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SpaceX tourism: Private citizens headed to the ISS – CTV News

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SpaceX is heading back to the launch pad, this time to put a group of four private citizens into orbit for a first-of-its-kind trip to the International Space Station.

The trip was put together by Axiom Space, a private startup that’s booking rides with SpaceX and coordinating flights to the ISS for anyone who can afford it.

The passengers on this trip — which includes former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegría, who will command the mission as an Axiom employee, and three paying customers — are slated to take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday at 12:05 pm ET. They’ll ride inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the same capsule that SpaceX has used to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS already. The capsule rides to orbit on top of one of SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon 9 rockets.

The capsule will then separate from the rocket and freefly through space all day Thursday as the spacecraft slowly maneuvers closer to the ISS. It’s slated to dock at the space station around 3 am ET Friday.

This mission, called AX-1, will mark the first time in history that private citizens, or otherwise non-professional astronauts, will launch to the ISS from US soil. And it’s the first of what Axiom, the company that organized and brokered this mission with SpaceX, hopes will be many similar flights for anyone who can afford it.

The AX-1 mission is also only the second space tourism flight for SpaceX, following up the September 2021 launch of four private citizens on a three-day, freeflying trip through orbit that travelled even higher than the ISS.

During their eight-day stay on the space station, the AX-1 crew will conduct some science experiments, break bread with the professional astronauts already on board the football-field sized space station, and enjoy sweeping views of our home planet whisking by down below.

WHO’S ON THIS MISSION?

Lopez-Alegría, 63, took of four trips to space between 1995 and 2007 during his time with NASA. He left the space agency in 2012, and he joined Axiom a few years later with the aim of going back to space — but as a private astronaut rather than an official member of the corps.

Axiom serves as an intermediary between paying customers who want to take a multimillion-dollar thrill ride to space, booking flights with SpaceX, handling negotiations with NASA, and taking over the training for the would-be space travellers. Axiom hopes to make these flights a regular occurrence, as NASA agreed a few years ago to open up the ISS to space tourism and other commercial ventures.

It’s not clear how much these trips cost the customer. Though previously disclosed prices indicated a trip to the ISS is US$55 million per seat, Axiom declined to confirm that figure this week. (“Axiom Space does not disclose financial terms,” Axiom spokesperson Bettina Inclan told CNN Buisness via email.)

There are three paying customers on this flight. They are all wealthy white men, continuing a trend plaguing the commercial spaceflight sector and its inaccessibility to more diverse swaths of the population. The vast majority of people who have thus far been able to afford to pay their way to space — whether on SpaceX flights or suborbital missions like those offered by Blue Origin — have been white businessmen. It’s indicative of just how far the reality is from the promised far-off space dream that comes from entrepreneurs who claim that space is “for everyone” and commercializing space will “democratize it” amid ballooning income inequality. With price points this exuberant, space will remain commercially accessible only to the elite few for the foreseeable future. Though the aim is to eventually drastically reduce the cost of getting to space, hopefully making ticket prices affordable for more people, it’s not clear how or when that will happen.

REAL ESTATE TYCOON LARRY CONNOR

Larry Connor, 72, is a real estate tycoon from Dayton, Ohio. He founded The Connor Group, which has developments in 16 markets across the country and has more than $3.5 billion in assets, according to the company’s website. He’s an avid adventurer, having raced cars and climbed mountains.

He also has experience as a private pilot and has participated in aerobatic competitions, and he’ll be the designated pilot for this mission. (It should be noted SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is fully autonomous, though spaceflight pilots train to be prepared to take over is something goes awry.)

“My journey really started seven or eight years ago. I’ve always been interested in space, and I started thinking about after I read about an American who went to Russia and went on the Soyuz [spacecraft],” he said in an interview with the Dayton Society of Natural History last year, after his plans to fly on AX-1 were revealed.

Connor was likely referring to one of the US citizens who booked a flight to the ISS through Space Adventures, a company that has booked seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft for tourists going back to the early 2000s. Those flight have always been coordinated with the Russian space agency and included official Russian astronauts. The AX-1 mission will be the first to include a crew made up entirely of private astronauts.

Connor said he decided to book the mission for “the challenge.”

“We are going to truly train to the professional astronaut standards,” he said.

