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SpaceX is about to send its first crew of private citizens to space – The Verge



Four people are set to launch to space Wednesday night aboard a SpaceX capsule, and none of them are professional astronauts. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, booked the Crew Dragon capsule last year and picked three normal folks to ride with him. It will be the first completely private mission to orbit.

Dubbed Inspiration 4, the mission is a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and — like a lot of recent flights to space these days — an effort to convince those watching from the ground that space won’t be always be exclusive to government officials and the ultra-wealthy. Isaacman’s crew includes Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor and St. Jude physician assistant; Sian Proctor, a geology professor and former NASA astronaut candidate; and Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer at Lockheed Martin.

The Inspiration 4 crew is slated to launch Wednesday at 8:02PM ET atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, buckled inside the same Crew Dragon capsule that nearly a year ago sent a four-person crew of government astronauts to the International Space Station and back. This mission’s destination is about 80 miles higher than the ISS. In orbit, they’ll view Earth through two windows and a new glass dome that was added to the top of the capsule, where Crew Dragon’s ISS docking door was. The crew will reenter the atmosphere after three days, depending on the weather around Florida, and splash down in the Atlantic ocean. SpaceX recovery teams will likely meet up with the capsule, hoist it onto a ship, extract the crew, and bring them ashore.

Isaacman, a trained pilot and the founder of a payment processing company, is the commander of the flight. He has said he wanted to arrange a diverse crew of passengers who weren’t billionaires. He paid for all four seats on Crew Dragon, and dropped the first $100 million of a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude, a nonprofit research facility and hospital that provides free care to children with cancer. Isaacman reserved two of the seats for St. Jude — one would go to the winner of a fundraising campaign and the other would go to Arceneaux, who works at St. Jude as a physician assistant in Memphis, Tennessee and will serve as the mission’s medical officer.

Arceneaux, 29, is a childhood cancer survivor who will become the first person with a prosthetic body part to launch to space. Metal rods were placed in the part of her left leg that had a cancerous tumor as a child. Sembroski, the Lockheed engineer, will occupy the seat reserved for the winning participant of the St. Jude fundraising campaign. A friend of Sembroski’s won, but couldn’t go on the trip and passed the ticket to him instead.

The fourth seat went to Sian Proctor, the winner of a contest hosted by Shift4, the payment company owned by Isaacman. Contestants had to create a website using Shift4 software and produce a short video of themselves explaining why they wanted to go to space. Proctor, 51, taught geology at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona and will become the fourth Black woman, and the first person from Guam, to go to space. In 2009, she got close to becoming a NASA astronaut as one of nine finalists in a monthslong, notoriously difficult selection process.

The crew has been training since March, about seven months before liftoff. That includes centrifuge training to get used to the enormous G-forces of lifting off atop a rocket, a microgravity experience aboard a Zero-G flight, and weeks of training at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to familiarize the passengers with Crew Dragon.

Besides the passengers’ personal mementos, like family items and school memorabilia, the mission is full of sponsorships: 66 pounds of hops are on board Crew Dragon that, once returned to Earth, will be used to brew beer by Samuel Adams, “the official beer of Inspiration4,” the mission group said in a press release, adding the brewer made “a maximum $100,000 donation to St. Jude.” All the passengers will wear branded watches, Sembroski will play an onboard ukulele from Martin Guitar, and a bunch of other things on board will get auctioned off once they’re back on the ground as part of the ongoing St. Jude fundraiser.

If all goes as planned, Inspiration 4 will mark the first fully private mission for SpaceX, which developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That program funded development of two competing space capsules — Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner — to serve as NASA astronauts’ ride to the ISS.

For the Commercial Crew Program, NASA is a customer — not an owner — of the spacecraft, much like Isaacman is the main customer for Inspiration4. A core goal behind the program was to help stimulate a market for commercial spaceflight, awarding SpaceX roughly $3 billion and Boeing roughly $5 billion to help get started. Boeing’s Starliner has yet to launch humans. But Isaacman’s mission, which will mark the fourth crewed flight for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a key intent of NASA’s program, has come to fruition. As NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders recently said in the Are We There Yet? podcast, Inspiration 4 “is like watching your kids graduate from college.”

But whether private space tourism will really be accessible to a larger swath of passengers remains to be seen. A seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon costs roughly $55 million, and a seat on Starliner is somewhere around $90 million, according to government watchdog reports.

For a shorter experience, other companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are offering brief suborbital jaunts to the edge of space — but these are still extremely expensive. Right now, Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 for a seat on its SpaceShipTwo, which flies some 53 miles high for a few minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth’s curvature. Blue Origin hasn’t announced prices for a seat aboard its suborbital New Shepard rocket, which launches about 66 miles above ground for a similar experience.

With Isaacman footing the multimillion-dollar bill for his three fellow passengers’ tickets to space, and both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flying highly publicized back-to-back missions, the space tourism industry is in a phase buoyed by billionaire backers and ultra-wealthy customers. Getting out of this phase, as industry figures have said, will require drastic drops in the cost of building and launching rockets.

