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Elon Musk: the Tesla Cybertruck isn’t getting any smaller

By Kirsten Korosec

In the days and weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed the cybertruck — a post-apocalyptic inspired vehicle made of cold-rolled steel — there was a lot of speculation about whether it would be smaller once it actually made it to market.

Production of the Cybertruck is still a long ways off. There isn’t even a factory to build the all-electric truck yet. However, Musk did provide some clarification Saturday on its size. In a tweet, Musk wrote “Reviewed design with Franz last night. Even 3% smaller is too small. Will be pretty much the same size. We’ll probably do a smaller, tight world truck at some point.” (Musk was referring to Tesla’s head of design Franz von Holzhausen. And we assume Musk meant to write “light” not “tight” truck.)

Musk had previously said the company could probably reduce the width of the cybertruck by an inch and “maybe reduce length by 6-plus inches without losing on utility or esthetics.”

Reviewed design with Franz last night. Even 3% smaller is too small. Will be pretty much this size. We’ll probably do a smaller, tight world truck at some point.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 23, 2020

Tesla hasn’t shared the dimensions of the vehicle. And TechCrunch failed to bring a measuring tape at the launch. (Lesson learned).

In the past two months, Musk has provided a few other updates around the cybertruck via Twitter, noting that the company is increasing dynamic air suspension travel for better off-roading and that it “will float for awhile,” a claim he didn’t explain further.

Tesla said it will offer three variants of the cybertruck. The cheapest version, a single motor and rear-wheel drive model, will cost $39,900, have a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds and more than 250 miles of range, according to specs on its website. The middle version will be a dual-motor all-wheel drive, have a towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds and be able to travel more than 300 miles on a single charge. The dual motor AWD model is priced at $49,900.

The third version will have three electric motors and all-wheel drive, a towing capacity of 14,000 pounds and battery range of more than 500 miles. This version, known as “tri motor,” is priced at $69,900.

Tesla drops lawsuit against Alameda County over Fremont factory reopening

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has officially dismissed a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Alameda County that sought to force the reopening of its factory in Fremont, California.

The dismissal, which was granted Wednesday, closes the loop on a battle between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and county health and law enforcement officials. The lawsuit filed May 9, hours after Musk threatened to sue and move operations out of state, sought injunctive and declaratory relief against Alameda County. Reuters was the first to report the dismissal.

The lawsuit was filed after Tesla’s plans to resume production at the Fremont factory were thwarted by the county’s decision to extend a stay-at-home order issued to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Musk had based the reopening on new guidance issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that allows manufacturers to resume operations. However, the governor’s guidance included a warning that local governments could keep more restrictive rules in place. Alameda County, along with several other Bay Area counties and cities, extended the stay-at-home orders through the end of May. The orders were revised and did ease some of the restrictions. However, it did not lift the order for manufacturing.

After several days of Twitter rants and negotiations with the county, Tesla was allowed to begin to reopen its factory as long as it adhered to approved safety measures.

Microsoft teamed up with OpenAI to build a massive AI supercomputer in Azure

By Frederic Lardinois

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that it has teamed up with OpenAI, the startup trying to build a general artificial intelligence, with — among other things — a $1 billion investment from Microsoft, to create one of the world’s fastest supercomputers on top of Azure’s infrastructure. Microsoft says that the 285,000-core machine would have ranked in the top five of the TOP500 supercomputer rankings.

Because Microsoft doesn’t actually tell us much more than that, except for a few more specs that say it had 10,000 GPUs and 400 gigabits per second of network connectivity per server, we’ll just have to take Microsoft’s and OpenAI’s word for this.

To be in the top five of supercomputers, a machine would currently have to reach more than 23,000 teraflops per second. It’s also worth noting that the No. 1 machine, the IBM Power System-based Summit, reaches over 148,000 teraflops, so there is quite a wide margin here. Despite writing a four-page press release about its AI initiatives, Microsoft didn’t share any actual performance numbers.

“The computer is connected to Azure, but is a dedicated resource of OpenAI’s. They paid for the system, paying both Microsoft and other suppliers. The total cost is not being disclosed,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me when I asked for details. We’re also being told that the system is still running today.

Since Microsoft’s massive investment, OpenAI has made Azure its cloud of choice and this supercomputer was developed “with and exclusively for OpenAI.”

OpenAI has made a name for itself by training very large models. That’s obviously the purpose of a project like this, too.

