Virgin Galactic said its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane suffered a “serious anomaly” during a powered test flight on Friday that resulted in the loss of the aircraft.
The anomaly occurred after the plane was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and fired up its rocket engine in flight for the first time in more than nine months. Sources said SpaceShipTwo exploded in midflight, and debris fell onto California’s Mojave Desert.
“The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement. “Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time.”
Two pilots fly in SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit during a test. Those pilots are equipped with parachutes, and after the anomaly, chutes were reportedly sighted over the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the base from which SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane took off.
Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, told NBC News that he saw an explosion in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert. Mojave airport’s director, Stuart Witt, told NBC News that the craft crashed north of Mojave. He said a news conference was scheduled for 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).
During the nine months since the previous rocket-powered test in January, Virgin Galactic switched SpaceShipTwo’s fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix — in hopes that the new formulation would boost the hybrid rocket engine’s performance.
Before Friday’s flight, the most recent aerial outing was on Oct. 7, when SpaceShipTwo took an unpowered, gliding flight back to the Mojave runway.
The latest test got off to a slow start. SpaceShipTwo spent more than three hours on the Mojave runway, slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, while the ground team assessed whether the weather was right for flight. The go-ahead was finally given for takeoff at 9:19 a.m. PT (12:19 p.m. ET).
It took WhiteKnightTwo about 45 minutes to get to 50,000 feet, the altitude at which it released SpaceShipTwo for free flight.
The aim of such flights was to test SpaceShipTwo in preparation for suborbital trips to the edge of outer space. Virgin Galactic had said SpaceShipTwo’s first trip to an outer-space altitude — usually defined as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — could have taken place before the end of the year, depending on how the tests went. And the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was hoping to ride on the first commercial flight next year.
More than 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 for a ride on the rocket plane.
Andy Rubin, who co-founded the Android project, is leaving Google. According to The Wall Street Journal, Rubin’s departing to create an incubator for hardware startups. His role heading up the company’s robotics will be taken up by James Kuffner, a research scientist at the company and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
In a statement, Google’s CEO Larry Page thanked Rubin for his work. “I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next,” Page said. “With Android he created something truly remarkable-with a billion plus happy users. Thank you.”
RUBIN’S BEEN AT GOOGLE FOR NEARLY A DECADE
Rubin originally joined Google as part of the company’s highly secretive acquisition of Android in 2005. In the years that followed, he helped turn it from a startup project into what’s now a cornerstone of Google’s business, and the most dominant mobile operating system in the world. Prior to Android, Rubin was working at Danger, the company that created the Sidekick mobile phone. He also had stints at Apple, General Magic, and working on the WebTV project (which sold to Microsoft).
The move is, perhaps, not a total surprise. Last March, Rubin left the Android group and was replaced by Sundar Pichai. His latest project, as detailed in a lengthy New York Times report in December, was creating robots for a project outside of the company’s Google X lab, something that dovetailed with Google’s shopping spree of robotics companies. In 2012, there were also rumors abound that Rubin planned to leave for a stealth-mode startup called CloudCar, though they were vehemently denied.
Wednesday night Microsoft confirmed what we all expected—that it too, has a smartwatch that it wants you to wear 24/7, for work and for play, called the Microsoft Band.
Looking as much like a hospital bracelet as anything else, the $200 Microsoft Band features a rectangular, 320 x106 TFT display that hovers over your wrist. Sensors—a continuous optical heart monitor, GPS, UV sensor, and more—track your activity while on the move and at rest, and send the data to what Microsoft calls the Intelligence Engine, aka Cortana’s little brother. The Band is then designed to work with third-party apps developers, including MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Starbucks—which has developed a “payment” app of sorts.
In all, Microsoft is calling the Band its flagship device of Microsoft Health, a reboot of sorts for a health initiative it tried to establish with products like HealthVault. If you choose, you can store the data the Band collects in HealthVault and share it with your medical provider. Otherwise, Microsoft sees the Band, and Health, as a new way to collect data about you that it can use to improve your day.
How? Initially, Microsoft sees the Intelligence Engine as supplying suggestions on how long to recover from a workout, for example. Over time, the Engine will apparently be able to comment on whether eating breakfast will make you run faster and more effectively. It’s unclear how the Engine will feed data into Cortana, but she’s there: you’ll be able to ask Microsoft’s digital assistant to add calendar entries, for example, or dictate a text. And, of course, the Band will notify you about upcoming appointments, as your Windows Phone already does.
“Imagine you’ve set the goal that you want to get fit and lose weight as part of your exercise routine,” Zulfi Alam, general manager of Personal Devices at Microsoft, said in a statement. “Based on your burn rate and exercise over one week, we will soon be able to auto-suggest a customized workout plan for you. As you follow that plan – or if you don’t follow the plan – our technology will continue to adjust to give you the best outward-looking plan, like a real coach would do.”
Why this matters: A number of fitness bands already track your activity, even sleep. Fewer still, though, deliver messages calendar invites. And, barely any smartwatches beyond the Big Three—Apple, Google, and now Microsoft—provide any intelligence that helps you anticipate and plan your day. Microsoft’s Intelligence Engine and Cortana appear to be the pair of intelligent technologies that Microsoft hopes will inspire you to plunk down $200, rather than opt for the aesthetics of the Apple Watch or Google’s ecosystem.
Open to all
But Band isn’t Microsoft exclusive: apps will allow it to work with Apple iPhones (the iPhone 4S, 5, 5C, 5S, 6, 6 Plus running iOS 7.1 or later), Android (4.3 or 4.4) and Windows Phones (with the Windows Phone 8.1 Update). Those apps leaked out earlier on Wednesday.
Microsoft promises that the Band will last about 48 hours on a single charge, with functions like GPS lowering that somewhat. It will charge in about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, it’s not waterproof, so swimmers will have to look elsewhere. But it will repel “splashes” and will work from 14 degrees up through 104 degrees.
Specifically, the Band will include an optical heart rate sensor, a 3-axis gyrometer, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, an ultraviolet light sensor, a galvanic skin sensor, and a capacitive sensor. The watch will monitor your heart rate 24/7, and assess whether you’ve been sleeping well.
The band will record data without a data connection, then beam it your phone via Bluetooth. It won’t make calls, but it will flash messages, emails, and even Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. And, of course, there’s a microphone, to trigger Cortana. There’s no speaker, however, so Cortana’s information will be passed along via the screen.
For that matter, Microsoft seems to want you to wear the Band with the screen hovering over the inside of your wrist. Whether that’s a limitation of the sensors or a design aesthetic remains to be seen.
Naturally, Microsoft hopes that the Band itself will become a platform, with third-party app developers coming together to add to its own capabilities. In addition to the Starbucks app—you can tell the Band to display your Starbucks card info, which can be scanned—Microsoft has struck partnerships with MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, and Gold’s Gym. Gold’s even will construct custom workouts, which Microsoft hopes the Band will be able to adapt as it learns more about you.
All in all, you’ll find a lot of crossover between the features the Band offers and what other fitness bands and smartwatches offer. But the $200 Band is also available now, in three different sizes to fit different wrists. Microsoft also seems to be taking a page from Google in that it’s promising that the Band will improve over time, specifically as it learns more about you.
With the Microsoft Band, Microsoft appears to want to play seriously in the health market, while also providing a tool for your workday. It remains to be seen, however, whether Microsoft will leverage its other technologies—its Xbox game console comes to mind—to enhance its capabilities further. On paper, however, the Band certainly appears to be in the lead pack of smartwatches.