Sunday, July 18, 2021

Fast computers, 5G networks and radar that passes through walls are bringing ‘X-ray vision’ closer to reality

Seeing through walls has long been a staple of comics and science fiction. Something like it could soon be a reality. Paul Gilligan/Photodisc via Getty Images
Aly Fathy, University of Tennessee

Within seconds after reaching a city, earthquakes can cause immense destruction: Houses crumble, high-rises turn to rubble, people and animals are buried in the debris.

In the immediate aftermath of such carnage, emergency personnel desperately search for any sign of life in what used to be a home or office. Often, however, they find that they were digging in the wrong pile of rubble, and precious time has passed.

Imagine if rescuers could see through the debris to spot survivors under the rubble, measure their vital signs and even generate images of the victims. This is rapidly becoming possible using see-through-wall radar technology. Early versions of the technology that indicate whether a person is present in a room have been in use for several years, and some can measure vital signs albeit under better conditions than through rubble.

I’m an electrical engineer who researches electromagnetic communication and imaging systems. I and others are using fast computers, new algorithms and radar transceivers that collect large amounts of data to enable something much closer to the X-ray vision of science fiction and comic books. This emerging technology will make it possible to determine how many occupants are present behind a wall or barrier, where they are, what items they might be carrying and, in policing or military uses, even what type of body armor they might be wearing.

These see-through-wall radars will also be able to track individuals’ movements, and heart and respiration rates. The technology could also be used to determine from a distance the entire layout of a building, down to the location of pipes and wires within the walls, and detect hidden weapons and booby traps.

See-through-wall technology has been under development since the Cold War as a way to replace drilling holes through walls for spying. There are a few commercial products on the market today, like Range-R radar, that are used by law enforcement officers to track motion behind walls.

How radar works

Radar stands for radio detection and ranging. Using radio waves, a radar sends a signal that travels at the speed of light. If the signal hits an object like a plane, for example, it is reflected back toward a receiver and an echo is seen in the radar’s screen after a certain time delay. This echo can then be used to estimate the location of the object.

In 1842, Christian Doppler, an Austrian physicist, described a phenomenon now known as the Doppler effect or Doppler shift, where the change in frequency of a signal is related to the speed and direction of the source of the signal. In Doppler’s original case, this was the light from a binary star system. This is similar to the changing pitch of a siren as an emergency vehicle speeds toward you, passes you and then moves away. Doppler radar uses this effect to compare the frequencies of the transmitted and reflected signals to determine the direction and speed of moving objects, like thunderstorms and speeding cars.

The Doppler effect can be used to detect tiny motions, including heartbeats and chest movement associated with breathing. In these examples, the Doppler radar sends a signal to a human body, and the reflected signal differs based on whether the person is inhaling or exhaling, or even based on the person’s heart rate. This allows the technology to accurately measure these vital signs.

How radar can go through walls

Like cellphones, radars use electromagnetic waves. When a wave hits solid walls like drywall or wood walls, a fraction of it is reflected off the surface. But the rest travels through the wall, especially at relatively low radio frequencies. The transmitted wave can be totally reflected back if it hits a metal object or even a human, because the human body’s high water content makes it highly reflective.

If the radar’s receiver is sensitive enough – a lot more sensitive than ordinary radar receivers – it can pick up the signals that are reflected back through the wall. Using well-established signal processing techniques, the reflections from static objects like walls and furniture can be filtered out, allowing the signal of interest – like a person’s location – to be isolated.

A diagram showing a square on the left, a vertical rectangle in the middle and a sphere on the right. A series of four diminishing sine waves pass from the square to the wall, the wall to the sphere, the sphere back to the wall and from the wall to the sq
The key to using radar to track objects on the other side of a wall is having a very sensitive antenna that can pick up the greatly diminished reflected radio waves. Abdel-Kareem Moadi, CC BY-ND

Turning data into images

Historically, radar technology has been limited in its ability to aid in disaster management and law enforcement because it hasn’t had sufficient computational power or speed to filter out background noise from complicated environments like foliage or rubble and produce live images.

