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A new space race? China adds urgency to US return to moon

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By: Associated Press, Washington | September 15, 2022

It’s not just rocket fuel propelling America’s first moonshot after a half-century lull. Rivalry with China’s flourishing space program is helping drive NASA’s effort to get back into space in a bigger way, as both nations push to put people back on the moon and establish the first lunar bases.

American intelligence, military and political leaders make clear they see a host of strategic challenges to the U.S. in China’s space program, in an echo of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that prompted the 1960s’ race to the moon. That’s as China is quickly matching U.S. civil and military space accomplishments and notching new ones of its own. On the military side, the U.S. and China trade accusations of weaponizing space.

Senior U.S. defense officials warn that China and Russia are building capabilities to take out the satellite systems that underpin U.S. intelligence, military communications and early warning networks. There’s also a civilian side to the space race. The U.S. is wary of China taking the lead in space exploration and commercial exploitation, and pioneering the technological and scientific advances that would put China ahead in power in space and in prestige down on Earth.

“In a decade, the United States has gone from the unquestioned leader in space to merely one of two peers in a competition,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, declared this week at a Senate Armed Services hearing. “Everything our military does relies on space.”At another hearing last year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson brandished an image transmitted by a Chinese rover that had just plunked down on Mars. “The Chinese government … they’re going to be landing humans on the moon” soon, he said. “That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff.”

NASA, the U.S. civilian space agency, is awaiting a new launch date this month or in October for its Artemis 1 uncrewed test moonshot. Technical problems scrubbed the first two launch attempts in recent weeks.China likewise aims to send astronauts to the moon this decade, as well as establish a robotic research station there. Both the U.S. and China intend to establish bases for intermittent crews on the moon’s south pole after that. Russia has aligned with China’s moon program, while 21 nations have joined a U.S.-initiated effort meant to bring guidelines and order to the civil exploration and development of space.

The parallel efforts come 50 years after U.S. astronauts last pulled shut the doors on an Apollo module and blasted away from the moon, in December 1972. Some space policy experts bat down talk of a new space race, seeing big differences from John F. Kennedy’s Cold War drive to outdo the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and be the first to get people on the moon. This time, both the U.S. and China see moon programs as a stepping stone in phased programs toward exploring, settling and potentially exploiting the resources and other untapped economic and strategic opportunities offered by the moon, Mars and space at large.

Beyond the gains in technology, science and jobs that accompany space programs, Artemis promoters point to the potential of mining minerals and frozen water on the moon, or using the moon as a base to go prospecting on asteroids — the Trump administration in particular emphasized the mining prospects. There’s potential in tourism and other commercial efforts. And for space more broadly, Americans alone have tens of thousands of satellites overhead in what the Space Force says is a half-trillion dollar global space economy.

Satellites guide GPS, process credit card purchases, help keep TV, radio and cell phone feeds going, and predict weather. They ensure the military and intelligence community’s ability to keep track of perceived threats. And in a world where China and Russia are collaborating to try to surpass the U.S. in space, and where some point to private space efforts led by U.S. billionaires as rendering costly NASA rocket launches unnecessary, the U.S. would regret leaving the glory and strategic advantages from developing the moon and space solely to the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tesla magnate Elon Musk, Artemis proponents say.

The moon programs signal that “space is going to be an arena of competition on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and know-how, and then also on the military front as well,” said Aaron Bateman, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and a member of the Space Policy Institute.“People who are supportive of Artemis and people who see it as a tool of competition, they want the United States to be at the table in shaping the future of exploration on other celestial bodies,” Bateman said.

There’s no shortage of such warnings as the Artemis program moves toward lift-off. “Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” the U.S. intelligence community warned this year in its annual threat assessment.

A Pentagon-commissioned study group contended last month that “China appears to be on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.” It called that part of a Chinese plan to promote authoritarianism and communism down here on Earth. It’s sparked occasional heated words between Chinese and U.S. officials. China’s space program was guided by peaceable principles, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July. “Some U.S. officials are constantly smearing China’s normal and reasonable outer space undertakings,” Zhao said.

Flying on the mightiest rocket ever built by NASA, Artemis 1 aims for a five-week demo flight that would put test dummies into lunar orbit. If all goes well with that, U.S. astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land on it in 2025, culminating a program that will have cost $93 billion over more than a decade of work. NASA intends that a woman and a person of color will be on the first U.S. crew touching foot on the moon again.

Lessons learned in getting back to the moon will aid in the next step in crewed flights, to Mars, the space agency says. China’s ambitious space program, meanwhile, is a generation behind that of the United States. But its secretive, military-linked program is developing fast and creating distinctive missions that could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight. Already, China has that rover on Mars, joining a U.S. one already there.