“We’ve been hearing that for so long, that until it happens, it’s not unusual that people are a little skeptical about that,” says Alan Ladwig, who in the 1980s led NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program, an initiative to send civilian storytellers like teachers and journalists to space as a way to get the public excited about human spaceflight.

“But in order to get to the endpoint we want, you have to go through this initial step, with the early adopters and paying higher costs to go in order to eventually lower the cost,” he said.

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Astronomers Discover an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole as it Destroys a Star – Universe Today



Supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way. They are mind-bogglingly massive, ranging from 1 million to 10 billion solar masses. Their smaller brethren, intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), ranging between 100 and 100,000 solar masses, are harder to find.

Astronomers have spotted an intermediate-mass black hole destroying a star that got too close. They’ve learned a lot from their observations and hope to find even more of these black holes. Observing more of them may lead to understanding how SMBHs got so massive.

When a star gets too close to a powerful black hole, a tidal disruption event (TDE) occurs. The star is torn apart and its constituent matter is drawn to the black hole, where it gets caught in the hole’s accretion disk. The event releases an enormous amount of energy, outshining all the stars in the galaxy for months, even years.

That’s what happened with TDE 3XMM J215022.4-055108, which is more readily known as TDE J2150. Astronomers were only able to spot the elusive IMBH because of the burst of x-rays emitted by the hot gas from the star as it was torn apart. J2150 is about 740 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. Now a team of researchers has used observations of the distant J2150 and existing scientific models to learn more about the IMBH.

They’ve published their results in a paper titled “Mass, Spin, and Ultralight Boson Constraints from the Intermediate Mass Black Hole in the Tidal Disruption Event 3XMM J215022.4?055108.” The lead author is Sixiang Wen from the University of Arizona. The paper is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

“The fact that we were able to catch this invisible black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible.”

Ann Zabludoff, co-author University of Arizona.

IMBHs are elusive and difficult to study. Astronomers have found several of them in the Milky Way and in nearby galaxies. Mostly they’ve been spotted because of their low-luminosity active galactic nuclei. In 2019 the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories spotted a gravitational wave from the merger of two IMBHs. As it stands now, there’s a catalogue of only 305 IMBH candidates, even though scientists think they could be common in galactic centers.

One of the problems in seeing them is their low mass itself. While SMBHs can be found by observing how their mass affects the stellar dynamics of nearby stars, IMBHs are typically too small to do the same. Their gravity isn’t powerful enough to change the orbits of nearby stars.

“The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible,” said Ann Zabludoff, UArizona professor of astronomy and co-author on the paper. “Not only that, by analyzing the flare we were able to better understand this elusive category of black holes, which may well account for the majority of black holes in the centers of galaxies.”

This is a Hubble image of J2150 in the white circle. It’s situated inside a dense cluster of stars about 740 million light-years away. X-ray emissions from the TDE were used to spot the IMBH, but Hubble’s visible-light capabilities were needed to pinpoint its location. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Lin (University of New Hampshire)

It was the eruption of x-rays that made the event visible. The team compared the observed x-rays with models and was able to confirm the presence of an IMBH. “The X-ray emissions from the inner disk formed by the debris of the dead star made it possible for us to infer the mass and spin of this black hole and classify it as an intermediate black hole,” lead author Wen said.

This is the first time that observations have been detailed enough to be able to use a TDE flare to confirm the presence of an IMBH. It’s a big deal, because though we know that SMBHs lie in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way and larger, our understanding of smaller galaxies and their IMBHs is much more limited. They’re just really hard to see.

“We still know very little about the existence of black holes in the centers of galaxies smaller than the Milky Way,” said co-author Peter Jonker of Radboud University and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, both in the Netherlands. “Due to observational limitations, it is challenging to discover central black holes much smaller than 1 million solar masses.”

The mystery surrounding IMBHs feeds into the mystery surrounding SMBHs. We can see SMBHs at the heart of large galaxies, but we don’t know exactly how they got that massive. Did they go through mergers? Maybe. Through the accretion of matter? Maybe. Astrophysicists mostly agree that both mechanisms may play a role.

Another question surrounds SMBH “seeds.” The seeds could be IMBHs of tens or hundreds of solar masses. The IMBHs themselves could’ve grown from stellar-mass black holes that grew into IMBHs through the accretion of matter. Another possibility is that long before there were actual stars, there were large gas clouds that collapsed into quasi-stars, that then collapsed into black holes. These strange entities would collapse directly from quasi-star to black hole without ever becoming a star, and are known as direct collapse black holes. But these are all hypotheses and models. Astrophysicists need more actual observations, like in the case of TDE J2150, to confirm or rule anything out.

“Therefore, if we get a better handle of how many bona fide intermediate black holes are out there, it can help determine which theories of supermassive black hole formation are correct,” Jonker said.

This artist's illustration depicts what astronomers call a "tidal disruption event," or TDE, when an object such as a star wanders too close to a black hole and is destroyed by tidal forces generated from the black hole's intense gravitational forces. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.
This artist’s illustration depicts what astronomers call a “tidal disruption event,” or TDE, when an object such as a star wanders too close to a black hole and is destroyed by tidal forces generated from the black hole’s intense gravitational forces. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.

