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FAA authorizes SpaceX’s next three Starship test launches

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is continuing its Starship spacecraft testing and development program apace, and as of this afternoon it has authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct its next three test flights from its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Approvals for prior launch tests have been one-offs, but the FAA said in a statement that it’s approving these in a batch because “SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”

SpaceX is set to launch its SN15 test Starship as early as this week, with the condition that an FAA inspector be present at the time of the launch at the facility in Boca Chica. The regulator says that has sent an inspector, who is expected to arrive today, which could pave the way for a potential launch attempt in the next couple of days.

The last test flight SpaceX attempted from Boca Chica was the launch of SN11, which occurred at the end of March. That ended badly, after a mostly successful initial climb to an altitude of around 30,000 feet and flip maneuver, with an explosion triggered by an error in one of the Raptor engines used to control the powered landing of the vehicle.

In its statement about the authorization of the next three attempts, the FAA noted that the investigation into what happened with SN11 and its unfortunate ending is still in progress, but added that even so, the agency has determined any public safety concerns related to what went wrong have been alleviated.

The three-launch approval license includes flights of SN16 and SN17 as well as SN15, but the FAA noted that after the first flight, the next two might require additional “corrective action” prior to actually taking off, pending any new “mishap” occurring with the SN15 launch.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has at time criticized the FAA for not being flexible or responsive enough to the rapid pace of iteration and testing that SpaceX is pursuing in Starship’s development. On the other side, members of Congress have suggested that the FAA has perhaps not been as thorough as necessary in independently investigating earlier Starship testing mishaps. The administration contends that the lack of any ultimate resulting impact to public safety is indicative of the success of its program thus far, however.

Tesla wants to make every home a distributed power plant

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to turn every home into a distributed power plant that would generate, store and even deliver energy back into the electricity grid all using the company’s products.

While the company has been selling solar and energy storage products for years, a new company policy to only sell solar coupled with the energy storage products, along with Musk’s comments Monday, reveal a strategy that aims to scale these businesses by appealing to utilities.

“This is a prosperous future both for Tesla and for the utilities,” he said. “If this is not done, the utilities will fail to serve their customers. They won’t be able to do it,” Musk said during an investor call, noting the rolling blackouts in California last summer and the more recent grid failure in Texas as evidence that grid reliability has become a bigger concern.

Last week, the company changed its website to prevent customers from only buying solar or its Powerwall energy storage product and instead required purchasing a system. Musk later announced the move in a tweet, stating “solar power will feed exclusively to Powerwall” and that “Powerwall will interface only between utility meter and house main breaker panel, enabling super simple install and seamless whole house backup during utility dropouts.”

Musk’s pitch is that the grid would need more power lines, more power plants, and larger substations to fully decarbonization using renewables plus storage. Distributed residential systems — of course using Tesla products — would provide a better path, in Musk’s view. His claim has been backed up by in part by recent studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that the U.S. can reach a zero-carbon grid by more than doubling its transmission capacity, and another from Princeton University showing that the country may need to triple its transmission systems by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions.

Musk is imagining a radically different electricity grid system than the one we have today, which is centrally controlled and run by grid operators, independent organizations such as the California Independent System Operator or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It’s a vision that is riddled with bureaucratic and logistical challenges. Utilities and regulatory policy would need to solve how to handle a large influx of so-called ‘distributed energy resources,’ such as solar panels on residential roofs, which may run contrary to utilities’ long-established business models.

It’s important to note that whether renewables-plus-storage will be alone sufficient to decarbonize the energy grid is a contentious question. Many experts believing that the land use demands, storage requirements and intermittency issues of renewables may make their role as the country’s primary electricity generator a pipe dream. But Musk has long been bullish on the renewables-plus-storage model, tweeting last July that “physics favors electric transport, batteries for stationary storage & solar/wind for energy generation.”

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.

This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.

Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.

This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.

SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.

Hadrian is building the factories of the future for rocket ships and advanced manufacturing

By Jonathan Shieber

If the eight person team behind the new startup Hadrian has their way, they’ll have transformed the manufacturing industry within the next decade.

At least, that’s the goal for the new San Francisco-based startup, founded only last year, which has set its sights on building out a new model for advanced manufacturing to enable the satellite, space ship, and advanced energy technology companies to build the future they envision better and faster.

We view our job as to provide the world’s most efficient space and defense component factory,” said Hadrian founder, Chris Power.

Initially, the company is building factories to make the parts that go on rocket ships, according to Power, but the business has implications for any company that needs bespoke components to make their equipment.

“Let me tell you how bad it is at the moment and what’s going to happen over the next 20 years. Right now everyone in space and defense, [including] SpaceX and Lockheed Martin, outsources their parts and manufacturing to small factories across the country. They’re super expensive, they’re unreliable and they’re completely invisible to the customers,” said Power. “This causes big problems with space and defense manufacturers in the design phase, because the lead time is so long and the iteration time is super long. Imagine running software and being able to iterate on your product once every 20 days? If you can imagine a Gantt chart of how to build a rocket, about 60% of that is buffer time… A lot of the delays in launches and stuff like that happen because parts got delivered three months ago. It’d be like running a McDonalds and realizing that your fries and burger providers could not tell you when the food would arrive.”

