Tag: featured

First Space Tourist Flights Could Come In 2019

The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.

– Moments of weightlessness –

Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.

Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.

The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.

At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.

– Virgin Galactic –

With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.

In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.

In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.

The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.

Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin told AFP.

– Blue Origin –

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.

On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.

From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.

Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.

Company officials were recently quoted as saying the first tests with Blue Origin astronauts would take place “at the end of this year,” with tickets for the public expected to go on sale in 2019.

But in comments to AFP Friday, the company struck a more cautious note.

“We have not set ticket pricing and have had no serious discussions inside of Blue on the topic,” the firm said. “We have a flight test schedule and schedules of those types always have uncertainties and contingencies. Anyone predicting dates is guessing.”

– What’s next? –

SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.

“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, told AFP.

Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.

U. S. F-22 Stealth Fighters Arrive In Korea

American F-22 stealth fighter jets have arrived in South Korea ahead of a joint air force drill, Seoul said Wednesday, despite a recent diplomatic thaw with Pyongyang.

The “Raptor” fighters previously flew to the South in December when Seoul and Washington staged their largest-ever joint air exercise, days after North Korea test-fired a missile believed capable of hitting the US mainland.

The North customarily reacts with anger to the deployment of American stealth fighters, which it fears could be used for surgical strikes against its leadership and strategic facilities.

The confirmation came after local newspapers said eight F-22 jets arrived Sunday at a military airbase in the southern city of Gwangju.

The “Max Thunder” drill will kick off on May 11 for a two-week run, with the reported participation of some 100 aircraft from both countries.

“Max Thunder is a regular exercise that has been on the docket long before a planned US-North Korea summit”, the South’s Defence Ministry said in a statement.

It urged news media to refrain from producing “speculative reports” about the intention of the deployment aside from the routine exercise.

That request came after the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily claimed the aircraft deployment was apparently aimed at heaping pressure on Pyongyang ahead of a planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

The Panmunjom truce village in the demilitarised zone between North and South, where a rare inter-Korean summit successfully convened last week, has emerged as a possible venue for the Kim-Trump meeting.

Chosun suggested the arrival of F-22 jets could also be aimed at bolstering security in case the North Korea-US summit takes place at Panmunjom.

Supreme Court Hears States Beg For Your Bucks

Online shoppers have gotten used to seeing that line on checkout screens before they click “purchase.” But a case before the Supreme Court could change that.

At issue is a rule stemming from two, decades-old Supreme Court cases: If a business is shipping to a state where it doesn’t have an office, warehouse or other physical presence, it doesn’t have to collect the state’s sales tax.

That means large retailers such as Apple, Macy’s, Target and Walmart, which have brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, generally collect sales tax from customers who buy from them online. But other online sellers, from 1-800 Contacts to home goods site Wayfair, can often sidestep charging the tax.

More than 40 states are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that rule in a case being argued Tuesday. They say they’re losing out on “billions of dollars in tax revenue each year, requiring cuts to critical government programs” and that their losses compound as online shopping grows. But small businesses that sell online say the complexity and expense of collecting taxes nationwide could drive them out of business.

Large retailers want all businesses to “be playing by the same set of rules,” said Deborah White, the president of the litigation arm of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents more than 70 of America’s largest retailers.

For years, the issue of whether out-of-state sellers should collect sales tax had to do mostly with one company: Amazon.com. The online giant is said to account for more than 40 percent of U.S. online retail sales. But as Amazon has grown, dotting the country with warehouses, it has had to charge sales tax in more and more places.

President Donald Trump has slammed the company, accusing it of paying “little or no taxes” to state and local governments. But since 2017, Amazon has been collecting sales tax in every state that charges it. Third-party sellers that use Amazon to sell products make their own tax collection decisions, however.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court could affect those third-party Amazon sellers and many other sellers that don’t collect taxes in all states — sellers such as jewelry website Blue Nile, pet products site Chewy.com, clothing retailer L.L. Bean, electronics retailer Newegg and internet retailer Overstock.com. Sellers on eBay and Etsy, which provide platforms for smaller sellers, also don’t collect sales tax nationwide.