“As we’ve learned more and more about what we need and the different limits of all the components that make up a supercomputer, we were really able to say, ‘If we could design our dream system, what would it look like?’ ” said OpenAI CEO Sam Altman . “And then Microsoft was able to build it.”

Tesla scouts head to Tulsa, Austin as hunt for Cybertruck gigafactory location nears end

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla officials visited two sites in Tulsa, Oklahoma this week to search for a location for its future and fifth gigafactory that will produce its all-electric Cybertruck and Model Y crossover, a source familiar with the situation told TechCrunch.

Company representatives also visited Austin. A final decision has not been made, but Austin and Tulsa are among the finalists, according to multiple sources. The AP also reported Tulsa and Austin as top picks for the gigafactory.

Tesla expects to make a decision as soon as next month, and “certainly within three months,” CEO Elon Musk said April 29 during the company’s first quarter earnings call.

Musk tweeted in March that Tesla was scouting locations for a so-called “Cybertruck Gigafactory.” Musk said, at the time, that the factory would be located in the central part of the U.S. and would be used to produce Model Y crossovers for the East Coast market as well as the cybertruck.

Not long after the tweets, TechCrunch learned that Tesla was eyeing Nashville and had been in talks with officials there. Tesla informed Nashville officials this week that the city is out of the running for its gigafactory location, according to one source.

An email was sent to Tesla requesting comment. The article will be updated if Tesla responds.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office issued a statement neither confirms nor denies the talks.

“While I can not comment on potential projects, it is clear that Tesla and Tulsa were forged in the same spirit,” Bynum said in an emailed statement. “Both founded by pioneers who dreamt big and made it happen. Both trying to change the world with a new kind of energy. Both investing big in what matters most: people. Tulsa is a city that doesn’t stifle entrepreneurs – we revere them. And as Tesla continues to rapidly change transportation all around the world, I can’t imagine a better place for them to further that important work than Green Country.”

This next gigafactory, wherever it is located, will likely be larger and produce multiple products, CFO Zachary Kirkhorn said during the same April 29 call.

“That’s under a belief that there’s significant efficiencies by having as much as possible and similar product lines under the same roof and as much vertical integration as possible all in one facility,” Kirkhorn said.

Musk has referred to these as future plants as “tera” factories — a nod to terawatt, or more specifically a terawatt-hour of battery capacity. The company’s first “gigafactory” is in Sparks, Nevada. The massive structure, which has surpassed. 1.9 million square feet, is where Tesla produces battery packs and electric motors for its Model 3 vehicles. The company has a joint venture with Panasonic,  which is making the lithium-ion cells.

Tesla dubbed the Sparks plant a “gigafactory” because the company said at the time it would be capable of producing 35 gigawatt-hours per year of battery cells.

Tesla assembles its Model S, Model X and Model 3 vehicles in Fremont, Calif. at a factory that was once home to GM and Toyota’s New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) operation. Tesla acquired the factory in 2010. The first Model S was produced at the factory in June 2012.

“Gigafactory 2” in Buffalo, New York, is where Tesla produces solar cells and modules. The company’s third gigafactory is located in Shanghai, China and started producing the Model 3 late last year. The first deliveries began in early January.

Tesla is now preparing to build another factory near Berlin. Once complete, this German factory will produce the Model 3 and Model Y for the European market.

Elon Musk: Video conferencing is ‘definitely’ coming to Tesla vehicles

By Kirsten Korosec

Ever since the Tesla Model 3 came to market in 2017 there’s been widespread speculation about an interior camera that’s hidden in the rearview mirror and faces into the car’s cabin.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the camera is there to support the company’s eventual robotaxi plans or even record sing-along sessions with the vehicle’s Caroake feature. But there have also been hints that the camera would be used to recognize people in the vehicle and automatically deliver personalized features.

But wait. Now, it appears the cabin-facing camera could also be used for video conferencing. Sure, why not?

Video conferencing within a Tesla will be “definitely a future feature,” Musk wrote on Twitter in response to a question from the Tesla Owners Silicon Valley group.

Yeah, definitely a future feature

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 5, 2020

How or when this feature might appear isn’t important. Details like whether it will be active even while someone is driving are boring.

Today, Tesla’s entertainment features like its video games or streaming Netflix can only be used when the vehicle is in park. The Caroake feature can be deployed while driving, although a message pops up saying that the lyrics, which are displayed on the central screen, are only for passengers. A confirmation button that reads “I am a passenger” is also displayed before launching.