It’s hard to overstate the strategic importance of the parts suppliers to the operations of aerospace, defense, and advanced machining companies. As no less an authority on manufacturing than Elon Musk noted in a tweet, “The factory is the product.” It’s also hard to overstate the geopolitical importance of re-establishing the U.S. as a center of manufacturing excellence, according to Hadrian’s investors Lux Capital, Founders Fund, and Construct Capital. Which is one reason why they’re investing $9.5 million into the very early stage business.

“America made massive strategic mistakes in the early 90s which have left our national manufacturing ecosystem completely dilapidated,” said Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov. “The only way to get out of this disaster is to re-invent the most basic input into our aerospace and defense supply chains, machining metal parts quickly and with high tolerance. Right now, America’s most innovative company, SpaceX, relies on a network of near-retired machinists to produce space-worthy metal parts, and no one in technology is. focused on solving this.”

 

The factory is the product

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 11, 2021

Power got to understand the problem at his previous company, Ento, which sold workforce management software to blue collar customers. It was there he realized the issue of. the aging workforce and the need for manufacturers to upgrade almost every aspect of their own technology stack. “I realized that the right way to bring technology to the industrial space is not to sell software to these companies, it’s to build an industrial business from scratch with software.”

Initially, Hadrian is focusing all of its efforts on the space industry, where the component manufacturing problem is especially acute, but the manufacturing capabilities the company is building out have broad relevance across any industry that requires highly engineered components.

“The demand for manufacturing from both the large SpaceX and Blue Origin all the way to this growing long tail of companies from Anduril to Relativity to Varda,” said Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe. “Most of these guys are using mom and pop machine shops… [and] those shops are horribly inefficient. They’re not consistent, and they’re not reliable. Between the software automation, the hardware, you can cut down on inefficiency every step of the process… I like to think of value creation as waste reduction… so mundane things like quoting, scheduling, bidding, and planning all the way to the programming of the manufacturing… every one of those things takes hours to tens of hours to days and weeks, so if you can do that in minutes, it’s just a no-brainer. [Hadrian] will be the cutting edge choice for all of the new and explicitly dedicated and focused aerospace and defense companies.”

Power envisions a network of manufacturing facilities that can initially cover roughly 65% of all space and defense components, and will eventually take that number up to 95% of components. Already several of the biggest launch vehicle and satellite manufacturers are in talks with the company to produce hundreds of units for them, Power said. Some of those companies just happen to be in the Construct, Lux, and Founders Fund portfolio.

And the company’s founder sees this as a new way to revitalize American manufacturing jobs as well. “Manufacturing jobs in space and defense can easily be as high paying as a software engineering job at Google,” he said. In an ideal world, Hadrian would like to offer an onramp to high paying manufacturing careers in the 21st century in the same way that automakers provided good union jobs in the twentieth.

“We haven’t built any of this. If you look at the sheer number of people that we need to train and hire on our new technology and new systems, that people problem and that training problem is part of growing our business.”

A render of Axiom’s future commercial space station design.

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

By Rita Liao

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk’s Neuralink, one of his many companies and the only one currently focused on mind control (that we’re aware of), has released a new blog post and video detailing some of its recent updates — including using its hardware to make it possible for a monkey to play pong with only its brain.

In the video above, Neuralink demonstrates how it used its sensor hardware and brain implant to record a baseline of activity from this macaque (named ‘Pager’) as it played a game on-screen where it had to move a token to different squares using a joystick with its hand. Using that baseline data, Neuralink was able to use machine learning to anticipate where Pager was going to be moving the physical controller, and was eventually able to predict it accurately before the move was actually made. Researchers then removed the paddle entirely, and eventually did the same thing with Pong, ultimately ending up at a place where Pager no longer was even moving its hand on the air on the nonexistent paddle, and was instead controlling the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

The last we saw of Neuralink, Musk himself was demonstrating the Link tech live in August 2020, using pigs to show how it was able to read signals from the brain depending on different stimuli. This new demo with Pager more clearly outlines the direction that the tech is headed in terms of human applications, since, as the company shared on its blog, the same technology could be used to help patients with paralysis manipulate a cursor on a computer, for instance. That could be applied to other paradigms as well, including touch controls on an iPhone, and even typing using a virtual keyboard, according to the company.

Musk separately tweeted that in fact, he expects the initial version of Neuralink’s product to be able to allow someone with paralysis that prevents standard modes of phone interaction to use one faster than people using their thumbs for input. He also added that future iterations of the product would be able to enable communication between Neuralinks in different parts of a patient’s body, transmitting between an in-brain node and neural pathways in legs, for instance, making it possible for “paraplegics to walk again.”

These are obviously bold claims, but the company cites a lot of existing research that undergirds its existing demonstrations and near-term goals. Musk’s more ambitious claims, should, like all of his projections, definitely be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. He did add that he hopes human trials will begin to get underway “hopefully later this year,” for instance – which is already two years later than he was initially anticipating those might start.

The Cult of CryptoPunks

By Lucas Matney

Last month, hours before news of Beeple’s $69 million NFT sale grabbed the front pages of newspapers across the country, a pair of 24 x 24 pixel portraits of aliens wearing little hats sold separately for around $7.5 million each.

