Second SpaceShipTwo flies free for first time

SpaceShipTwo in flight

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through its first free-flying flight. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, successfully glided through its first free-flying test run today. The flight comes more than two years after the first SpaceShipTwo broke up during a rocket-powered test.

The hybrid rocket engine wasn’t switched on for today’s trial in the skies above California’s Mojave Desert. Instead, VSS Unity was set loose by its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at a height of tens of thousands of feet, and winged its way back to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky and Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, Dave Mackay, were at the controls in Unity’s cockpit. Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson piloted WhiteKnightTwo, with Dustin Mosher as flight engineer. Virgin Galactic reported that the crew was “safe and sound” after “a successful first glide test flight.”

Parabolic Arc’s Douglas Messier reported that Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson was on hand to watch the flight.

“It’s a happy day to be here,” Branson said in a video captured by Messier before WhiteKnightTwo took off. “We’ve got an exciting year ahead, and this is just the start of it.”

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How self-driving buses can ease traffic woes

WEpods shuttle

Self-driving electric buses known as “WEpods” ride the roads in the Netherlands. (Credit: WEpods)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Self-driving cars are all well and good for cross-country trips, but what Madrona Venture Group’s Tom Alberg really wants to see is a self-driving bus that can take him on a winery tour.

“I’m very keen on the idea of navigating a wine van pool, going around between the different wineries,” the influential investment group’s managing director joked.

And there’s a chance Alberg may get his wish, or something close to it, sooner rather than later.

He and other stakeholders in the region’s transportation future gathered at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Conference Center on Dec. 2 for the 2016 Advanced Transportation Technologies Conference, organized by the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions.

Just after his talk, two Bellevue city council members and Bellevue Mayor John Stokes bent Alberg’s ear about their plans to make the Seattle region an incubator for autonomous transit.

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Japanese space tourism effort gets a boost

PD Aerospace space plane

PD AeroSpace has teamed up with H.I.S. and ANA Holdings. (PD AeroSpace Ltd. / Koike Terumasa Design and Aerospace)

PD Aerospace, a Japanese company that’s similar to Virgin Galactic in its commercial spaceflight aspirations, has picked up two high-profile investors: ANA Holdings and the H.I.S. travel agency.

In a joint statement issued on Dec. 1, the three Japanese companies said that they agreed in October to work together on space commercialization efforts, including space travel.

H.I.S. is investing about $264,000 (30 million yen) for a 10.3 percent share of the venture. ANA Holdings, the umbrella company for the ANA (All Nippon Airways) airline, is putting in about $180,000 (20.4 million yen) for a 7 percent share.

The combined amount of investment wouldn’t be enough to buy two tickets on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is currently undergoing flight tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

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Workhorse works on electric trucks, flying cars

Workhorse's Surefly drone

Workhorse Group is working on a two-seat personal flying machine. (Workhorse Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – A company called the Workhorse Group wants to beat Amazon to the punch and provide the U.S. Postal Service with thousands of electric-powered mail trucks equipped with delivery drones. But that’s not all: CEO Steve Burns sees flying cars in the company’s future.

It’s a dream that’s already attracting tens of millions of dollars in funding for Silicon Valley startups.

“I know a couple of people who are working on it,” Burns acknowledged today at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Conference Center. “But we’re trying to do it first.”

Burns provided a sneak peek at his Indiana-based company’s plans for a hybrid flying car – or, to use his preferred term, the Surefly personal flying machine – during the Advanced Transportation Technologies Conference, organized by the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions.

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Stephen Hawking: We’re in ‘dangerous moment’

Image: Stephen Hawking

British physicist Stephen Hawking worries about humanity’s long-term future. (Credit: NASA)

World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking says Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidential victory serve as wakeup calls amid what he says is “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.”

And he says that elite members of society, including himself, have to take those wakeup calls to heart.

In an opinion piece written for The Guardian, Hawking said that the past year’s game-changing outcomes have their roots in the economic consequences of globalization and accelerating technological change. Automation has already cut into manufacturing jobs, and the rise of artificial intelligence could extend the job losses “deep into the middle class,” he said.

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Buzz Aldrin’s OK after South Pole medical scare

Buzz Aldrin and Christina Korp

Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin flashes a thumbs-up during his evacuation from Antarctica to New Zealand. His manager, Christina Korp, is in the foreground, taking the selfie shot. (Christina Korp Photo via Twitter)

Buzz Aldrin’s South Pole adventure turned into a medical emergency when his health deteriorated, but his manager says the Apollo 11 moonwalker is safe today in a New Zealand hospital.

The 86-year-old’s health declined during a tour of Antarctica, an adventure travel firm called White Desert said in a statement today.

Aldrin was handed over to the National Science Foundation for a medical airlift. The first leg of the outward trip took Aldrin from NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to McMurdo Station on Ross Island, aboard a ski-equipped LC-130 cargo plane from the New York Air National Guard. He was flown from McMurdo to Christchurch, New Zealand, aboard a Safair cargo plane, NSF said.

White Desert said Aldrin was taken to a Christchurch hospital, where he was found to have fluid in his lungs. The travel firm said he was “responding well to antibiotics and being kept overnight for observation.”

“His condition is stable, and his manager, who is currently with him, described him being in good spirits,” White Desert said.

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Russian cargo shipment lost in space

Soyuz launch with Progress

A Russian Soyuz rocket rises from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, sending a robotic Progress cargo ship into space. The ship was lost minutes later. (Roscosmos Photo)

A robotic Russian Progress spaceship and its cargo were lost today, minutes after its launch to the International Space Station from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency reported the failure of the mission’s Soyuz rocket and the fiery re-entry of the Progress craft over mountainous terrain in Russia’s republic of Tuva, in southern Siberia.

“Most of the fragments were burned in the dense layers of the atmosphere,” Roscosmos said, citing preliminary information. That suggests some of the debris fell to the ground, but no injuries were reported.

The uncrewed Progress was carrying more than two and a half tons of food, fuel and supplies for the space station. NASA said the rocket anomaly arose during third-stage separation, which apparently occurred earlier than scheduled. Russian space officials said the craft was operating normally until 383 seconds into the ascent, when it stopped transmitting data.

Roscomos said a commission has been set up to investigate the failure.

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