If Elon Musk’s SpaceX succeeds in sending two astronauts into orbit for the first time this week, it will do more than just boost the bragging rights of one of the world’s best-known billionaires.
As the first human test flight on a commercial rocket to reach the International Space Station, it will also signal a breakthrough for the private space industry as a whole, and an important moment in the opening up of low earth orbit to the commercial sector.
The first manned test for the Crew Dragon capsule, carrying two Nasa astronauts on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday morning.
If the flight to the ISS is successful, Nasa is expected to buy four seats on a follow-up flight later this year, the first time its astronauts will have become paying passengers on a commercially owned and operated space vehicle.
This week’s launch marks the moment when the private sector starts to lift humans off the face of the planet “reliably and cheaply”, said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, the competition which led to the first private manned flight to the edge of space 16 years ago. “It’s the first, fully commercially built, entrepreneurial capability,” he said. “What Elon Musk has done is nothing short of extraordinary, outpacing the US government-backed industries, Russia and China.”
Many of the technologies that SpaceX is relying on were pioneered by government space programmes over the past 60 years, meaning that the company is “standing on the shoulders of giants”, said Greg Autry, a former White House liaison to Nasa and an expert on the private space sector.
He compared the commercialisation of human space flight with the moment when the internet, which was created by the US Defense department, was handed over to the private sector. That makes the test flight a “tipping point we’ve been waiting for in the commercial space industry for a number of years”, he said.
Nasa, which commissioned both SpaceX and Boeing seven years ago to build human launch systems, is counting on commercial incentives and market competition to drive down the price of getting into space. It has estimated that the $400m SpaceX spent to develop its Falcon 9 rocket, which has become the workhorse for lifting cargo to the ISS, was only a tenth what it would have cost Nasa itself to build a similar rocket.
Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 and the US was forced to buy seats on Russian rockets to propel its astronauts to the ISS, the cost of getting into space has risen sharply. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, paid $20m in 2001 for a ride to the ISS on a Russian rocket. The price of a seat has now ballooned to more than $90m.
A competitive commercial market could quickly push that price back below $50m, said Mr Autry. Boeing’s rival space capsule suffered a setback earlier this year because of software glitches but is expected to make its first manned test launch next year. Other companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, a Californian company that has built a space vehicle with wings, also hope to cash in.
As competition increases and the process for mounting human flights becomes more streamlined, the price for a trip into orbit could fall below $10m over the next decade, Mr Autry predicted.
All of this remains theoretical, however, until private companies prove they can launch humans into orbit safely, and return them to earth. The thought of entrusting astronauts to a fully commercial rocket company was jarring for many in the US space programme when it was first proposed in 2011, said Janet Kavandi, a former Nasa astronaut and now an executive at Sierra Nevada.
Nasa worked hard to make sure companies such as SpaceX are ready, she added. That meant doing everything from sharing the data from its Columbia shuttle disaster to teaching them everything it had learnt about crew survivability, down to the way seats are attached to the craft. By opting for a capsule, rather than a winged craft such as the Space Shuttle, SpaceX has also reduced the complexity of its launches.
Many in the private space industry believe demand is pent up to support the new human launch companies in their early years, though few are prepared to guess at the ultimate size of the market.
Countries that have space programmes but don’t have their own launch systems are already waiting to buy seats on private rockets, said Laura Forczyk at Astralytical, a US space consultancy. A boom in space tourism is likely to follow, she added, particularly if prices fall as fast as some expect.
Nasa, which objected to Mr Tito’s private flight nearly two decades ago, has since become a strong backer of space tourism as a way to share some of its own costs and shift more of its budget to reach the moon and, eventually, Mars. Last year it went as far as to publish a detailed price list for use of its facilities on the ISS, including $11,250 a day for private astronauts to access the station’s life support system and toilet.
The next step in commercialising space will need more accommodation for private astronauts, particularly since the ISS is due to be retired sometime this decade. The first private company to launch a module designed to attach to the ISS, Axiom, hopes to launch in 2024, on the way to a fully freestanding space station. The full potential of low earth orbit also depends on the private sector seizing on the chance to carry out materials research and manufacturing in zero-gravity — an idea that has barely been tested.
For Mr Musk, meanwhile, the first private trip some 250 miles up to the ISS is only a small step to a far more ambitious goal. Turning humanity into an interplanetary species is still his overriding ambition in life, said Mr Diamandis. “It means that we now have an entrepreneurial company that will also get us to the moon, and eventually to Mars,” he said.
New Carnivorous Dinosaur Unearthed on Isle of Wight | Paleontology – Sci-News.com
A new genus and species of theropod dinosaur from the Cretaceous period has been identified from bones found on the Isle of Wight, the United Kingdom.