China carved out a first with its landing on the far side of the moon. Chinese astronauts are overhead now, putting the finishing touches on a permanent orbiting space station. A 1967 U.N. space treaty meant to start shaping the guardrails for space exploration bans anyone from claiming sovereignty over a celestial body, putting a military base on it, or putting weapons of mass destruction into space.“I don’t think it’s at all by coincidence or happenstance that it is now in this period of what people are claiming is renewed great-power competition that the United States is actually investing the resources to go back,” said Bateman, the scholar on space and national security.

“Time will tell if this turns into a sustained program.”Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Does rivalry with the Chinese “ensure greater sustained interest in our space program? Sure,” Coons said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a competition that leads to conflict.“I think it can be a competition — like the Olympics — that simply means that each team and each side is going to push higher and faster. And as a result, humanity is likely to benefit,” he said.

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Neuralink Expected to Begin Human Clinical Trials in Six Months, Elon Musk Says

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By Reuters | Updated: 1 December 2022

Elon Musk said on Wednesday a wireless device developed by his brain chip company Neuralink is expected to begin human clinical trials in six months.

The company is developing brain chip interfaces that it says could enable disabled patients to move and communicate again. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas, Neuralink has in recent years been conducting tests on animals as it seeks US regulatory approval to begin clinical trials in people.

“We want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device into a human but we’ve submitted I think most of our paperwork to the FDA and probably in about six months we should be able to upload Neuralink in a human,” Musk said during a much-awaited public update on the device.

The event was originally planned for October 31 but Musk postponed it just days before without giving a reason.

Neuralink’s last public presentation, more than a year ago, involved a monkey with a brain chip that played a computer game by thinking alone.

Musk is known for lofty goals such as colonizing Mars and saving humanity. His ambitions for Neuralink, which he launched in 2016, are of the same grand scale. He wants to develop a chip that would allow the brain to control complex electronic devices and eventually allow people with paralysis to regain motor function and treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s. He also talks about melding the brain with artificial intelligence.

Neuralink, however, is running behind schedule. Musk said in a 2019 presentation he was aiming to receive regulatory approval by the end of 2020. He then said at a conference in late 2021 that he hoped to start human trials this year.

Neuralink has repeatedly missed internal deadlines to gain US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to start human trials, current and former employees have said. Musk approached competitor Synchron earlier this year about a potential investment after he expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress, Reuters reported in August.

Synchron crossed a major milestone in July by implanting its device in a patient in the United States for the first time. It received US regulatory clearance for human trials in 2021 and has completed studies in four people in Australia.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Enters Lunar Orbit a Week After Artemis I Launch

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 26 November 2022

NASA’s Orion spacecraft was placed in lunar orbit Friday, officials said, as the much-delayed Moon mission proceeded successfully.

A little over a week after the spacecraft blasted off from Florida bound for the Moon, flight controllers “successfully performed a burn to insert Orion into a distant retrograde orbit,” the US space agency said on its website.

The spacecraft is to take astronauts to the Moon in the coming years — the first to set foot on its surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

This first test flight, without a crew on board, aims to ensure that the vehicle is safe.

“The orbit is distant in that Orion will fly about 40,000 miles above the Moon,” NASA said.

While in lunar orbit, flight controllers will monitor key systems and perform checkouts while in the environment of deep space, the agency said.

It will take Orion about a week to complete half an orbit around the Moon. It will then exit the orbit for the return journey home, according to NASA.

On Saturday, the ship is expected to go up to 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, a record for a habitable capsule. The current record is held by the Apollo 13 spacecraft at 248,655 miles (400,171 km) from Earth.

It will then begin the journey back to Earth, with a landing in the Pacific Ocean scheduled for December 11, after just over 25 days of flight.

The success of this mission will determine the future of the Artemis 2 mission, which will take astronauts around the Moon without landing, then Artemis 3, which will finally mark the return of humans to the lunar surface.

Those missions are scheduled to take place in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

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ISRO’s RH200 Sounding Rocket Registers 200th Consecutive Successful Launch

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 24 November 2022

ISRO on Wednesday announced that RH200, the versatile sounding rocket of the Indian space agency, has registered its 200th consecutive successful launch from the shores of Thumba, Thiruvananthapuram. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has termed it a “historic moment”. It was witnessed by former President Ram Nath Kovind and ISRO chairman S Somanath, among others.

The successful flight of RH200 took off from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS).

“Indian sounding rockets are used as privileged tools for the scientific community for carrying out experiments on meteorology, astronomy and similar branches of space physics,” an ISRO statement said.