The sales, which occurred within 20 hours of each other, didn’t garner the same headlines that the Beeple auction received, but there was a bit of coverage in the tech press, mostly because one of the aliens was sold by Dylan Field, the CEO of design software startup Figma. In a Clubhouse conversation following the sale, Field said he hoped that a century from now the blocky image he had sold would be seen as the “Mona Lisa of digital art.”

Punk #7804, which recently sold for 4,200 Ether (about $7.5M at the time of sale)

The pixelated alien portraits belonged to an NFT platform called CryptoPunks. In the world of NFTs, the platform is as close to ancient history as it gets, meaning it’s almost four years old. There are 10,000 punks, all of which were procedurally generated and claimed for free when the project launched in 2017.

Since then, the economy built around trading these images has sauntered on with a small but passionate community, at least until a few months ago. That’s when it suddenly exploded, dragging into the fray Silicon Valley CEOs, prominent venture capitalists, famous YouTubers, poker stars and major business personalities. The platform has seen nearly $200 million worth of transaction volume in official deals since launch, according to NFT tracking site CryptoSlam, with 98% of that volume flowing through the platform in the past few months.

The sudden rise in punk prices is owed to an explosion of interest in NFTs largely brought about by climbing cryptocurrency prices, the rise in popularity of Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot and the resurgence of the physical collectibles markets, all of which have made some investors more comfortable with the idea of betting on digital goods.

Today, the cheapest punk you can buy will run you about $30,000 in Ethereum cryptocurrency, while the rarest may be worth just shy of $10 million.

CryptoPunks have captured plenty of attention, but even with all eyeballs on the project, people still aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking at.

“In NFT world, people are talking about selling Jack Dorsey tweets, Top Shots and Beeple in the same sentence right now,” Sotheby’s CEO Charles Stewart told TechCrunch in an interview. “The lines can get a little blurry. When you look at CryptoPunks, are they art? Are they collectibles? Are they… you know, well… what are they exactly?”

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

A ‘more honest’ stock market

Back in early 2017, John Watkinson and Matt Hall were playing with a pixelated character generator they built, and they were pretty enthusiastic about the fun little pop art portraits they had been cooking up. By June, they had created 10,000 characters with different hairstyles, hats and glasses for a project called CryptoPunks that would be hosted on the nascent Ethereum blockchain. Some punks had a handful of attributes, some had none, some were apes, some were aliens. While the creators had a hand in curating some elements, they let their generator take control of the creativity.

They launched to modest interest from a small community of blockchain enthusiasts who only had to pay a few pennies in Ethereum “gas” transaction fees to own their own punk. It was a novel idea, pre-dating the NFT platform CryptoKitties by months and NBA Top Shot by years, but it arrived at the cusp of crypto’s 2017 wave during the early throes of initial coin offerings, where scams were plentiful and attention was hard to come by. Hall said that about 20-30 punks were claimed in the days following launch.

Then a week later Mashable wrote a story about the fledgling crypto art project, and within hours every punk was gone.

Some users went all-in immediately. One user that went by the username hemba has become something of a cautionary figure in the CryptoPunks community, claiming more than 1,000 punks at launch and selling every one of them before the market took off this year, missing out on tens of millions of dollars in profits at current prices. Another user who goes by mr703 claimed some 703 punks in total at launch, hundreds of which they are still holding onto years later in a collection similarly worth tens of millions.

In a Discord chat with the pseudonymous mr703, we asked whether they felt they had enough or if there were any punks they still intended to buy. “I own all the punks I ever really want,” they typed back. Their public wallet shows they paid more than $37,000 for a punk in the minutes in between our question and their answer. They spent $35,000 on another one several hours later.

Some investors who have already gone all-in backing risky cryptocurrencies see NFTs as a way to diversify their crypto holdings. Others see CryptoPunks as more of a game.

CryptoPunks creators Matt Hall and John Watkinson

“I think that with each year that passes the definition of what is gambling and what is investing move closer and closer together,” says Mike McDonald, a 31-year-old professional poker player who recently bought his first punk.

Why are some punks worth tens of thousands of dollars while others are worth millions? Users in the thriving CryptoPunks Discord community have had to decide that on their own, combining objective analysis of the rarity of certain design attributes with the more subjective impressions of punk “aesthetics.”

Things aren’t always predictable. Earrings are the most common attribute for punks, commanding much lower price floors than those with beanie hats, which are the rarest attribute. But hundreds of punks are wearing 3D glasses, yet they tend to earn a hefty premium over those with green clown hair even though fewer of those punks exist. Some attributes gain market momentum randomly; for instance, the market for punks wearing hoodies has been particularly hot in recent weeks.

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

As prices have surged, owning a piece of the CryptoPunks’ finite supply has become a “digital flex” in its own right, especially when used as an avatar on social media sites, several punk owners told us. That has drawn plenty of wealthy buyers outside the blockchain world, including influencers like YouTuber Logan Paul who uploaded a video last month detailing his $170,000 purchase of several punks.

“When you don’t have a punk, the ecosystem seems like this gentlemen’s club of the 10,000 people that can afford these kinds of avatars,” says McDonald.