FORMER SHIPPING CEO MARK PATHY

Mark Pathy, 52, is the founder and CEO of the Canadian investment firm and family office Mavrik Corp. It’s website states that Mavrik has a “particular focus on innovation, entrepreneurship, and responsible investing,” though not many of its investing decisions are public.

CB Insights, which tracks private investments, lists only one known investment. It backed a Canadian startup called Ferme d’hiver, which says it “offers AI-powered agricultural automation tools.”

Pathy is also the former CEO of a shipping company, Fednav, which is a Pathy family business.

Of the AX-1 mission, Pathy told CTV News: “It is a lot of money. I feel very fortunate to be able to afford this kind of trip. Obviously not many people can. But at the same time I don’t have to, fortunately, choose between doing something like this or being active philanthropically.”

He added that it’s “been a dream since I was a little kid and watched Captain Kirk bouncing around the universe in the Enterprise” to go to space.

EYTAN STIBBE

Eytan Stibbe, 64, is an Israeli businessman.

According to his Axiom bio, Stibbe, a former fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, founded Vital Capital a decade ago. Its website states the company invests in companies involved in sectors like food and healthcare across developing areas, notably across Africa, for “high-return opportunities.”

​Axiom says that Stibbe’s journey is happening “in collaboration” with the Ramon Foundation, a space education non-profit named for Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. ​Stibbe’s Axiom bio also says he and Ramon shared a “close” friendship. Stibbe will be only the second Israeli to go to space.

He announced his decision to join the AX-1 crew at ​a ceremony at the Israeli President’s Residence in 2020, and it was met with criticism from Israeli press, which pointed to alleged dealings in Stibbe’s past, particularly related to accusations of trafficking military equipment ​during his time with LR Group, an investment and development group and which he left in 2011, according to a representative for Stibbe.

Specifically, reports allege that Stibbe was involved in the sale of military aircraft in Angola, which was embroiled in a brutal civil war from the 1970s through 2002.

The allegations trace back to reporting from Israeli news site Haaretz.

In a television interview from 2012, which was conducted in Hebrew and translated by Israeli news outlets and CNN Business, Stibbe also appeared to confirm his involvement.

“We helped Angola end the war by bringing them interceptor aircraft, two Su-27 fighter planes, from Uzbekistan,” he said. “Their presence in the country stopped the flights that were supplying weapons, food and ammunition and the export of illegal diamonds from Angola. After one, or one and a half years, the war ended.”

A statement shared with CNN Business on behalf of Stibbe states that, “LR Group’s business in Angola dealt almost exclusively with agricultural infrastructure, vocational training, water, airports, and telecommunications.”

It adds that LR Group “received a request from the [US-backed Angolan] government to help upgrade its airspace infrastructure to ICAO international standards,” and that the aircraft sales were made “with export licenses and were completely legal.”

“In addition, the aircraft and air-control radars were used for deterrence purposes only,” the statement reads.

LR Group responded in a statement to CNN Business, saying “LR Group has been involved in the fields of health, telecommunications, food, agriculture, renewable energy and water, with the aim of developing the independence and economic and social well-being of local populations around the world.”

“During the time when Stibbe was a partner in the company, he was serving as the partner responsible for the operation and financing of the company’s business activity in Angola,” the statement reads. “After he separated from the company, he bought in 2012 the activity in Angola, and continued operating there.”

LR Group is currently involved in a legal dispute pertaining to allegations against Stibbe dating to when he was a partner at the company.

Stibbe’s representatives declined to comment on the legal battle.

As for his decision to go to space, Stibbe said “as a kid on dark nights I used to watch the stars and wait patiently to see a shooting star, and I asked myself, What is there beyond what the eyes see?” he said in comments translated by i24NEWS.

With his launch slated for this week, Stibbe will soon find out.

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NASA Moves Forward With Next-Gen Solar Sail Project – ExtremeTech

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Getting from point A to point B in the solar system is no simple feat, and inefficient, heavy rockets aren’t always the best way. Therefore, NASA has announced it is moving ahead with a new solar sail concept that could make future spacecraft more efficient and maneuverable. The Diffractive Solar Sailing project is now entering phase III development under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which could eventually lead to probes that use solar radiation to coast over the sun’s polar regions. 

