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Elon Musk’s Neuralink Faces US Federal Investigation, Internal Staff Backlash Over Animal Tests

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The probe is said to focus on violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test some animals.
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

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Astronomers Discover Milky Way Galaxy’s Most-Distant Stars

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The stars that populate the outskirts of the galactic halo can be viewed as stellar orphans.
By Reuters | Updated: 13 January 2023

Astronomers have detected in the stellar halo that represents the Milky Way’s outer limits a group of stars more distant from Earth than any known within our own galaxy — almost halfway to a neighboring galaxy.

The researchers said these 208 stars inhabit the most remote reaches of the Milky Way’s halo, a spherical stellar cloud dominated by the mysterious invisible substance called dark matter that makes itself known only through its gravitational influence. The furthest of them is 1.08 million light years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

These stars, spotted using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountain, are part of a category of stars called RR Lyrae that are relatively low mass and typically have low abundances of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The most distant one appears to have a mass about 70 percent that of our sun. No other Milky Way stars have been confidently measured farther away than these.

The stars that populate the outskirts of the galactic halo can be viewed as stellar orphans, probably originating in smaller galaxies that later collided with the larger Milky Way.

“Our interpretation about the origin of these distant stars is that they are most likely born in the halos of dwarf galaxies and star clusters which were later merged – or more straightforwardly, cannibalised — by the Milky Way,” said Yuting Feng, an astronomy doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the study, presented this week at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

“Their host galaxies have been gravitationally shredded and digested, but these stars are left at that large distance as debris of the merger event,” Feng added.

The Milky Way has grown over time through such calamities.

“The larger galaxy grows by eating smaller galaxies — by eating its own kind,” said study co-author Raja GuhaThakurta, UC Santa Cruz’s chair of astronomy and astrophysics.

Containing an inner and outer layer, the Milky Way’s halo is vastly larger than the galaxy’s main disk and central bulge that are teeming with stars. The galaxy, with a supermassive black hole at its center about 26,000 light years from Earth, contains perhaps 100 billion–400 billion stars including our sun, which resides in one of the four primary spiral arms that make up the Milky Way’s disk. The halo contains about 5 percent of the galaxy’s stars.

Dark matter, which dominates the halo, makes up most of the universe’s mass and is thought to be responsible for its basic structure, with its gravity influencing visible matter to come together and form stars and galaxies.

The halo’s remote outer edge is a poorly understood region of the galaxy. These newly identified stars are almost half the distance to the Milky Way’s neighboring Andromeda galaxy.

“We can see that the suburbs of the Andromeda halo and the Milky Way halo are really extended – and are almost ‘back-to-back,'” Feng said.

The search for life beyond the Earth focuses on rocky planets akin to Earth orbiting in what is called the “habitable zone” around stars. More than 5,000 planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, already have been discovered.

“We don’t know for sure, but each of these outer halo stars should be about as likely to have planets orbiting them as the sun and other sun-like stars in the Milky Way,” GuhaThakurta said.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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Microsoft, ISRO Partner to Support Space Technology Startups in India: All Details

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With the partnership, space tech start-ups identified by ISRO will be onboarded onto the 'Microsoft for Start-ups Founders Hub platform'.
By Press Trust of India | Updated: 5 January 2023

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Microsoft on Thursday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to fuel the growth of space technology start-ups in India. The MoU seeks to empower space tech start-ups across the country with technology tools and platforms, go-to-market support and mentoring to help them scale and become enterprise-ready.

This collaboration has come at a time when Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella is in the city to take part in Microsoft Future Ready Technology Summit . The collaboration seeks to strengthen ISRO’s vision of harnessing the market potential of the most promising space tech innovators and entrepreneurs in India, Microsoft said in a release.

Through this tie-up, the space tech start-ups identified by ISRO will be onboarded onto the ‘Microsoft for Start-ups Founders Hub platform’, that supports start-ups at every stage of their journey from idea to unicorn, it said.

Noting that through the hub, space-tech start-up founders in India will have free access to the tech tools and resources they need to build and run their business, the release further said, this includes technical support to build and scale on Azure, best-in-class developer and productivity tools including GitHub Enterprise, Visual Studio Enterprise and Microsoft 365 and access to smart analytics with Power BI and Dynamics 365.

