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Yesterday — June 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

Max Q: SpaceX launches astronauts to orbit

By Darrell Etherington

This was a HUGE week in space: SpaceX flew its first ever human spaceflight mission, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken hopping a ride on a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. It’s a milestone for commercial spaceflight, for the U.S. space program, and for crewed exploration general.

Liftoff!

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off today on an inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Bob and Doug took off at 3:22 PM EDT on Saturday, May 30 after a few days delay due to weather. The launch vehicle performed its duty beautifully, including sticking the landing on board SpaceX’s drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Good docking, too

SpaceX followed up its textbook launch with a picture-perfect Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station, too. The ISS docking was fully automated, with SpaceX’s guidance and navigation systems handling the precise maneuver, which involves basically bumping the hatch of the capsule into the international docking adapter of the space station, after which point it runs a cycle of “hard sealing” the two together by driving metal pegs from one to the other.

This is the start of the commercial human spaceflight era

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken familiarize themselves with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the spacecraft that will transport them to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Their upcoming flight test is known as Demo-2, short for Demonstration Mission 2. The Crew Dragon will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In March 2019, SpaceX completed an uncrewed flight test of Crew Dragon known as Demo-1, which was designed to validate end-to-end systems and capabilities, bringing NASA closer to certification of SpaceX systems to fly a crew.

SpaceX became the first commercial space company to ever fly humans on orbit on Saturday, and that’s going to have far-reaching impact. Just like it did with the launch industry, SpaceX has the potential to essentially create and entirely new market out of thin air now that it can successfully launch people into space for a (relatively) low price.

Take a closer look at those snazzy spacesuits

Plenty was shiny and new about SpaceX’s astronaut launch, including the touchscreen control panels that were installed on Crew Dragon for use by the astronauts in case they ever needed to take over manual control. Bob and Doug made use of those for some demonstration maneuvering before handing back over control of the ship, but the more eye-catching new toy on the ship were those SpaceX spacesuits, which come in black, gray and white and use the red NASA worm logo. Can’t wait for the general public launch of these babies.

Not all roses for SpaceX last week

SpaceX has a really great week by any measure, but it wasn’t free of hiccups. At the company’s testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, one of its Starship prototypes met with a fiery end as it exploded following a static engine fire test. The development process for that future vehicle hasn’t been without some attention-grabbing test article rapid disassembles, but this was the most spectacular thus far.

Virgin Orbit didn’t get to orbit, but it did learn a lot

Virgin Orbit also had a key demonstration flight last week – its first ever attempt to fly and launch its full system, including dropping its LauncherOne rocket from its carrier aircraft and having that make a try for space. LauncherOne didn’t make it to space – a malfunction caused its own flight to end just seconds after it started, but the company says a lot went right even if it didn’t make orbit on this try.

SpaceX signs Starlink test deal with U.S. Army

SpaceX and the U.S. Army have signed an agreement for military to test out use of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet network, in order to determine if it meets their needs in the field. If the three-year test does work out, that could mean a big and lucrative government contract for SpaceX.

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SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft successfully docks with the International Space Station

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ‘Endeavor’ successfully docked with the International Space Station as planned on Sunday morning, marking another key milestone during this historic Commercial Crew demonstration mission it’s conducting with NASA. On board Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the test pilots selected to be the first ever humans to fly on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the first people ever to make the trip to orbit aboard a spacecraft built by a private company.

The docking process was handled completely autonomously by Crew Dragon itself, which is designed by SpaceX to operate on autopilot from the moment of launch throughout the course of the entire mission. The spacecraft is able to dock with a newer automated international docking adapter installed on the ISS, unlike the original cargo version of Dragon, which required manual capture by the robotic Canadarm 2 controlled by astronauts on the station. The updated cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon are designed to work with the new automated system.

Hurley and Behnken launched at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) on Saturday, taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as planned. It was the second launch attempt for this mission, after weather caused a delay last Wednesday. This mission is NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demo-2, which is the second demonstration mission of the full flight and return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of two vehicles commissioned by NASA from commercial partners to provide transportation serves for astronauts to and from the Space Station .

Crossing this milestone means that essentially the first half of the mission has been completed successfully – so far, SpaceX has demonstrated that the launch process works as designed, as does manual control (the astronauts took over and ran two tests of that system), and automated docking.

