By Reuters | Updated: 6 June 2022
Jeff Bezos’ space tourism venture Blue Origin completed its fifth crewed launch on Saturday after a New Shepard rocket’s back-up system that had not met expectations delayed the voyage last month.
Blue Origin’s fourth flight landed successfully in March in west Texas after taking six passengers for a 10-minute journey to the edge of space.
“It was an honor to fly this special crew of explorers and true pioneers today,” said Phil Joyce, senior vice president for New Shepard.
“Each mission is an opportunity to provide another six people the life-changing experience of witnessing the beauty and fragility of our planet from space.”
The company’s suborbital joyride lasts about 10 minutes from liftoff to touchdown and hits an altitude of about 350,000 feet (106km), treating passengers to a few moments of weightlessness before a descent back to Earth for a parachute landing.
It forms part on an ongoing effort by a handful of companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson-founded Virgin Galactic that are striving to make space travel a reality.
So far, Axiom, SpaceX and NASA have touted such missions as a milestone in the expansion of privately funded space-based commerce, constituting what industry insiders call the “low-Earth orbit economy,” or “LEO economy” for short.
The International Space Station (ISS) has hosted several wealthy space tourists over the years.
Analysts applauded Saturday’s latest series of ambitious rocket-powered expeditions bankrolled by private investment capital and wealthy passengers rather than taxpayer dollars six decades after the dawn of the space age.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Elon Musk’s Neuralink Faces US Federal Investigation, Internal Staff Backlash Over Animal Tests
By Reuters | Updated: 6 December 2022
Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a medical device company, is under federal investigation for potential animal-welfare violations amid internal staff complaints that its animal testing is being rushed, causing needless suffering and deaths, according to documents reviewed by Reuters and sources familiar with the investigation and company operations.
Neuralink is developing a brain implant it hopes will help paralysed people walk again and cure other neurological ailments. The federal probe, which has not been previously reported, was opened in recent months by the US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General at the request of a federal prosecutor, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation. The probe, one of the sources said, focuses on violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test some animals.
The investigation has come at a time of growing employee dissent about Neuralink’s animal testing, including complaints that pressure from CEO Musk to accelerate development has resulted in botched experiments, according to a Reuters review of dozens of Neuralink documents and interviews with more than 20 current and former employees. Such failed tests have had to be repeated, increasing the number of animals being tested and killed, the employees say. The company documents include previously unreported messages, audio recordings, emails, presentations and reports.
Musk and other Neuralink executives did not respond to requests for comment.
Reuters could not determine the full scope of the federal investigation or whether it involved the same alleged problems with animal testing identified by employees in Reuters interviews. A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment. US regulations don’t specify how many animals companies can use for research, and they give significant leeway to scientists to determine when and how to use animals in experiments. Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections of its facilities, regulatory filings show.
In all, the company has killed about 1,500 animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018, according to records reviewed by Reuters and sources with direct knowledge of the company’s animal-testing operations. The sources characterised that figure as a rough estimate because the company does not keep precise records on the number of animals tested and killed. Neuralink has also conducted research using rats and mice.
The total number of animal deaths does not necessarily indicate that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices. Many companies routinely use animals in experiments to advance human health care, and they face financial pressure to quickly bring products to market. The animals are typically killed when experiments are completed, often so they can be examined post-mortem for research purposes.
But current and former Neuralink employees say the number of animal deaths is higher than it needs to be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to speed research. Through company discussions and documents spanning several years, along with employee interviews, Reuters identified four experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that were marred in recent years by human errors. The mistakes weakened the experiments’ research value and required the tests to be repeated, leading to more animals being killed, three of the current and former staffers said. The three people attributed the mistakes to a lack of preparation by a testing staff working in a pressure-cooker environment.
One employee, in a message seen by Reuters, wrote an angry missive earlier this year to colleagues about the need to overhaul how the company organises animal surgeries to prevent “hack jobs.” The rushed schedule, the employee wrote, resulted in under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines and making last-minute changes before surgeries, raising risks to the animals.