But that doesn’t mean the video conferencing feature will have the same constraints. Just a few days ago, Musk talked about creating a game like a complex version of Pac-Man or Mario Kart that interacts virtually with reality. In other words, could be played while driving on roads.

Anyone think they can get a good multiplayer Minecraft working on Teslas? Or maybe create a game that interacts virtually with reality like Pokémon Go while driving safely? Like a complex version of Pac-man or Mario Kart?

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2020

NASA confirms work on a Tom Cruise movie to be shot aboard the International Space Station

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is indeed working with actor Tom Cruise on a film to be shot in space – aboard the International Space Station (ISS) it turns out. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the news, which was first reported last night, via a tweet today. The ISS setting is a new detail to the plan, which was first reported by Deadline, and which also named SpaceX as a potential partner on the film project, which is said to be in an early preparatory phase.

NASA has previously talked about how it would like to open the ISS to more commercial ventures, and offering it as a filming location is definitely one way to do that. Bridenstine notes that including scientific endeavours like the floating orbital platform in popular media serves as a way “to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists” that can help the agency achieve its goals.

SpaceX will presumably take part as Cruise ride to the ISS (assuming the actor is actually going to be the one heading there to film on site, but I have a hard time imagining Cruise would pass that up). The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule which is set for a final demonstration mission later this month to establish its ability to carry humans to and from the ISS, with a crew launch of two NASA astronauts.

NASA and SpaceX have planned to make part of the Crew Dragon’s passenger capacity available to commercial entities: The spacecraft can carry up to seven passengers, but NASA will only ever book four of those seats, according to the agency’s plans. The idea is that commercial bookings can help the agency offset the cost of launches further still.

Paying for an actor (or two?) and a film set to take a trip to the ISS will definitely help with sharing the cost of gas for the ride. No word yet on when this will actually take place, or how set in stone the plans are, however. SpaceX has previously announced that it will be offering private tourist flights aboard Crew Dragon, with the current plan to start those either late next year, or in 2022.

Tom Cruise reportedly talking to SpaceX about shooting a movie in space

By Darrell Etherington

Perennial action star Tom Cruise, who has a penchant for striving for ever bigger and more blustery stunts and set pieces, may be aiming for the crowning action movie achievement of them all: Shooting a movie in space. Deadline reports that Cruise is in early discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX about the possibility of filming a feature film in space, with NASA also involved in the early chats.

This isn’t a booked project, but rather early discussions, according to Deadline, but the talks are serious. They also fit perfectly with Cruise’s daring-do profile, since the actor frequently takes on his own stunts, including some of the more hair-raising epic scenes from the Mission Impossible series.

This movie would not be a Mission Impossible sequel, according to the report, but any film actually set in space probably doesn’t need the cache of a legacy film franchise to attract audiences.

No word on how this would actually work, but SpaceX is just about to certify their first human-rated spacecraft for service. Their Crew Dragon is readying for a launch on May 27, carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission that will act as the final preparatory step before the spacecraft can be used for normal astronaut-ferrying operations to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX and NASA specifically embarked on their public-private partnership to develop Crew Dragon with the plan that it would also then be made available to commercial partners for other contracts. The agency’s public-private partnership efforts with industry are intended to defray its costs long-term by opening up the market, and SpaceX is already working with another partner on booking private launches aboard Crew Dragon.

Musk’s company is also currently working on Starship, a fully reusable spacecraft that should have much more room on board for a film crew to occupy, once it’s ready to fly. That vehicle is still likely a few years out from human rating, though it was selected by NASA as one of the contract providers for its future human lander missions, which should begin in 2024 if all goes to the agency’s plan.

Max Q: Countdown to a return to US astronaut launches

By Darrell Etherington

Last week was a fairly busy week in space news, but the dominating story was preparation for the first-ever Commercial Crew launch that will actually carry human astronauts to space. This is, in many ways, the culmination of years of work and billions of dollars spent by partners NASA and SpaceX on their part of the Commercial Crew Program.

On May 27, SpaceX will launch two NASA astronauts on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station, and this week saw a flurry of activity to get ready for that milestone, including a full day of press briefings by both the agency and SpaceX.

Here’s how SpaceX’s first astronaut launch will go

This is what will happen during that historic first SpaceX astronaut launch, which has been expanded to include not just a quick trip up and back to the ISS, but also a small tour of duty for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as temporary space station staff. It could last anywhere from one to more than three months, depending on NASA’s needs.