Next up, with the spacecraft connected to the ISS, the hatch will open and Hurley and Behnken will cross through to the Space Station, where they’ll be greeted by its three astronauts. Hurley and Behnken will then perform standard ISS crew activities, including conducing experiments and research, during the next several weeks before they climb back into Crew Dragon for the final portion of Demo-2 – the trip back to Earth.

Watch live as SpaceX’s first astronaut-carrying spacecraft docks with the International Space Station

By Darrell Etherington

Today at around 10:30 AM EDT (7:30 AM PDT), SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the International Space Station, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. The two have been in flight on orbit since launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday at 3:22 PM EDT, a historic launch that made SpaceX the first private space company to fly people to orbit.

You can watch the livestream above to see the approach and docking maneuver, as well as the transfer process once the hatch opens and Hurley and Behnken make the short trip over from their spacecraft to the ISS. The astronauts will then serve on board the orbital lab for a shortened tour of duty, but taking part in all the activities a regular ISS rotation astronaut would do, before eventually heading home to Earth back aboard Crew Dragon in a few weeks.

This milestone mission is the first crewed flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which will certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for regular operational missions carrying astronauts from the agency and its partners to and from the Space Station .

NASA astronauts successfully pilot SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft manually for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley took over manual control of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Saturday, shortly after the vehicle’s historic first launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Crew Dragon is designed to fly entirely autonomous throughout the full duration of its missions, including automated docking, de-orbit and landing procedures, but it has manual control systems in case anything should go wrong and the astronauts have to take over. This test is the first time the manual controls have been used in space, and is a key part of certifying Crew Dragon for regularly operational human flight.

Astronaut Bob Behnken and Hurley removed their fashionable SpaceX space suits just before Hurley completed the manual maneuvers, which is also part of the plan. They’re able to go without the suits in the pressurized cabin during its transit to the ISS, only needing to put them back on for space station docking, and the interior of Crew Dragon actually provides them a fair amount of room to move around in. This also makes it easier for them to operate the spacecraft controls.

The manual maneuver testing including Hurley going through the process of using the spacecraft’s touchscreen controls to put the capsule into what’s called LVLH (local vertical local horizontal ) attitude, using Earth as a reference navigation point. That basically means putting Dragon in the same orientation as an airplane flying over Earth, with the planet located ‘underneath’ the Dragon as it flies. The test involves notifying the flight computer to not take over as Hurley conducts the maneuvers, but doesn’t involve actually finalizing the control orders by sending them to the flight computer, since it will be the one actually completing the automated flight and docking process.

Hurley will conduct two tests during the mission, the one he just did called a “far-field” flight test because it’s far away from the ISS, and one called the “near-field” test which will be conducted when they’re closer to the station.

You can actually try out the manual control system that Behnken and Hurley used yourself – no spaceship required. All you need is a browser, and this ISS Docking Simulator created and released by SpaceX. It’s a bit tricky, but not as hard as you might think thanks to an intuitive control interface design.

 

Watch continuing coverage of SpaceX crewed launch to the International Space Station

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is once again preparing to make history – the private spaceflight company is set to launch its Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in collaboration with NASA today. This is the second time they’ve prepared to launch this mission, after an attempt on Wednesday last week was scrubbed due to bad weather. Today’s attempt is set for 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) and preparations, along with the launch itself, will be streamed above starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT).

The launch will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and once again weather is a concern for today’s launch window. SpaceX and NASA have an instantaneous launch window today, which means they only have the one shot to take off – if the weather isn’t cooperating at 3:22 PM EDT, they’ll have to re-attempt the launch again, with the next possible window set for tomorrow, Sunday May 31.

This is the first time ever that SpaceX will be launching humans aboard one of its spacecraft – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have the honor of being those first passengers. The mission itself is actually technically still a test, the final demonstration mission in the multi-year development of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s first human-rated spacecraft. This launch will serve as the proof that Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that carries it, is ready for human-rating, after which it will be ready for regular operational service, flying U.S. and allied astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.

That will mean the U.S. once again has domestic human launch capabilities, something it hasn’t been able to claim since it ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. That’s a big deal for a number of reasons, but primarily because it means that NASA won’t rely on buying berths on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS, which will help it save money and ultimately control its own access to Earth’s orbital lab.