States generally require consumers who weren’t charged sales tax on a purchase to pay it themselves, often through self-reporting on their income tax returns. But states have found that only about 1 percent to 2 percent actually pay.

States would capture more of that tax if out-of-state sellers had to collect it, and states say software has made sales tax collection simple.

Out-of-state sellers disagree, calling it costly and extraordinarily complex, with tax rates and rules that vary not only by state but also by city and county. For example, in Illinois, Snickers are taxed at a higher rate than Twix because foods containing flour don’t count as candy. Sellers say free or inexpensive software isn’t accurate, more sophisticated software is expensive and that collecting tax nationwide would also subject them to potentially costly audits.

“For small businesses on tight margins, these costs are going to be fatal in many cases,” said Andy Pincus, who filed a brief on behalf of eBay and small businesses that use its platform.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court involves South Dakota, which has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue. South Dakota’s governor has said the state loses out on an estimated $50 million a year in sales tax that doesn’t get collected by out-of-state sellers.

In 2016 the state passed a law requiring those sellers to collect taxes on sales into the state, a law challenging the Supreme Court precedents. The state, conceding it could win only if the Supreme Court reverses course, has lost in lower courts.

South Dakota says the high court’s previous decisions don’t reflect today’s world. The court first adopted its physical presence rule on sales tax collection in a 1967 case dealing with a catalog retailer. At the time, the court was concerned in part about the burden collecting sales tax would place on the catalog company. The court reaffirmed that ruling in 1992.

It’s unclear how the justices might align on the question this time. But three justices — Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy — have suggested a willingness to rethink those decisions. Kennedy has written that the 1992 case was “questionable even when decided” and “now harms states to a degree far greater than could have been anticipated earlier.”

“Although online businesses may not have a physical presence in some states, the Web has, in many ways, brought the average American closer to most major retailers,” he wrote in suggesting the days of inconsistent sales tax collection may be numbered. “A connection to a shopper’s favorite store is a click away regardless of how close or far the nearest storefront.”

SpaceX Set To Launch Planet Hunter TESS On Monday

With the crippled Kepler orbital equipment almost out of fuel, NASA is preparing the launch of its newest planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS.

TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will be carried into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on April 16. With a little help from the moon’s gravity, the satellite will achieve a high Earth orbit, offering the probe wide, unobstructed views of the night sky. The probe will orbit Earth twice for every one lunar orbit.

While TESS’s scientific mission is largely the same as Kepler’s — image transiting exoplanets — the probe will use a different approach. Whereas Kepler focused on small fields of view for long periods of time, TESS will take a wider, more comprehensive view.

“TESS is designed to image almost all of the night sky — using four wide angle cameras — in long vertical strips called sectors,” Natalia Guerrero, MIT scientist and researcher on the TESS mission, told UPI.

TESS scientists have divided the sky into long strips called sectors. Each hemisphere contains 13 sectors, and over the next three years, TESS will survey, sector by sector, the Southern Hemisphere and then the Northern Hemisphere.

During each sector scan, TESS’s four cameras will capture 30-minute exposures. The four images will be stacked on top of each other by the satellite’s computer and transmitted back to Earth.

In addition to organizing the sky into sectors, TESS scientists have identified 200,000 especially bright stars likely to host transiting exoplanets. Each stellar target is highlighted by a so-called postage stamp.

Exposures of each postage stamp will be stacked on top of each other every two minutes and beamed back to Earth. These postage stamp observations are expected to identify planetary systems located much closer to Earth than those found by Kepler.

Data captured by TESS will go through the same image-processing pipeline used for Kepler observations. Basic algorithms will process images and identify the dimming patterns created when exoplanets pass across the face of their host star.

