Collateral damage? Debris from Virgin Galactic's crashed SpaceShipTwo
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Space incorporated: lessons from the deadly Virgin Galactic crash

Governments are setting their sights on missions to Mars and the moon but private companies are focused on shorter excursions into space. Their motivation is simple: there’s money in it.

This is an awful time for the private space industry. On 28 October, an unmanned Antares rocket, produced by Orbital Sciences Corporation, exploded almost immediately after take-off on Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying its cargo of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s experimental spacecraft for tourists, SpaceShipTwo, broke up during a test flight over California, killing the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, and severely injuring the pilot, Peter Siebold.

While the cause of the Virgin Galactic crash is as yet unknown, it demonstrates that space travel is still dangerous and difficult, regardless of whether the people in charge report to shareholders or elected officials.

Governments are setting their sights on missions to Mars and the moon but private companies are focused on shorter excursions into space. Their motivation is simple: there’s money in it.

Orbital Sciences competed for and won a contract from Nasa worth $1.9bn for running eight resupply missions to the ISS over the next two years (another company, SpaceX, won an identical contract); it makes money winning tenders to develop space tech for a range of military and civilian organisations. Its Antares rocket – the company’s biggest so far – was built specifically to meet Nasa’s ISS mission needs.

Virgin Galactic, by comparison, is as much a hype machine for the Virgin founder, Richard Branson, as a commercial venture. While Orbital deals with “real” space (including working with Nasa on missions such as Dawn, which sent a probe to visit the asteroid belt), Virgin Galactic is concentrating on tourism. A plane called WhiteKnightTwo has been designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to a height of nearly 16km, where it will fire a rocket to an altitude of more than 100km – the point at which space is generally agreed to begin. Passengers should experience approximately six minutes of weightlessness. Several hundred of the world’s super-rich have pre-bought tickets worth $250,000.

Branson has been saying that the first scheduled flights are “imminent” for at least seven years and there is speculation that the project exists more to deflect attention away from image problems elsewhere in the Virgin company than to deliver on its PR pledges.

Regardless, both companies are well aware of the risks. Orbital, in developing its own medium-sized rocket, purchased and repurposed Soviet N1 rocket engines from the 1960s – a decision that was, no doubt, cost-effective but that illustrates how even sticking with tried-and-tested technology does not eliminate all dangers.

The recent crises are unlikely to discourage private space exploration – there’s too much money involved. As in the aerospace and arms industries, governments are increasingly happy to award multibillion-dollar contracts to the private sector. The rewards are potentially vast: the first firm to develop the technology to lasso an asteroid, bring it into the orbit of either the earth or moon and mine it for minerals may have access to almost endless wealth. Or perhaps the goal is the creation of a craft that can transport humans from the Americas to Asia in a fraction of the time that conventional planes currently take.

The more important question, however, remains: is the search for profitability the right guiding principle for space exploration? There might not be much profit in sending probes to far-flung planets, for instance, but it could be scientifically valuable. It is a debate that we are used to on earth – maybe we should start wondering about its relevance to the stars. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.