ISRO Chairman S Somanath said the space agency’s collaboration with Microsoft will greatly benefit space tech start-ups in their analysis and processing of vast amounts of satellite data for various applications, using cutting-edge methods like AI, Machine Learning and Deep Learning.

“The Microsoft for Start-ups Founders Hub is a useful platform for bringing together start-ups and providers of technology solutions to support the national space technology ecosystem. We are pleased to work together to assist and support entrepreneurs, to in-turn benefit the Indian economy as a whole,” he said.

Beyond access to technology, Microsoft will provide mentoring support to space tech entrepreneurs in areas ranging from space engineering to cloud technologies, product and design, fund-raising and sales and marketing.

In addition, founders will have access to Microsoft Learn for tailored start-up-centric training content and programmes to help them build connections with the industry and potential customers.

“Space tech start-ups in India are playing a significant role in advancing the country’s space capabilities with the power of technology. We are pleased to collaborate with ISRO to accelerate this transformation of what’s possible in space. Through our technology tools, platforms and mentorship opportunities, we are deeply committed to empowering space tech start-ups in the country to drive cutting-edge innovation and accelerate scientific discovery,” Microsoft India President Anant Maheshwari said.

Microsoft and ISRO will also jointly organise knowledge-sharing and thought leadership sessions for the start-ups with space industry experts. In addition, the collaboration will support founders with go-to-market strategies, technical support and opportunities to sell their solutions via Microsoft channels and marketplace, the release said.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX Raising $750 Million in Fresh Round of Funding at $137 Billion Valuation: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 January 2023 12:51 IST
By Reuters | Updated: 3 January 2023 12:51 IST

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is raising $750 million (roughly Rs. 6,200 crore) in a new round of funding that values the rocket and satellite company at $137 billion (roughly Rs. 11,33,800 crore) from investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, CNBC reported late Monday.

Reuters had reported in November that SpaceX was in talks about an offering of mostly secondary shares that could value the company at up to $150 billion (roughly Rs. 12,41,800 crore), representing a 20 percent increase in valuation.

SpaceX, which counts Alphabet and Fidelity Investments among its investors, had raised about $1.68 billion (roughly Rs. 13,900 crore) through equity financing in June.

Spokespersons for SpaceX and Horowitz did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment. Horowitz was also a co-investor in Musk’s Twitter buyout deal worth $44 billion (roughly Rs.3,64,260).

SpaceX has launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Starlink, SpaceX’s growing network of thousands of internet satellites, is looking at generating major revenue with commercialised applications such as the rollout of high-speed internet on commercial airlines.

SpaceX competes with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space venture Blue Origin and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Back in November, it was reported that SpaceX bought an advertising package on Twitter for its satellite internet service Starlink. Elon Musk, who owns the rocket company and the social media platform that is seeing an exodus of advertisers, said the ad package was purchased to test effectiveness of Twitter advertising in Australia and Spain.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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NASA Formally Retires Mars InSight Lander 4 Years After Its Arrival on Red Planet

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JPL engineers will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case, but hearing from InSight again is unlikely.
By Reuters | Updated: 23 December 2022

NASA has formally retired its Mars InSight lander, the first robotic probe specially designed to study the deep interior of a distant world, four years after it arrived on the surface of the red planet, the US space agency announced on Wednesday.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles determined the mission was over when two consecutive attempts to re-establish radio contact with the lander failed, a sign that InSight’s solar-powered batteries had run out of energy.

NASA predicted in late October that the spacecraft would reach the end of its operational life in a matter of weeks due to increasingly heavy accumulations of dust on its solar panels, depleting the ability of its batteries to recharge.

JPL engineers will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case, but hearing from InSight again is unlikely, NASA said. The three-legged stationary probe last communicated with Earth on December 15.

InSight landed on Mars in late November 2018 with instruments designed to detect planetary seismic rumblings never before measured anywhere but Earth, and its original two-year mission was later extended to four.

From its perch in a vast and relatively flat plain called Elysium Planitia just north of the planet’s equator, the lander has helped scientists gain new understanding of Mars’ internal structure.

Researchers said InSight’s data revealed the thickness of the planet’s outer crust, the size and density of its inner core and the structure of the mantle that lies in between.

