When NASA's newest spaceship takes off Thursday, it'll be back to the future

The Orion capsule

NASA's latest spaceship launches on Thursday morning at 7:05 am ET (if all goes well, of course.) The ship is modelled on the Apollo capsule that carried American astronauts to the Moon.

The Orion deep space capsule will take its first, unmanned test flight heading 3,600 miles away from Earth, and then return to land in the Pacific Ocean. Both the capsule's design and its recovery plan are distinctly Apollo-like. The shape is similar because the design is inherently stable when subjected to the extreme forces of re-entry.

Besides NASA's Orion capsule, there are other private spacecraft in development that could carry astronauts to Mars. Reuters reports on the latest spaceship designs, including some that have wings and are modeled more closely on the Space Shuttle, and has a cool NASA video explaining Orion and its test flight.

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South Korea will irk North Korea with a new giant Christmas tree along the DMZ

In 1971, South Korea erected a tower along its border with North Korea that was eventually strung with lights to resemble a 65-foot Christmas tree. North Korea, which is an atheist state, called it an act of psychological warfare and threatened to attack the Christian symbol. Earlier this year, South Korea removed it, saying it was structurally unsound.

Some thought the move was an act of diplomacy toward its northern neighbor. Apparently not. Now, South Korean officials have given missionaries permission to erect a new, 30-foot-tall Chritmas tree on the border for two weeks around Christmas, according to the Washington Post.

The new tree is supposed to send a message of peace. North Korean officials, back in October, threatened unspecified "catastrophic impacts" if South Korea ever put up a new tree.

Hey, USA! You're number 17

When it comes to corruption, the US is among the better countries, but not really among the very best. According to this year's update to the Corruption Perceptions Index, the US is the 17th least-corrupt state, based on "expert analysis of public sector sleaze" — The Independent reports.

So what countries topped the charts? No surprise: The Scandanavians. Dennmark took first, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Somalia and North Korea tied for last place out of the 175 countries evaluated.

Other countries of note included Canada in the 10th spot, China at 100, Mexico at 103 and Russia at 136. The rankings are put together by a good-government NGO named Transparency International.

The US Navy is going to sea with lasers as weapons

The US Navy has deployed its first ship with an onboard laser weapon. And while the laser on the USS Ponce is still in testing mode, early tests have been positive. The laser is designed to destroy approaching speedboats or enemy unmanned aerial vehicles, but officials hope lasers may one day be able to serve in a host of roles on navy vessels.

PRI's The World talked to an armaments expert from the defense news service IHS-Janes, who says the current deployment is aimed at determining the benefits of such weapons. If you're imagining a Star Wars-style weapon, though, you'll be disappointed. These lasers are basically invisible, and don't make any characteristic sound. See a video of the lasers in action at PRI.org.

What we're seeing on social

Weather around the world

Typhoon Hagupit continues to strengthen off the coast of the Philippines. With sustained winds already exceeding 100 mph (160 kph), the storm could potentially reaching super-typhoon status by the end of the week, according to AccuWeather. What happens then depends on what direction the storm takes. If it continues to move west, it could cause widespread damage across the Philippines. If it turns to the north, it would bring rain and some flooding, but much less damage. 

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