NASA awarded human lander contracts

NASA announced who it would be contracting to develop and build human landers for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the surface of the Moon. They actually picked three different companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, each of which will be taking very different approaches to building human-rated landers that can transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface.

Blue Origin’s winning lander bid in action

Here’s a concept animation of what Blue Origin’s winning lander will look like in practice, complete with transfer and ascent vehicles built by top-tier aerospace industry partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Bezos’ space company went with an all-star lineup, which has to have reassured the agency about its chances of success.

SpaceX’s Starship passes a key development test

SpaceX’s winning bid was actually for Starship, the fully reusable multi-purpose spacecraft that it’s in the process of developing and testing. So far, the full-scale starship prototypes have not held up well to high-pressure fuel tank testing, but the latest version did ace that test, and is now getting ready for engine fire and low-altitude flight tests. There’s still a lot of work before it gets to the Moon, but now NASA is counting on SpaceX making that happen.

NASA taps small satellite maker for solar sail test

NASA wants to develop and certify solar sail technology for use in deep space missions that don’t necessarily involve transporting humans, since it’s a very cost-effective way to propel small satellites over long distances (mainly because you don’t need to take any fuel with you). The agency has now signed up NanoAvionics to build the spacecraft that will test its solar sail prototype in space.

SpaceX is using flip-up sunshades to help out Earth astronomers

SpaceX has a new, hardware-based potential solution to the phenomenon where its Starlink satellites appear very visibly in the night sky, potentially blocking out Earth-based observation of stars and other stellar bodies. The company has designed a system of hardware shades that flip out and block the sun, preventing it from reflecting off the antennas on the satellite that broadcast internet signals back to Earth. It’ll test these soon and then they could become a permanent part of Starlink’s design.

LIDAR from space could make for much better maps

Devin check in on a project at MIT that is looking to supplement road maps with lidar in order to improve even the best, machine-learning based inferred maps of roadways and transit paths. Extra Crunch subscription required.

Tesla shares fall on Elon Musk ‘stock price too high’ tweet

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Friday that the company’s stock price was “too high” in his opinion, immediately sending shares into a free fall and in possible violation of an agreement reached with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last year.

Tesla shares fell nearly 12% in the half hour following his stock price tweets — just one of many sent out in rapid fire that covered everything from demands to “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.

Tesla shares rebounded later in the day to close at $701.32 a share, a 7.17% decline from the opening.

The SEC declined to comment on whether this was a violation of a settlement agreement. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. Musk did tell The Wall Street Journal in an email that he was not joking and that his tweets were not vetted in advance, a condition in the prior agreement reached with the SEC.

The meltdown on Twitter occurred as SpaceX — Musk’s other company — participated in a live press conference on one of its most important missions ever.

Tesla stock price is too high imo

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 1, 2020

Musk’s tweet comes almost exactly a year after he reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that gave the CEO freedom to use Twitter — within certain limitations — without fear of being held in contempt for violating an earlier court order.

Under that agreement, Musk can 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 in April 2019 with Manhattan federal court.

Musk is supposed to seek pre-approval if his tweets include events regarding the company’s securities, including his acquisition or disposition of shares, nonpublic legal or regulatory findings or decisions.

He’s also supposed to get pre-approval on any tweets about the company’s financial condition or guidance, potential or proposed mergers, acquisitions or joint ventures, sales or delivery numbers, new or proposed business lines or any event requiring the filing of a Form 8-K, such as a change in control or a change in the company’s directors.

His scuffle with the SEC stretches back to Musk’s now infamous August 7, 2018 tweet that had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share. The SEC filed a complaint in alleging that Musk had committed securities fraud.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC in 2018 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.

But the problems between the CEO and federal agency re-ignited after Musk sent a tweet on February 19, 2019 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this 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 end.

SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype passes a key test that puts it on track for a first flight

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has been developing its next-generation Starship rocket for some time now, but the large-scale prototypes it’s building in Boca Chica, Texas, have thus far always encountered a fatal error during an important part of testing called “cryo” – or filling the fuel tank to full pressure in conditions that simulate the vacuum of space. The latest prototype, called ‘SN4’ for ‘serial number 4,’ has finally passed this test however, and that clears the way for an engine fire test followed by a short flight.