Campaigns such as Equatorial ElectroJet (EEJ), Leonid Meteor Shower (LMS), Indian Middle Atmosphere Programme (IMAP), Monsoon Experiment (MONEX), Middle Atmosphere Dynamics (MIDAS), and Sooryagrahan-2010 have been conducted using the sounding rocket platform for scientific exploration of the Earth’s atmosphere, it said.

The Rohini Sounding Rocket (RSR) series have been the forerunners for ISRO’s heavier and more complex launch vehicles, with a continued usage even today for atmospheric and meteorological studies, the national space agency headquartered here said.

“The 200th consecutive successful flight stands testimony to the commitment of Indian rocket scientists towards unmatched reliability demonstrated over the years,” it said.

Meanwhile, ISRO is all set to launch PSLV-C54/ EOS-06 mission with Oceansat-3 and eight nano satellites, including one from Bhutan, from the Sriharikota spaceport on November 26. The launch is scheduled at 11.56am on Saturday, the national space agency said on Sunday.

Last week, ISRO announced that the payload capability of India’s heaviest LVM3 rocket has been enhanced by up to 450kg with a successful engine test. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the CE20 cryogenic engine indigenously developed for Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) was subjected to a successful hot test at an uprated thrust level of 21.8 tonnes for the first time on November 9, according to the country’s national space agency.

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G20 Summit: India Plans Science-20 Meet for Member Nations, Side Events in July 2023

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 21 November 2022

India will host a meeting of science ministers from G-20 member nations at Coimbatore in July next year during its presidency of the grouping of the world’s 20 major developed and emerging economies. Besides the Science-20 Summit with the theme ‘Disruptive Science for Innovative and Sustainable Growth’, the science administrators will also host the “Research Innovation Initiated Gathering (RIIG) on the theme Research and Innovation for Equitable Society.

Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh on Saturday chaired a meeting of six science ministries and departments to review the preparations for the S-20 summit.

A number of side events related to the Science-20 and RIIG meetings have been planned across the country to showcase India’s rich cultural heritage and diversity, an official statement said.

The Science-20 Secretariat will be chaired by Vijay P Bhatkar, the architect of the PARAM series of supercomputers with Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India Prof Ajay K Sood and noted structural chemist Gautam Desiraju as eminent members of the Secretariat.

The inception meeting for the S-20 meeting will be held on January 30-31 in Puducherry, while the side event on ‘non-conventional energy for a greener future’ will be held on Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep on February 27-28.

The side events on ‘Connecting Science to Society’ and ‘Culture and Holistic Health: Cure and Prevention of Disease’ will be held at Agartala (April 3-4) and Indore (June 16-17) respectively.

The sub-themes for RIIG gathering will be Materials for Sustainable Energy (CSIR), Scientific Challenges and Opportunities towards Achieving a Sustainable Blue Economy (Ministry of Earth Sciences), Bio-resource/ Biodiversity and Bio-economy (Department of Biotechnology) and Eco-Innovations for Energy Transition (SERB).

The inception meeting for RIIG will be held in Kolkata on February 9-10 with side events in Ranchi (March 21-22),: Dibrugarh & Itanagar (March 24-25), Shimla (April 19-20), and Diu (May 18-19).

The RIIG Summit and Research Ministers meeting will be held in Mumbai from July 4 to Juy 6 July.

Singh said the expected deliverables of the S-20 and RIIG will be creation of better and encouraging frameworks for environmentally responsible technologies and assertion of IP sharing and technology transfers, creation of a global ecosystem for start-up mentorship and funding.

The themes for the two science events will also cover encouragement of more mega science projects, creation of framework for global holistic health program and mental health program, creating common cultural dialogue for science through more engagement programs and interdisciplinary partnerships, creation of a common digital global heritage that is accessible for all citizens, the statement said.

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Vikram-S, India’s First Private Rocket, Successfully Launched Into Space by Skyroot Aerospace

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By Agencies | Updated: 18 November 2022

India launched its first privately developed rocket, the Vikram-S, on Friday, a milestone in the country’s effort to create a commercial space industry. The 545-kg rocket developed by space startup Skyroot took off from the Indian space agency’s launch site near Chennai. The rocket has the capability of reaching Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound – and carrying a payload of 83 kg. Video footage showed the rocket taking off from the space centre, leaving a plume of smoke and fire in its trail.

Hyderabad-based Skyroot, founded in 2018 and backed by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, was the first space startup to sign an agreement to use Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launch and test facilities after the government opened the door to private companies in 2020.

It has raised Rs. 530 crore so far and employs about 200 people. Close to 100 people have been involved in its maiden launch project, the company said.

The rocket is expected to reach an altitude of about 81 kilometres before splashing down in about 5 minutes.

With the launch of Vikram-S, Skyroot has become the first private space company in India to launch a rocket into space, heralding a new era for the space sector which was opened up in 2020 to facilitate private sector participation.