The newly-discovered dinosaur roamed the Earth approximately 115 million years ago (Cretaceous period).
It belongs to Tetanurae, a group that includes most theropod dinosaurs, including megalosauroids, allosauroids, tyrannosauroids, ornithomimosaurs, maniraptorans, and birds.
Named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, the ancient creature is estimated to have been up to 4 m (13.1 feet) long.
The fossilized bones from the neck, back and tail of the new dinosaur were found over a period of weeks in 2019 in three separate discoveries, two by individuals and one by a family group, on the foreshore near Knock Cliff on the Isle of Wight.
“The joy of finding the bones we discovered was absolutely fantastic. I thought they were special and so took them along when we visited Dinosaur Isle Museum,” said Robin Ward, a fossil hunter who was with his family visiting the Isle of Wight when they made their discovery.
“They immediately knew these were something rare and asked if we could donate them to the museum to be fully researched.”
“It looked different from marine reptile vertebrae I have come across in the past,” said regular fossil hunter James Lockyer.
“I was walking along the beach, kicking stones and came across what looked like a bone from a dinosaur,” added regular fossil hunter Paul Farrell.
“I was really shocked to find out it could be a new species.”
Vectaerovenator inopinatus had large air spaces in some of the bones, one of the traits that helped the paleontologists identify its theropod origins.
These air sacs, also seen in modern birds, were extensions of the lung, and it is likely they helped fuel an efficient breathing system while also making the skeleton lighter.
“We were struck by just how hollow this animal was — it’s riddled with air spaces. Parts of its skeleton must have been rather delicate,” said lead author Chris Barker, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southampton.
“The record of theropod dinosaurs from the mid Cretaceous period in Europe isn’t that great, so it’s been really exciting to be able to increase our understanding of the diversity of dinosaur species from this time.”
“It is likely that Vectaerovenator inopinatus lived in an area just north of where its remains were found, with the carcass having washed out into the shallow sea nearby.”
The team’s paper will be published in the journal Papers in Palaeontology.
Chris Barker et al. 2020. A highly pneumatic ‘mid Cretaceous’ theropod from the British Lower Greensand. Papers in Palaeontology, in press
Broken cable damages giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico – CBC.ca
A broken cable caused severe damage at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, causing a suspension of operations for one of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes, officials said Tuesday.
The University of Central Florida, which manages the National Science Foundation facility, said in a statement that a cable that helps support a metal platform broke and caused a 30-metre gash on a reflector dish. The university said eight panels in the dome also were damaged and the platform used to access the dome is now twisted.
The statement said it was unclear why the cable broke. The cost of the damage wasn’t immediately known.
Scientists worldwide use the telescope to detect radio emissions emitted by objects such as stars and galaxies. It was featured in the Jodie Foster film Contact and the James Bond movie GoldenEye.
British fossil hunters find bones of new dinosaur species, cousin to T.Rex – TheChronicleHerald.ca
LONDON (Reuters) – Four bones found on a beach on the Isle of Wight, off England’s south coast, belong to a new species of theropod dinosaur, the group that includes Tyrannosaurus rex, researchers at the University of Southampton said on Wednesday.
The new dinosaur, which has been named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, lived in the Cretaceous period 115 million years ago and was estimated to have been up to four metres long, the palaeontologists said.
The name refers to the large air spaces found in the bones, which were discovered on the foreshore at Shanklin, a seaside resort on the island, last year.
The air sacs, which are also seen in modern birds, were extensions of the lung, the researchers said, and it is likely they helped fuel an efficient breathing system while also making the skeleton lighter.
One of the finders, Robin Ward, a regular fossil hunter from Stratford-upon-Avon in central England, said: “The joy of finding the bones we discovered was absolutely fantastic.”
“I thought they were special and so took them along when we visited Dinosaur Isle Museum,” he said. “They immediately knew these were something rare and asked if we could donate them to the museum to be fully researched.”
James Lockyer, from Spalding, Lincolnshire, in east England, was also visiting the island when he found another of the bones.
“I was searching a spot at Shanklin and had been told and read that I wouldn’t find much there,” he said. “However, I always make sure I search the areas others do not, and on this occasion it paid off.”
Chris Barker, a doctoral student who led the study, said: “We were struck by just how hollow the animal was – it’s riddled with air spaces. Parts of its skeleton must have been rather delicate.”
It is likely that the Vectaerovenator lived in an area just north of where its remains were found, with the carcass having washed out into the shallow sea nearby, the researchers said.
(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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