SpaceX’s SN4 prototype resembles what its final rocket will look like, unlike the Starhopper sub-scale demonstrator that the company originally flew just to show off what its new Raptor engine could accomplish. The SN4, like the Starhopper, is equipped with a single Raptor engine, which will make it possible for the vehicle to make short flights for testing purposes. The next version, SN5, will have three raptor engines according to SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, which is still less than the six that the full, functional version of Starship is intended to have, but that will allow it to perform longer test flights in preparation for an orbital launch demonstration.

Testing and developing a new rocket and launch system is always going to have hiccups, since all the simulation in the world can’t replicate real-world use conditions and physics. But Starship’s prior failures at the cry testing phase were beginning to look like they could be a more fundamental problem – it’s what laid low SN1 through SN3, after all.

SpaceX will now perform a static test fire of the Raptor engine installed on the prototype, which could happen as soon as sometime later this week, and then the development craft will look to do a flight of around 150 meters (around 500 feet), which is the same height as the Starhopper performed. That’s nowhere near as high as it’ll need to go to fly orbital missions, of course, but it’s a test that will show how a full-scale vehicle performs at low-altitude, which is key info that SpaceX needs before developing its high-altitude and orbital prototypes.

Tesla’s newest board member has a long stance against short selling

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has added Hiromichi Mizuno as a new member to its board of directors and audit committee — the former chief investment officer of Japan’s $1.5 trillion pension fund and a longtime opponent of common market practices like short selling.

With Mizuno’s appointment the Tesla board now has 10 members, including Oracle founder, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison and Walgreens executive Kathleen Wilson-Thompson. Mizuno will also sit on the board’s audit committee.

Hiro has a long career in finance and investment that included a stint as executive managing director and chief investment officer of Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), the largest in the world with about $1.5 trillion in assets under management. Hiro left his position in late March.

During his time at GPIF, Hiro promoted environmental, social and governance practices. He was also known for challenging short selling — a practice that has plagued Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk . During his tenure, the GPIF suspended stock lending, which caught many by surprise. Hiro’s opposition to short selling is at odds with some market purists who believe the investment strategy — which speculates on the decline in a stock — actually provides greater price transparency. Hiro has said in previous interviews with media outlets like the Financial Times that it conflicts with his long-term perspective.

Hiro is on a number of government advisory boards, including the board of the PRI, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council and the Japanese government’s strategic fund integrated advisory board.

He also challenged many established market practices, including short-selling, to promote long-term value creation by corporations.

As a director, Mizuno will get an initial award of an option to purchase 2,778 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting and exercisable on June 18, 2020. For serving on the audit committee, he will get an initial award of an option to purchase 4,000 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting in 12 equal monthly tranches assuming continued service on each vesting date, according to a regulator filing Thursday.

Tesla’s board had sat unchanged for years until late 2018 when Ellison and Wilson-Thompson joined the board as independent directors as part of a settlement with U.S. securities regulators over CEO Elon Musk’s infamous tweets about taking the company private. Under the settlement, Tesla agreed to add two independent directors and Musk would step down as chairman for three years. Robyn Denholm, the former chief operations officer of Telstra Corporation Limited, a telecommunications company, was named chairman in November 2018.

In April 2019, the company said it would cut its board down by more than one-third, to seven directors, by 2020, a move that included the loss of some of Musk’s  early advisers and allies.

Longtime board members Brad Buss and Linda Johnson Rice, who joined two years ago as an independent director, did not seek re-election in 2019 and their terms expired at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June. The board said in the proxy filing at the time that it didn’t plan to fill their seats.

Antonio Gracias,  whose term ends in 2020, and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson will leave the board in 2020, according to a regulatory filing last year.

Elon Musk says Starlink internet private beta to begin in roughly three months, public beta in six

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has shared more details about when in 2020 we can expect the company’s Starlink low-latency, high-bandwidth satellite internet service to actually be available to customers. He said on Twitter that a private beta for Starlink would begin in around three months, with a public beta to kick off roughly three months after that.

The initial beta test will apply to those located in “high latitudes,” Musk added. To date, SpaceX has said that Starlink service will initially be made available to customers in Canada and in the northern United States in 2020, with additional service expansion to follow to other parts of the world throughout 2021. On Twitter in response to a question about whether Germany counts as “high latitude,” Musk said that it does, indicating beta service at least may be available in more markets than the U.S. and Canada ahead of next year.

