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Space tourism is still a growing industry that was recently rocked when the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo exploded after suffering a "serious anomaly" during a test flight last week. Despite the incident, which left one pilot dead, Virgin Galactic confirmed it will move forward to finish a second SpaceShipTwo aircraft before the end of the year.
The high risk, high reward nature of the commercial space industry - where flight accidents sometimes seen unavoidable - with Virgin Galactic competing with XCOR Aerospace and others in the commercial space race. Meanwhile, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences and other companies hope to win NASA and US federal government contracts worth billions of dollars.
"We've always known that the road to space is extremely difficult - and that every new transportation system as to deal with bad days early in their industry," said Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
Engineers in China successfully created a new laser weapon system capable of shooting down low-altitude light drones, able to lock on and engage a target within five seconds. The machine can engage "various small aircraft" and has a two-kilometer range against targets flying up to 112 mph.
The US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) recently made flying drones near large sports stadiums and race tracks illegal, but trying to enforce the airspace restriction could be problematic. However, this new laser technology will allow the Chinese to better protect large venues.
"Intercepting such drones is usually the work of snipers and helicopters, but their success rate is not as high and mistakes with accuracy can result in unwanted damage," said Yi Jinsong, China Jiuyuan Hi-Tech Equipment manager.
Despite a catastrophic test flight of the SpaceShipTwo that left one pilot dead and another seriously injured, Virgin Galactic plans to move ahead to complete a second rocket plane before the end of 2014. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) needs a few more days to finish an initial investigation, and a full report could take up to one year.
SpaceShipTwo exploded during a test flight - marking the first test of a new plastic-based fuel mixed with nitrous oxide - and early indications using a different motor could have played a role in the incident.
"The second spaceship is very advanced in its construction," said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic chief executive. "We need to work closely with the NTSB... to work out as rapidly as we can what happened, and then to move forward. We're hopeful we can make rapid progress."
A Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight suffered a 'serious anomaly' that led to one pilot being killed, and Virgin Galactic was reportedly warned on numerous occasions that this type of problem was possible. The company's "unconventional" fuel propulsion system to help the aircraft reach space broke apart while flying about 45,000-ft. above the Earth's surface - and a full investigation is currently under way.
The use of the hybrid propulsion system doesn't rely on carbon-based fuels and instead uses a mix of nitrous oxide and plastic fuel, with rocket engineers and safety experts weary of potential explosions. In fact, the Virgin Galactic website reportedly noted nitrous oxide was "benign" and "stable," despite the gas playing a major role in a spaceport explosion that killed three people in 2007.
"It's still very poorly understood in large quantities... the temperature of the fuel is critical," said Geoff Daly, a British rocket scientist, who warned the FAA last year. The delivery system is solid, the motor is bolted to the fuel tanks. There is no flexibility in the tank and motor, any vibration can result in the fracture and failure of the engine system."
French authorities reported another round of small "drone-type machines" that flew over two different nuclear power plants, indicating the incidents started on October 5. Additional sightings were seen on October 20 and again on October 31, as national police and military scramble to find new methods to ensure these drones don't pose a threat.
No aircraft are allowed to breach a three-mile no-fly zone around a nuclear power plant, or fly less than 3,300 ft. elevation near the facilities, according to French law.
"We're not talking about just one type of drone identified, but several," according to a nuclear expert, speaking to the French press. "Some were only a few dozen centimeters long with a very short range of several meters at most. So you'd need to be very close to the reactor. But others, and this is much more worryingly, were far bigger - perhaps two meters long so sufficiently big to carry an explosive charge."
Engineers helping create the next generation of US rockets plan to incorporate escape systems so crew members will have a chance to reach safety. The unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded shortly after liftoff earlier this week, giving viewers around the world another brutal reminder that space launches remain extremely dangerous.
NASA considered some form of escape system for the retired space shuttle fleet, but believed the aircraft were significantly safer, and the explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986 brought the world back to reality. However, the Launch Abort System is able to activate in just a few milliseconds, sending the crew 1.6 kilometers in altitude in a few seconds after activation.
"Under the original plan we were, as of now, about two years away from conducting the first launch of Antares with the second-generation propulsion system... I certainly think we can short that interval, but at this point I don't know by how much," said David Thompson, Orbital Sciences President and CEO.
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo suffered a "serious anomaly" during a test flight in California over the Mojave desert, with one pilot killed in the incident. The other pilot suffered serious injuries and is being transported to the hospital, according to the company.
"The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely," said Virgin Galactic after the incident. "We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP."
The SpaceShipTwo is designed to be carried on a mother ship and then can be released to ignite its rocket to head into suborbit, and can return to Earth by gliding back. A flight starts at $250,000 and passengers undergo three days of pre-flight preparation to verify they are physically and mentally prepared for the trip.
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) posted a warning that says drone operators that fly their aircraft near or over sports stadiums and racetracks could be punished by monetary fines and up to one year in jail. The rules will change flight patterns over 150 stadiums and racetracks with 30,000 or more people.
Drones will no longer be able to fly under 3,000 feet within three miles of a NCAA Division I college stadium, Major League Baseball (MLB) stadium, or National Football League (NFL) stadium - and the same rules apply for any Indy Car, NASCAR Sprint Cup or Champ series auto tracks.
The FAA is working to commercialize drone use, and while that has proven to be a drawn out mess, a growing number of private citizens are flying drones.
Lowe's has developed the OSHbot to see if robots on wheels will be able to improve the store's customer service, with testing currently being done in an Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, California. The robot will greet customers as they enter the store, and ask to see if they need help finding an item. The robot has voice support for English and Spanish, with other languages to be supported in the future.
"Using science fiction prototyping, we explored solutions to improve customer experiences by helping customers quickly find the products and information they came in looking for," said Kyle Nel, from the Lowe's Innovation Labs. "As a result we developed autonomous retail service robot technology to be an intuitive tool customers can use to ask for help, in their preferred language, and expect a consistent experience."
The OSHbot stands 5-feet tall and includes a front and back screen that can be used for video conferences with other store employees, along with displaying in-store specials. The OSHbot also includes a 3D scanner able to identify items.
The US Air Force Hospital Langley is now using the "Saul" virus-zapping robot to try to keep hospitals safer by killing viruses, including Ebola, working with the Xenex company. The robot is able to use powerful ultraviolet light to ensure the hospital's patient and operating rooms are safe from germ pathogens that could infect others. It only takes five minutes for the robot to disinfect an entire room, with surfaces cleaned in just two minutes, according to Xenex.
"We are very proud to be the first Air Force hospital to have this robot," said Col. Marlene Kerchenski, 633rd MDG Surgeon General chief of nursing services. "Saul will provide an extra measure of safety for both our patients and our intensive care unit staff."
Xenex has already grabbed headlines when it was announced the Gigi robot would be used in hospitals to help kill viruses, including Ebola, in hospital rooms. These pricey machines are designed to help keep hospitals a cleaner, safer environment for staff, patients, and visitors.