One of InSight’s chief accomplishments was establishing that the red planet is, indeed, seismically active, recording more than 1,300 marsquakes. It also measured seismic waves generated by meteorite impacts.

“The seismic data alone from this discovery program mission offers tremendous insights not just into Mars but other rocky bodies, including Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate.

One such impact a year ago was found to have gouged boulder-sized chunks of water ice surprisingly close to Mars’ equator.

Even as InSight retires, a more recent robotic visitor to the red planet, NASA’s science rover Perseverance, continues to prepare a collection of Martian mineral samples for future analysis on Earth.

This week, Perseverance deposited the first of 10 sample tubes it was directed to leave at a surface collection site on Mars as a backup cache, in case the primary supply stored in the rover’s belly cannot for some reason be transferred as planned to a retrieval spacecraft in the future, NASA said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Facial Recognition Technology Used by Police in Hyderabad to Enforce COVID-19 Policy

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Hyderabad was among the first local police forces in India to use a mobile application to dole out traffic fines and take pictures of people flaunting mask mandates.
By Associated Press | Updated: 20 December 2022

After a pair of Islamist bombings rocked the south-central Indian city of Hyderabad in 2013, officials rushed to install 5,000 CCTV cameras to bolster security. Now there are nearly 700,000 in and around the metropolis.

The most striking symbol of the city’s rise as a surveillance hotspot is the gleaming new Command and Control Center in the posh Banjara Hills neighbourhood. The 20-story tower replaces a campus where swarms of officers already had access to 24-hour, real-time CCTV and cell phone tower data that geolocates reported crimes. The technology triggers any available camera in the area, pops up a mugshot database of criminals and can pair images with facial recognition software to scan CCTV footage for known criminals in the vicinity.

The Associated Press was given rare access to the operations earlier this year as part of an investigation into the proliferation of artificial intelligence tools used by law enforcement around the world.

Police Commissioner C V Anand said the new command centre, inaugurated in August, encourages using technologies across government departments, not just police. It cost $75 million (roughly Rs. 620 crore), according to Mahender Reddy, director general of the Telangana State Police.

Facial recognition and artificial intelligence have exploded in India in recent years, becoming key law enforcement tools for monitoring big gatherings.

Police aren’t just using technology to solve murders or catch armed robbers. Hyderabad was among the first local police forces in India to use a mobile application to dole out traffic fines and take pictures of people flaunting mask mandates. Officers also can use facial recognition software to scan pictures against a criminal database. Police officers have access to an app, called TSCOP, on their smartphones and tablets that includes facial recognition scanning capabilities. The app also connects almost all police officers in the city to a host of government and emergency services.

Anand said photos of traffic violators and mask-mandate offenders are kept only long enough to be sure they aren’t needed in court and are then expunged. He expressed surprise that any law-abiding citizen would object.

“If we need to control crime, we need to have surveillance,” he said.

But questions linger over the accuracy and a lawsuit has been filed challenging its legality. In January, a Hyderabad official scanned a female reporter’s face to show how the facial recognition app worked. Within seconds, it returned five potential matches to criminals in the statewide database. Three were men.

Hyderabad has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on patrol vehicles, CCTV cameras, facial recognition and geo-tracking applications and several hundred facial recognition cameras, among other technologies, Anand said. The investment has helped the state attract more private and foreign investment, he said, including Apple’s development centre, inaugurated in 2016; and a major Microsoft data centre announced in March.

“When these companies decide to invest in a city, they first look at the law-and-order situation,” Anand said.

He credited technology for a rapid decrease in crime. Mugging for jewellery, for example, plunged from 1,033 incidents per year to less than 50 a year after cameras and other technologies were deployed, he said.

Hyderabad’s trajectory is in line with the nation’s. The country’s National Crime Records Bureau is seeking to build what could be among the world’s largest facial recognition systems.

Building steadily on previous government efforts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have seized on the rise in surveillance technology since coming to power in 2014. His flagship Digital India campaign aims to overhaul the country’s digital infrastructure to govern using information technology.

The government has promoted smart policing through drones, AI-enabled CCTV cameras and facial recognition. It’s a blueprint that has garnered support across the political spectrum and seeped into states across India, said Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation.

