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Selfies from space? Blue Origin rocket tests secret 'space communicator' for orbital tourists

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off from west Texas on its first flight in 2015. The payload for the latest test on Sunday included a 'space communicator' built by Solstar Space Co., designed to allow space tourists to beam selfies and FaceTime video home to Earth. (Blue Origin via AP)

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  • Blue Origin's Sunday space launch carried a super-secret "space communicator" designed to let astronauts and future orbital tourists send space-selfies home 
  • A trio of suicide blasts in Afghanistan today that left more than 30 dead underscores the gruesome contest between ISIS and the Taliban to be the country's most destructive force
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Wi-Fi space race

Space tourism took leap forward Sunday with the successful test launch of Blue Origin's  New Shepard rocket system.

The reusable booster and capsule blasted off from the west Texas desert and reached an altitude of 106,000 metres — crossing the boundary between the atmosphere and space — before safely touching back down on Earth.

It marked the eighth successful flight for the Jeff Bezos-owned company.

Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos in a mockup of the company's Crew Capsule at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on April 5, 2017. Orbital passenger flights, which are scheduled to begin later this year, will last about 11 minutes. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)
Blue Origin now joins Elon Musk's SpaceX in the race to make getting into orbit cheaper and easier.

But while Musk is focused on servicing the International Space Station and getting a human to Mars, Bezos wants the carriage trade. New Shepard has been designed to carry six paying passengers into near space, at a cost of around $200,000 US a ticket.

The passenger flights, which are scheduled to begin later this year, will only last 11 minutes — and there aren't any bathrooms.

An interior view of the Blue Origin Crew Capsule. It will carry up to six paying passengers at a time into space. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)
Yesterday's launch also moved Blue Origin towards its goal of decent orbital Wi-Fi.

A super-secret "space communicator," built by Solstar Space Co., was carried aloft with some other scientific experiments. The system's inventor, Brian Barnett, won't say exactly how it works, but promises that the connection will be more than sufficient for Blue Origin's customers to beam their weightless selfies back to Earth.

"Our technology will allow for FaceTime calls," he told a Wi-Fi industry website.

Orbiting astronauts have had internet access since 2013, but at NASA's discretion and at super-slow download rates. Scott Kelly, the American who spent 340 days aboard the ISS in 2012 and 2013, calls it "worse than" dial-up.

Inventor Brian Barnett with Solstar Space Co.'s Schmitt Space Communicator (SC-1). He won't reveal how it works, but says it's fast enough to stream video to Earth from orbit. (Facebook)
Solstar has a big-name competitor in the race for space Wi-Fi, however.

SpaceX has been lobbying the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for a licence to operate a network of 4,425 satellites that would expand internet coverage to everyone in orbit via continuous links with base stations all around the globe.

Musk has talked about the value of the system as a way to keep eventual Mars colonists plugged in to what's happening back home.

But the monthly bills might be hellish. The estimated cost of the SpaceX plan is at least $6 billion.

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A deadly competition in Afghanistan

A trio of suicide blasts left more than 30 dead in Afghanistan today, underscoring the gruesome contest between ISIS and the Taliban to be the country's most destructive force.

The Islamic State's Afghan affiliate, known as Khorasan Province, took responsibility for twin blasts in the heavily fortified centre of Kabul, near the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters.

A suicide bomber on a motorbike blew himself up around 8 a.m. Then 20 minutes later a second attacker, carrying a camera and posing as journalist, struck a crowd who had rushed to the scene.

Police and bystanders rush to help victims of the second blast in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
In all, at least 25 died in the explosions, including nine journalists. Forty-five more people were wounded.

Agence France Press and Radio Free Europe were among the media organizations whose journalists were killed. And the BBC reports that one of its Afghan reporters was shot and killed in Khost province near the Pakistani border today.

A few hours later, a suicide bomber drove a truck into a NATO convoy in southern Kandahar province, wounding eight Romanian soldiers and killing 11 children at a school adjoining the blast site. Nine other people were wounded.

People injured in a suicide bomb attack that targeted a NATO convoy in Daman district receive medical treatment at a hospital in Kandahar on Monday. (Muhammad Sadiq/EPA-EFE)
As yet, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Taliban have long had a deadly presence in the area.

Afghan officials have been warning of increased attacks as fall parliamentary elections approach, but the reality is that such massacres are already commonplace. 

Last week, an ISIS suicide bomber struck a voter registration centre in Kabul, killing 57 and wounding 119. And the two rival insurgent groups have been engaged in a deadly one-upmanship since last winter, with a series of commando attacks on hotels and aid agencies, alongside massive car bombs and suicide blasts.

An Afghan security forces member stands guard at the site of a suicide bomb attack on a voter registration centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 22. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
The United Nations documented more than 10,000 civilian casualties in 2017 alone, including 3,400 dead.

The Taliban has vastly expanded its grip on the country since the majority of NATO and American troops left in 2014, and by some estimates is now openly active across almost 70 per cent of the nation's districts. The U.S. military recently put the Taliban's strength at 60,000 fighters — triple what it had four years ago.

ISIS is a relative newcomer to Afghanistan and has a much smaller presence, with just 1,000 to 2,000 guerillas. But the Islamic State has much larger ambitions as it seeks to displace the Taliban — a group that it considers too "nationalistic" to be the true representatives of Islam — as the country's leading resistance group.

Afghan police officers inspect the site of a bomb blast in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Sunday. (REUTERS)
Observers believe that's unlikely to happen, since Khorasan Province isn't just battling the Afghan government and NATO, but the Taliban and its Pakistani backers as well. The group is now on its fourth leader in little more than a year, following deadly U.S. drone strikes.

Still, even the Taliban seems taken aback at its rival's appetite for large scale murder.

Earlier this month, there were reports of a covert arms deal with Russia — the Taliban's original enemy — as both seek to eliminate ISIS and weaken U.S. influence in the region.

Strange bedfellows indeed.

Quote of the moment

"We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we're fully supportive of that."

- Mike Pompeo, the new U.S. Secretary of State, on the Israeli Defense Forces' handling of Palestinian protests along the Gaza border fence. On Friday, Israeli soldiers shot dead three demonstrators and wounded 600 more, just hours after the UN criticized their use of "excessive force."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on Sunday. (The Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • Flood waters rise in B.C., Alberta and New Brunswick (CBC)
  • Why it took four days to release the names of Toronto van attack victims (CBC)
  • White House mystery: Where is Macron's gifted oak? (Associated Press)
  • The #MeToo movement hits Pakistan as harassment allegations rise (Asia Times)
  • Nobel scandal grows with reported groping of Sweden's Crown Princess (SBS)
  • Montreal company pioneers carbon-negative concrete (Montreal Gazette)
  • An airy tail-ending at Princess Bride talk (Calgary Herald)

Today in history

April 30, 1986: Own-goal, oh no!

It was the third period of Game 7 and Edmonton and Calgary were tied 2-2, when Steve Smith had the most infamous brain cramp in hockey history. The Oilers' defenceman stepped out from behind the goal line with the intention of making a cross-ice outlet pass, but somehow he tossed the puck right at the skates of goalie Grant Fuhr and into his own net. Smith collapsed to the ice in shame and the Oilers went on to lose the game and their bid for a third straight Stanley Cup. It was Smith's 23rd birthday.

1986: Own goal, oh no!

37 years ago
Duration 2:00
Game 7 of the Smythe Division final sees Oilers defenceman Steve Smith accidentally bank the puck off goaltender Grant Fuhr and into his own net.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.