World’s Largest Plane Takes Flight, Can Air-Launch Rockets Into Space

World's Largest Plane Takes Flight, Can Air-Launch Rockets Into Space

Stratolaunch lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert (AFP)

Stratolaunch, the massive aircraft dreamed up by the late Paul Allen, flew for the first time Saturday, becoming the largest plane by wingspan ever to take to the skies.

Larger than Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose – which flew only once, in 1947 – Stratolaunch lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert and stayed aloft for a couple of hours, according to photos and videos posted on social media.

The plane is a behemoth, with a twin fuselage, 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field, end zones included.

But Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, died in October, leaving the future of the plane and the company behind it in doubt. From the beginning, Allen’s dream was to use the plane to help make getting items, and possibly people, into space more affordable and accessible.

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Built by Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, Stratolaunch was designed to carry as many as three rockets tethered to its belly into the skies; the rockets would then drop, ignite and shoot off into space with their payloads.

Allen was fascinated with the capabilities of small satellites, how they could help keep tabs on Earth’s environment, and thought “air-launching” rockets, as the process is called, could help usher in a new era of space flight.

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Stratolaunch is a behemoth, with a twin fuselage, 28 wheels, six 747 jet engines and a wingspan longer than a football field, end zones included (AFP)

“The capabilities of these small satellites is something that’s really interesting and fascinating,” he said. “Both for communications, where a lot of people are putting up constellations of satellites, and for monitoring the challenged health of the planet.”

The Pentagon, which is looking to become more responsive in space, had also taken an interest in Stratlolaunch. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited the plane, as did Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the National Space Council.

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Stratolaunch was financed by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft as a way to get into the market for launching small satellites

The company was even thinking about human spaceflight, and had preliminary plans to develop a mini space shuttle, called “Black Ice.”

But for now all those plans appear to be on hold.

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Stratolaunch was designed to carry as many as three rockets tethered to its belly into the skies; the rockets would then drop, ignite and shoot off into space with their payloads (AFP)

Allen, a space enthusiast for much of his life, funded the development of the spaceplane that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first nongovernmental vehicle to pass the threshold in space.

At the time, however, the risks of human spaceflight worried him, and he decided to get out of the business. In 2011, though, he was back, announcing his plans to build the world’s largest airplane.

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Stratolaunch: The Pentagon, which is looking to become more responsive in space, had also taken an interest in Stratlolaunch

“You have a certain number of dreams in your life you want to fulfill,” he said at the time. “And this is a dream I’m very excited about.”

[“source=ndtv”]

A Murky Flood Of Money Pours Into The World’s Largest Election

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has spearheaded moves to loosen campaign finance laws in India, generating criticism that businesses—and foreigners—could potentially wield unprecedented influence over the election starting next month.

The new rules let corporations, including those partly owned by foreign entities, fund elections anonymously. They also permit businesses to bankroll political parties through opaque instruments called electoral bonds and enable shell companies to be conduits for election funding.

A Murky Flood Of Money Pours Into The World’s Largest Election 

The changes, which Modi’s party has said were designed to at least partially account for undocumented cash long used during India’s elections, may actually make it easier—and legal—for anonymous donors to support political parties. Spending on the election ending May 23 is set to rise 40 percent to 500 billion rupees ($7 billion), according to the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

“It won’t be an exaggeration to say our elections will never be the same again,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, the group’s chairman, who has advised previous Indian governments. “What is this if not the auctioning of our democracy to the highest-paying corporation?”

Modi swept to power in 2014 promising a business-friendly administration that would transform India’s image on the world stage. He remains the favorite for many investors, despite more recently introducing populist policies to boost support in rural India and tightening rules against corporate defaulters.

The biggest innovation in India’s campaign finance laws is the anonymous electoral bond. Despite the name, they bear little resemblance to the promissory notes investors are familiar with: Buyers aren’t paid any interest.

Anyone can buy an electoral bond at the government-owned State Bank of India in denominations ranging from 1,000 rupees to 10 million rupees ($14 to $140,000). Afterward they are delivered to a political party, which can exchange them for cash. They don’t carry the name of the donor and are exempt from tax.

A Murky Flood Of Money Pours Into The World’s Largest Election 

“Electoral bonds have made political parties completely beholden to unaccounted money, which could even be foreign money or money from dubious sources,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, the former head of India’s top business school and the founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a group that researches elections. “Corporate agendas can run the show.”

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who first announced plans for the electoral bonds in 2017, argued last year that they actually help improve transparency because they are banking instruments and every political party has to disclose how much it received. If full transparency is required, donors would go back to cash, he wrote in a January 2018 Facebook post.