Today, however, radar sensors can often collect and process large amounts of data – even in harsh environments – and generate high-resolution images of targets. By using sophisticated algorithms, they can display the data in near real-time. This requires fast computer processors to rapidly handle these large amounts of data, and wideband circuits that can rapidly transmit data to improve the images’ resolution.

Recent developments in millimeter wave wireless technology, from 5G to 5G+ and beyond, are likely to help further improve this technology, providing higher-resolution images through order-of-magnitude wider bandwidth. The wireless technology will also speed data processing times because it greatly reduces latency, the time between transmitting and receiving data.

My laboratory is developing fast methods to remotely characterize the electrical characteristics of walls, which help in calibrating the radar waves and optimize the antennas to make the waves more easily pass through the wall and essentially make the wall transparent to the waves. We are also developing the software and hardware system to carry out the radar systems’ big data analyses in near real-time.

On the left, a laboratory set up showing a cinderblock wall and a foil-covered cardboard silhouette of a person, and, on the right, a radar image showing a corresponding silhouette in a three-dimensional space
This laboratory wall-penetrating radar provides more detail than today’s commercial systems. Aly Fathy

Better electronics promise portable radars

Radar systems at the low frequencies usually required to see through walls are bulky due to the large size of the antenna. The wavelength of electromagnetic signals corresponds to the size of the antenna. Scientists have been pushing see-through-wall radar technology to higher frequencies in order to build smaller and more portable systems.

In addition to providing a tool for emergency services, law enforcement and the military, the technology could also be used to monitor the elderly and read vital signs of patients with infectious diseases like COVID-19 from outside a hospital room.

One indication of see-through-wall radar’s potential is the U.S. Army’s interest. They’re looking for technology that can create three-dimensional maps of buildings and their occupants in almost real-time. They are even looking for see-through-wall radar that can create images of people’s faces that are accurate enough for facial recognition systems to identify the people behind the wall.

Whether or not researchers can develop see-through-wall radar that’s sensitive enough to distinguish people by their faces, the technology is likely to move well beyond blobs on a screen to give first responders something like superhuman powers.

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Aly Fathy, Professor of Electrical Engineering, University of Tennessee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

An expert on search and rescue robots explains the technologies used in disasters like the Florida condo collapse

A drone flies above search and rescue personnel at the site of the Champlain Towers South Condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Robin R. Murphy, Texas A&M University

Texas A&M’s Robin Murphy has deployed robots at 29 disasters, including three building collapses, two mine disasters and an earthquake as director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. She has also served as a technical search specialist with the Hillsboro County (Florida) Fire and Rescue Department. The Conversation talked to Murphy to provide readers an understanding of the types of technologies that search and rescue crews at the Champlain Towers South disaster site in Surfside, Florida, have at their disposal, as well as some they don’t. The interview has been edited for length.

What types of technologies are rescuers using at the Surfside condo collapse site?

We don’t have reports about it from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, but news coverage shows that they’re using drones.

A standard kit for a technical search specialist would be basically a backpack of tools for searching the interior of the rubble: listening devices and a camera-on-a-wand or borescope for looking into the rubble.

How are drones typically used to help searchers?

They’re used to get a view from above to map the disaster and help plan the search, answering questions like: What does the site look like? Where is everybody? Oh crap, there’s smoke. Where is it coming from? Can we figure out what that part of the rubble looks like?

In Surfside, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were also flying up to look at those balconies that are still intact and the parts that are hanging over. A structural specialist with binoculars generally can’t see accurately above three stories. So they don’t have a lot of ability to determine if a building’s safe for people to be near, to be working around or in, by looking from the ground.

to the left a drone is in the air, to the right are two balconies of an apartment building tower
Search and rescue personnel use a drone to inspect the upper floors of the remaining portion of the Champlain Towers South Condo building. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Drones can take a series of photos to generate orthomosaics. Orthomosaics are like those maps of Mars where they use software to glue all the individual photos together and it’s a complete map of the planet. You can imagine how useful an orthomosaic can be for dividing up an area for a search and seeing the progress of the search and rescue effort.