If successful, SpaceX will be the first of NASA’s two Commercial Crew partners to achieve this milestone. The other, Boeing, is still in the process of working out the kinks of its CST-100 Starliner human crew capsule, which encountered errors during its first uncrewed demonstration mission, resulting in the need to run that launch again sometime later this year, and then, depending on how that goes, fly its first human flight hopefully in 2021. SpaceX, meanwhile, is set to begin operational missions with Crew Dragon later this year, if all goes well with Demo-2.

Provided the launch occurs today, Behnken and Hurley will then spend 19 hours on orbit as they make their way to rendezvous with the Space Station for docking. They’ll then staff the station for a period of between a few weeks and a few months, depending on NASA’s decision regarding their ultimate mission length. That will involve helping with station maintenance and conducting experiments, and then they’ll re-enter Crew Dragon and make the trip back to Earth for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown and recovery once their time at the station is over.

SpaceX’s Starship SN4 launch vehicle prototype explodes after static engine fire test

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX had just conducted yet another static fire test of the Raptor engine in its Starship SN4 prototype launch vehicle on Friday when the test vehicle exploded on the test stand. This was the fourth static fire test of this engine on this prototype, so it’s unclear what went wrong vs. other static fire attempts.

This was a test in the development of Starship, a new spacecraft that SpaceX has been developing in Boca Chica, Florida. Eventually, the company hopes to use it to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket, but Starship is still very early in its development phase, whereas those vehicles are flight-proven, multiple times over.

SpaceX had just secured FAA approval to fly its Starship prototype for short, suborbital test flights earlier this week. The goal was to fly this SN4 prototype for short distances following static fire testing, but that clearly won’t be possible now, as the vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed in the explosion following Friday’s test, as you can see below in the stream from NASASpaceflight.com.

The explosion occurred around 1:49 PM local time in Texas, roughly two minutes after it had completed its engine test fire. We’ve reached out to SpaceX to find out more about the cause of today’s incident, and whether anyone was potentially hurt in the explosion. SpaceX typically takes plenty of safety precautions when running these tests, including ensuring the area is well clear of any personnel or other individuals.

This isn’t the first time one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes has met a catastrophic end; a couple of previous test vehicles succumbed to pressure testing while being put through their paces. This is why space companies test frequently and stress test vehicles during development – to ensure that the final operational vehicles are incredibly safe and reliable when they need to be.

SpaceX is already working on additional prototypes, including assembling SN5 nearby in Boa Chica, so it’s likely to resume its testing program quickly once it can clear the test stand and move in the newest prototype. This is a completely separate endeavor from SpaceX’s work on the Commercial Crew program, so that historic first test launch with astronauts on board should proceed either Saturday or Sunday as planned, depending on weather.

Max Q: Huge week ahead for SpaceX and Virgin Orbit

By Darrell Etherington

This week could be the biggest week to date for private spaceflight, with landmark launch attempts coming from both Virgin Orbit and SpaceX .

Virgin Orbit is looking to join the elite club of private launch companies that have actually made it to space, with a full flight test of its combined Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne system. Meanwhile, SpaceX is looking to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft with people on board – achieving a number of milestones, including returning U.S. crew launch capabilities, and human-rating its Falcon 9 rocket.

Here’s what Virgin Orbit hopes their first flight will do

Virgin Orbit 87Virgin Orbit was supposed to launch its first full demonstration flight on Sunday, but a sensor bug that showed up during pre-launch checkouts means that it’s now pushing things back to at least Monday to check that out.

Extra precaution is hardly surprising since this milestone mission could help the company become an operational satellite launch provider – one of only a small handful of private companies that can make that claim.

SpaceX cleared to proceed for historic crew flight Wednesday

SpaceX passed its first crucial flight readiness review (FRR) on Friday for its first ever crewed astronaut launch, setting it up for a full rehearsal of the mission on Saturday leading up to the actual launch Now it’s set for another FRR with partner NASA on Monday, and then the launch should take place on Wednesday – weather and checkouts permitting. This will definitely be one to watch.

MHI retires a space workhorse

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Mitsubishi Heavy Industries flew its last mission with its H-II series rocket, and the space transfer vehicle it carries to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The company is readying a successor to this highly successful and consistent rocket, the H3, which is set to make its launch debut sometime in 2022 if all goes to plan.