For those in India worried about anonymous money in politics, the process for changing the laws has offered little reassurance that the new measures are an improvement.

System Overhaul

India’s campaign finance overhaul began in 2017, when parliament approved an amendment that made it easier for companies to donate to campaigns, including removing a cap on corporate donations (the maximum used to be 7.5 percent of a company’s average net profits over three years). Now new firms can also donate to political parties, opening the door for shell companies to be set up expressly for the purpose.

Also eliminated were requirements for companies to disclose how much they donated and to which party.

A Murky Flood Of Money Pours Into The World’s Largest Election 

The changes were introduced in parliament via a money bill, a measure that only needs to be passed by the lower house controlled by Modi’s ruling coalition and not the opposition-led upper house.

A similar tactic was used to pass with little debate rules that changed the definition of a foreign company. Previously, all subsidiaries of international entities were treated as overseas donors and not allowed to make political contributions. Now if a foreign firm has a stake of less than 50 percent in a company operating in India, that unit can fund Indian elections.

While several lawmakers protested the moves, analysts said the amendments will benefit both Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the main opposition Congress party.

“Nobody from the opposition spoke up,” Rao said. “Maybe everybody realizes they stand to gain if they come to power?”

In 2014, the Delhi High Court found both major parties guilty of violating foreign-exchange laws when they accepted a donation from London-based commodities giant Vedanta Resources Plc.

(The suit, filed by a former top bureaucrat and the Association for Democratic Reforms, was against the political entities and Vedanta wasn’t a party. The company didn’t respond to request for comment. The BJP and Congress argued the donations weren’t foreign because the Vedanta units that channelled the money were registered under Indian law.)

The law passed last year changed the definition of a foreign company all the way back to 1976, effectively nullifying the court’s verdict because Vedanta’s overseas parent owned less than 50 percent of the Indian unit.

The government has defended the revisions, saying they were intended to align the definition of “foreign source” with the nation’s foreign direct investment policies, and other laws bar political funding from abroad. GVL Narasimha Rao and Nalin Kohli, representatives of Modi’s BJP, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The latest official data show that Modi’s ruling party won the bulk of financing in the year ended March 2018, both through corporate donations and electoral bonds.

A Murky Flood Of Money Pours Into The World’s Largest Election 

In 2018, electoral bonds worth about 10.6 billion rupees ($150 million) were purchased, according to data obtained under India’s Right to Information Act by Factly, a data journalism portal in India. About 90 percent were of the highest denomination available, which is out of reach for the average citizen.

India’s rules governing political contributions are looser than other major democracies. In the U.K., companies aren’t directly allowed to make donations to political parties. The U.S. allows unlimited funding through political action committees called super PACs on federal election campaigns, but requires them to disclose the names of donors. Milan Vaishnav, Washington-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who’s edited a book on Indian political funding, said he hasn’t seen an instrument like electoral bonds in any other country.

“In most advanced democracies, transparency is a core principle,” Vaishnav said. “Few advanced democracies legitimize opacity in the way India has done.”

[“source=bloombergquint”]

Researchers Find New Insights Into Role of Little-Understood Placenta

placenta health illustration

More than 15 percent of women in developed countries suffer from pregnancy complications associated with the placenta, the disk-shaped organ that sustains a growing fetus. Now researchers find the placenta adapts when nutrients are scarce. The discovery identifies possible targets for intervention, the researchers say.

“Pregnancy complications are [often] linked to poor placental growth and function,” said Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, a physiologist and developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who led the new research. “However, we lack information on what determines how well the placenta grows and functions to support fetal growth during a healthy pregnancy, let alone when the mother is challenged by a suboptimal environment.”

Pregnancy Problem

The placenta is a temporary organ that sprouts a baby’s umbilical cord. The organ then provides the oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. It also synthesizes hormones and other molecules necessary for pregnancy and pulls waste products from the baby’s blood. Beyond these fundamental functions, however, researchers know little about what makes for a healthy placenta. But if a placenta isn’t working properly, it can compromise the fetus’ development.

One in 10 infants are born small from growth restrictions in the womb. And those newborns face a higher risk for death in their first few weeks of life, followed by a lifetime of poor health. Hypoxia, an insufficient amount of oxygen getting to tissues, is the chief factor behind growth-restricted babies born at high-altitudes, but is also a common feature of pregnancy complications at sea level.

