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Busy week for SpaceX — across funding, space tourism and next-gen spacecraft. There’s also a space station resupply mission coming up that it’s getting ready for, and signs (this time literally) continue to suggest that its first human spaceflight mission is imminent.
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who defied prejudice in the ’50s and ’60s to help NASA send the first men to the moon, has died at the age of 101. She was a pioneer, a role model and an instrumental part of America’s space program, and she will be dearly missed.
SpaceX is serious about iteration — its strategy of building (and failing — and learning from its failures) fast is in full effect for its Starship development program. Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that the plan is to build them as frequently as possible with significant improvements between each successive spacecraft, with the aim of going through two or three iterations before flying an orbital mission later this year.
The still-private SpaceX is going back to investors for more cash, likely to help it with the expensive proposition of building a bunch of Starships in rapid succession essentially by hand. It’s said to be seeking $250 million in a round that could close as early as mid-March, according to a CNBC report.
One side of SpaceX’s business that isn’t necessarily as obvious as its commercial cargo launch services is the space tourism angle. This week, the company announced a partnership with Space Adventures, the same firm that has arranged paid trips to the Space Station for private citizens aboard Soyuz capsules. The first of these trips, which won’t go to the ISS but instead will fly up to a higher orbit, take a trip around Earth and come back, is set to take off as early as next year. And if you have to ask about the price, you probably can’t afford it.
The ISS gets a new platform next month that can support attached payloads — up to a dozen — from research partners, including academic institutions and private companies. It’ll go up aboard SpaceX’s next resupply mission for the station, which is currently targeting liftoff on March 2. Also, Adidas is sending up a machine that makes its BOOST shoe soles, just to see how it works in space.
Japan is sending a mission to Phobos and Deimos to study the two moons of Mars, using a probe that will orbit the Red Planet’s natural satellites loaded with sensors. It’ll also carry a small lander, that will itself deploy an even smaller rover, which will study the surface of Phobos directly. If all goes to plan, it’ll collect a sample and bring that back to Earth for further study here.
It turns out that SpaceX, not Snap, may be the most important young technology company for developing the Los Angeles startup ecosystem. Jon Shieber documents how SpaceX alum have gone forth and built a number of companies in the area that have gone on to raise big cash, as well as very young startups that have had a promising beginning. Extra Crunch subscription required.
Yes, LA has a bustling space tech ecosystem. But communications satellite startup Kepler calls Canada home, and it recently made the interesting decision to build its small satellites in-house — in its own facility in downtown Toronto. Founder and CEO Mina Mitry tells me why that’s the best choice for his company. Extra Crunch subscription required.
March 2 is the planned launch date for SpaceX’s 20th ISS resupply mission, which is bringing the usual supplies and goodies, plus a payload of interesting experiments from partners and paying customers. And a big expansion to Europe’s Columbus Module.
The most ridiculous has to be Adidas’s “BOOST in Space” effort. The company creates its midsoles by fusing together thousands of tiny foam spheres. But sadly, this is generally done on Earth, where there’s gravity. So of course they want to try it in space to see what they can learn.
“Microgravity enables a closer look at the factors behind pellet motion and location, which could enhance manufacturing processes as well as product performance and comfort,” the project description reads. It also makes for a great stunt. The revelations from this toaster-sized device will surely lead to better shoes.
It’s funny, but as always with these commercial operations it’s pretty cool that it’s possible to just decide to do some experimenting in the ISS.
Microgravity is a sought-after condition and several of the other research projects going up rely on it as well. Another commercial operation is from Delta, the faucet maker, which thinks it might be able to learn something about droplet formation and create more efficient showers and such.
Gut tissue isn’t normally this blue, but that’s not an effect of microgravity.
Emulate is sending up an organ-on-a-chip, intestinal tissue to be precise, which it hopes will help teach us “how microgravity and other potential space travel stressors affect intestine immune cells and susceptibility to infection.” They’re also testing the growth of heart tissue from stem cells up there, which could come in handy on long voyages.
The biggest payload, though, has to be Bartolomeo, a new exterior platform that will attach to the European Columbus Module:
With payloads attached, left, and without, right. There’s a boom that sticks out for other purposes.
It has 12 sites onto which can be attached payloads from commercial and institutional partners — anyone from universities to companies that need access to the exterior of the space station for one reason or another. Earth imagery, vacuum exposure, radiation testing, whatever you like. You can read about the specifications here.
The launch is set for March 2 if all goes well — we’ll post the live stream and any other updates closer to T-0.
Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.
The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.
The list of new companies include:
The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator
Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).
Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.
TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.
In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.
Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.
8:30 AM – 4:00 PM
Registration Open Hours
General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.
10:00 AM – 10:05 AM
10:05 AM – 10:25 AM
The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
10:25 AM – 10:45 AM
Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.
10:45 AM – 11:05 AM
Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space.
11:05 AM – 11:15 AM
Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club
11:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.
11:35 AM – 12:05 PM
Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.
12:15 PM – 1:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.
1:00 PM – 1:25 PM
Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.
1:15 PM – 2:00 PM
Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage
1:25 PM – 1:50 PM
Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.
1:50 PM – 2:15 PM
As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.
2:15 PM – 2:40 PM
Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here.
2:15 PM – 3:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI
Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.
3:10 PM – 3:35 PM
This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.
3:15 PM – 4:00 PM
Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.
3:35 PM – 4:00 PM
In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.