NASA human spaceflight chief abruptly resigns

While SpaceX is aiming to make history with NASA and two of its astronauts, the person in charge of the agency’s human spaceflight endeavors made a surprising and abrupt exit from the agency last week. Doug Loverro resigned from his position, reportedly over some kind of inappropriate activity he engaged in with a prospective agency business partner ahead of the contract awards for NASA’s commercial human lander program.

Xilinx debuts a new chip made for machine learning in space

Xilinx specializes in building processors that are designed to withstand the rigors of use in space, which include heavy radiation exposure, extreme temperatures and plenty more. The company just debuted a new FPGA for space-based applications that is the first 20nm-based processor for space, and the first with dedicated machine-learning capabilities built in for edge computing that truly redefines the term.

NASA’s ‘Artemis Accords’ look to redefine international space cooperation

Space has enjoyed a period of being relatively uncontested when it comes to international squabbles – mostly because it’s hard and expensive to reach, and the benefits of doing so weren’t exactly clear 30 to 40 years ago when most of those rules were set up. NASA’s new rules include a lot of the old ones, but also set up some modernizations that are sure to begin a lot of debate and discussion in the space policy community.

ULA launches first U.S. Space Force spaceplane mission

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In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

The United Launch Alliance launched the X-37B last week on behalf of the U.S. Space Force – marking the first time the mysterious experimental unscrewed space plane has launched for that newly-formed agency. The X-37B has flown plenty before, of course – but previously it was doing so under the authority of the U.S. Air Force, since the Space Force hadn’t been formed yet.

SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft launch is officially cleared to proceed for May 27 target

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has received approval on its mission to launch NASA astronauts for the first time ever on May 27, having passed a key Flight Readiness Review (FRR) conducted by the agency to ensure everything is go for launch.

This final stretch check, conducted over the past few days after the Crew Dragon spacecraft was mounted on top of the Falcon 9 rocket that will take it to the International Space Station (ISS), has officially concluded and the result is that everything is cleared to go forward with preparations ahead of the launch on Wednesday. Another flight readiness review is scheduled for Monday after further checkouts.

The launch window on May 27 is officially set to open at 4:33 PM EDT (1:33 PM PDT), and the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon will be taking off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board will be NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the first astronauts to be carried aboard a private U.S.-built spacecraft, and the first humans to launch into space from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

The mission will involve Behnken and Hurley launching to space, then making a rendezvous with the ISS in Crew Dragon, which will autonomously dock with the station if all goes to plan. The astronauts will then stay on the station and contribute to its work as crew members for up to three months before returning home.

Despite the fact that Behnken and Hurley are going to spend a bit of time at the ISS on this mission, this isn’t actually an operational launch — it’s the final demonstration mission in SpaceX’s human-rating process for the NASA Commercial Crew program. Commercial Crew is NASA’s attempt to develop strong public-private partnerships with companies to help defray the cost of sending people to space from the U.S.

The end of the mission will involve the Crew Dragon detaching from the Space Station with the astronauts on board, and performing a controlled re-entry and descent into the ocean, where they’ll be picked up by SpaceX’s recovery crew.

Next up in the preparation sequence is a static test fire, which will be performed sometime later today, and involves firing the Falcon 9’s engines while it’s on the launchpad to see that they’re functioning correctly before it takes off. Then it’s on to launch day (and there are backup dates in case of weather problems) — when the official name of the Crew Dragon capsule for this flight will be revealed, too, according to Behnken.

Polestar to open first US stores in the second half of 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar’s first U.S. retail stores will open in Los Angeles, New York City and two locations in San Francisco later this year — the latest milestone for the automaker as it gets closer to bringing its all-electric vehicle to market.

Polestar, which is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China, was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. The 2021 Polestar 2 is the first EV to come out of Polestar since it was recast as an electric performance brand in 2017.

The company has had plans to open physical retail showrooms called “Polestar Spaces.” Those plans have been delayed by stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stores are expected to open in the second half of 2020.

Polestars plans to expand its retail footprint in the first half of 2021 with locations in Boston, Denver, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Florida. More than 80% of Polestar 2 reservation holders reside within a 150-mile range of the stores scheduled to open by mid 2021, according to Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA.