The team of researchers was also able to measure the black hole’s spin, which has implications for black hole growth, and maybe for particle physics, too. The black hole is spinning quickly, but it’s not spinning as fast as possible. It begs the question, how did the IMBH attain a speed in this range? The spin opens up some possibilities and eliminates others.

“It’s possible that the black hole formed that way and hasn’t changed much since, or that two intermediate-mass black holes merged recently to form this one,” Zabludoff said. “We do know that the spin we measured excludes scenarios where the black hole grows over a long time from steadily eating gas or from many quick gas snacks that arrive from random directions.”

The spin rate may shed some light on potential particle candidates for dark matter, too. One of the hypotheses says that dark matter is made up of particles never seen in a laboratory, called ultralight bosons. These exotic particles, if they exist, would have less than one-billionth the mass of an electron. The IMBHs spin rate may preclude the existence of these candidate particles.

“If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin,” co-author Nicholas Stone said. “Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics.”

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This discovery will build toward a better understanding of dwarf galaxies and their black holes, too. But for that to happen, astrophysicists need to observe more of these IMBH tidal disruption events.

“If it turns out that most dwarf galaxies contain intermediate-mass black holes, then they will dominate the rate of stellar tidal disruption,” Stone said. “By fitting the X-ray emission from these flares to theoretical models, we can conduct a census of the intermediate-mass black hole population in the universe,” Wen added.

As is often the case in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, future telescopes and observatories should advance our knowledge considerably. In this, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could play a role. The Rubin could discover thousands of TDEs each year.

Then we may finally be able to piece together the story of not only IMBHs but also SMBHs.


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NASA splits human spaceflight unit in two, reflecting new orbital economy – CTV News



NASA is splitting its human spaceflight department into two separate bodies – one centred on big, future-oriented missions to the moon and Mars, the other on the International Space Station and other operations closer to Earth.

The reorganization, announced by NASA chief Bill Nelson on Tuesday, reflects an evolving relationship between private companies, such as SpaceX, that have increasingly commercialized rocket travel and the federal agency that had exercised a U.S. monopoly over spaceflight for decades.

Nelson said the shake-up was also spurred by a recent proliferation of flights and commercial investment in low-Earth orbit even as NASA steps up its development of deep-space aspirations.

“Today is more than organizational change,” Nelson said at a press briefing. “It’s setting the stage for the next 20 years, it’s defining NASA’s future in a growing space economy.”

The move breaks up NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, currently headed by Kathy Leuders, into two separate branches.

Leuders will keep her associate administrator title as head of the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, focusing on NASA’s most ambitious, long-term programs, such as plans to return astronauts to the moon under project Artemis, and eventual human exploration of Mars.

A retired deputy associate administrator, James Free, who played key roles in NASA’s space station and commercial crew and cargo programs, will return to the agency as head of the new Space Operations Mission Directorate.

His branch will primarily oversee more routine launch and spaceflight activities, including missions involving the space station and privatization of low-Earth orbit, as well as sustaining lunar operations once those have been established.

“This approach with two areas focused on human spaceflight allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems,” NASA said in a press release announcing the move.

The announcement came less than a week after SpaceX, which had already flown numerous astronaut missions and cargo payloads to the space station for NASA, launched the first all-civilian crew ever to reach orbit and returned them safely to Earth.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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Elon Musk trolls Biden with Trump line over perceived Inspiration4 snub – CNET



SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Dragon V2 in May 2014.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and leading orbital travel agent, was feeling a bit slighted by the world’s most powerful man  after President Joe Biden failed to acknowledge the company’s landmark Inspiration4 mission that sent four civilians on a three-day trip in orbit of our planet. 

The flight was bankrolled by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who commanded the mission aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, alongside geologist Sian Proctor, data engineer Chris Sembroski and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital employee Hayley Arceneaux. The quartet splashed down safely off the coast of Florida on Saturday.

The mission served as a fundraiser for St. Jude, with over $60 million raised from the public so far. Isaacman also pledged $100 million and Musk added $50 million.

When a Twitter user asked why the president hadn’t acknowledged Inspiration4, Musk hopped into the replies.

“He’s still sleeping,” the CEO wrote, in an apparent reference to Donald Trump’s favorite nickname for his former adversary, “sleepy” Joe Biden.

It seems fair to point out, as a number of other Twitter users have, that the president may have a few other things on his plate at the moment, like continuing to manage the response to a global pandemic, climate crisis and various national security threats. 

For what it’s worth, NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a Biden appointee, did offer his congratulations to the crew multiple times.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Inspiration4 is the latest in a string of pioneering space tourism missions this year. Richard Branson flew to the edge of space on the first fully crewed flight of his Virgin Galactic spaceplane in July. Nine days later, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos cruised a bit higher with three other passengers on his New Shepard spacecraft. 

Unlike those flights, which lasted under 15 minutes each, the Inspiration4 mission was a much more complex venture that saw the four passengers performing scientific research during the multiple day flight as they orbited Earth over 40 times. 

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