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Richard Branson ‘could beat Jeff Bezos to space by flying two weeks before Amazon founder’

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It looked like Jeff Bezos was on the verge of winning the billionaire space race by revealing plans to fly to space ahead of rivals Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson.

But it appears the Virgin Galactic founder might still beat the Amazon CEO to the punch, with a report claiming he plans to make a suborbital flight two weeks before Bezos and his brother.

If true, it would see Branson, 70, fly to space on his VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 weekend, while 57-year-old Bezos would have to wait until July 20 for his launch aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

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The new space race: Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson (pictured) could beat Jeff Bezos to space by flying on his VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 weekend, according to a report, two weeks before the Amazon CEO launches with Blue Origin on July 20

Ready to launch: Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility. One seat on the flight, scheduled for July 20, is being auctioned to the highest bidder

TIMELINE: VSS UNITY LAUNCHES 

May 2021: Sir Richard Branson’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane successfully launches from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

It powered to a height of 55 miles (89km) and then glided back down to Earth.

The test flight was the first with the pilots flying solo.

Summer 2021: A second test flight is due to take place with a full load to test the passenger cabin.

It is set to include the pilots plus four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees. However, could Branson now be among them?

A third test flight is also planned and this is when the Virgin Galactic founder had been expected to gain his commercial astronaut wings.

It is designed to showcase the astronaut experience through the eyes of the company founder.

September 2021: First revenue generation flight with the Italian Air Force to test passenger and payload.

This flight will take both astronauts and scientific equipment to the edge of space on VSS Unity. 

Early 2022: The start of full commercial flights from Spaceport America.

The dozens of Future Astronauts, who paid to fly to the edge of space, will begin earning their astronaut wings. 

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A source told Parabolic Arc that Virgin Galactic began planning Branson’s flight before Monday’s announcement that Jeff and Mark Bezos would launch to the edge of space with the winner of a multi-million pound auction.

However, it’s clear there is an intense rivalry among the three major private players now dominating the space tourism and exploration sector.

Dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set, Bezos, Branson and Musk all say they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat Russia in the space race, and there is no doubt how much it would mean to each to win the ‘new space race’.

The trio of entrepreneurs have pumped billions of dollars into their respective start-ups with the aim of creating cheap, commercialised space travel.

But while Musk has talked about ‘dying on Mars’, and Bezos also has ambitions for deep space travel, Branson’s aim is to develop reusable ‘space planes’ to take tourists on short suborbital trips.

Celebrities that have already nabbed the exclusive tickets include singer Katy Perry, actor Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber.

When Bezos announced he would be on the first human flight launched by his space company Blue Origin – planned to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing – Branson was quick to congratulate his rival.

He called it ‘extraordinary’ how their two firms were ‘opening up access to space’.

However, he perhaps hinted at his reported July 4 plans when he ended the tweet: ‘Watch this space…’

The flight is contingent upon Virgin Galactic obtaining an operator’s license from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

Musk has remained silent about Bezos’ announcement and Branson’s reported flight.

His SpaceX company has already sent astronauts to the International Space Station and is launching the world’s first civilian crew into orbit on September 15, but Musk has long-term plans to establish a human colony on Mars. 

The South African-born entrepreneur, 49, has said he would like to go into space but not when it might happen.

Ride: Branson, 70, would fly to space on his VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane (pictured)

Clue? After Bezos announced his plan to fly to space with his brother on July 20, Branson congratulated his rival by saying their two firms were ‘opening up access to space’. However, he perhaps hinted at his reported July 4 flight when he ended the tweet: ‘Watch this space…’ 

THE BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE: HOW BRANSON, MUSK AND BEZOS ARE VYING FOR GALACTIC SUPREMACY

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin’s space capsule

Jeff Bezos’ space tourism project with Blue Origin is competing with a similar programme in development by Space X, the rocket firm founded and run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Virgin Galactic, backed by Sir Richard Branson.

Bezos revealed in April 2017 that he finances Blue Origin with around $1 billion (£720 million) of Amazon stock each year.

The system consists of a pressurised crew capsule atop a reusable ‘New Shepard’ booster rocket.   

Bezos is one of the richest men in the world and Blue Origin has successfully used a single New Shepard Rocket six times.

At its peak, the capsule reached 65 miles (104 kilometres), just above the official threshold for space and landed vertically seven minutes after liftoff. 

Crewed missions for astronauts or tourists have yet to be announced.

SpaceX appears to be leading the way in the billionaire space race with numerous launches carrying NASA equipment to the ISS and partnerships to send tourists to space by 2021.  