Unlike the traditional dealership model, Polestar will sell or lease its cars online to customers in all 50 states. The physical stores, which will be in partnership with retailers such as Manhattan Motorcars, Galpin Motors and Price-Simms Automotive Group, are meant to supplement its digital strategy.

SpaceX and NASA break down what their historic first astronaut mission will look like

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX’s most defining moment of our current space era is coming up at the end of this month, with its Demo-2 mission on May 27. The mission will be the first-ever launch for SpaceX with humans on board, and for NASA, it’ll mark the first return to U.S.-based astronaut launches since the Shuttle program flew its last flight in 2011. On Friday, representatives from both SpaceX and NASA briefed the media on the mission and the specifics of what it will involve when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley board the Crew Dragon for its debut crewed performance.

The first thing to note about this mission is that it’s still technically a test, as noted in the “demo” name. This is the capstone demonstration in a series of such missions that will fully human-rate the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 for operational use. As noted during today’s press briefings, a big chunk of the actual human rating process occurs during this final mission — in fact, the majority of the actual final human rating happens on this flight, despite the many years of preparation and live tests to date, including the Demo-1 mission, which was essentially a full round-trip flight, just without any astronauts on board.

Even though it’s technically a demonstration, the stakes couldn’t be higher — SpaceX has a lot to prove here, and it bears the utmost responsibility in terms of keeping Behnken and Hurley safe for the duration of the mission. Which, it turns out, is actually going to be longer than originally planned: NASA says the mission will last anywhere between 30 days and 119 days, depending on a few different factors, the most significant of which being how quickly the agency ends up being able to launch the first operational Commercial Crew mission, Crew-1, which will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency. The Crew Dragon used on this Demo mission could technically remain on orbit for over 200 days, but the purpose of this mission was not originally intended to be staffing the International Space Station, though that’s now part of the plan as a sort of stretch goal.

The teams also revealed today that the Crew Dragon used for Demo-1 will carry not only the astronauts, but also some cargo for the ISS. SpaceX also flies dedicated ISS resupply missions using its non-crew Dragon capsule, but this Crew Dragon will bring just a few additional supplies and scientific material along for the ride.

In terms of timeline, the mission begins with a launch and ascent, followed by the second-stage separation (with Crew Dragon attached). The first-stage booster performs a flip and “boostback burn,” which sets it on its path to return to Earth for a powered landing. Meanwhile Dragon separates from the second stage in space, and heads on to the ISS, which it’ll reach in anywhere from between two and 48 hours after liftoff depending on the position of the space station at the time of launch.


The exact launch time could vary greatly depending on weather, and there are a number of launch opportunities in late May through June in case there’s a need to scrub. Weather during this time in Florida can be a bit hard to accurately predict, as noted by SpaceX’s head of commercial crew, and the conditions necessary to trigger a scrub are less severe than they would be for a mission where there aren’t any humans on board, out of an abundance of caution.

Once the Crew Dragon is in space on its way to the ISS, however, the capsule will rendezvous with the station through a series of phased burns and then an approach, followed by an automated docking process once it reaches close proximity to the station. Crew Dragon has a fully automated docking process, and bypasses entirely even the need for astronauts on board the ISS to capture the spacecraft using the robotic Canadarm, which has been required for the older Dragon capsules and other astronaut-bearing Soyuz craft.

Once docked, Crew Dragon will pressurize and the hatch will open so the astronauts can board and carry on their mission with their colleagues on the station. On board the ISS, Benhken and Hurley will perform duties including conducting experiments and running maintenance on the orbital research platform, before they eventually depart by climbing back into Crew Dragon, undocking, jettisoning the “trunk” or cargo compartment of the capsule, performing a deorbit burn to get into reentry position and then deploying parachutes once in the Earth’s atmosphere to slow their final descent into the Atlantic Ocean. From departure to splashdown should take approximately 24 hours.

Other logistics details shared by the teams performing the mission include that the crew will enter a mandatory quarantine beginning on May 16 and lasting until the mission date, and that mission control crew who need to be on site for the launch will be observing a six-foot distancing rule because of COVID-19, and control stations have been arranged to make this possible.

The mission itself doesn’t sound all that complex when broken down step-by-step, but it represents the culmination of years of hard work on both SpaceX and NASA’s part. The U.S. has been without a homegrown ride to the ISS since 2011, and this is the closest yet we’ve gotten to a return to an era of regular human spaceflight from American soil, so it’s definitely going to be something you’ll want to watch live when the launch happens on May 27.

