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Jeff Bezos may have been beaten to space by rival Richard Branson, but the billionaire American businessman is poised to make history next week aboard what would be the world’s first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew.

Bezos, the former CEO of Amazon, is due to be part of a four-person crew for a planned 11-minute ride to the edge of space on Tuesday inside his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft, another milestone in the nascent and potentially lucrative space tourism sector.

He is set to be joined by his brother and private equity executive Mark Bezos, trailblazing octogenarian woman aviator Wally Funk, and an as-yet-unidentified person who paid $28 million (roughly Rs. 210 crores) for a spot aboard the spacecraft, scheduled to launch from a West Texas site.

New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. The crew is set to include only civilians and none of Blue Origin’s employees or staff astronauts, three people familiar with the company’s plans told Reuters.

Blue Origin’s astronauts include NASA space shuttle veteran Nicholas Patrick.

“To see the Earth from space, it changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity,” Bezos said in a video last month discussing the flight.

There has never before been a fully autonomous suborbital or orbital flight with an all-civilian crew, Teal Group space industry analyst Marco Caceres said.

Branson, the British billionaire businessman, was aboard his company Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane for its pioneering suborbital flight from New Mexico on Sunday. The Virgin Galactic flight included two pilots, as well as the company’s chief astronaut instructor and its lead operations engineer.

New Shepard lifts off from a standing position on a launch pad, like traditional rocket launches. With Virgin Galactic, a rocket-powered spaceplane was dropped from a carrier plane in mid-air.

New Shepard, like Virgin Galactic’s flight, will not enter into orbit around Earth, but will take the passengers some 62 miles up (100km) before the capsule returns by parachute. Virgin Galactic’s flight reached 53 miles (86km) above Earth.

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s space transportation company SpaceX is planning an even-more-ambitious mission in September, sending an all-civilian crew for a several-day orbital flight aboard its Crew Dragon capsule.

‘Simple math’

Blue Origin’s flight is two decades in the making. Bezos founded the company in 2000. A pilotless craft was a financial strategy adopted by Blue Origin executives years ago.

“It’s simple math,” said one of the people familiar with the company’s thinking. “If you design a system so that you don’t need a pilot or a co-pilot you can have more paying customers.”

New Shepard can accommodate six people. Blue Origin and industry insiders had previously discussed company employees going up on the first flight.

A Blue Origin spokesperson confirmed the decision was made for four seats to offer an enhanced customer experience for the first flight.

The decision to skip over Blue Origin’s staff astronauts and technical experts has caused frustration for some company insiders who viewed the first crewed flight as a crucial opportunity to gather data and technical feedback for a program in its infancy, and to evaluate the experience for future paying customers, the sources said.

A seasoned astronaut would provide a calming presence for civilian crew members as New Shepard blasts off at speeds upwards of 2,200 miles (3,540km) per hour, the sources added.

The crew members will receive two days of training. Blue Origin has assigned two staff members, on the ground, to help the passengers strap in and to provide point-by-point instructions over headsets during the mission.

“It’s kind of like getting on a ride at an amusement park,” Caceres said. “You just trust that everything has been checked out, is in good working order … and you just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Some industry sources have expressed concerns that passengers – overwhelmed by the experience or in a state of euphoria – could be rattled by routine noises, miss key instructions, pass out or injure themselves floating around the cabin, potentially dangerous scenarios a trained astronaut could respond to.

Funk, 82, was one of 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s 1960s space programme but were denied the chance to become astronauts because of their gender.

Proving the safety of space travel is important to developing what Swiss investment bank UBS estimates will be a $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,350 crores) annual tourism market a decade from now.

“One of the main goals of the New Shepard mission is to demonstrate that going to suborbital space is perfectly safe for the average person,” Caceres said. “So there is a benefit to having as many average people on these flights as possible.”

© 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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