Search and rescue teams can use that same data for a digital elevation map. That’s software that gets the topology of the rubble and you can start actually measuring how high the pile is, how thick that slab is, that this piece of rubble must have come from this part of the building, and those sorts of things.

How might ground robots be used in this type of disaster?

The current state of the practice for searching the interior of rubble is to use either a small tracked vehicle, such as an Inkutun VGTV Extreme, which is the most commonly used robot for such situations, or a snakelike robot, such as the Active Scope Camera developed in Japan.

Teledyne FLIR is sending a couple of tracked robots and operators to the site in Surfside, Florida.

Ground robots are typically used to go into places that searchers can’t fit into and go farther than search cameras can. Search cams typically max out at 18 feet, whereas ground robots have been able to go over 60 feet into rubble. They are also used to go into unsafe voids that a rescuer could fit in but that would be unsafe and thus would require teams to work for hours to shore up before anyone could enter it safely.

In theory, ground robots could also be used to allow medical personnel to see and talk with survivors trapped in rubble, and carry small packages of water and medicine to them. But so far no search and rescue teams anywhere have found anyone alive with a ground robot.

What are the challenges for using ground robots inside rubble?

The big problem is seeing inside the rubble. You’ve got basically a concrete, sheetrock, piping and furniture version of pickup sticks. If you can get a robot into the rubble, then the structural engineers can see the interior of that pile of pickup sticks and say “Oh, OK, we’re not going pull on that, that’s going to cause a secondary collapse. OK, we should start on this side, we’ll get through the debris quicker and safer.”

Going inside rubble piles is really hard. Scale is important. If the void spaces are on the order of the size of the robot, it’s tricky. If something goes wrong, it can’t turn around; it has to drive backward. Tortuosity – how many turns per meter – is also important. The more turns, the harder it is.

There’s also different surfaces. The robot may be on a concrete floor, next thing it’s on a patch of somebody’s shag carpeting. Then it’s got to go through a bunch of concrete that’s been pulverized into sand. There’s dust kicking up. The surroundings may be wet from all the sewage and all the water from sprinkler systems and the sand and dust start acting like mud. So it gets really hard really fast in terms of mobility.

The author’s work includes putting robots through their paces at Texas A&M’s ‘Disaster City,’ a training facility with full-scale mockups of disaster sites including collapsed buildings.

What is your current research focus?

We look at human-robot interaction. We discovered that of all of the robots we could find in use, including ours – and we were the leading group in deploying robots in disasters – 51% of the failures during a disaster deployment were due to human error.

It’s challenging to work in these environments. I’ve never been in a disaster where there wasn’t some sort of surprise related to perception, something that you didn’t realize you needed to look for until you’re there.

What is your ideal search and rescue robot?

I’d like someone to develop a robot ferret. Ferrets are kind of snakey-looking mammals. But they have legs, small little legs. They can scoot around like a snake. They can claw with their little feet and climb up on uneven rocks. They can do a full meerkat, meaning they can stretch up really high and look around. They’re really good at balance, so they don’t fall over. They can be looking up and all of a sudden the ground starts to shift and they’re down and they’re gone – they’re fast.

How do you see the field of search and rescue robots going forward?

There’s no real funding for these types of ground robots. So there’s no economic incentive to develop robots for building collapses, which are very rare, thank goodness.

And the public safety agencies can’t afford them. They typically cost US$50,000 to $150,000 versus as little as $1,000 for an aerial drone. So the cost-benefit doesn’t seem to be there.

I’m very frustrated with this. We’re still about the same level we were 20 years ago at the World Trade Center.

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Robin R. Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering; Vice-President Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (nfp), Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Ransomware, data breach, cyberattack: What do they have to do with your personal information, and how worried should you be?

Credit bureau Equifax announced in 2017 that the personal information of 143 million Americans – about three-quarters of all adults – had been exposed in a major data breach. AP Photo/Mike Stewart
Merrill Warkentin, Mississippi State University

The headlines are filled with news about ransomware attacks tying up organizations large and small, data breaches at major brand-name companies and cyberattacks by shadowy hackers associated with Russia, China and North Korea. Are these threats to your personal information?