Instacart has a problem with third-party apps letting shoppers pay for early access to orders

By Megan Rose Dickey

Kara Carmichael has been an Instacart shopper for years in Orlando, Fla. It’s how she’s been able to support her family, she told TechCrunch. But she says she has noticed an increase in third-party bot activity that has made shopping “nearly impossible.”

Despite the high demand for Instacart amid the COVID-19 pandemic, shoppers like Carmichael are facing difficulties claiming orders within the shopper app. This is the result of what appears to be some sophisticated work by third-party apps like Ninja Hours, Sushopper and others.

“They grab the batches within a blink of an eye,” Carmichael said. “I can barely see the amounts offered. Sometimes I may even just receive a notification because the batch has been taken before it was even registered in my app.”

Ninja Hours appeared on the scene about a year ago in the Little Havana community in Miami, according to Logan B., an Instacart shopper with experience using Ninja Hours. Shoppers could pay Ninja Hours about $25 to $35 a week to get access to hours for the following week and in exchange, Ninja Hours would take over the shopper’s app to claim hours on their behalf. This was during a time when Instacart required shoppers to claim hours rather than on-demand orders.

Ninja Hours also provided account activations for immigrant workers without proper documentation. For $200, according to Logan, undocumented immigrants could pay Ninja Hours to create an account for them so they could shop.

Logan says Instacart eventually caught on to Ninja Hours, which forced the service to shut down. Ninja Hours then became Hours For You, which emerged in the fall, Logan says. Hours For You then folded into Sushopper earlier this year.

“The site would go offline for a week and then they would send you a text message,” he said. “It was always written in Spanish — really targeting the Latino community.”

Other shoppers didn’t seem to notice this was going on, Logan says, because Sushopper would claim the orders before they would even appear on the apps. But now that Sushopper has shut down, there’s a new service — one that is not quite as fast.

“There is definitely still a service out here because I’m not getting anything at all,” Logan, who has since stopped paying for early access to orders, said. “There’s no way anyone would be able to grab it that fast.”

What’s happening is that shoppers can see the orders come in, but then they pretty much immediately disappear. Below, you can see a gif of how the moment batches become available, one order immediately disappears.

With this new service, which he doesn’t know the name of, the messages are coming in Portuguese. That leads him to believe it’s run by a different group of people.

“It’s so mainstream now and it seems just about everywhere is having a problem,” Logan said.

Instacart has acknowledged this is a practice that goes on but says that this is not a breach of its platform.

“The safety and security of the entire Instacart community is our top priority,” an Instacart spokesperson told TechCrunch . “We have several robust security measures in place to ensure the security of the Instacart platform. Selling or purchasing batches is not an authorized use of the Instacart platform and is a violation of our Terms of Service. Anyone found to be engaged in any type of inappropriate or fraudulent use of the Instacart platform, including selling or purchasing batches or utilizing any of these types of services, will have their accounts immediately deactivated. We advise shoppers not to engage with any individual or company that claims to provide priority access to batches on the platform, particularly those that request sensitive information such as Instacart usernames, passwords, and/or credit card information.”

Despite Instacart’s efforts, it’s gotten so bad that Carmichael ends up sitting in her car for hours waiting for a batch she can try to snag before the bots.

“My thumbs are sore and eyes are strained,” she said. “I’ve only managed to grab four orders. My livelihood is literally being snatched out from beneath me.”

She and others have reached out to Instacart to report the issue, Carmichael said. But in her experience and the experience of those she knows, Instacart has not responded. Some shoppers, however, are able to get through to Instacart support about this issue. As you can see below, Instacart acknowledges an issue and told one shopper it will “be fixed as soon as possible.”

Before the bot activity ramped up in Orlando, Carmichael was receiving about 20 orders a week. During the week of March 16-22, for example, Carmichael completed 26 batches, according to documents reviewed by TechCrunch. Last week she was only able to claim 11. This week, she has only been able to get four batches.

This increase in bot activity comes at a time when Instacart is ramping up its hiring of full-service shoppers. Just yesterday, Instacart announced it’s adding 250,000 more shoppers to meet demand. That came after Instacart announced last month its plans to hire another 300,000 shoppers.