Musk has pushed hard to accelerate Neuralink’s progress, which depends heavily on animal testing, current and former employees said. Earlier this year, the chief executive sent staffers a news article about Swiss researchers who developed an electrical implant that helped a paralyzed man to walk again. “We could enable people to use their hands and walk again in daily life!” he wrote to staff at 6:37 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 8. Ten minutes later, he followed up: “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”
On several occasions over the years, Musk has told employees to imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads in an effort to get them to move faster, according to three sources who repeatedly heard the comment. On one occasion a few years ago, Musk told employees he would trigger a “market failure” at Neuralink unless they made more progress, a comment perceived by some employees as a threat to shut down operations, according to a former staffer who heard his comment.
Five people who’ve worked on Neuralink’s animal experiments told Reuters they had raised concerns internally. They said they had advocated for a more traditional testing approach, in which researchers would test one element at a time in an animal study and draw relevant conclusions before moving on to more animal tests. Instead, these people said, Neuralink launches tests in quick succession before fixing issues in earlier tests or drawing complete conclusions. The result: More animals overall are tested and killed, in part because the approach leads to repeated tests.
One former employee who asked management several years ago for more deliberate testing was told by a senior executive it wasn’t possible given Musk’s demands for speed, the employee said. Two people told Reuters they left the company over concerns about animal research.
The problems with Neuralink’s testing have raised questions internally about the quality of the resulting data, three current or former employees said. Such problems could potentially delay the company’s bid to start human trials, which Musk has said the company wants to do within the next six months. They also add to a growing list of headaches for Musk, who is facing criticism of his management of Twitter, which he recently acquired for $44 billion. Musk also continues to run electric carmaker Tesla Inc and rocket company SpaceX.
The US Food and Drug Administration is in charge of reviewing the company’s applications for approval of its medical device and associated trials. The company’s treatment of animals during research, however, is regulated by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act. The FDA didn’t immediately comment.
Missed deadlines, botched experiments
Musk’s impatience with Neuralink has grown as the company, which launched in 2016, has missed his deadlines on several occasions to win regulatory approval to start clinical trials in humans, according to company documents and interviews with eight current and former employees.
Some Neuralink rivals are having more success. Synchron, which was launched in 2016 and is developing a different implant with less ambitious goals for medical advances, received FDA approval to start human trials in 2021. The company’s device has allowed paralyzed people to text and type by thinking alone. Synchron has also conducted tests on animals, but it has killed only about 80 sheep as part of its research, according to studies of the Synchron implant reviewed by Reuters. Musk approached Synchron about a potential investment, Reuters reported in August.
Synchron declined to comment.
In some ways, Neuralink treats animals quite well compared to other research facilities, employees said in interviews, echoing public statements by Musk and other executives. Company leaders have boasted internally of building a “Monkey Disneyland” in the company’s Austin, Texas facility where lab animals can roam, a former employee said. In the company’s early years, Musk told employees he wanted the monkeys at his San Francisco Bay Area operation to live in a “monkey Taj Mahal,” said a former employee who heard the comment. Another former employee recalled Musk saying he disliked using animals for research but wanted to make sure they were “the happiest animals” while alive.
The animals have fared less well, however, when used in the company’s research, current and former employees say.
The first complaints about the company’s testing involved its initial partnership with University of California, Davis, to conduct the experiments. In February, an animal rights group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a complaint with the USDA accusing the Neuralink-UC Davis project of botching surgeries that killed monkeys and publicly released its findings. The group alleged that surgeons used the wrong surgical glue twice, which led to two monkeys suffering and ultimately dying, while other monkeys had different complications from the implants.
The company has acknowledged it killed six monkeys, on the advice of USC Davis veterinary staff, because of health problems caused by experiments. It called the issue with the glue a “complication” from the use of an “FDA-approved product.” In response to a Reuters inquiry, a USC Davis spokesperson shared a previous public statement defending its research with Neuralink and saying it followed all laws and regulations.
A federal prosecutor in the Northern District of California referred the animal rights group’s complaint to the USDA Inspector General, which has since launched a formal probe, according to a source with direct knowledge of the investigation. USDA investigators then inquired about the allegations involving the UC Davis monkey research, according to two sources familiar with the matter and emails and messages reviewed by Reuters.