If it’s a ransomware attack on a pipeline company, probably not. If it’s a hack by foreign agents of a government agency, maybe, particularly if you’re a government employee. If it’s a data breach at a credit bureau, social media company or major retailer, very likely.

The bottom line is that your online data is not safe. Every week a new major data breach is reported, and most Americans have experienced some form of data theft. And it could hurt you. What should you do?

Mildly annoyed or majorly aggrieved

First, was the latest digital crime a ransomware attack or was it a data breach? Ransomware attacks encrypt, or lock up, your programs or data files, but your data is usually not exposed, so you probably have nothing to worry about. If the target is a company whose services you use, you might be inconvenienced while the company is out of commission.

If it was a data breach, find out if your information has been exposed. You may have been notified that your personal data was exposed. U.S. laws require companies to tell you if your data was stolen. But you can also check for yourself at

A data breach could include theft of your online credentials: your user name and password. But hackers might also steal your bank account or credit card numbers or other sensitive or protected information, such as your personal health information, your email address, phone number, street address or Social Security number.

Having your data stolen from a company can be scary, but it is also an opportunity to take stock and apply some common-sense measures to protect your data elsewhere. Even if your data has not been exposed yet, why not take the time now to protect yourself?

How bad is it?

As a cybersecurity scholar, I suggest that you make a risk assessment. Ask yourself some simple questions, then take some precautions.

If you know your data was stolen, the most important question is what kind of data was stolen. Data thieves, just like car thieves, want to steal something valuable. Consider how attractive the data might be to someone else. Was it highly sensitive data that could harm you if it were in the wrong hands, like financial account records? Or was it data that couldn’t really cause you any problems if someone got hold of it? What information is your worst-case vulnerability if it were stolen? What could happen if data thieves take it?

Many e-commerce sites retain your purchase history, but not your credit card number, so ask yourself, did I authorize them to keep it on file? If you make recurring purchases from the site, such as at hotel chains, airlines and grocery stores, the answer is probably yes. Thieves don’t care about your seat preferences. They want to steal your credit card info or your loyalty rewards to sell on the black market.

What to do

A hand holds a smartphone showing a text message on the screen
Two-factor authentication, which typically involves receiving a code in a text message, provides an extra layer of security in case your password is stolen. The Focal Project/Flickr, CC BY-NC

If you haven’t already, set up two-factor authentication with all websites that store your valuable data. If data thieves stole your password, but you use two-factor authentication, then they can’t use your password to access your account.

It takes a little effort to enter that single-use code sent to your phone each time, but it does protect you from harm when the inevitable breach occurs. Even better, use an authentication app rather than texting for two-factor authentication. This is especially critical for your bank and brokerage accounts. If you think your health-related information is valuable or sensitive, you should also take extra precautions with your health care provider’s website, your insurance company and your pharmacy.

If you used a unique password instead of reusing a favorite password you’ve used elsewhere, hackers can’t successfully use your credentials to access your other accounts. One-third of users are vulnerable because they use the same password for every account.

Take this opportunity to change your passwords, especially at banks, brokerages and any site that retains your credit card number. You can record your unique passwords on a piece of paper hidden at home or in an encrypted file you keep in the cloud. Or you can download and install a good password manager. Password managers encrypt passwords on your devices before they’re sent into the cloud, so your passwords are protected even if the password manager company is hacked.

If your credit card number was exposed, you should notify your bank. Now is a good time to set up mobile banking alerts to receive notifications of unusual activity, big purchases and so on. Your bank may want to issue new cards with new numbers to you. That’s considerably less of a hassle than experiencing identity theft.

You should also consider closing old unused accounts so that the information associated with them is no longer available. Do you have a loyalty account with a hotel chain, restaurant or airline that you haven’t used in years and won’t use again? Close it. If you have a credit card with that company, make sure they report the account closure to the credit reporting agencies.

