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Lockheed Begins Construction on NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Aircraft

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Lockheed Martin and NASA are bringing us one step closer to supersonic travel over land.

The firm’s advanced design and development division, Skunk Works, has begun manufacturing the first part for the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft.

For nearly 30 years, the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner operated at a speedy Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph at cruise altitude).

Now, NASA and Lockheed Martin are collaborating to bring supersonic passenger travel back: Earlier this year, the space agency chose Skunk Works to design, build, and test the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator.

“The start of manufacturing on the project marks a great leap forward for the X-59 and the future of quiet supersonic commercial travel,” program manager Peter Iosifidis said in a statement.

One of the biggest issued with the Concorde was its sonic boom—the sound associated with shock waves created by an object traveling through the air faster than the speed of sound—on the ground.

A prohibition on supersonic flight over land meant the aircraft could travel at its phenomenal speeds only over the Atlantic.

Illustration of the X-59 QueSST as it flies above NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California (via Lockheed Martin/NASA)

So, Lockheed and NASA are trying something new.

“The long, slender design of the aircraft is the key to achieving a low sonic boom,” according to Iosifidis.

Designed to cruise at 55,000 feet at a speed of about 940 mph, the X-59 QueSST will (fingers crossed!) reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump—about as loud as a car door closing.

Based on NASA’s official timeline, the X-plane will conduct its first flight in 2021, gliding above select U.S. communities to measure public perception of the noise.

Data collected will help NASA establish new rules to overturn current regulations banning supersonic travel over land.

The agency has already begun, earlier this month conducting a series of quiet supersonic research flights using F/A-18 jets off the Texas Gulf Coast.

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Taylor Swift (Possibly) Used Facial Recognition to Catch Stalkers at Concert

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Look what you made Taylor Swift do: The singer-songwriter reportedly employed facial recognition software to scan for stalkers at her Rose Bowl concert in May.

As reported by Rolling Stone, the fan-favorite kiosk showing clips of Swift in rehearsal was actually a front for high-tech security.

Inside, a hidden camera snapped photos of people as they peered in to watch run-throughs of the May 18 stadium event.

Images, sent to a “command post” in Nashville, were then cross-referenced with a database of hundreds of the pop star’s known stalkers, according to Mike Downing, chief security officer at Oak View Group, an advisory board for concert venues.

“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” Downing, who personally attended the concert, told Rolling Stone.

Neither Oak View Group nor Swift’s reps immediately responded to a request for comment.

It is unclear who owns the kiosk in question, and whether the collected footage was kept on file. Or, for that matter, whether any real stalkers were identified by surveillance officers some 2,000 miles away.

Before you call a lawyer or draft a petition, keep in mind that concert venues are typically private locations. Which, according to Quartz, means that owners can subject attendees to “any kind of surveillance they want”—including facial recognition.

Despite its privacy concerns, the technology is on the rise, cropping up in China, where police are experimenting with AR glasses and authorities are cracking down on jaywalkers, and the US.

Early this year, Customs and Border Protection began rolling out cameras at the Mexico-Texas border, and the Secret Service are planning to test similar tech at the White House.

These sorts of trials have, understandably, conjured an Orwellian “Big Brother” impression across the country, where folks are concerned that ever-evolving facial recognition technology may not always be accurate.

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Virgin Galactic Is Ready to Go to Space

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Virgin Galactic hopes to reach space for the first time today (weather permitting).

Richard Branson’s spaceflight company this week revealed the window for its next powered test flight of VSS Unity opens on Dec. 13.

“We are currently planning to fly at the opening of that window on Thursday, pending acceptable weather and technical readiness,” a blog post said.

No further announcements have been made.

During this fourth phase of testing, the firm hopes to push VSS Unity higher and faster than ever before, burning the rocket motor for longer (though not to its full duration).

“Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone,” the company admitted.

As of October, Virgin Galactic was “more than tantalizingly close” to leaving Earth’s atmosphere, according to Richard Branson.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months,” the Virgin Group founder and CEO told CNBC.

“And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” he continued. “And then we’ll be in space with people not too long after that.”

Since its founding in 2004, the spaceflight company has been on a rollercoaster to the cosmos: The White Knight Two carrier plane and suborbital SpaceShipTwo flew together in 2010.

But a series of delays has grounded the firm, which suffered a disaster four years ago, when the VSS Enterprise broke apart in midair, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Replacement ship VSS Unity completed its first successful glide test in December 2016, and another six by January of this year. It performed powered test flights in April and May.

“Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it,” the blog said. “There is no guarantee that everything will work perfectly first time and, like all programs seeking to take bold steps, we will inevitably have times when things don’t go as planned.

“Our team’s biggest priority is to use meticulous planning and preparation to ensure that stages are dealt with safety, and that every outcome informs and improves future performance,” Virgin Galactic continued.

Keep an eye on the skies, as Branson & Co. gear up to finally take their first trip to space.

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Robot Successfully Delivers Coral Babies to Great Barrier Reef

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Call the drone midwife: A robot successfully delivered coral larvae directly onto the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In a world first, an undersea android dispersed microscopic baby corals as part of a project to to help repopulate parts of the 1,429-mile ecosystem.

The initiative builds on Southern Cross University professor Peter Harrison’s larval reseeding technique, piloted on the southern Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017.

“This year represents a big step up for our larval restoration research,” Harrison said in a statement.

“[It is] the first time we’ve been able to capture coral spawn on a bigger scale using large floating spawn catchers, then rearing them into tiny coral larvae in our specially constructed larval pools and settling them on damaged reef areas,” he explained.

Birthing partner Matthew Dunbabin, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, re-engineered QUT’s reef protector RangerBot into LarvalBot—specifically for Harrison’s project.

With a capacity to carry around 100,000 coral larvae per mission (and plans to scale up to millions), the robot gently releases the tots onto damaged reef areas, allowing them to settle and, eventually, develop into coral polyps.

“During this year’s trial, the robot was tethered so it could be monitored precisely,” Dunbabin said. “But future missions will see it operate alone and on a much larger scale.”

It’s like spreading fertilizer on your lawn,” he added.

Following this year’s initial trial, the pair plan to fully implement their proposal in 2019, using their specialized robot elsewhere in Australia, and around the world.

“With further research and refinement, this technique has enormous potential to operate across large areas of reef and multiple sites in a way that hasn’t previously been possible,” Harrison said. “We’ll be closely monitoring the progress of settled baby corals over coming months and working to refine both the technology and the technique to scale up further in 2019.”

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