William Shatner goes to space for the Blue Origin mission

The new Shepard NS-14 takes off from Launch Site 1 in West Texas on January 14, 2021.

Where does space begin? Does it start when you look up and the sky turns from blue to dark and dotted with stars? What about when you go just high enough to float, as you see with the astronauts on the space station?

That’s a question for a lot of space nerds – and, Apparently, Jeff Bezos’ team at Blue Origin – cares a lot.

But there is no single definition of “outer space”. Current efforts to define where space begins is largely an exercise in determining where Earth’s atmosphere becomes less of a nuisance than Earth’s gravitational pull, and there is no exact elevation where this occurs. . The atmosphere thins, but the “void of space” is never truly devoid of matter. Basically it’s a fuzzy line.

Quick reminder: The experience of weightlessness has nothing to do with altitude – or at least, not the relatively low altitude that Shatner will go to. Earth’s gravitational pull will always pull a lot on the Blue Origin capsule when it reaches zero gravity at “peak” – the term used in spaceflight to refer to the top of a flight path.

Astronauts will be weightless because the energy that the rocket and capsule have accumulated on the way up is canceled out by Earth’s gravity, giving them a very extreme version of the feeling you get when you reach the top of a large hill. roller coaster. .

Richard Branson’s flight aboard the spacecraft developed by his space company, Virgin Galactic, in July reached more than 80 kilometers high, the altitude the US government considers the start of outer space. -atmospheric.

Blue Origin flights reached over 100 km high – also known as the Kármán Line – which is the internationally recognized elevation as a border.

What is correct – the 50 mile mark accepted by the United States or the internationally recognized 62 mile Kármán line – is widely debated and mostly arbitrary.

Yet Blue Origin is known for attack your competitor on the gap, alleging that Virgin Galactic will turn passengers into astronauts “with an asterisk”.

But here’s the trick: When we say that the international community “recognizes” or “accepts” the 62-mile Kármán Line as a limit in space, we are primarily talking about an organization, the International Aeronautical Federation, which keeps track of world records in spaceflight such as counting the number of people who have become astronauts.

But even the FAI said it was considered changing its definition at the 50 mile mark recognized by the United States in response to research by Jonathan McDowell with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which argues that satellites can orbit within 62 miles and that even the original definition of the Kármán Line was not that high.

As to whether Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic customers will be considered “astronauts” by the US government – and earn a coveted pair of astronaut wings – is a question. everything else. (Most of them won’t.)

It should also be noted that neither Virgin Galactic nor Blue Origin send passengers to orbit, as SpaceX did. (And even orbital space tourists aren’t guaranteed official astronaut wings.)

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