Late last year, Musk tweeted saying he was using a Starlink satellite connection to do so, and since then the company has launched six batches of 60 satellites each to build out its network. The small satellites work by flying around the Earth in low orbit, passing off connection between one another to ensure consistent service is provided to ground stations. They orbit lower than geostationary communications satellites, which provides latency and speed benefits, but don’t remain in a fixed position so a large number of them are required to provide consistent connectivity.

SpaceX still has other hurdles to overcome in order to make its timeline, including continuing to prepare and launch more Starlink missions despite the challenging working conditions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also still needs to secure authorization form Canadian internet and satellite operation regulators before service goes live in that country, and it isn’t yet listed as an authorized provider on the Canadian government’s official website.

Starlink ultimately aims to provide low-cost, high speed broadband connectivity to customers globally, with the specific goal of offering service to customers who don’t currently have reliable or quality access due to their remote location. A number of satellite and other projects aim to address this gap, including Alphabet-owned Loon, which is using stratospheric balloons to act as cell towers to provide access to had-to-reach places.

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites as it continues towards 2020 service debut

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched another big batch of Starlink satellites, the low Earth orbit spacecraft that will provide connectivity for its globe-spanning high-bandwidth broadband internet network. This brings the total number of Starlink satellites on orbit to 422, though the company plans to de-orbit two of those (the first two prototypes launched) shortly.

Already, SpaceX is the largest private satellite operator in existence – by a wide and growing margin. It’s also managed to keep up the frequent pace of its Starlink launches despite the global COVID-19 crisis, with its last launch taking place March 18. In total, it has flown four such missions since the start of the year, just four months into 2020.

The company has good reason to want to keep up that aggressive pace: Each launch brings it closer to the eventual launch of the Starlink broadband service that the satellites will provide the network backbone for. SpaceX wants that network to be live with coverage available in Canada and the Northern U.S. by sometime later this year, and because of the way its approach works, with small satellites orbiting much closer to Earth than traditional geostationary internet satellites and handing off the connection to one another as they pass the coverage area, they need a whole lot of them to provide stable, reliable, low-latency connections for consumers and businesses.

Starlink aims to expand its service to customers globally next year, which will require even more launches and a much larger constellation. Ultimately, the company has filed documents indicating it could launch between 12,000 and 42,000 small satellites to build out the network to its eventual state, depending on demands and performance.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk detailed some of the measures that the company is taking to address complaints that its Starlink satellites are interfering with Earth-based observation of the night sky. The satellites produce lights and can present as light streams in astrophotography, and astronomers argue they interfere with stellar observation and research through Earth-based telescopes and observatories.

Today’s launch also included a recovery attempt for the Falcon 9 booster rocket used, which flew before on SpaceX’s Demo-1 Crew Dragon mission, as well as twice more in 2019. The Falcon 9 landed as planned on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully marking a return to form after a couple of Falcon 9 booster landings went awry earlier this year.

SpaceX will also attempt to recover the fairing halves used to protect the Starlink satellite cargo during the launch, though not by using nets to catch them as they fall back to Earth slowed by parachutes, due to system upgrades. Instead, it’ll be looking to fish them out of the water, and we’ll update this post with those results, when and if SpaceX makes them available. The company is looking to re-use fairings more frequently, and the net capture process makes it easier to refurbish them for additional use. This is another cost-saving measure as SpaceX continues to strive towards full launch vehicle reusability with its Starship spacecraft, now in development.

SpaceX engine issue on last Starlink mission caused by cleaning fluid according to Elon Musk

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk said on Twitter on Wednesday that the cause of the failure of a single Merlin engine during the most recent Starlink launch (which didn’t prevent the launch from ultimately succeeding at its mission) was the result of an undetected, “small amount” of a cleaning fluid that ignited during the flight.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle uses nine Merlin engines on its first-stage, and can still operate successfully in case one stops working. One did stop working during the ascent phase of the Starlink mission that took place on March 18. The engine failure didn’t affect the subsequent deployment of 60 Starlink satellites, which went as planned, but it did prompt an investigation into the cause by SpaceX, which was joined by NASA ahead of the commercial crew flight that will carry NASA astronauts for the first time using a Falcon 9 on May 27.