On February 6 2018, SpaceX sent rocket towards the orbit of Mars, 140 million miles away, with Musk’s own red Tesla roadster attached. 

Elon Musk with his Dragon Crew capsule

NASA has already selected two astronauts who will be on-board the first manned Dragon mission. 

SpaceX has also started sending batches of 60 satellites into space to help form its Starlink network. 

Musk hopes this will provide an interconnected web of satellites around Earth which will beam down free internet to people all around the world.  

Branson and Virgin Galactic are taking a different approach to conquering space. 

It has repeatedly, and successfully, conducted test flights of the Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceplane. 

The first took place in December 2018 and the latest on February 22.

The flight accelerated to over 2,000 miles per hour (Mach 2.7). 

More than 600 affluent customers to date, including celebrities Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, have reserved a $250,000 (£200,000) seat on one of Virgin’s space trips.

The billionaire mogul has previously said he expects Elon Musk to win the race to Mars with his private rocket firm SpaceX. 

Richard Branson with the Virgin Galactic craft

SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots. Each passenger gets the same seating position with two large windows – one to the side and one overhead.

The space ship is 60ft long with a 90inch diameter cabin allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity.

It climbs to 50,000ft before the rocket engine ignites. SpaceShipTwo separates from its carrier craft, White Knight II, once it has passed the 50-mile mark.

Passengers become ‘astronauts’ when they reach the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere.

The spaceship will then make a suborbital journey with approximately six minutes of weightlessness, with the entire flight lasting approximately 1.5 hours.  

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There has been no love lost between Musk and Bezos, who have gone head-to-head on several projects for more than a decade.

Musk has branded his tech titan foe a ‘copycat’ over some of Amazon’s business ventures, while Bezos mocked the SpaceX CEO’s plan to send humans to Mars. 

The pair have also sparred publicly over their competing satellite plans. In January Musk took aim at Bezos on Twitter by accusing the Amazon founder’s Project Kuiper of trying to ‘hamstring’ his Starlink venture.

Musk also joked on social media that Bezos ‘can’t get it up (to orbit)’, after Blue Origin filed a protest against NASA for giving SpaceX a $2.89billion contract to build a lunar lander.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is aiming for commercial operations aboard its VSS Unity spacecraft to begin next year, following testing and several months of downtime for maintenance and other upgrades. 

That testing will include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space, scheduled to happen at some point this summer. 

Virgin is expected to charge more than $250,000 for new reservations but has not announced final pricing. Sales will reopen following Branson’s flight. 

Bezos’ spacecraft: Blue Origin, founded in 2000, touts itself as a means to provide cheaper access to space through the use of reusable rockets –  specifically the New Shepard (pictured)

THE CURRENT VIRGIN GALACTIC FLEET 

VMS Eve: The launch platform for the SpaceShipTwo and Spaceship III based Virgin Galactic vehicles. 

VMS stands for Virgin MotherShip and is named after Evette Branson, mother of founder Sir Richard Branson. 

So far only one has been built and it made its first flight in December 2008.

VSS Unity: Based on the SpaceShip Two class of vehicle, it is a rocket powered glider.

A replacement for the destroyed VSS Enterprise, Unity first flew to space in December 2018. 

It has reached an altitude of 50 miles, earning its pilots commercial astronaut wings for the first time in 2018. 

VSS Imagine: The first Spaceship III class of spaceplane, due to begin glide tests summer 2021.

VSS Inspire: The second Spaceship III class of spaceplane currently under construction in California by the Spaceship Company. 

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In May, the Unity vehicle blasted to a height of 55 miles (89km) then glided back to Earth with pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow at the controls. 

It had been thought the next test flight would see the pilots joined by four as yet unnamed Virgin Galactic employees, with Branson making the third flight ahead of the plane entering commercial service.

But it appears there is a chance Branson might be bumped up to the second flight. 

Virgin Galactic has refused to be drawn on the report.

A spokesperson for the company said: ‘We are in the process of analyzing the data from our successful May 22nd flight. 

‘As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall. 

‘At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight. 

‘An objective from the last flight was to collect data to be used for the final two verification reports that are required as part of the current FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license.’  

Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, will blast into space on the first crewed flight of his New Shepard rocket ship and will spend at least 10 minutes floating in zero gravity inside the capsule during the suborbital sightseeing trip. 

Blue Origin named the New Shepard program after astronaut Alan Shepard, who was the first American to fly into space 60 years ago. 

The flight will mark a huge milestone in the mission to send paying customers to the edge of space.

Dream: Elon Musk (pictured) has said he would like to go to space but not when it will happen

‘Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,’ Bezos posted to his Instagram account on Monday.