There is some concern among the community whether all of this outside attention is a sign of an impending crash in prices, though many investors feel reassured by the historical value of CryptoPunks among NFTs. Nevertheless, some of the investors have a hard time convincing those in their lives that what they’re doing is anything but reckless.

After a recent six-figure punk purchase, user Chris Mintern says his girlfriend was exasperated that he had just dropped more money on a punk than her house was worth. “She says it’s all just a bunch of internet nerds who don’t appreciate the value of money. That to them, it’s just a game and numbers on a screen,” he told TechCrunch.

The community surrounding CryptoPunks has largely bloomed on the chat app Discord in a dedicated group where users that are verified as punk owners tend to drive conversations and can gather attention for up-and-coming NFT projects they’re betting on.

“It’s a bit of a cult,” said user thebeautyandthepunk in an interview.

Like many early users, thebeautyandthepunk has stayed pseudonymous since claiming a couple dozen punks at launch, telling us that no one in her life has any idea she’s sitting on an NFT collection likely worth millions — except her accountant. She did recently decide to make it known that she was one of the few female traders who have been present in the overwhelmingly male CryptoPunks community since the beginning.

“I really try to keep my real life and my crypto life completely separate,” she says. “But people need to know that women have been [in this space] for a while and we’re not going anywhere.”

Today, all 10,000 punks are scattered across some 1,889 wallets, according to crypto tracker Etherscan. Some of those accounts are inactive and feared dead, with the punks inside them lost on the blockchain forever. The largest single wallet of punks today belongs to the platform’s creators, holding some 488 punks. It’s their only ownership in a blockchain-based marketplace where most mechanics are already set in stone.

“We’re just users now, too. Nothing about our website is specific to us having created the project,” Watkinson tells TechCrunch. “Our only equity is through the punks we own. We don’t take a cut of the market or anything.”

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

The NFT high-rollers table

Today, CryptoPunks’ creators are working on NFTs full time. While they can’t make any underlying changes to the CryptoPunks contract, they have aimed to improve the website’s marketplace while hopping into the Discord group to keep an eye on the ever-growing community of users.

“It was never our intention for this to sort of be our careers,” Watkinson says.

In 2019, the duo debuted a follow-up project called Autoglyphs, which brought generative art to the blockchain. It didn’t boast the pop aesthetic of CryptoPunks, but it added a new layer to their exploration of blockchain art. Hall and Watkinson have built up a company around their various projects called Larva Labs, and they are in the process of building up a new NFT project that they hope will have a lower barrier of entry than CryptoPunks and Autoglyphs.

“As the CryptoPunks get more and more expensive, they’re just hard to get into,” Hall says.

At around $200 million in official marketplace sales, CryptoPunks’ total lifetime sales volume is about 40% of what Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot has achieved in its past several months. Though CryptoPunks has done so with 0.35% of Top Shot’s total transaction volume, which is fewer than 12,000 trades compared to more than 3.3 million, according to CryptoSlam. Those high transaction numbers spread across millions of NFTs mean much less value per transaction on Top Shot, but a much, much bigger pool of active users.

Last month, Dapper Labs announced they had raised $305 million at a $2.6 billion valuation as they look to expand their private Flow blockchain to other blockchain “games” through more high-profile partnerships. Hall and Watkinson have been watching Dapper Labs’ success, but don’t think Larva Labs will need venture funding to continue exploring what’s next for NFTs.

“Rather than looking at becoming a large company and doing a deal with the NBA or something like that, we’re more just looking forward to kind of just continuing to explore the tech possibilities,” Watkinson said. “What we love about CryptoPunks is the action, and so we’d like to find a way back to sort of that level of action, and our next project is going to try to find ways to sort of keep the deal flow going.”

They have few details to share on the new project, which they said will debut “relatively soon” this year.

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

The origin of the species

CryptoPunks lore is largely steeped in the assertion that they are the oldest NFT project on the Ethereum blockchain. It’s a line that was floated by almost all of the punk owners I spoke with as the main reason they had dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the platform. In Paul’s recent YouTube video, he justified prices to his skeptical friends by noting, “[CryptoPunks] is the first and that makes it special.”

But over the past few weeks, holes in that narrative have begun to emerge, as “crypto archaeologists” have begun to unearth abandoned NFT projects that were created in Ethereum’s earliest days, with at least one arriving before CryptoPunks. We recently spoke with Cyrus Adkisson, the creator of a project called Etheria, which he debuted back in 2015, just three months after Ethereum’s mainnet went live. The project allowed users to buy up, sell and build on hexagonal swaths of digital land on a large map. It didn’t develop much of a following at launch and sat abandoned for years on the Ethereum blockchain until Adkisson saw the “fever pitch” developing around NFTs and started searching for the passcode to his old account.

“I remember calling my parents toward the end of February, telling them I may be sitting on a goldmine here,” Adkisson told TechCrunch.

After ultimately gaining access to his Etheria account, he then fired off a few tweets from Etheria’s long-dormant Twitter account, detailing that the bulk of the 914 tiles across two externally tradeable versions were still available and could be claimed for 1 Ether each. Adkisson says by the end of that weekend, his previously empty wallet was filled with $1.4 million worth of Ethereum.

