch app that allows users to transfer data between two devices, according to the report.

The feature could end up making the setup process for a new Samsung Galaxy S23 series smartphone easier than ever, but there is currently no information on whether the older and newer device will both need support for the updated Fast Pair feature.

9to5Google accessed details from a recent version of the Google Play Services application that seems to suggest that Google is preparing to debut Android’s new Fast Pair feature on the Samsung Galaxy S23 series. The South Korean conglomerate recently opened pre-reservations for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S23 series in India, along with several other countries.

However, it is important to note that neither Google nor Samsung has confirmed plans to update the Fast Pair feature or the inclusion of such a feature on the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S23 series, respectively.


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Watch Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Grab, Throw Objects Just Like a Human

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Watch Boston Dynamics' Atlas Robot Grab, Throw Objects Just Like a Human

Boston Dynamics has unveiled the latest version of its Atlas Robot that is capable of improved human-like movement and actions. The Waltham, Massachusetts-based robot firm, showed off the humanoid robot with grippers while displaying its capabilities via a video posted to YouTube. The robot is seen performing complex actions such as grabbing and throwing an object, navigating complex terrain while holding another object.

In the video posted on Boston Dynamics’ YouTube channel, the company’s Atlas Robot is seen navigating a challenging environment while walking on two legs mimicking human motion. The Atlas Robot is also seen grabbing hold of a plank and jumping to spin around, carrying it and placing it to create a bridge to walk between two platforms, all while holding onto a toolkit.

The Atlas Robot is then seen walking across the platform bridge it created, tossing up the toolkit to the person on top of the scaffolding. The executed manoeuvre is being referred to by Boston Dynamics as an inverted 540-degree, multi-axis flip.

After successfully passing the toolkit along to the human on the ledge above, the Atlas Robot then theatrically proceeds to do a perfectly executed backflip while still on the thin platform.

The demonstration shows how humanoid robots such as the Atlas could potentially replace humans in performing tasks that involve risk of life and injury when performed by humans.

Recently, Boston Dynamics and IBM were seen collaborating to deploy robot dogs at the US National Grid sites for the purpose of autonomous inspection. The robotic dogs named Spot, are integrated by artificial intelligence (AI) developed by IBM Research and being deployed at the electric and gas utility sites in Massachusetts and New York for regular inspections.

However, Boston Dynamics’ creative foray into deploying robots in real-life situations and applications hasn’t always been smooth. The company faced backlash for selling Spot to local police departments, including the NYPD, leading to the NYPD cancelling the arrangement.


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