‘On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.’

His launch into space is the culmination of more than two decades of work for Bezos, who has already announced plans to step down as CEO of Amazon just 15 days before the flight date.  

Instead he will become executive chairman of the company he started in his garage in 1994 – giving him ‘time and energy’ to focus on other ventures.  

There are five days to go before the auction for the third seat closes on June 12, with bidding having so far reached $2.8 million.

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future

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SpaceX ignored warnings that SN8 blastoff in December might not be safe

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Elon Musk‘s aerospace company SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that launch of its SN8 rocket last December might not be safe, leaked documents show. 

Warnings from the FAA were based on its launch-weather modelling software, according to the documents, which were seen by the Verge

If the rocket had exploded, its shockwave could be strengthened by weather conditions like wind speed and endanger nearby homes, the models suggested.  

But SpaceX ignored the warnings because it said the FAA’s software could be interfered with to provide ‘better or worse results for an identical scenario’. 

SpaceX went ahead with the launch, violating its launch license from the FAA in the process. SN8 ended up launching successfully but crash-landing in a ball of flames.  

Image shows SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype taking off at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility during an attempted high-altitude launch test on December 9, 2020

According to the FAA, SpaceX ‘prioritised speed over safety’ with the launch, which took place at its Boca Chica, Texas testing facility at 5:45pm ET (10:45pm GMT) on December 9.

SpaceX’s violation of its launch license was ‘inconsistent with a strong safety culture,’ the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. 

‘Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window.’ 

SN8 soared straight up into the air for its first high-altitude flight and over the Gulf of Mexico before performing its in-flight manoeuvres 

SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype crashing on landing at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility

Monteith also slammed SpaceX for proceeding with the launch based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions’ rather than procedural checks.

The Verge adds: ‘FAA investigators couldn’t determine whether the SN8 license violation was intentional, according to people involved in and briefed on the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.’

SpaceX didn’t end up receiving any penalties from the FAA and went on to launch its next prototype, SN9, in February. 

SN9 itself faced regulatory hurdles from the FAA, leading Musk to grumble that ‘humanity will never go to Mars’ if it were up to the agency. 

SpaceX is yet to reply to MailOnline’s request for comment regarding the report from the Verge on the SN8 launch. 

It’s not known the extent to which Elon Musk (pictured) made the final decisions leading up to the launch of SN8 on December 9

SPACEX SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCHES SN15 

On May 5, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Starship Serial Number 15 rocket.

It became the only one of its prototypes to survive a high altitude flight test.  

The prototype climbed through the sky until it reached six miles, hovered for a moment and then performed the infamous sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ maneuver by Musk.

‘Starship landing nominal,’ Musk tweeted moments after his pride and joy made a safe and successful landing on the pad.

SN16 is set to launch later in June.

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It is currently unclear what role Musk himself played in the decision to launch SN8. The billionaire founder and CEO of the firm is yet to publicly address the issue. 

SpaceX is planning to send humans to Mars using a two-stage spacecraft composed of Starship (the passenger-carrying section) and the Super Heavy rocket booster.

However, the firm has some work to do to finish the construction of the $216 million Starship, previously known as ‘BFR’, at SpaceX’s Texas development site. 

Starship SN8 – short for ‘serial number eight’ – was one of the several prototypes of its Starship rocket to be launched by the company.  

It successfully reached its goal of getting as high as 7.8 miles (41,000 feet), soaring out over the Gulf of Mexico. 

After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere from space – presenting the ‘belly’ as it enters the atmosphere reduces the speed of descent as it approaches the ground.   

The rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground, leaving nothing behind but what remained of the craft’s nose cone, debris and a cloud of smoke.  

SN8 went up 7.8 miles, attempted a ‘belly flop’ in the air, turned back upright then aimed to land safely back at the testing facility in Texas but failed due to coming in too fast and crash landing

Musk, however, deemed the launch a success. He said that the prototype – even though it was destroyed – collected a trove of data that will bring SpaceX one step closer to sending humans to Mars.       

The full-scale, stainless steel prototype stood at 160 feet (50 meters) tall and was 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter. It was the first Starship prototype equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines.

It was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometres), which is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere. Pictured, SN8

SpaceX’s first super heavy-lift Starship SN8 rocket explodes during a return-landing attempt

‘With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,’ SpaceX wrote in a statement

The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 and then to December 7 then it was scheduled again for December 8, which was scrubbed at the last minute, before finally going ahead the next day.

This ‘hop’ was a historic event for SpaceX, as previous prototypes only hit 500 feet in the air – but it also proved the most destructive.  

Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering. The entire flight lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds. 

The Starship two-stage-to-orbit heavy lift vehicle has been in development since 2012 and is designed to bring the cost of launch down by being more reusable. 

The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk.

NASA has chosen Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX to build the spacecraft that take the first woman and next man to the moon. SpaceX’s HLS Starship will include the company’s tested Raptor engines, along with pulling inspiration from the Falcon and Dragon vehicles’ designs

The SpaceX CEO previously said there was a ‘fighting chance’ the first Starship flight to Mars could happen as early as 2024. 

This is the same year that NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024, as part of the Artemis mission.

Coincidentally, SpaceX was since awarded a $2.9 billion contract by NASA in April to build the spacecraft for the mission.  

The four spacefaring heroes will be carried to the Moon on the Starship HLS, a lunar lander variant of the Starship spacecraft.  

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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Rare Egyptian vulture is spotted on the Isles of Scilly in first UK sighting for 150 YEARS 

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They are known for applying brightly-coloured mud to their faces ‘like make-up’.

But now a rare Egyptian vulture, considered endangered worldwide, has been seen in the UK for the first time in more than 150 years.

The bird of prey, also known as ‘the pharaoh’s chicken’ because of its links to ancient Egypt, was spotted on the Isles of Scilly in what has been described as a ‘once-in-a-century’ sighting.

It is thought it may have come from northern France and became confused while migrating.

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Rare sighting: An Egyptian vulture, considered endangered worldwide, has been seen in the UK for the first time in 150 years

The bird of prey, also known as ‘the pharaoh’s chicken’ because of its links to ancient Egypt, was spotted on the Isles of Scilly

Lost? It is thought the bird (pictured in Tresco) may have come from northern France and became confused while migrating

WHAT IS THE EGYPTIAN VULTURE AND HOW RARE IS IT?

The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) occupies a large range, with isolated resident populations in Cape Verde and the Canary Islands.

They are also seen in northern France and southern Spain, as well as Ethiopia and East Africa, Arabia and the Indian subcontinent.

They are considered endangered worldwide, but 60 breeding pairs and a total populations of 300 occur on Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands.

The species faces a number of threats, with European populations affected by poisoning, electrocution, collisions with wind turbines, reduced food availability and habitat change. 

Source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 

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Only two previous official sightings of the vulture have been recorded in the UK – one in Somerset in 1825 and another in Essex in 1868. 

However, there was not a happy ending for either bird. 

The one seen in Peldon, Essex, was shot dead by a farm worker who caught the ‘strange bird’ feeding on his geese, while the other suffered the same fate after being spotted at Bridgwater Bay in Somerset and Bristol.

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to the island of Tresco.

Will Wagstaff was leading a birding tour group when he spotted the vulture perching on a pine on Tresco.

‘The news that a “big bird” had been seen in the fog over St Mary’s early in the day was intriguing to say the least – especially as the range of species being suggested was rather wide,’ he said.

‘To say I was surprised to then see an Egyptian vulture appear out of the mist over my head was an understatement.  

‘It only takes one bird to make a day and what a bird it was.’ 

More birdwatchers are now expected to travel to the isles in the hope of seeing the rare species, which has been featured in Egyptian hieroglyphs and is one of only a few birds of prey known to use tools when hunting. 

In areas of Africa, where ostrich eggs form part of its diet, the Egyptian vulture has been known to use a pebble held in its beak to hammer and break the eggs. The bird also eats rodents and reptiles. 

Egyptian vultures are normally found in parts of southern Spain and northern France, as well as Africa and Asia, but are in decline worldwide.

They have also been filmed colouring themselves red on Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands, in behaviour that has baffled scientists.

The vultures, which have a yellow face and white feathers, dip their heads in mud and rub it from side to side to dye their head, neck and chest darker. 

Only two previous official sightings of the vulture have been recorded in the UK – one in Somerset in 1825 and in Essex in 1868

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to Tresco

Experts have no idea why they do it but think it might be to show their importance and authority to other birds of the same kind.  

The Isles of Scilly sighting will be analysed by the British Birds Rarities Committee before being passed to the British Ornithologists Union Records Committee to confirm that it is of wild origin. 

As long as this is the case it will be recorded as the third official sighting of the Egyptian vulture in Britain.

Professor Stuart Bearhop, an ecologist with the University of Exeter, described the sighting as ‘remarkable’ and said it was ‘extremely likely’ to be a wild bird.

‘These birds are in decline and so numbers are much lower now than they have been historically so there are less birds around to arrive here,’ he told MailOnline.