1/ I hear that NFTs have become a thing. Here is some essential about Etheria, the first NFT project ever deployed to the Ethereum blockchain all the way back in October 2015 and presented at DEVCON1. pic.twitter.com/aBZghPdFbS

— Etheria (the OG NFTs) (@etheria_feed) March 13, 2021

Age alone won’t make Etheria a hit; the major challenge from here is building up a community around the project that brings in more users and pushes the prices of land tiles higher. A tile recently sold for nearly $25,000 worth of Ether, but early adopters are struggling to balance waiting out the market’s development with liquidating enough tiles so that new users can get involved and the project can build hype. 

“With these projects, it’s like, yeah, you have the historical context, but now you need to build a solid foundation with your communities because your real measure is not now, but it’s going to be what your community, size and engagement look like in a year,” says Allen Hena, an NFT enthusiast who helped attract attention to the Etheria community last month with a series of blog posts.

 In the days following the project’s resurrection, the young community has already seen plenty of disagreement and infighting as Adkisson aims to maintain some level of control over the platform on which plenty have already pinned their retirement plans. Owners are mainly frustrated by Adkisson’s attempts to make an older version of Etheria externally tradeable, something that would likely make land tiles on the existing contracts considerably less valuable. Since our interview, Adkisson has left Etheria’s Discord server and admins in the group have vowed to continue on without him as he decides which direction he wants to take Etheria 1.0.

While punk owners we talked with are keeping an eye on these newly reemerged projects, they’re also skeptical that Etheria’s older status will do much to impact CryptoPunks’ value to NFT history.

“On paper it looks cool but it didn’t actually do anything for the community,” says user Daniel Maegaard. “CryptoPunks did all the hard work.”

Punk #6487, which Daniel Maegaard recently sold for 550 Ether (about $1.05M at the time of sale)

Maegaard, a 30-year-old crypto investor based in Brisbane, Australia, is more tied up in the value of CryptoPunks than most. He recently sold a particularly rare female “zero-trait” punk for more than $1 million. He’s also the owner of one of the rarest — some argue the rarest — punks, the only one with seven unique attributes, a qualifier that has earned it the nickname “7-atty” and a sacred place in punk lore. When he bought the punk for about $18,000 in Ethereum last year, it was the most anyone had ever paid. He isn’t keen to let it go anytime soon, saying he recently turned down a private offer for $4.2 million from a group of investors that hoped to tokenize the NFT and sell fractional shares of it to other users. Part of holding onto it is the potential for further gains, but the real reason, he says, is that he’s beginning to feel an emotional bond with his collection of digital files.

“These little pixelated faces, it should be easy to give them up. I’ve sold a few punks and I’ve regretted every sale, I experienced that when I sold my zero-trait punk,” Maegaard says. “Like, yeah, a million dollars is nice, but I really liked her.”

Tim Cook drops hints about autonomous tech and the Apple car

By Rebecca Bellan

Apple CEO Tim Cook dropped a few hints in an interview released Monday about the direction of the much-anticipated Apple car, including that autonomous vehicle technology will likely be a key feature.

“The autonomy itself is a core technology, in my view,” Cook told Kara Swisher in an interview on the “Sway” podcast. “If you sort of step back, the car, in a lot of ways, is a robot. An autonomous car is a robot. And so there’s lots of things you can do with autonomy. And we’ll see what Apple does.”

Cook was careful not to reveal too much, declining to answer Swisher’s question outright if Apple is planning to produce a car itself or the tech within the car. What clues he did drop, suggests Project Titan is working on something in the middle.

“We love to integrate hardware, software and services, and find the intersection points of those because we think that’s where the magic occurs,” said Cook. “And we love to own the primary technology that’s around that.”

To which Swisher responded: “I’m going to go with car for that, if you don’t mind. I’m just going to jump to car.”

We are, too.

Many people in the micromobility industry like to say that e-scooters are basically iPhones on wheels, but it’s more likely that the Apple car will actually be the iPhone on wheels. Apple is generally known for owning all of its hardware and software, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple engineers working closely with a manufacturer to produce an Apple car, with the potential to one day cut out the middle man and become the manufacturer.

The so-called Project Titan appeared at risk of failing before a car was ever seen by the public with mass layoffs in 2019. However, more recent reports suggest that the project is alive and well with plans to make a self-driving electric passenger vehicle by 2024.

Earlier this year, CNBC reported that Apple was close to finalizing a deal with Hyundai-Kia to build an Apple-branded self-driving car at the Kia assembly plant in West Point, Georgia. Sources familiar with Apple’s interest in Hyundai say the company wants to work with an automaker that will let Apple hold the reins on the software and hardware that will go into the car.

The two companies never reached a deal and talks fell apart in February, according to multiple reports. That hasn’t stopped the flow of rumors and reports about Apple and its plans, which have previously been linked to other suppliers, automakers such as Nissan and even startups.

It’s still unclear what the Apple car will look like, but as a passenger vehicle, rather than a robotaxi or delivery vehicle, it will be going up against the likes of Tesla.

“I’ve never spoken to Elon, although I have great admiration and respect for the company he’s built,” said Cook. “I think Tesla has done an unbelievable job of not only establishing the lead, but keeping the lead for such a long period of time in the EV space. So I have great appreciation for them.”