Scientists will review the transit events identified via computer analysis and highlight targets for follow-up observations.

“From the depth of the transit and the frequency light curve, we can back out the size of the planet and distance from its host star,” Guerrero said.

But, like Kepler, TESS is designed to survey the sky, not carry out in-depth investigations. Scientists will rely on other telescopes, both ground and space-based, to observe transiting objects in greater detail. Through follow-up investigations, astronomers will be able to estimate an exoplanet’s mass and the composition of its atmosphere, as well as its habitability.

TESS scientists will focus much of their analysis on the two-minute cadence of images of postage stamped targets, but the satellite’s biggest surprises may be more likely to be revealed by the full frame images. In addition to capturing transits, the full-frame images will record observations of thousands of stars.

“The full frame images will serve as really rich repositories of data,” Guerrero said. “They will be made public and will be a wonderful opportunity for the astronomical community and really any interested parties.”

“We’re very excited about the citizen science efforts that will be inspired by these images,” Guerrero said.

Aussies Seek Information About Interstellar Visitor

A telescope in outback Western Australia has been used to listen to a mysterious cigar-shaped object that entered our solar system late last year.

The unusual object – known as ‘Oumuamua – came from another solar system, prompting speculation it could be an alien spacecraft. So astronomers went back through observations from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to check for radio transmissions coming from the object between the frequencies of 72 and 102 MHz – similar to the frequency range in which FM radio is broadcast.

While they did not find any signs of intelligent life, the research helped expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) from distant stars to objects closer to home.

When ‘Oumuamua was first discovered, astronomers thought it was a comet or an asteroid from within the solar system. But after studying its orbit and discovering its long, cylindrical shape, they realised ‘Oumuamua was neither and had come from interstellar space.

Telescopes around the world trained their gaze on the mysterious visitor in an effort to learn as much as possible before it headed back out of the solar system, becoming too faint to observe in detail.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the MWA team did not initially set out to find ‘Oumuamua.

“We didn’t set out to observe this object with the MWA but because we can see such a large fraction of the sky at once, when something like this happens, we’re able to go back through the data and analyse it after the fact,” Professor Tingay said.

“If advanced civilizations do exist elsewhere in our galaxy, we can speculate that they might develop the capability to launch spacecraft over interstellar distances and that these spacecraft may use radio waves to communicate. Whilst the possibility of this is extremely low, possibly even zero, as scientists it’s important that we avoid complacency and examine observations and evidence without bias.”

The MWA is located in Western Australia’s remote Murchison region, one of the most radio-quiet areas on the planet and far from human activity and radio interference caused by technology. It is made up of thousands of antennas attached to hundreds of “tiles” that dot the ancient landscape, relentlessly observing the heavens day after day, night after night.

Professor Tingay said the research team was able to look back through all of the MWA’s observations from November, December and early January, when ‘Oumuamua was between 95 million and 590 million kilometres from Earth.

“We found nothing, but as the first object of its class to be discovered, `Oumuamua has given us an interesting opportunity to expand the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence from traditional targets such as stars and galaxies to objects that are much closer to Earth. This also allows for searches for transmitters that are many orders of magnitude less powerful than those that would be detectable from a planet orbiting even the most nearby stars.”

‘Oumuamua was first discovered by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii in October. Its name loosely means “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian, and is the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system.

Combining observations from a host of telescopes, scientists have determined that ‘Oumuamua is most likely a cometary fragment that has lost much of its surface water because it was bombarded by cosmic rays on its long journey through interstellar space.

Researchers have now suggested there could be more than 46 million similar interstellar objects crossing the solar system every year. While most of these objects are too far away to study with current technologies, future telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will enable scientists to understand more about these interstellar interlopers.

“So once the SKA is online,” said Professor Tingay, “we’ll be able to look at large numbers of objects and partially balance out the low probability of a positive detection.”