The concept of solar sails is an old one — they were first proposed in the 1980s. The gist is that you equip a vessel with a lightweight sail that translates the pressure from solar radiation into propulsion. The problem is that a solar sail has to be much larger than the spacecraft it’s dragging along. Even a low-thrust solar sail would need to be almost a square kilometer, and you need to keep it intact over the course of a mission. Plus, you have little choice but to fly in the direction of sunlight, so you have to make tradeoffs for either power or navigation. Futuristic diffractive light sails could address these shortcomings. 

This work is being undertaken at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory under the leadership of Amber Dubill and co-investigator Grover Swartzlander. The project progressed through phase I and II trials, which had the team developing concept and feasibility studies on diffractive light sails. The phase III award ensures $2 million in funding over the next two years to design and test the materials that could make diffractive light propulsion a reality. 

A standard lightsail developed by the Planetary Society in 2019.

A diffractive light sail, as the name implies, takes advantage of a property of light known as diffraction. When light passes through a small opening, it spreads out on the other side. This could be used to make a light sail more maneuverable so it doesn’t need to go wherever the solar winds blow. 

The team will design its prototypes with several possible mission applications in mind. This technology most likely won’t have an impact on missions to the outer solar system where sunlight is weaker and the monumental distances require faster modes of transportation. However, heliophysics is a great use case for diffractive lightsailing as it would allow visiting the polar regions of the sun, which are difficult to access with current technology.

A lightsail with the ability to essentially redirect thrust from a continuous stream of sunlight would be able to enter orbit over the poles. It may even be possible to maneuver a constellation of satellites into this difficult orbit to study the sun from a new angle. In a few years, NASA may be able to conduct a demonstration mission. Until then, it’s all theoretical.

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Tau Herculid meteor shower will happen Monday night, Tuesday morning – USA TODAY

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461 new objects discovered at the edge of our solar system

It increases our knowledge of what’s floating in the Kuiper Belt by a significant margin.

Buzz60, Buzz60

  • The meteor shower, known as the tau Herculids, could be spectacular, or it could be a total dud.
  • If it does reach thousands of meteors per hour, it would be a “meteor storm.”
  • Maximum activity is expected around 1 a.m. EDT Tuesday morning, May 31.

Sky watchers could be in for a memorable spectacle Monday night and early Tuesday morning as the Earth passes through debris from a disintegrating comet, leading to a potential meteor shower with thousands of shooting stars per hour. 

The meteor shower, known as the tau Herculids, could be spectacular, or it could be a total dud, astronomers said.  

“This is going to be an all or nothing event,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke said in a statement. If it does reach thousands of meteors per hour, it would be a “meteor storm,” as opposed to a shower.

There is “a small chance of something extraordinary – perhaps one of the most dramatic meteor displays since the spectacular Leonid meteor showers of more than 20 years ago,” said Joe Rao of Space.com

Maximum activity is expected around 1 a.m. EDT Tuesday, the Space Weather Archive blog said. 

The comet is known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3), named after the two German astronomers who discovered it in 1930. The comet is breaking into dozens of pieces as it orbits the sun, which it does every 5.4 years, NASA said. 

EYE TO THE SKY: How to watch every meteor shower in 2022

In all, SW 3 has broken into more than 68 fragments. At its most recent appearance in March 2017, it showed signs that it sheds pieces in each return through the inner solar system, Rao said. 

If it makes it to us this year, the debris from the comet will strike Earth’s atmosphere at 10 miles per second, which is on the slow side for a good meteor shower. 

Stargazers will pay attention this year because meteors should be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time, NASA said. The higher the radiant point is in the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see.

Even better, the moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.

For ideal viewing of this or any meteor shower, find a spot away from city lights. Your eyes will need to adjust to the darkness, which could take 15 to 20 minutes. Watching meteor showers can take time, so be patient, experts advise. It could be worth the wait!

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Toward customizable timber, grown in a lab – EurekAlert

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image: In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at MIT have pioneered a tunable technique to generate wood-like plant material in a lab.
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Credit: Image courtesy of Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, Ashley Beckwith, et al

Each year, the world loses about 10 million hectares of forest — an area about the size of Iceland — because of deforestation. At that rate, some scientists predict the world’s forests could disappear in 100 to 200 years.

In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at MIT have pioneered a tunable technique to generate wood-like plant material in a lab, which could enable someone to “grow” a wooden product like a table without needing to cut down trees, process lumber, etc.