‘The decline has led to conservationists in southern Europe releasing captive bred or reared birds back into the wild to try and boost numbers and this would be a potential place that the bird on the Isles of Scilly could have come from. 

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to the island of Tresco

‘These birds are usually fitted with coloured rings and for the serious birders are a problem because they are not of true wild origin. 

‘However, this bird almost certainly does not have any rings on it, so it is extremely likely that it is of wild origin.’

Among the bird watchers who captured it was Scott Reid, who posted several pictures on Twitter.  

‘A few flight shots of the Egyptian vulture from yesterday afternoon,’ he tweeted. ‘An exceptionally cool bird in flight, a very surreal moment seeing it in Scillonian air space.’

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Orcas have complex social structures including close ‘friendships’ 

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Killer whales – also known as orcas – have complex social structures including close ‘friendships’, a new study reveals.

Scientists at the University of Exeter used drones to film the animals – one of the world’s most powerful predators – in the Pacific Ocean. 

The team found killer whales (Orcinus orca) spend more time interacting with certain individuals in their pod, and tend to favour those of the same sex and similar age.

Results from the new study are based on 651 minutes of video filmed over 10 days. 

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Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family. While they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska, they are also found in tropical and subtropical waters

The study, led by the University of Exeter and the Center for Whale Research (CWR), also found that the whales become less socially connected as they get older.

Orcas are one of the most recognisable marine mammals, with their distinctive black and white bodies. 

‘Until now, research on killer whale social networks has relied on seeing the whales when they surface, and recording which whales are together,’ said lead author Dr Michael Weiss, of the University of Exeter.

‘However, because resident killer whales stay in the social groups into which they’re born, how closely related whales are seemed to be the only thing that explained their social structure.

‘Looking down into the water from a drone allowed us to see details such as contact between individual whales.

Orcas (killer whales) are one of the most recognisable marine mammals, with their distinctive black and white bodies

ORCAS HUNT GREAT WHITE SHARKS 

Orcas are the only natural predator of the great white.

Scientists have found proof that they are gashing the sharks open and eating their fatty livers. 

Scientists speculate this behaviour may be behind the disappearance of great whites from the waters of False Bay, off of the coast of Cape Town.

Great whites frequented the area between the months of June to October every year as part of their annual winter hunting season.

They were drawn to the region by the presence of the so-called Seal Island, a rock home to a huge seal colony.

However, they have themselves fallen pray to orcas — and are on the retreat.

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‘Our findings show that, even within these tight-knit groups, whales prefer to interact with specific individuals.

‘It’s like when your mum takes you to a party as a kid – you didn’t choose the party, but you can still choose who to hang out with once you’re there.’

Patterns of physical contact – one of the social interactions the study measured –suggest that younger whales and females play a central social role in the group. The older the whale, the less central they became.

The new research built on more than four decades of data collected by CWR on southern resident killer whales, a critically endangered population in the Pacific Ocean.

‘This study would not have been possible without the amazing work done by CWR,’ said Professor Darren Croft, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.

‘By adding drones to our toolkit, we have been able to dive into the social lives of these animals as never before.

‘We were amazed to see how much contact there is between whales – how tactile they are.

‘In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connection.

‘We also examined occasions when whales surfaced together – as acting in unison is a sign of social ties in many species.’

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show killer whales exhibit interesting parallels in social bond formation and social life histories with primates, including humans. 

Orcas are born into a family group and remain with that group for the rest of their lives and form very highly co-ordinated hunting packs

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family and have a wide range – they’re found in every single ocean on Earth. 

They’re technically a species of dolphin but will hunt other types of dolphin for food, as well as fish, seals and sea lions, sharks, large whales, cephalopods (octopods and squids), seabirds and more. 

They are apex predators that have been known to eat most animals, including large sharks. Highly intelligent and social creatures, they work as a pack to hunt and kill their prey depending on its size. 

WHAT ARE KILLER WHALES?  

Killer whales are ‘toothed’ whales, with true teeth rather than fibrous plates for filter-feeding.  

Usually black and white, in Antarctic waters their skins are covered with a film of plankton called diatoms, which gives them a brownish and yellowish hue.

Male orca whales (9.75m) grow significantly larger than females (8.5m).

Diet:  

Orcas are born into a family group and remain with that group for the rest of their lives and form very highly co-ordinated hunting packs. 

They catch single prey ranging from dolphins, porpoises and even whales including the blue whale. 

Distribution:   

Orca whales are found almost everywhere throughout the earth’s oceans.  

They are common in Antarctic waters, with a population estimated at about 70,000.

Credit: Australian Arctic Program  

 

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