Skyroot’s launch vehicles are named ‘Vikram’ as a tribute to the founder of the Indian space programme and renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai. The startup was the first to sign a memorandum of understanding with ISRO for launching its rockets. It aims to disrupt entry barriers to cost-efficient satellite launch services and space-flight by advancing its mission to make spaceflights affordable, reliable and regular for all, the statement said.

“The maiden launch by a new Startup has significantly enhanced the credibility for Indian private space players around the globe. The capability that the sector has been claiming has been demonstrated in Space. Since its inception in 2018, Skyroot has come a long way in delivering its expertise in manufacturing of small lift launch vehicles by launching India’s first private rocket which was manufactured in just two years. The Vikram-S rocket’s success will further validate most of the technologies in the ‘Vikram’ series of space launch vehicles planned by Skyroot for the coming years. India’s space economy is set to grow to $13 billion (roughly Rs.1,06,222 crore) and the space launch segment is estimated to grow the fastest by 2025 at a CAGR of 13 percent which will be further spurred by growing private participation, latest technology adoption and low cost of launch services and this launch is a major landmark for this growth to take place in the coming years”, Lt. Gen. AK Bhatt, director general, Indian Space Association said in a prepared statement.

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SpaceX Employees Fired for Criticising Elon Musk Accuse Firm of Violating US Labour Law

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By Associated Press | Updated: 18 November 2022

Several SpaceX employees who were fired after circulating an open letter calling out CEO Elon Musk’s behaviour have filed a complaint accusing the company of violating labour laws.

The complaint, made Wednesday to the National Labor Relations Board, details the aftermath of what allegedly happened inside SpaceX after employees circulated the letter in June, which, among other things, called on executives to condemn Musk’s public behaviour on Twitter — including making light of allegations he sexually harassed a flight attendant — and hold everyone accountable for unacceptable conduct.

The letter was sent weeks after a media report surfaced that Musk paid $250,000 (roughly Rs. 2,04,27,920) to the flight attendant to quash a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire has denied the allegations.

Employees in their letter urged SpaceX to uniformly enforce its policy against unacceptable behaviour and commit to a transparent process for responses to claims of misconduct. A day later, Paige Holland-Thielen and four other employees who participated in organizing the letter were fired, according to the filing, which was made by Holland-Thielen to a regional NLRB office in California. Four additional employees were fired weeks later for their involvement in the letter.

A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk, who is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and is currently running Twitter, prefers to do things his own way even if that means running afoul of rules and regulations. He’s currently in a defiant fight with Civil Rights department, a California regulator that is suing Tesla for rampant racial discrimination.

Some view Musk’s management style as autocratic and demanding, as evidenced by a recent email he sent to Twitter staff giving them until Thursday evening to decide whether they want to remain a part of the business. Musk wrote that employees “will need to be extremely hardcore” to build “a breakthrough Twitter 2.0″ and that long hours at high intensity will be needed for success.

A number of engineers also said on Twitter they were fired last week after saying something critical of Musk, either publicly on Twitter or on an internal messaging board for Twitter employees.

In a statement, Holland-Thielen said as a woman engineer at SpaceX, she experienced “deep cultural problems” and comforted colleagues who had experienced similar issues.

“It was clear that this culture was created from the top level,” she said.

Still, she said part of what she liked about the company was that any person could escalate issues to leadership and be taken seriously.

“We drafted the letter to communicate to the executive staff on their terms and show how their lack of action created tangible barriers to the long term success of the mission,” Holland-Thielen said. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us for trying to help the company succeed.”

The firings coincide with Musk’s $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3,37,465 crore) buyout of Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sexual term to make fun of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ belly and also posted a poop emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.

After terminating the first set of employees, SpaceX allegedly interrogated dozens of others over the next two months in private meetings, telling them they couldn’t disclose those conversations to anyone else due to attorney-client privilege, according to the complaint. Four additional employees who helped draft or share the letter were fired in July and August, the filing said, adding up to nine terminations in total.

“Management used this ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment, harassment, and abuse reported by my colleagues, much of which was directly encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of the CEO,” said Tom Moline, who was also fired from SpaceX after organizing the letter.

Jeffery Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behaviour at Stanford University’s business school, said that the allegations were hardly a surprise given Musk’s leadership style at Twitter. Musk’s success at companies like Tesla and SpaceX have created what he labeled as hubris under the false notion that it was “all about individual genius.”

“Powerful people get to break the rules. They don’t think they are bound by the same conventions as other people,” Pfeffer said, criticizing Musk’s behavior. He said it showed the arrogance of Musk, one of the world’s richest men: “Why would he think he is a mere mortal?”

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