Now is a great time to check your credit reports from all three credit bureaus. Do you rarely apply for new credit and want to protect your identity? If so, freeze your credit. Make sure to generate unique passwords and record them at home in case you need to unfreeze your credit later to apply for a loan. This will help protect you from some of the worst consequences of identity theft.The Conversation

Merrill Warkentin, James J. Rouse Endowed Professor of Information Systems, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Study shows AI-generated fake reports fool experts

It doesn’t take a human mind to produce misinformation convincing enough to fool experts in such critical fields as cybersecurity. iLexx/iStock via Getty Images
Priyanka Ranade, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Anupam Joshi, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Tim Finin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


· AIs can generate fake reports that are convincing enough to trick cybersecurity experts.

· If widely used, these AIs could hinder efforts to defend against cyberattacks.

· These systems could set off an AI arms race between misinformation generators and detectors.

If you use such social media websites as Facebook and Twitter, you may have come across posts flagged with warnings about misinformation. So far, most misinformation – flagged and unflagged – has been aimed at the general public. Imagine the possibility of misinformation – information that is false or misleading – in scientific and technical fields like cybersecurity, public safety and medicine.

There is growing concern about misinformation spreading in these critical fields as a result of common biases and practices in publishing scientific literature, even in peer-reviewed research papers. As a graduate student and as faculty members doing research in cybersecurity, we studied a new avenue of misinformation in the scientific community. We found that it’s possible for artificial intelligence systems to generate false information in critical fields like medicine and defense that is convincing enough to fool experts.

General misinformation often aims to tarnish the reputation of companies or public figures. Misinformation within communities of expertise has the potential for scary outcomes such as delivering incorrect medical advice to doctors and patients. This could put lives at risk.

To test this threat, we studied the impacts of spreading misinformation in the cybersecurity and medical communities. We used artificial intelligence models dubbed transformers to generate false cybersecurity news and COVID-19 medical studies and presented the cybersecurity misinformation to cybersecurity experts for testing. We found that transformer-generated misinformation was able to fool cybersecurity experts.


Much of the technology used to identify and manage misinformation is powered by artificial intelligence. AI allows computer scientists to fact-check large amounts of misinformation quickly, given that there’s too much for people to detect without the help of technology. Although AI helps people detect misinformation, it has ironically also been used to produce misinformation in recent years.

A block of text on a smartphone screen
AI can help detect misinformation like these false claims about COVID-19 in India – but what happens when AI is used to generate the misinformation? AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia

Transformers, like BERT from Google and GPT from OpenAI, use natural language processing to understand text and produce translations, summaries and interpretations. They have been used in such tasks as storytelling and answering questions, pushing the boundaries of machines displaying humanlike capabilities in generating text.

Transformers have aided Google and other technology companies by improving their search engines and have helped the general public in combating such common problems as battling writer’s block.

Transformers can also be used for malevolent purposes. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have already faced the challenges of AI-generated fake news across platforms.

Critical misinformation

Our research shows that transformers also pose a misinformation threat in medicine and cybersecurity. To illustrate how serious this is, we fine-tuned the GPT-2 transformer model on open online sources discussing cybersecurity vulnerabilities and attack information. A cybersecurity vulnerability is the weakness of a computer system, and a cybersecurity attack is an act that exploits a vulnerability. For example, if a vulnerability is a weak Facebook password, an attack exploiting it would be a hacker figuring out your password and breaking into your account.

We then seeded the model with the sentence or phrase of an actual cyberthreat intelligence sample and had it generate the rest of the threat description. We presented this generated description to cyberthreat hunters, who sift through lots of information about cybersecurity threats. These professionals read the threat descriptions to identify potential attacks and adjust the defenses of their systems.

We were surprised by the results. The cybersecurity misinformation examples we generated were able to fool cyberthreat hunters, who are knowledgeable about all kinds of cybersecurity attacks and vulnerabilities. Imagine this scenario with a crucial piece of cyberthreat intelligence that involves the airline industry, which we generated in our study.