Project Titan is being led by Doug Field, who was formerly senior vice president of engineering at Tesla and one of the key players behind the Model 3 launch.

SpaceX is outfitting its Dragon spacecraft with an observation down for space tourists

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is set to make a change to its Crew Dragon spacecraft for its forthcoming history-making all-civilian launch, currently set for September 15. That Dragon will replace its International Space Station docking mechanism with a transparent dome, through which passengers will be able to take in an awe-inspiring surround panorama of space and the Earth from an orbital perspective.

The glass dome will be at the ‘nose’ of the Dragon capsule, or its topmost point when it’s loaded upright on top of a Falcon 9 rocket readying for launch. There should be space for one passenger to use it at a time, and it’ll be opened up once the spacecraft is safely out of Earth’s atmosphere, exposed by a protective cover that can be flipped back down to protect the observation deck when the spacecraft re-enters on its return trip.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called it “the most ‘in space’ you could possibly feel” in a tweet sharing a concept render of the new modification in use. During a press briefing for the upcoming tourist flight, which is called ‘Inspiration4’ and led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, it was described as being similar to the exiting cupola on the International Space Station in terms of the views it affords.

Probably most “in space” you could possibly feel by being in a glass dome https://t.co/SOAIzxVGgX

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021

The ISS cupola is an observatory module built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and installed in 2010. Based on these renders from SpaceX, the Dragon version will be a continuous unbroken transparent surface, whereas the ISS cupola is made up of segmented panes separated by support structure, so that could mean Dragon provides a better view.

International Space Station cupola exterior.

International Space Station cupola exterior.

This modification could pave the way for a more permanent alternate configuration of Dragon, one best-suited for SpaceX’s planned commercial passenger missions, most of which will likely aim to do orbital tours without any actual docking at the ISS. It’s possible the company will make further cabin modifications when the vehicle isn’t configured for crew delivery to the orbital science station.

SpaceX also revealed new details about the Inspiration4 mission today, including its planned launch date of September 15, and a three-day mission flight duration. The remaining two passengers on board the four-person crew were also revealed this morning.

Last two crewmembers named for SpaceX’s first all-civilian human spaceflight mission

By Darrell Etherington

We now know the names of all four individuals who will fly on the historic Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian spaceflight in history. In addition to previously revealed crew members Jared Isaacman (who’s footing the entire bill) and St. Jude Children’s Hospital employee Haley Arceneaux, Inspiration4 will include Dr. Sian Proctor and Christopher Sembroski as the final two civilian astronauts. The mission will use a SpaceX Dragon capsule and is set to fly no earlier than later this year.

Dr. Proctor takes the state reserved for the online business competition portion of the crew selection process, which saw entrants taken from submissions based on people who had created businesses on Isaacman’s Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. Sembroski won his seat by contributing to the ongoing St. Jude fundraising drive Isaacman is hosting as part of the mission’s promotional campaign.

Inspiration4 crew member Dr. Sian Proctor

Both Proctor and Sembroski have specific sets of skills relative to spaceflight that seem likely to have factored Ito their selection for the crew. Proctor is a trained pilot, for instance, and Sembroski is a veteran aerospace employee, most recently at Lockheed Martin, and also a literal veteran, having served in the U.S. Air Force.

Inspiration4 crew member Christopher Sembroski

As part of this final crew reveal, Inspiration4 also shared how many entries it received in each category. Somewhat surprisingly, the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform competition only drew a total of “approximately” 200 entries — and use of ‘approximately’ suggests fewer — while the charity drive drew 72,000 entries, and has raised around $113 million to date. That’s still short of the campaign’s $200 million goal, and includes Isaacman’s personal commitment of $100 million, but the drive continues and there are additional awards to be one, even if the top prize of the trip to space is gone.

This whole mission campaign has honestly been one of the most bizarre stories in spaceflight in recent memory, beginning with the big announcement, which included a press conference with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joining Isaacman to discuss the flight, and seemingly not being aware of any relevant details about mission specifics. Isaacman also dedicated $100 million of his own money to the charity drive for St. Jude, as mentioned, but clearly donations from the community aren’t living up to expectations with around 13% of the total target raised from those to date.

That “approximately 200” entries in the Shift4Payments build-a-business competition might be the most perplexing, since the award was a free trip to space. In retrospect, this seems like it was the path to space with the most likelihood of working out, even if you had to convince an oddly stunt cast panel of judges to select yours as the winner.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites, making 240 launched this month alone

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has added yet more Starlink satellites to its existing constellation on orbit, with a successful delivery of 60 spacecraft this morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The mission used a Falcon 9 with a flight-prove booster that served on five previous launches, and a cargo fairing cover made up of two re-used halves from past flights.

This is the fourth Starlink launch in under a month, with prior batches of 60 sent up on March 14, March 11 and March 4, respectively. In total, that means it’s sent up 240 satellites in about three weeks, which is actually around on par with the number satellites than the second-largest commercial constellation operator, Planet, has in space in total.

The stated goal for SpaceX is to have launched 1,500 Starlink satellites in 2020, and given its progress, it looks on track to make that target at the current launch pace. Starlink should eventually grow to include as many as 10,000 or more active satellites in low-Earth orbit, but the near-term goal is to continue expanding geographic coverage of its broadband internet service to additional countries and customers.