The increased number of full-service shoppers coupled with third-party bots quickly claiming orders, it’s no wonder why some shoppers are feeling frustrated. Behind the scenes, Instacart is working to ban unauthorized third parties from accepting batches. In the meantime, the company is recommending shoppers not engage with those services.

Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

By Kirsten Korosec

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

🚨 Announcement time! We recently received a CPUC permit granting permission to move CA residents in driverless cars.

We join a tiny group of companies with this permit (👋@zoox @Cruise @Waymo @aurora_inno) & can’t wait to get back on the road to serve seniors. We miss you ❤pic.twitter.com/VBPtNQjRI1

— Voyage (@voyage) April 20, 2020

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

NASA and SpaceX set historic first astronaut launch for May 27

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX have set a specific date and time target for their historic first astronaut launch aboard a private spacecraft from U.S. soil, with a planned date of May 27 and a target liftoff time of 4:32 PM EDT (1:32 PM PDT) from Kennedy Space Center, at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39). The mission had been previously announced to be tracking toward a mid to late-May launch time frame, but now we know exactly when the agency and SpaceX hope to launch astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for this inaugural trip to the International Space Station.

The launch is the first crewed mission in NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks to return American launch capabilities to U.S. soil through private partnerships, with both SpaceX and Boeing taking part and developing their own separate launch vehicles and crew craft. SpaceX has taken all the steps necessary to get to this stage ahead of Boeing, and this flight, called Demo-2, while still technically part of the test program, will see NASA’s astronauts visit the space station for “an extended stay,” with a full duration yet to be determined.

This final test will validate each aspect of the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 launch system, including the pad from which the rocket takes off, the operational facilities on the ground, orbital systems and astronauts procedures. Pending successful completion of all those elements, Crew Dragon should be set for full operational certification, after which time it can begin regularly scheduled service of reliving astronauts to and from the ISS.

For the mission, Crew Dragon will launch with Behnken and Hurley, then enter orbit and rendezvous with the ISS, which should occur around 24 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft is designed to dock fully autonomously with the station (and has done so on a previous occasion during an uncrewed demo mission) and then Behnken and Hurley will disembark and join as members of the ISS crew, performing research on the orbital science platform.

The Crew Dragon flying this mission is designed to stay on orbit for around 110 days, but its actual length of stay will be decided by how ready the commercial crew mission to follow is at the time of launch. That Crew Dragon, which is the fully operational version, is designed for stays of at least 210 days, and the crew complement of four astronauts, including three from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency, is already determined. If all goes well, it’ll happen sometime later this year.

Crew Dragon from Demo-2 will perform an automated undocking from the ISS with Behnken and Hurley on board when it is ready to leave, and then they’ll re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and have a controlled splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where a SpaceX ship will pick them up and bring them back to Florida.

Obviously, NASA and SpaceX are facing challenges along with everyone else with the global COVID-19 crisis ongoing, but the agency has taken extra precautions to ensure this mission continues, since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes that continued U.S. access to, and presence within the ISS is critical.

NASA and SpaceX add some retro flair to the Falcon 9 rocket flying the first crewed Dragon launch

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX are moving ahead full-steam with the Demo-2 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – the first launch to carry astronauts to space aboard a private launch vehicle from American soil. The Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the Crew Dragon to space will include a NASA logo that has been – technically – required from active duty since 1992.

The 1970s-era “worm” logo is a take on NASA branding that has, for more than 20 years now, been relegated to souvenir status. You’ve probably seen it adorning caps, sweatshirts, stickers and other swag, but it hasn’t graced an official NASA spacecraft since its retirement from use. The NASA “meatball” logo that the agency does use on in-space assets today actually predates the “worm” and was developed in the late 1950s – but the latter’s tubular simplicity still has a more “retro” feel.

That vibe returns to active use with the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, which is currently set for launch sometime in early-to-mid May, and which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space, and to the International Space Station, for the final step in certifying Crew Dragon for regular use in operational astronaut transportation missions.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – AUGUST 10: NASA’s “meatball” logo displayed on the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

NASA shared an image of the red “worm” logo emblazoned on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket currently being readied for that mission in Florida, and the agency also said that it’s likely not the last time you’ll see it in official, active mission use. Don’t worry, fans of the meatball classic: The agency says that one’s still its primary symbol, even if the worm has poked its head out of the ground.