“There is a lot of social and civic support for it too – people don’t always fully understand,” Gupta said. “They see technology and think this is the answer.”

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NASA Completes Artemis I Moon Mission as Orion Capsule Returns to Earth Ahead of 2025 Lunar Landing

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NASA is on track for the next Orion flight around the moon that is targeted for 2024 with four astronauts.
By Associated Press | Updated: 12 December 2022

NASA’s Orion capsule made a blisteringly fast return from the Moon Sunday, parachuting into the Pacific off Mexico to conclude a test flight that should clear the way for astronauts on the next lunar flyby.

The incoming capsule hit the atmosphere at Mach 32, or 32 times the speed of sound, and endured reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius) before splashing down west of Baja California near Guadalupe Island. A Navy ship quickly moved in to recover the spacecraft and its silent occupants — three test dummies rigged with vibration sensors and radiation monitors.

NASA hailed the descent and splashdown as close to perfect, as congratulations poured in from Washington..

“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said from Mission Control in Houston. “This is an extraordinary day… It’s historic because we are now going back into space — deep space — with a new generation.”

The space agency needed a successful splashdown to stay on track for the next Orion flight around the Moon, targeted for 2024 with four astronauts who will be revealed early next year. That would be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025 and, ultimately, a sustainable Moon base. The long-term plan would be to launch a Mars expedition by the late 2030s.

Astronauts last landed on the Moon 50 years ago. After touching down on December 11, 1972, Apollo 17′s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days exploring the valley of Taurus-Littrow, the longest stay of the Apollo era. They were the last of the 12 Moonwalkers.

Orion was the first capsule to visit the Moon since then, launching on NASA’s new mega Moon rocket from Kennedy Space Center on November 16. It was the first flight of NASA’s new Artemis Moon program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the Moon comes to a close. Orion back on Earth,” announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias.

While no one was on the $4 billion test flight, NASA managers were thrilled to pull off the dress rehearsal, especially after so many years of flight delays and busted budgets. Fuel leaks and hurricanes conspired for additional postponements in late summer and fall.

In an Apollo throwback, NASA held a splashdown party at Houston’s Johnson Space Center on Sunday, with employees and their families gathering to watch the broadcast of Orion’s homecoming. Next door, the visitor center threw a bash for the public.

Getting Orion back intact after the 25-day flight was NASA’s top objective. With a return speed of 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) — considerably faster than coming in from low-Earth orbit — the capsule used a new, advanced heat shield never tested before in spaceflight. To reduce the gravity or G loads, it dipped into the atmosphere and briefly skipped out, also helping to pinpoint the splashdown area.

All that unfolded in spectacular fashion, officials noted, allowing for Orion’s safe return.

“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined a mission this successful,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin.

Further inspections will be conducted once Orion is back at Kennedy by month’s end. If the capsule checks find nothing amiss, NASA will announce the first lunar crew amid considerable hoopla in early 2023, picking from among the 42 active U.S. astronauts stationed at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

“People are anxious, we know that,” Vanessa Wyche, Johnson’s director, told reporters. Added Nelson: “The American people, just like (with) the original seven astronauts in the Mercury days, are going to want to know about these astronauts.”

The capsule splashed down more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of the original target zone. Forecasts calling for choppy seas and high wind off the Southern California coast prompted NASA to switch the location.

Orion logged 1.4 million miles (2.25 million kilometers) as it zoomed to the Moon and then entered a wide, swooping orbit for nearly a week before heading home.

It came within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the Moon twice. At its farthest, the capsule was more than 268,000 miles (430,000 kilometers) from Earth.

Orion beamed back stunning photos of not only the gray, pitted Moon, but also the home planet. As a parting shot, the capsule revealed a crescent Earth — Earthrise — that left the mission team speechless.

Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said the flight’s many accomplishments illustrate NASA’s capability to put astronauts on the next Artemis Moonshot.

“This was the nail-biting end of an amazing and important journey for NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” Brown said in a statement from England.

The Moon has never been hotter. Just hours earlier Sunday, a spacecraft rocketed toward the Moon from Cape Canaveral. The lunar lander belongs to ispace, a Tokyo company intent on developing an economy up there. Two U.S. companies, meanwhile, have lunar landers launching early next year.

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