Right now, it seems like the beta service rollout is more hardware-constrained on the ground component side, since SpaceX opened up pre-orders to anyone in a geography it services earlier this year. Customers signing up now for the Starlink antenna and modem kit are getting delivery times that extend out to the end of this year, even in areas where service is known to be available and performing well for existing beta users.

Starlink could become a massive revenue driver for SpaceX once it’s fully operational, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the plan is to eventually spin the company out once it’s past the initial infrastructure investment phase and revenues have stabilized. So far, customer seem to be having a positive experience with the network in terms of speed and reliability relative to other rural broadband solutions, but the next big test will come once the network is experience heavy load in terms of customer volume.

Elon Musk declares you can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin in the U.S.

By Darrell Etherington

Tesla made headlines earlier this year when it took out significant holdings in bitcoin, acquiring a roughly $1.5 billion stake at then-prices in early February. At the time, it also noted in an SEC filing disclosing the transaction that it could also eventually accept the cryptocurrency as payment from customers for its vehicles. Now, Elon Musk says they’ve made that a reality, at least for customers in the U.S., and he added that the plan is for the automaker to ‘hodl’ all their bitcoin payments, too.

In terms of its infrastructure for accepting bitcoin payments, Tesla isn’t relying on any third-party networks or wallets — the company is “using only internal & open source software & operates Bitcoin nodes directly,” Musk said on Twitter. And when customers pay in bitcoin, those won’t be converted to fiat currency, the CEO says, but will instead presumably add to the company’s stockpile.

You can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2021

In February when Tesla revealed its bitcoin purchase, observers either lauded the company’s novel approach to converting its cash holdings, or criticized the plan for its attachment to an asset with significant price volatility. Many also pointed out that the environmental cost of mining bitcoin seems at odds with Tesla’s overall stated mission, given its carbon footprint. Commenters today echoed these concerns, noting the irony of Tesla accepting the grid-taxing cryptocurrency for its all-electric cars.

As for how the bitcoin payment process works today, Tesla has detailed that in an FAQ. Customers begin the payment process from their own bitcoin wallet, and have to set the exact amount for a vehicle deposit based on current rates, with the value of Tesla’s cars still set in U.S. dollars. The automaker further notes that in the case of any refunds, it’s buyer-beware in terms of any change in value relative to the U.S. dollar from time of purchase to time of refund.

Musk also said that the plan is to expand Bitcoin payments to other countries outside the U.S. by “later this year.” Depending on the market, that could require some regulatory work, but clearly Musk thinks it’s worth the effort. Meanwhile, Bitcoin is up slightly on the news early Wednesday morning.

His Majesty Elon the First, Technoking of Tesla

By Rebecca Bellan

Last week, Elon Musk made $25 billion in one day. On Monday, he crowned himself “Technoking of Tesla.” In Musk-speak, this new title still translates into the Chief Executive Officer of the electric car company. 

The eccentric billionaire is nothing if not creative with his dubs (see: Offspring named X Æ A-Xii.) Zach Kirkhorn, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, has also been bestowed the title of Master of Coin. A nod to Game of Thrones? Honestly, who knows? 

The new appellations were announced via a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, which reads: 

“Effective as of March 15, 2021, the titles of Elon Musk and Zach Kirkhorn have changed to Technoking of Tesla and Master of Coin, respectively. Elon and Zach will also maintain their respective positions as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer.”

This title change follows Musk’s announcement last month that Tesla might start accepting bitcoin as a form of payment in the near future. The cryptocurrency’s stock price hit a new high of $61,788 over the weekend. 

Perhaps this is Musk’s not-so-subtle way of trying to let the world know who reigns supreme, especially after being bumped by Jeff Bezos as the richest person on the planet and after being sued by a Tesla investor for his continuous “erratic tweets” that potentially expose the electric vehicle company to fines and penalties that could drive its share price down. 

Musk’s announcement had a negligible impact on the stock price. Tesla’s stock is up 1.5% in morning trading. Tesla shares had an impressive 600% soar in 2020. However, the stock is now down 20% for the year from a high of $880.82 reached January 8. 

Tesla also disclosed on Monday that Jerome Guillen, president of automotive, will now take on the role of president of Tesla Heavy Trucking. In a 2020 Q4 earnings call, Musk said he expects deliveries of the Tesla Semi to begin this year. The engineering work on the freight-hauling truck with an all-electric powertrain is complete, but lack of availability to battery cells might halt production, Musk said during the call. 

SpaceX flies Falcon 9 rocket booster for a record 9th time, delivers 3rd batch of Starlink satellites in two weeks

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has delivered another 60 Starlink satellites to orbit — meaning it has sent 180 in total to join its 1,000+ strong constellation in the past two weeks alone. Today’s launch also set a record for SpaceX for its Falcon 9 rocket reusability program, since it was the ninth flight and ninth landing for this particular first-stage booster.

The booster was used previously on a variety of missions, including five prior Starlink launches, as well as the Demo-1 mission for the company’s Crew Dragon capsule, which was the uncrewed test flight that proved it would work as intended from launch all the way to docking with the International Space Station and then returning back to Earth.