A block of text with false information about a cybersecurity attack on airlines
An example of AI-generated cybersecurity misinformation. The Conversation, CC BY-ND

This misleading piece of information contains incorrect information concerning cyberattacks on airlines with sensitive real-time flight data. This false information could keep cyber analysts from addressing legitimate vulnerabilities in their systems by shifting their attention to fake software bugs. If a cyber analyst acts on the fake information in a real-world scenario, the airline in question could have faced a serious attack that exploits a real, unaddressed vulnerability.

A similar transformer-based model can generate information in the medical domain and potentially fool medical experts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, preprints of research papers that have not yet undergone a rigorous review are constantly being uploaded to such sites as medrXiv. They are not only being described in the press but are being used to make public health decisions. Consider the following, which is not real but generated by our model after minimal fine-tuning of the default GPT-2 on some COVID-19-related papers.

A block of text showing health care misinformation.
An example of AI-generated health care misinformation. The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The model was able to generate complete sentences and form an abstract allegedly describing the side effects of COVID-19 vaccinations and the experiments that were conducted. This is troubling both for medical researchers, who consistently rely on accurate information to make informed decisions, and for members of the general public, who often rely on public news to learn about critical health information. If accepted as accurate, this kind of misinformation could put lives at risk by misdirecting the efforts of scientists conducting biomedical research.

[The Conversation’s most important coronavirus headlines, weekly in a science newsletter]

An AI misinformation arms race?

Although examples like these from our study can be fact-checked, transformer-generated misinformation hinders such industries as health care and cybersecurity in adopting AI to help with information overload. For example, automated systems are being developed to extract data from cyberthreat intelligence that is then used to inform and train automated systems to recognize possible attacks. If these automated systems process such false cybersecurity text, they will be less effective at detecting true threats.

We believe the result could be an arms race as people spreading misinformation develop better ways to create false information in response to effective ways to recognize it.

Cybersecurity researchers continuously study ways to detect misinformation in different domains. Understanding how to automatically generate misinformation helps in understanding how to recognize it. For example, automatically generated information often has subtle grammatical mistakes that systems can be trained to detect. Systems can also cross-correlate information from multiple sources and identify claims lacking substantial support from other sources.

Ultimately, everyone should be more vigilant about what information is trustworthy and be aware that hackers exploit people’s credulity, especially if the information is not from reputable news sources or published scientific work.The Conversation

Priyanka Ranade, PhD Student in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Anupam Joshi, Professor of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Tim Finin, Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Space tourism is here – 20 years after the first stellar tourist, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans to send civilians to space

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson on the International Space Station with a view many more are likely to see soon. NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson/WIkimediaCommons
Wendy Whitman Cobb, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

For most people, getting to the stars is nothing more than a dream. But on May 5, 2021, the 60th anniversary of the first suborbital flight, that dream became a little bit more achievable.

The space company Blue Origin announced that it would start selling tickets for suborbital flights to the edge of space. The first flight is scheduled for July 20, and Jeff Bezos’ company is auctioning off one single ticket to the highest bidder.

But whoever places the winning bid won’t be the first tourist in space.

On April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito, a wealthy businessman, paid US$20 million for a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be the first tourist to visit the International Space Station. Only seven civilians have followed suit in the 20 years since, but that number is poised to double in the next 12 months alone.

NASA has long been hesitant to play host to space tourists, so Russia – looking for sources of money post-Cold War in the 1990s and 2000s – has been the only option available to those looking for this kind of extreme adventure. However, it seems the rise of private space companies is going to make it easier for regular people to experience space.

From my perspective as a space policy analyst, recent announcements from companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are the opening of an era in which more people can experience space. Hoping to build a future for humanity in space, these companies are seeking to use space tourism as a way to demonstrate both the safety and reliability of space travel to the general public.

Three men floating in the International Space Station
Dennis Tito, on the left beside two Russian astronauts, was the first private citizen to ever go to space – and he spent more than a week on the International Space Station. NASA/WikimediaCommons

The development of space tourism

Flights to space like Dennis Tito’s are expensive for a reason. A rocket must burn a lot of costly fuel to travel high and fast enough to enter Earth’s orbit.