These researchers have now demonstrated that, by adjusting certain chemicals used during the growth process, they can precisely control the physical and mechanical properties of the resulting plant material, such as its stiffness and density.

They also show that, using 3D bioprinting techniques, they can grow plant material in shapes, sizes, and forms that are not found in nature and that can’t be easily produced using traditional agricultural methods.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” says lead author Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate.

Though still in its early days, this research demonstrates that lab-grown plant materials can be tuned to have specific characteristics, which could someday enable researchers to grow wood products with the exact features needed for a particular application, like high strength to support the walls of a house or certain thermal properties to more efficiently heat a room, explains senior author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories.

Joining Beckwith and Velásquez-García on the paper is Jeffrey Borenstein, a biomedical engineer and group leader at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. The research is published today in Materials Today.

Planting cells

To begin the process of growing plant material in the lab, the researchers first isolate cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. The cells are cultured in liquid medium for two days, then transferred to a gel-based medium, which contains nutrients and two different hormones.

Adjusting the hormone levels at this stage in the process enables researchers to tune the physical and mechanical properties of the plant cells that grow in that nutrient-rich broth.

“In the human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits emerge. In the same way, by changing the hormone concentrations in the nutrient broth, the plant cells respond differently. Just by manipulating these tiny chemical quantities, we can elicit pretty dramatic changes in terms of the physical outcomes,” Beckwith says.

In a way, these growing plant cells behave almost like stem cells — researchers can give them cues to tell them what to become, Velásquez-García adds.

They use a 3D printer to extrude the cell culture gel solution into a specific structure in a petri dish, and let it incubate in the dark for three months. Even with this incubation period, the researchers’ process is about two orders of magnitude faster than the time it takes for a tree to grow to maturity, Velásquez-García says.

Following incubation, the resulting cell-based material is dehydrated, and then the researchers evaluate its properties.

Wood-like characteristics

They found that lower hormone levels yielded plant materials with more rounded, open cells that have lower density, while higher hormone levels led to the growth of plant materials with smaller, denser cell structures. Higher hormone levels also yielded plant material that was stiffer; the researchers were able to grow plant material with a storage modulus (stiffness) similar to that of some natural woods.

Another goal of this work is to study what is known as lignification in these lab-grown plant materials. Lignin is a polymer that is deposited in the cell walls of plants which makes them rigid and woody. They found that higher hormone levels in the growth medium causes more lignification, which would lead to plant material with more wood-like properties.

The researchers also demonstrated that, using a 3D bioprinting process, the plant material can be grown in a custom shape and size. Rather than using a mold, the process involves the use of a customizable computer-aided design file that is fed to a 3D bioprinter, which deposits the cell gel culture into a specific shape. For instance, they were able to grow plant material in the shape of a tiny evergreen tree.

Research of this kind is relatively new, Borenstein says.

“This work demonstrates the power that a technology at the interface between engineering and biology can bring to bear on an environmental challenge, leveraging advances originally developed for health care applications,” he adds.

The researchers also show that the cell cultures can survive and continue to grow for months after printing, and that using a thicker gel to produce thicker plant material structures does not impact the survival rate of the lab-grown cells.

“Amenable to customization”

“I think the real opportunity here is to be optimal with what you use and how you use it. If you want to create an object that is going to serve some purpose, there are mechanical expectations to consider. This process is really amenable to customization,” Velásquez-García says.

Now that they have demonstrated the effective tunability of this technique, the researchers want to continue experimenting so they can better understand and control cellular development. They also want to explore how other chemical and genetic factors can direct the growth of the cells.

They hope to evaluate how their method could be transferred to a new species. Zinnia plants don’t produce wood, but if this method were used to make a commercially important tree species, like pine, the process would need to be tailored to that species, Velásquez-García says.  

Ultimately, he is hopeful this work can help to motivate other groups to dive into this area of research to help reduce deforestation.

“Trees and forests are an amazing tool for helping us manage climate change, so being as strategic as we can with these resources will be a societal necessity going forward,” Beckwith adds.

This research is funded, in part, by the Draper Scholars Program.

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Written by Adam Zewe, MIT News Office

Additional background

Paper: “Physical, mechanical, and microstructural characterization of novel, 3D-printable, tunable, lab-grown plant materials generated from Zinnia elegans cell cultures”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369702122000451


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