Sferruzzi-Perri and her team wanted to find out what factors contribute to a healthy placenta during a normal pregnancy, as well as what hinders the organ’s function during complications. The researchers assessed how well mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories, use oxygen and nutrients to produce energy in the placentas of pregnant mice in their third trimester. Some of the mice lived in conditions that mimic a high-altitude environment about 12,000 feet above sea level.

Mighty Mitochondria

In the final stage of labor, the placenta comes out. (Credit: ChameleonsEye/shutterstock

“We found that in the placenta, mitochondria alter their function during the course of pregnancy to best support the needs of the rapidly growing fetus,” Sferruzzi-Perri said.

The mitochondria used more oxygen in earlier stages of gestation than near term, the team reported online January 17thin the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results suggest mitochondria are more active when the placenta is growing quickly. It then switches gears closer to term to shuttle oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus.

The researchers also found that the mitochondria compensate for when mothers are not getting enough to eat or are in low-oxygen environments. “When the placenta is not able to compensate for such challenges then this can lead to complications such as fetal growth restriction,” Sferruzzi-Perri said.

“The next step would be to find ways to target mitochondria in the placenta to alter their function and improve pregnancy success in women where we know the outcome might be poor,” she added.

[“source=discovermagazine”]

Some Strange Science Will Launch Into Space This Week for NASA

This Thursday, crystallizing proteins from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a dizzying virtual- reality system, ultratiny membranes and the “Refabricator” — a device that turns waste into 3D-printing filament, will all be shooting into space.

This weird science and so much more will launch Thursday (Nov. 15) at 4:49 a.m. EST (0949 GMT) on Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) 10th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station. The company’s Cygnus spacecraft will lift off on its Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, carrying about 882 pounds (400 kilograms) of research and hardware for these experiments, NASA officials said in a statement. In total, the rocket will launch about 7,500 pounds (3,402 kg) of scientific equipment and crew supplies like food and clothing to the International Space Station.

These experiments will be among the hundreds of scientific investigations currently happening aboard the space station. The launch will be visible along parts of the U.S. East Ccoast, and you can watch it live online here at Space.com, courtesy of NASA TV. [Launch Photo: Orbital ATK’s Antares Rocket & Cygnus OA-9 Soar to Space Station]

Northrop Grumman's Antares rocket, preparing for Northrop Grumman's 10th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station, is seen on the left in the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, preparing for Northrop Grumman’s 10th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station, is seen on the left in the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Credit: Patrick Black/NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus vehicle has been named in honor of NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy officer John Young. Young spent 835 hours in space over six missions as a NASA astronaut.

Aboard the Cygnus vehicle will be a device called the Refabricator as part of the In-Space Manufacturing Refabricator project. This is the first integrated 3D printer and recycler that will turn waste plastic into filament for 3D-printing aboard the space station. The filament will be used for repairs aboard the space station and also as a means of recycling waste. The device could also be used to fabricate things on board the space station.

Refabricator flight hardware as seen from the front, similar to how it will look when installed in the EXPRESS Rack on the International Space Station.

Refabricator flight hardware as seen from the front, similar to how it will look when installed in the EXPRESS Rack on the International Space Station.

Credit: Allison Porter, Tethers Unlimited Inc.

This technology could be very useful for long-term deep-space missions where astronauts will have to deal with waste, repair and resource issues on a regular basis. As the investigation’s research overview states, “Without a recycling capability, a large supply of feedstock would need to be stowed on board for long-duration exploration missions.” This investigation is sponsored by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Office.

The Effect of Long Duration Hypogravity on the Perception of Self-Motion (VECTION) study, another investigation launching to the space station, will explore how a microgravity environment might affect an astronaut’s ability to visually interpret motion, orientation and distance.

Here on Earth, our senses work together to let us know how far away we are from things, how fast they are moving, and how they are oriented. In space, gravity no longer plays a part in our vestibular system, a system that contributes to our sense of balance and orientation. The VECTION study aims to better understand how microgravity affects these senses using virtual reality.

In this study, astronauts will wear a virtual-reality (VR) system that will provide computer-generated visual clues to try to create artificial gravity using visual acceleration, Laurence Harris, a professor at York University in Toronto and principal investigator in this research, said at a news conference on Thursday, Nov. 8. After the VR simulation, the astronauts will report how far they perceive that they moved, how far away things were from them, etc.

“Many astronauts do feel disoriented or suffer from space sickness when they first arrive at the space station,” Harris said. So, to understand how a microgravity environment might affect astronauts at multiple points in their trip, they will participate in the VR simulation as soon as they arrive in space, once they’ve gotten used to the environment and once they’ve returned to Earth.

[“source=TimeOFIndia”]