SpaceX set its prior reusability record in January this year – another Starlink launch – using this very same refurbished first stage, which had just flown in December of last year before that. SpaceX not only wants to continue to show that it can re-fly these boosters more and more times, but also that it can turn them around quickly for their next mission, since both speed and volume will have a significant impact on launch costs.

Rocket reuse is of particular importance when it comes to these Starlink missions, which are happening with increasing frequency as SpaceX pushes to expand the availability of its Starlink broadband internet service globally. As mentioned, this is the third launch of 60 satellites for the constellation in just 10 days — the most recent launch happened just Thursday, and the first of this trio took place the Thursday before that.

From here, expect SpaceX to just continue to launch at roughly this pace for the next little while, since it has two more planned Starlink launches before March is over, including one tentatively set for next Sunday. As the company is its own customer for these missions, it’s eating the cost of the launches (at least until Starlink starts operating beyond its current beta and bringing in more revenue) so re-flying boosters is a good way to help mitigate the overall spend.

Elon Musk, Tesla board sued in lawsuit alleging ‘erratic’ tweets violate fiduciary duty

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s tweets are the subject of another lawsuit.

A Tesla investor is suing the company board and Musk for continuing to send “erratic tweets” that violate a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that requires oversight of his social media activities. The lawsuit, which was first reported by Bloomberg, claims Musk is exposing the company to potential fines and penalties from regulators and could drive down its share price. The lawsuit names the board for failing to control Musk’s behavior, which puts the company at risk.

The lawsuit by investor Chase Gharrity, which was filed in Delaware Chancery Court, was unsealed Friday. It was originally filed March 8. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. 

Tesla, Musk and the SEC reached an agreement in April 2019 that gave the CEO freedom to use Twitter — within certain limitations — without fear of being held in contempt for violating an earlier court order. The agreement allows Musk to tweet as he wishes except when it’s about certain events or financial milestones. In those cases, Musk must seek pre-approval from a securities lawyer, according to the agreement filed with Manhattan federal court.

The April 2019 agreement was the product of a years-long fight between Musk and the SEC that began after his infamous August 7, 2018 tweet in which he stated the company had “funding secured” for a private takeover at $420 per share. The SEC filed a complaint alleging that Musk had committed securities fraud.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

The fight was reignited after Musk sent a tweet on February 19, 2019 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars that year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year’s end.

This latest lawsuit alleges that Musk’s tweeting violates the April 2019 judgment and betrays his, and the board’s, fiduciary duty.  The 105-page suit cites several tweets sent from Musk’s account, including a tweet on May 1, 2020 — over a year after the SEC judgment — which stated: “Tesla stock is too high IMO.”

Tesla stock price is too high imo

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 1, 2020

The tweet sent shares into a free fallnearly 12% in the half-hour following his stock price tweets. The tweet was one of many sent out in rapid fire that day, covering a variety of topics and demands “give people back their freedom” and lines from the U.S. National Anthem to quotes from poet Dylan Thomas and a claim that he will sell all of his possessions. Musk later told the Wall Street Journal in an email that he was not joking and that his tweets were not vetted in advance.

The lawsuit revealed Friday alleges that the Tesla board has also failed to secure a general counsel “who can provide advice untainted by Musk,” the lawsuit. Three general counsels departed from the company in 2019, which the lawsuit points to as evidence that none were able to exercise independent advice that differed from Musk’s “desired outcome.”

Musk’s “erratic” actions have caused the company “substantial damage,” including billions of dollars in lost market capitalization, the lawsuit says. 

The case is Gharrity v. Musk, Del. Ch., No. 2021-0199.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites for its Starlink service on the heels of opening up access

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched yet another batch of Starlink satellites – a full complement of 60, the standard size for its current Falcon 9-based Starlink missions. This brings SpaceX’s total to just around 1,000 in active on orbit, taking into account the handful that were experimental or have been de-orbited to date. This follows SpaceX’s opening of orders for Starlink to anyone in a current or planned coverage zone.

Starlink is a global satellite-based data network powered by small, low-Earth orbit satellites. Historically, broadband satellites have been large, expensive spacecraft positioned much further out from Earth in a fixed orbit, providing service to a single coverage area. Because of their distance from Earth and the way they connect to base stations, coverage has been very high-latency and relatively inconsistent (which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever tried to use Wifi on a flight, for instance). SpaceX’s constellation-based approach sees the satellites positioned much closer to Earth, which improves latency, and also has the satellites orbiting Earth and handing off connections between one another, which in theory provides more consistent coverage – particularly as the size of the constellation grows.

Eventually, SpaceX intends to provide coverage globally from Starlink, with an emphasis on offering service to areas. where coverage has been weak due to ground infrastructure challenges in past. For now, however, coverage is limited, though SpaceX recently expanded its closed beta to an open one, with anyone able to sign up via the Starlink website after an address check, and place an order, including a deposit with the full amount for the hardware kit to be charged once it ships.

Starlink’s hardware includes a small satellite receiver dish for installation by the customer at their service address. The service itself costs $99 per month, while the equipment is $499 (one-time fee). This does seem steep, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter recently that the plan is to have the costs come down over time, once the significant initial investment is recouped. He also noted that the plan is still to spin off Starlink and have it IPO eventually, once the company “can predict cash flow reasonably well.”

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