Virgin Galactic to take first space tourists this year, technology expert predicts

Virgin Galactic, part of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group empire, is now flight testing VSS Unity, above, which would eventually take private astronauts to space. (AFP)
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Updated 06 February 2020

Virgin Galactic to take first space tourists this year, technology expert predicts

HELSINKI, Finland: Tourism is bound for new heights with the first space tourists predicted to suit up and travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere later this year, according to a space technology expert.

Darren Trofimczuk, an educational technology expert and lecturer at Finland’s Haaga-Helia University, predicted that Virgin Galactic, part of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group empire, will be the first among the three key players to commercially fly tourists to space.

“The tourism sector is on the cusp of a huge change. This is the next space race and the journey has just started,” he told Arab News at a media briefing in Porvoo, Finland.

Virgin Galactic already has the spaceplane VSS Unity, which is in the latter stages of flight testing that included two piloted missions to the edge of space, and is assembling a second vehicle.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, is testing its Starship rocket, which is capable of carrying up to 100 people, while Blue Origin, formed by Amazon founder Geoff Bezos, last May announced plans to land a spacecraft named Blue Moon on the lunar surface.

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansouri’s historic mission to the International Space Station in September last year heightened the Gulf region’s interest with space and space tourism.

And Trofimczuk said the interest remains high despite the cost of suborbital travel anywhere from $250,000 to tens of millions of dollars depending on the destination.

But Trofimczuk said space tourism was especially appealing to the younger generation who dream of traveling ‘to infinity and beyond’, and see it as more than just riding a rocketship and zooming to the edge of Earth.

Haaga-Helia University, where Trofimczuk lectures on aviation degree programs, has a course module that can be tailored for Gulf students interested in space tourism, or even pursuing a career in it.

The six-stage program, conducted through personalized lectures, e-learning access and webinars, covers among other topics current research, trends, legislation and growth forecasting for the sector.

The course also focuses on how the space tourism sector could be economically sustainable without impacting heavily on the environment, according to Trofimczuk, who handles the course with Annette Toivonen, another specialist on sustainable space tourism at the university.

He said he believes that over time the costs of space travel will likely fall to more affordable prices, allowing the average middle-income earner to purchase a ticket – maybe even as low as $50,000 – possibly by at least 2030, Trofimczuk said.

“Students who have knowledge of space tourism will increase their chances of finding employment in a fast-growing sector,” he added. “Space tourism is new, but in five years it will build up awareness and in 10 years jobs would be created.”

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)

“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.