Musk said the cause of the Merlin failure was a “[s]mall amount of isopropyl alcohol (cleaning fluid) [that] was trapped in a sensor dead leg & ignited in flight.” Isopropyl alcohol is a common cleaning and disinfectant agent used in sterile environments, and is also available over the counter as rubbing alcohol for consumer use. Based on Musk’s explanation, it sounds like some was accidentally trapped in the sensor housing for a pressure valve in the Merlin’s fluid systems, and then it caught fire when the engine was ignited. That likely wasn’t enough to damage the engine, but told the sensor that heat levels were exceeding acceptable limits and caused a shutdown.

Based on the fact that NASA and SpaceX have since announced an official date for their Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission, it seems very likely that the agency was satisfied with this investigation and the cause that SpaceX identified. The issue seems relatively easy to mitigate in the future through post-cleaning checks, and even in the off-chance of a similar re-occurrence, the redundancy built into SpaceX’s Falcon 9 engine system seems very likely to be able to ensure continued successful operation of the spacecraft.

Elon Musk details some SpaceX efforts to reduce nighttime visibility of Starlink satellites

By Darrell Etherington

It’s launch day for yet another batch of Starlink satellites, which will bring the total launched by SpaceX to 422. With each launch, there’s renewed discussion around the impact the growing constellation of low Earth orbit small satellites has on night-sky visibility and scientific research, and SpaceX has said it’s making changes to attempt to address those concerns. Now, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has provided some more detail about some of the latest measures his company is taking to minimize Starlink’s impact on nighttime sky observation.

In response to a question about why the Starlink satellites have seemed to be even more visible and brighter in recent weeks, prompting many reports of them being spotted by more individuals, Musk said that this was due to the angle of the satellites’ solar panels during their orbital raise and parking maneuvers, and said that a fix is being deployed to address this “now.”

All satellites will also be equipped with “sunshades” starting with the ninth Starlink launch, which is still three launches away from the one that’s happening later today (Starlink 6). These will be made from “a special dark foam that’s extremely radio transparent,” which is important for the constellation’s main purpose of transmitting broadband internet connectivity to ground stations for use by customers on Earth.

SpaceX had previously discussed testing painting the Earth-facing side of Starlink satellites black in order to cut down their reflectivity, but this foam approach sounds like an additional measure that could go further. Ultimately, SpaceX anticipates launching many thousands of these small satellites, so it’s unlikely that the controversy around their impact on scientific observation is going anywhere soon, unless some of these measures really do significantly alter their nighttime visibility.

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

By Danny Crichton
Josh Nadeau Contributor
Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

Tesla email reveals two employees have tested positive for COVID-19

By Kirsten Korosec

Two Tesla employees, who had been working at home for nearly two weeks, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an internal email sent Thursday morning by the company’s head of environmental, health, and safety department and viewed by TechCrunch .

The employees were not symptomatic in the office, and both are quarantined at home and recovering well, according to the email from Tesla’s EHS department head Laurie Shelby. Their co-workers, who were already working from home for nearly two weeks as well, were notified so they can quarantine, the email read. The email did not disclose what locations the employees were working at.

“In both cases, interactions with the individuals had a low likelihood of transmission based on the minimal staff onsite and social distancing measures we took earlier this month,” Shelby wrote in the email.

Tesla could not be reached for comment. Business Insider previously reported on the same internal email.

The email has heightened concern among several Tesla employees that TechCrunch has spoken to, as they weigh the risk of coming into work or using paid-time off or unpaid leave to stay at home. Tesla employs more than 48,000 people at its headquarters, factories, sales and service centers and delivery hubs throughout the U.S. While some employees are able to work from home, the company still has workers at its delivery and service centers as well as an estimated 2,500 people at its Fremont, Calif. factory.

Tesla suspended production at its Fremont factory beginning March 23, days after a shelter-in-place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” have continued at the factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people.

The decision to suspend production at Fremont came after a multi-day public tussle between the automaker and local officials in Alameda County over what was considered an “essential” business.

Tesla has also suspended operations at its factory in Buffalo, N.Y., except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains,” the company said in a statement. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday that he plans to reopen the Buffalo factory to produce ventilators, a critical piece of medical equipment used in severe cases of COVID-19.

The email comes just two days after reports of at least two positive COVID-19 cases at SpaceX, another company headed up Musk. The positive cases at SpaceX sent some employees into quarantine, CNBC reported. The company is making hand sanitizer in house and taking other steps to protect nervous workers, according to CNBC. TechCrunch could not reach SpaceX for comment.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has rippled through corporate and industrial America. Manufacturers have suspended production of vehicles, tech companies have ordered employees to work from home and city, county and state governments have issued a variety of orders to try and slow the spread of COVID-19.