The probe is concerned with the testing and treatment of animals in Neuralink’s own facilities, one of the sources said, without elaborating. In 2020, Neuralink brought the program in-house, and has since built its extensive facilities in California and Texas.
A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of California declined to comment.
Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law and Policy Institute at the Vermont Law and Graduate School, said it is “very unusual” for the USDA inspector general to investigate animal research facilities. Winders, an animal-testing opponent who has criticised Neuralink, said the inspector general has primarily focused in recent years on dog fighting and cockfighting actions when applying the Animal Welfare Act.
It’s hard on the little piggies
The mistakes leading to unnecessary animal deaths included one instance in 2021, when 25 out of 60 pigs in a study had devices that were the wrong size implanted in their heads, an error that could have been avoided with more preparation, according to a person with knowledge of the situation and company documents and communications reviewed by Reuters.
The mistake raised alarms among Neuralink’s researchers. In May 2021, Viktor Kharazia, a scientist, wrote to colleagues that the mistake could be a “red flag” to FDA reviewers of the study, which the company planned to submit as part of its application to begin human trials. His colleagues agreed, and the experiment was repeated with 36 sheep, according to the person with knowledge of the situation. All the animals, both the pigs and the sheep, were killed after the procedures, the person said.
Kharazia did not comment in response to requests.
On another occasion, staff accidentally implanted Neuralink’s device on the wrong vertebra of two different pigs during two separate surgeries, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter and documents reviewed by Reuters. The incident frustrated several employees who said the mistakes – on two separate occasions – could have easily been avoided by carefully counting the vertebrae before inserting the device.
Company veterinarian Sam Baker advised his colleagues to immediately kill one of the pigs to end her suffering.
“Based on low chance of full recovery … and her current poor psychological well-being, it was decided that euthanasia was the only appropriate course of action,” Baker wrote colleagues about one of the pigs a day after the surgery, adding a broken heart emoji.
Baker did not comment on the incident.
Employees have sometimes pushed back on Musk’s demands to move fast. In a company discussion several months ago, some Neuralink employees protested after a manager said that Musk had encouraged them to do a complex surgery on pigs soon. The employees resisted on the grounds that the surgery’s complexity would lengthen the amount of time the pigs would be under anesthesia, risking their health and recovery. They argued they should first figure out how to cut down the time it would take to do the surgery.
“It’s hard on the little piggies,” one of the employees said, referring to the lengthy period under anesthesia.
In September, the company responded to employee concerns about its animal testing by holding a town hall to explain its processes. It soon after opened up the meetings to staff of its federally-mandated board that reviews the animal experiments.
Neuralink executives have said publicly that the company tests animals only when it has exhausted other research options, but documents and company messages suggest otherwise. During a November 30 presentation the company broadcast on YouTube, for example, Musk said surgeries were used at a later stage of the process to confirm that the device works rather than to test early hypotheses. “We’re extremely careful,” he said, to make sure that testing is “confirmatory, not exploratory,” using animal testing as a last resort after trying other methods.
In October, a month before Musk’s comments, Autumn Sorrells, the head of animal care, ordered employees to scrub “exploration” from study titles retroactively and stop using it in the future.
Sorrells did not comment in response to requests.
Neuralink records reviewed by Reuters contained numerous references over several years to exploratory surgeries, and three people with knowledge of the company’s research strongly rejected the assertion that Neuralink avoids exploratory tests on animals. Company discussions reviewed by Reuters showed several employees expressing concerns about Sorrells’ request to change exploratory study descriptions, saying it would be inaccurate and misleading.
One noted that the request seemed designed to provide “better optics” for Neuralink.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Neuralink Expected to Begin Human Clinical Trials in Six Months, Elon Musk Says
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
NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Enters Lunar Orbit a Week After Artemis I Launch
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.
ISRO’s RH200 Sounding Rocket Registers 200th Consecutive Successful Launch
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.
G20 Summit: India Plans Science-20 Meet for Member Nations, Side Events in July 2023
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.
Vikram-S, India’s First Private Rocket, Successfully Launched Into Space by Skyroot Aerospace
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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