SpaceX’s tourist mission is boldly ambitious, improbably timed and ludicrously priced

With SpaceX’s announcement that it will be sending two people into space for what seems to be a princely sum, it establishes itself once more as insanely ambitious and quite probably the foremost space company. We consider the issues the mission faces, and how it looks set to continue to establish space as a playground for the super-rich

SpaceX has announced that, for a “significant amount of money”, they will send two private citizens for a weeklong trip around the Moon. The mission is planned for spring next year, and will see the passengers, who are currently anonymous, launch inside a Dragon capsule atop the as-yet-untested Falcon Heavy rocket.

The launch, if on deadline, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Americans’ first-ever orbit around the Moon. Moreover, it will place SpaceX several years ahead of tests for NASA’s Space Launch System, intended to carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit, and dramatically ahead manned testing.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” SpaceX said in a statement Monday.

Space tourism beyond low-Earth orbit

Images courtesy of SpaceX

This is not the first case of space tourism. Dennis Tito famously paid $20m for a weeklong trip to the International Space Station in 2001, but this new mission is significant for its schedule, cost and the potential to firmly establish SpaceX as the foremost private space company.

Firstly, although Elon Musk would not disclose the precise amount the couple had paid, he estimated the mission’s cost to be slightly more than a crewed flight to and from the ISS aboard a Dragon 2 craft.

According to Space News, each of those missions will cost about $300m.

While a trip around the moon is certainly more impressive than a visit to the ISS, it’s worth noting how much this reinforces that space tourism will be, for the foreseeable future, the sole province of the super-rich.

SpaceX’s scheduling challenge

This of course, is all assuming that SpaceX can successfully stick to its schedule.

Musk isn’t known for his timekeeping and given that the Falcon Heavy rocket will only have its first test launch this summer, a mission schedule of next year seems overambitious.

Add the fact that that just last week a crewless Dragon had to abort its rendezvous with the ISS due to a glitch, and the explosion of a rocket in September 2016, it’s somewhat hard to believe that this is a schedule SpaceX will stick to.

NASA’s response

However, even assuming that the mission is pushed back a year or two, it is likely to beat out NASA. The company’s success will no doubt endear them to the business-focused Trump administration but, it seems, may also be of benefit to the US space agency itself. Throwing the slyest shade possible, NASA has essentially said that they’re happy for companies like SpaceX to handle the Moon because it lets them focus on more important things.

In a statement regarding the mission, NASA said: “For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.

“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”

Space: the rich’s playground

Given the Trump administration’s expressed enthusiasm for private space companies, it’s probably a good thing for SpaceX and the like to pull off missions like this; they’re almost certain to receive government support. However, much as it is early days, we do still need to deal with just how much of a pattern this sets.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model

Skipping the low-earth orbit stage entirely, SpaceX is basically saying that as long as you’re ludicrously rich, space is your playground. And if that becomes the expectation, then it makes it somewhat more unlikely that ordinary people will become the focus of future space tourism.

From a business mentality, however, it certainly makes sense. Space missions are expensive and if someone offered me several hundred million dollars to get them into space I’d certainly accept. However, it speaks of a worrying business- to-idealism balance that could well retard the development of space as a viable travel destination for ordinary people.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model.

If this mission is successful, we can only hope it serves instead as inspiration to make it viable for those not appearing on the Forbes rich list.

Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”