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.
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.
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.
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
NASA-ISRO Working Together to Make India’s Space Station, Launch NISAR in 2024
Stepping up collaboration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator Bill Nelson on Tuesday said the US was open to helping India build its own space station.
On a visit to India, Nelson said the US and India were working on plans to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station by the end of next year, while the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch the state-of-the-art joint venture satellite with NASA — NISAR — in the first quarter of 2024.
Nelson met Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh here and discussed strengthening cooperation between the two countries in the space sector.
“ISRO is also exploring the feasibility of utilising NASA’s Hypervelocity Impact Test (HVIT) facility for testing Gaganyaan module Micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) protection shields,” an official statement from the science and technology ministry said.
During the meeting, the two leaders also discussed US President Joe Biden’s offer to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station in 2024.
“The selection of astronaut is determined by ISRO. NASA will not make the selection,” Nelson said in an interaction with reporters here.
Nelson urged Singh to expedite the programme related to India’s first astronaut aboard a NASA rocket to the International Space Station.
NASA is identifying an opportunity in the private astronaut mission for Indian astronauts in 2024.
In response to a question, he said the US would be ready to collaborate with India in building the space station if it so desires.
“We expect by that time to have a commercial space station. I think India wants to have a commercial space station by 2040. If India wants us to collaborate with them, of course, we will be available. But that’s up to India,” Nelson said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked ISRO to aim to build an Indian space station by 2035 and land astronauts on the moon by 2040.
Built at a cost of $1.5 billion (nearly Rs. 12,500 crore), NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) is targeted for launch onboard India’s GSLV rocket.
Data from NISAR will be highly suitable for studying the land ecosystems, deformation of solid earth, mountain and polar cryosphere, sea ice, and coastal oceans on a regional to global scale.
ISRO has developed the S-band SAR which was integrated with NASA’s L-band SAR at JPL/NASA. The integrated L & S band SAR is currently undergoing testing with the satellite at the U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC), Bengaluru with the participation of NASA/JPL officials.
An official statement said ISRO and NASA have formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Human spaceflight cooperation and are exploring cooperation in radiation impact studies, micrometeorite and orbital debris shield studies; space health, and medicine aspects.
ISRO is also in discussion with prominent US industries (like Boeing, Blue Origin, and Voyager) on specific items of cooperation and also to explore joint collaborations with Indian commercial entities.
A concept paper on the Implementing Arrangement is under consideration between ISRO and NASA. After a few iterations, both sides arrived at a mutually agreed draft and the same is processed for intra-governmental approvals, the official statement said.
Amazon Claims Prototype Satellites for Kuiper Network Operating Successfully
Amazon.com said on Thursday its two prototype satellites for its planned Kuiper internet network have been operating successfully in orbit, with the project on track to start launching operational satellites by mid-2024. The Kuiper internet network is set to compete against billionaire Elon Musk‘s Starlink, the world’s largest satellite operator, to offer broadband internet service globally to consumers, companies and governments. Amazon said it had achieved a 100 percent success rate within the first 30 days of the launch of the prototype satellites from Florida aboard an United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Amazon said it used the prototype satellites for brief two-way video calls, streaming a high-definition movie on Prime Video and ordering items off Amazon’s website. “We still have a lot of hard work ahead, and scaling for mass production won’t be easy,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper. The US Federal Communications Commission has required Amazon to deploy half of its more than 3,000-planned satellite constellation by 2026.
On the heels of the successful prototype tests, Amazon expects to start building production-ready satellites next month for a launch in the second quarter of 2024, Badyal told Reuters. Badyal declined to say how many satellites Amazon would launch per rocket.
Badyal said he expects the network will be capable of providing broadband coverage in some parts of the world by late 2024, for an early beta phase targeted to begin in early 2025.
Early partners like Vodafone and Verizon are set to become the first telecom firms to beta test the service.
Amazon last year announced a bulk launch deal for 83 launches — the largest commercial rocket procurement ever — from various rocket companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, ULA and Europe’s Arianespace.
The Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance is set to loft the first several batches of Kuiper satellites aboard its Atlas 5 and the company’s upcoming Vulcan rocket.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
NASA Astronomers Predict Near-Earth Asteroid’s 2029 Close Encounter
About 5 and a 1/2 years from now, astronomers predict, an asteroid about as wide as the Empire State Building is tall will streak through space within 20,000 miles (32,200 kms) of Earth, the closest any celestial object of that size will have come to our planet in modern history.
When it does, a spacecraft launched by NASA in 2016 is expected to be in position to provide a detailed examination of this rare close encounter.
The mission, directed by University of Arizona scientists, is expected to yield insights into planetary formation and knowledge that could inform efforts to build a defense system against possible doomsday asteroid collisions with Earth.
At the time of its 2004 discovery, the asteroid Apophis, named for a demon serpent embodying evil and chaos in ancient Egyptian mythology, appeared to pose a dire impact threat to Earth, with scientists forecasting a potential collision in 2029. Refined observations have since ruled out any impact risk for at least another century.
Still, its next approach in 2029 will bring the asteroid within a cosmic cat’s whisker of Earth — less than one-tenth the moon‘s distance from us and well within the orbits of some geosynchronous Earth satellites.
The spacecraft now headed for a rendezvous with Apophis is OSIRIS-REx, which made headlines plucking a soil sample from a different asteroid three years ago and sending it back to Earth in a capsule that made a parachute landing in Utah in September.
Spacecraft’s second act
Rather than retire the spacecraft, NASA has rebranded it as OSIRIS-APEX — short for APophis EXplorer — and fired its thrusters to put it on course for its next target.
The Apophis expedition was detailed in a mission overview published in the Planetary Science Journal.
Apophis, oblong and somewhat peanut-shaped, is a stony asteroid believed to consist mostly of silicate materials along with iron and nickel. Measuring about 1,110 feet (340 meters) across, it is due to pass within about 19,800 miles (31,860 kms) of Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029, becoming visible to the naked eye for a few hours, said Michael Nolan, deputy principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona.
“It’s not going to be this glorious show,” Nolan said, but it will appear as a point of reflected sunlight in the night sky over Africa and Europe.
An asteroid that large passing so near to Earth is estimated to occur roughly once every 7,500 years. The Apophis flyby is the first such encounter predicted in advance.
The tidal pull of Earth’s gravity likely will cause measurable disturbances to the asteroid’s surface and motion, changing its orbital path and rotational spin. Tidal forces could trigger landslides on Apophis and dislodge rocks and dust particles to create a comet-like tail.
The spacecraft is set to observe the asteroid’s Earth flyby as it nears and ultimately catches up with Apophis. These images and data would be combined with ground-based telescope measurements to detect and quantify how Apophis was altered as it passed by Earth.
OSIRIS-APEX is scheduled to remain near Apophis for 18 months – orbiting, maneuvering around it and even hovering just over its surface, using rocket thrusters to kick up loose material and reveal what lies beneath.
Planetary science and defense
Like other asteroids, Apophis is a relic of the early solar system. Its mineralogy and chemistry are largely unchanged in more than 4.5 billion years, offering clues to the origin and development of rocky planets like Earth.
Close examination of Apophis could give planetary defense experts valuable information about the structure and other properties of asteroids. The more scientists know about the composition, density and orbital behavior of such celestial “rubble piles,” the greater the chances of devising effective asteroid-deflection strategies to mitigate impact threats.
NASA deliberately crashed a spacecraft into a small asteroid last year in a planetary-defense test that nudged the rocky object from its normal path, marking the first time humankind altered the natural motion of a celestial body.
Apophis is substantially larger than that asteroid but tiny compared with the one that struck Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.
While not big enough to pose an existential threat to life on Earth, an Apophis-sized asteroid striking the planet at hypersonic speed still could devastate a major city or region, Nolan said, with ocean impact unleashing tsunamis.
“It wouldn’t be globally catastrophic in the sense of mass extinctions,” but an impact “would definitely come under the category of bad,” Nolan said.
“This thing is coming in at many miles per second if it hits. And at that speed, it kind of doesn’t whether if it’s made of gravel or ice or rocks or whatever. It’s just a big, heavy thing moving fast,” Nolan added.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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