Another cheaper possibility is a suborbital launch, with the rocket going high enough to reach the edge of space and coming right back down. This is the kind of flight that Blue Origin is now offering. While passengers on a suborbital trip experience weightlessness and incredible views, these launches are more accessible.

The difficulty and expense of either option has meant that, traditionally, only nation-states have been able to explore space. This began to change in the 1990s as a series of entrepreneurs entered the space arena. Three companies led by billionaire CEOs have emerged as the major players: Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Though none have taken paying, private customers to space, all anticipate doing so in the very near future.

British billionaire Richard Branson has built his brand on not just business but also his love of adventure. In pursuing space tourism, Branson has brought both of those to bear. He established Virgin Galactic after buying SpaceShipOne – a company that won the Ansari X-Prize by building the first reusable spaceship. Since then, Virgin Galactic has sought to design, build and fly a larger SpaceShipTwo that can carry up to six passengers in a suborbital flight.

A silvery ship that looks like a fighter plane with elongated tail fins.
The VSS Unity spacecraft is one of the ships that Virgin Galactic plans to use for space tours. AP Photo/Matt Hartman

The going has been harder than anticipated. While Branson predicted opening the business to tourists in 2009, Virgin Galactic has encountered some significant hurdles – including the death of a pilot in a crash in 2014. After the crash, engineers found significant problems with the design of the vehicle, which required modifications.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respective leaders of SpaceX and Blue Origin, began their own ventures in the early 2000s.

Musk, fearing that a catastrophe of some sort could leave Earth uninhabitable, was frustrated at the lack of progress in making humanity a multiplanetary species. He founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of first developing reusable launch technology to decrease the cost of getting to space. Since then, SpaceX has found success with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX’s ultimate goal is human settlement of Mars; sending paying customers to space is an intermediate step. Musk says he hopes to show that space travel can be done easily and that tourism might provide a revenue stream to support development of the larger, Mars-focused Starship system.

Bezos, inspired by the vision of physicist Gerard O’Neill, wants to expand humanity and industry not to Mars but to space itself. Blue Origin, established in 2004, has proceeded slowly and quietly in also developing reusable rockets. Its New Shepard rocket, first successfully flown in 2015, will be the spaceship taking tourists on suborbital trips to the edge of space this July. For Bezos, these launches represent an effort at making space travel routine, reliable and accessible as a first step to enabling further space exploration.

A large silvery rocket standing upright on a launchpad.
SpaceX has already started selling tickets to the public and has future plans to use its Starship rocket, a prototype of which is seen here, to send people to Mars. Jared Krahn/WikimediaCommons, CC BY-SA

Outlook for the future

Blue Origin is not the only company offering passengers the opportunity to go into space and orbit the Earth.

SpaceX currently has two tourist launches planned. The first is scheduled for as early as September 2021, funded by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman. The other trip, planned for 2022, is being organized by Axiom Space. These trips will be costly for wannabe space travelers, at $55 million for the flight and a stay on the International Space Station. The high cost has led some to warn that space tourism – and private access to space more broadly – might reinforce inequality between rich and poor.

A white domed capsule with windows in the Texas desert.
The first tourist to fly on a privately owned spaceship will ride in Blue Origin’s New Shepard Crew Capsule, seen here after a test flight in Texas. NASA Flight Opportunities/WikimediaCommons

While Blue Origin is already accepting bids for a seat on the first launch, it has not yet announced the cost of a ticket for future trips. Passengers will also need to meet several physical qualifications, including weighing 110 to 223 pounds (50 to 101 kg) and measuring between 5 feet and 6 feet, 4 inches (1.5 to 1.9 meters) in height. Virgin Galactic, which continues to test SpaceShipTwo, has no specific timetable, but its tickets are expected to be priced from $200,000 to $250,000.

Though these prices are high, it is worth considering that Dennis Tito’s $20 million ticket in 2001 could potentially pay for 100 flights on Blue Origin soon. The experience of viewing the Earth from space, though, may prove to be priceless for a whole new generation of space explorers.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 28, 2021. It has been updated to include the announcement by Blue Origin.The Conversation

Wendy Whitman Cobb, Professor of Strategy and Security Studies, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.