For instance, California Gv. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home directive that ordered all nonessential businesses to close and for residents to only leave their homes for essential needs like groceries or to visit the pharmacy. Other states where Tesla has operations such as New York are also under a stay-at-home order.

Musk’s actions during the pandemic have caused a variety of reactions among employees, critics and his millions of Twitter followers. He has appeared dismissive of COVID-19 in emails to employees and on Twitter, where he has spread a misinformation on the disease, including that children are “essentially immune,” a statement that contradicts with information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one internal email sent to SpaceX employees, Musk noted that they were more likely to die in a car crash than from the disease. 

Even as Musk seemed to downplay the disease, he has also stepped up to donate medical supplies needed by hospitals and has directed employees to not come to work if they feel ill or are uncomfortable. Tesla employees have received emails from human resources head Valerie Workman that if they could not or were reluctant to come to work they could use PTO or take unpaid time off after they exhaust their PTO. The email told one employee (who spoke to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity) that they would be not be penalized for their decision or face disciplinary action for attendance based on health or impossibility to come to work.

Musk has also donated essential personal protective equipment to hospitals that are facing a shortage of these supplies and has committed to trying to help ramp up production of ventilators.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Giga New York will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible. We will do anything in our power to help the citizens of New York.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2020

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

SpaceX encounters first launch delay due to coronavirus

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has thus far managed to avoid much in the way of impact to its upcoming launch schedule, despite the widespread global coronavirus pandemic. The company successfully launched 60 more of its Starlink satellites just last week, and appears to be on track for its current mid-to-late May launch schedule for the first Commercial Crew mission with NASA (pending an investigation into what went wrong with an early engine cut-off during its last launch).

On Tuesday, however, the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing confirmed that the timing for SpaceX’s upcoming SAOCOM launch, which was set to take off from Vandenberg Air Force base in California on March 30 using a Falcon 9 rocket, has been put on “indefinite” hold due to the impact of the current coronavirus crisis. Vandenberg has declared a public health emergency as of this past weekend, and while there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the base thus far, the Air Force is limiting access to essential personnel, and providing only essential services, in addition to taking additional precautions to protect the safety of those who have to remain on site.

It was inevitable that SpaceX launches and schedules would be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: Already, NASA has had to pause work on some of its ongoing priority missions, including development of the Artemis program deep-space exploration spacecraft, and its James Webb Telescope project. While work continues on the Commercial Crew launch for now, NASA has been providing frequent updates about escalating measures to ensure the safety of its personnel and the public, slo we’ll keep you up to date on any additional developments.

Fiat Chrysler to start producing 1 million face masks a month

By Kirsten Korosec

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Monday it will start manufacturing face masks in the coming weeks and donate the critical medical equipment to first responders and health care workers — the latest automaker to direct its manufacturing expertise towards the COVID-19 pandemic.

The automaker confirmed to TechCrunch that production capacity is being installed this week at one of its factories in China. Manufacturing will start in the coming weeks and distribution will be focused on the U.S., Canada and Mexico. FCA said it plans to produce 1 million face masks a month. All of masks will be donated to police, EMTs and firefighters and workers in hospitals and health care clinics.

“Protecting our first responders and health care workers has never been more important,” FCA CEO Mike Manley said in a statement. “In addition to the support we are giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the healthcare industry and it was very clear that there is an urgent and critical need for face masks. We’ve marshalled the resources of the FCA Group to focus immediately on installing production capacity for making masks and supporting those most in need on the front line of this pandemic.”

The FCA announcement follows a plea last week from Vice President Mike Pence for construction companies to donate their stocks of N95 respirator masks to hospitals. Construction companies have responded, Pence said in a subsequent press conference. Other companies have started donating their caches of face masks as well, including Apple, Facebook, IBM and Tesla.

COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus, has led to a shortage of protective equipment such as N-95 respirator masks, gloves and gowns.

Vice President Pence asked construction companies to donate to their local hospitals their stocks of N95 respirator masks and stop ordering more for the time being. This call comes in the middle of a major shortage of these kinds of masks, which get their name from being able to block at least 95% of 0.3 micron particles.

Other manufacturers such as GM, Ford, VW and Tesla have started to work on the complex task of producing ventilators, another critical piece of medical equipment for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19. The disease attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. Musk had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

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