Virgin Galactic
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SPACE ROUNDUP: Virgin Galactic Unveils New Ship 16 Months After Crash

Feb. 22, 2016
NASA receives a record 18,300 applications from potential astronauts (though the acceptance rate is somewhere around 0.06%). ... Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, likely fractured by sub-surface ocean. ... Chinese space telescope seeks aliens, displaces humans.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, introduced a new commercial spaceship, more than a year after its predecessor crashed and killed one of its pilots.

It marked the beginning of a testing phase for the SpaceShipTwo, and the company underscored that commercial space flights would not be available until Virgin Galactic was satisfied it could carry them out safely.

“As we celebrate the end of one critical phase of work, we also mark the start of a new phase, one focused on further testing and, ultimately, the first commercial human spaceflight program in history,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

The new spaceship, which largely looks the same as its predecessor, was dubbed the “Unity,” a name chosen by renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Virgin Galaxy said in a tweet. The company’s goal is to take customers to the edge of space, more than 62 miles above Earth, and despite the hefty $250,000 price tag, more than 600 would-be astronauts have already signed up, including Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher.

However, the company’s efforts faced a major setback when the first version of the SpaceShipTwo disintegrated over California’s Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014, with investigators blaming premature brake deployment during the test flight. The pilot was injured but successfully deployed his parachute, while the co-pilot was killed. 

“It’s not an easy business. If it was an easy business we wouldn’t only have had 500 people having been to space since space travel started,” Branson told Sky News on Friday. “There’s a tremendous, exciting future but obviously it’s tough.”

NASA Receives Record Number of Astronaut Applications

The NASA mail room has been busy: the space agency has received a record 18,300 resumes from people keen on becoming astronauts, almost triple the amount that came in during the last recruitment call for the 2012 class and far above the previous record of 8,000, set in 1978.

“It’s not at all surprising to me that so many Americans from diverse backgrounds want to personally contribute to blazing the trail on our journey to Mars,” NASA administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden said in a statement.

But only a chosen few will actually see their galactic career goals realized. Over the course of the next year and a half, a selection board will whittle down the applications and invite only the most highly qualified candidates for interviews at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In the end, a mere eight to 14 lucky individuals will be asked to report for training. NASA expects to announce its new class in mid-2017.

Those who make it through will be given technical duties at Johnson’s Astronaut Office. They will then be assigned to the International Space Station, the Orion spacecraft for deep space exploration or one of two commercial crew spacecraft currently in development – SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.  

NASA: Pluto’s Largest Moon Likely Fractured by Sub-Surface Ocean

Images from the New Horizons space probe suggest that Pluto’s moon Charon once had a sub-surface ocean that has since frozen and expanded, causing the surface to stretch and fracture, NASA announced Friday.

Charon’s surface was photographed by the New Horizons’ Lorri (Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager) camera as the spacecraft flew past the moon in July 2015 at a distance of 48,900 miles. The detailed pictures show a system of “pull-apart” tectonic faults on the moon’s equator.

These faults and fractures run “at least 1,100 miles long and in places there are chasms 4.5 miles deep. By comparison, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and just over a mile deep,” NASA said. The chasms are the longest ever observed in the solar system.

Charon’s outer layer today is mainly water ice. But millions of years ago, when Charon was young, scientists believe that layer was kept warm “by heat provided by the decay of radioactive elements, as well as Charon’s own internal heat of formation.” The moon could have been warm enough to cause the water ice to melt deep down, creating a subsurface ocean. 

China’s Space Telescope to Displace Humans in Search for Aliens

BEIJING — China will move nearly 10,000 people to make way for the world’s largest radio telescope which promises to help humanity search for alien life, according to a state media report.

The 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), nestled between hills in the southwestern province of Guizhou, is due to start operation this year. Provincial officials have vowed to relocate 9,110 residents living within about three miles of the listening device by September, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Residents will receive 12,000 yuan (about $1,840) in subsidies for their troubles, with some getting extra support for housing, it said.

Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan ($184 million), will dwarf the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the world’s largest radio telescope, which is some 975 feet in diameter.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2016

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