Clearstep’s COVID-19 chat-based screener goes in-depth to preserve healthcare resources

By Darrell Etherington

There are a growing number of symptom checker and screening tools that you can use at home if you suspect you might have contracted the new coronavirus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these are relatively simple, including around three or four questions that basically cover the top reported symptoms experienced by anyone who has confirmed to have had the disease. Chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus.

The reason Clearstep’s tool is designed to go a step further than most is simple, according to co-founder and COO Bilal Naved – the symptoms reportedly suffered by those affected by COVID-19 include many that could indicate other serious conditions, including an impending heart attack. More effective and comprehensive screening can also help reduce the burden on an already heavily-taxed healthcare system, which seems likely to only get busier over time as the number of cases across the U.S. continues to climb.

Naved and cofounder Adeel Malik, both of whom have worked in health at Johns Hopkins University and been involved in a number of academic scientific publications, developed Clearstep as a front-line way to connect patients with the right care, using remote screening facilitated via chatbot on their desktop or mobile device. Clearstep’s aim fits naturally with one of the key needs in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – effective screening that can provide individuals with clear and accurate guidance about what steps they need to take to seek care, and when.

“Our country is entering a time of a lot of uncertainty, but but also a time where there could be a true, critical threat to the integrity of the healthcare system,” Naved said in an interview. “If the rate of infection of this really reaches some projections, we might not have enough hospital beds or ICU beds to deal with all of this […] So it’s all about urgency and speed here and rapid response, but also being able to deliver the highest quality product. We are built off of nurse protocols, and we’re the only ones that have access to this in a publicly available chatbot format that has been used in over 200 million encounters in over 95% of the call centers around the country.”

Clearstep’s screener asks a range of questions about symptoms, travel, potential contact with anyone either diagnosed with COVID-19 or likely to have it based on their own travel and other factors. Once you go through the questions, which are presented in a fairly standard and easy-to-follow chat message format, the tool provides you an evaluation of what next steps you should take. It’ll provide you advice about whether or not you need testing for COVID-19 based on current CDC guidelines about who should be tested – and alert you about whether you should seek care for any other reason, independent of your potential coronavirus exposure.

The Clearstep team is also making sure to stay on top of new research as it emerges regarding the presentation and likelihood of symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Their approach focuses on data-driven representation of the symptoms that most people are likely to have, and then also taking the less likely presenting symptoms and building a model wherein those compound and add up to a total. The team is “keeping a pulse in the literature” published in peer-reviewed sources and adapting its screener as it needs to, as well, Naved says.

Ultimately, Naved thinks that where Clearstep can contribute is in its ability to integrate quickly with healthcare providers, providing a triage tool that can give frontline responders a way to interface with the public safely, while also helping to ensure that all the health issues that are not related to COVID-19 but that are still serious and require care don’t get left behind.

“We were able to go from first conversation to contract signed to configured and implemented in total of nine days,” Naved says about their speed of response. “The contracts took six days and in three days, we we customized, put in behind their branding, integrate itd and deployed it out to an entire population in Florida for a health system there […] The symptom checkers that are being put out there need to be able to integrate with those places that are seeing the massive influx of volume and may not be able to handle it, because that’s our responsibility right now.”

Watch ULA’s first dedicated rocket launch for the U.S. Space Force live

By Darrell Etherington

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has a mission today, launching a specialized secure communications satellite for the U.S. Space Force. That’s the new space-focused arm of the U.S. military that was officially formed last year, in response to what the administration has characterized as a growing need to ensure America’s assets in space are properly defended.

The launch today is set to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, with a lift-off time set for 2:57 PM EDT (11:57 AM PDT). The rocket carrying the satellite is an Atlas V, and the mission looks good to proceed as of Thursday morning in terms of both weather and systems checks.

This is the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite being launched for the military, but the previous five have all been deployed under the U.S. Air Force because the Space Force only came into existence officially last year. The first five satellites were launched between 2010 and 2019, and together, all six will form a constellation that provides secure communications capabilities for military operations across air, land and sea.

This will be the 83rd launch of an Atlas V rocket, and the 11th in this particular configuration. The ULA, a joint venture formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, currently has a 100 percent mission success rate, with a total of 133 launches under its belt.

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