4:00 PM – 4:10 PM
Live Demo from Somatic
4:10 PM – 4:35 PM
Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.
4:35 PM – 5:00 PM
The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.
5:00 PM – 5:25 PM
Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.
5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only)
Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley
We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.
Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.
Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!
SpaceX has a new partner for commercial private astronaut flights aboard its Dragon spacecraft: Space Adventures, a private space tourism company that has already launched private astronauts including Anousheh Ansari, Guy Laliberté and Mark Shuttleworth to space.
Space Adventures has worked with seven clients across eight separate missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for private paying commercial space missions, using paid seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its clients to their destination. Its experience means it’s uniquely positioned in the commercial space tourism industry to actually make this happen, which means SpaceX likely will start flying paying customers as soon as its able to human-rate its Dragon spacecraft and begin scheduling flights.
This is not exactly a surprising development: SpaceX has been working towards certifying Dragon for human flight through the Commercial Crew program with NASA. This program has involved testing and development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for carrying human astronauts, and it’s only a few months away from actually carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission to the ISS.
SpaceX and NASA have both discussed how they envision the agency being only one of multiple customers for the company’s human-rated space travel service, since the entire purpose of the program is to help the agency defray the cost of transporting its astronauts by becoming one among many clients of a revenue-generating commercial spaceflight service.
SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously discussed flying space tourists aboard Crew Dragon, which can carry up to four passengers per flight. He brought up the prior example of Soyuz as a model that could work for Crew Dragon once it’s operational. Musk and SpaceX have also already booked a Moon pass-by trip for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023 on its forthcoming Starship spacecraft.
The Space Adventures Crew Dragon private astronaut trips are expected to begin sometime in either late 2021 or 2022 (likely around the same time or just after SpaceX will begin regular astronaut service for NASA if all goes well), and it will take off from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. They won’t actually go to the ISS, like the Soyuz missions that Space Adventures has flown previously. But it will fly higher than any previous private citizen has flown before during a trip to space and offer obviously spectacular Earth views. No word yet on pricing, but expect it to be steep – likely much steeper than tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s much lower altitude trip, for instance.
SpaceX has moved its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft to Florida, the site from which it’ll launch in likely just two to three months’ time if all goes to plan. The Crew Dragon capsule is now going to undergo final testing and checkouts in Florida before its departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it’ll launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.
Behnken and Hurley will be taking a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) courtesy of the Crew Dragon, as part of a demonstration mission codenamed ‘Demo-2’ by SpaceX and NASA that will serve as a key step in the ultimate verification of the spacecraft for regular service carrying people to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is one of two spacecraft that aim to achieve this operational status for NASA, alongside the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew vehicle which is undergoing development and testing.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 14, 2020
Boeing’s spacecraft has recently encountered some issues that could extend its testing timeline and set back its goals of performing its first flights with astronauts on board. The Starliner encountered two potentially serious software issues during an uncrewed demonstration mission that took place in December, and now NASA and the company are determining corrective action, including safety reviews of Boeing and its software development and testing processes.
Meanwhile, SpaceX performed an in-flight abort test in January, the last major demonstration it needed to do before moving on to the crewed demo mission. That test was by all accounts a success, showing how the Crew Dragon would separate and distance itself from the launch craft in case of an unexpected error, in order to safeguard the astronauts on board.
SpaceX has been sharing details of its preparation for this final planned demo before operational commercial crew flights, tweeting earlier this week about its spacecraft undergoing ultrasonic testing. Currently, the Demo-2 mission is tentatively set for May 2, though that date is said to be flexible and could be moved up or pushed to later, depending on mission needs and remaining preparation progress.
By now we’re all familiar with text messaging groups for multi-person co-ordination. I’ve lost count of how many WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook messenger groups I’m on! Other apps like Threema have started to be used in a business context and startups like Staffbase have decided to become full-blown ‘workforce messaging’ platforms. The thinking now amongst investors is that messaging is about to explode in all sorts of verticals and that it’s a rich seam to mine.
In that vein, Flip, a Stuttgart, Germany-based employee messenger app, has now raised €3.6M ($4M) from LEA Partners and Cavalry Ventures, together with Plug and Play Ventures and Business Angels such as Jürgen Hambrecht (Chairman of the Supervisory Board BASF), Prof. Dr. Kurt Lauk (Chairman of the Supervisory Board Magna International), Florian Buzin (Founder Starface) and Andreas Burike (HR Business Angel). The capital raised will be invested primarily in the expansion of the team and the development of further markets.
Founded in 2018, the start-up offers companies a platform that connects and informs employees across all levels in a legally compliant manner.
That last part is important. The application is based on a GDPR-compliant data and employee protection concept, which was validated jointly with experts and works councils of several DAX companies. It also integrates with many existing corporate IT infrastructures.
The startup has now secured customers including Porsche, Bauhaus, Edeka, Junge IG Metall and Wüstenrot & Württembergische. Parts of the Sparkasse and Volksbank are also among the customer base. It also counts Deutsche Telekom as a partner.
Flip founder and CEO, Benedikt Ilg, said in a statement: “Flip is the easiest solution for internal communication in companies of all sizes.”
Bernhard Janke from LEA Partners said: “As a young company, Flip has been able to attract prestigious clients. The lean solution can be integrated into existing IT systems and existing communication processes, even in large organizations. With the financing round, we want to further expand the team and product and thus support the founders in their vision of making digital workforce engagement accessible to all companies.”
Claude Ritter of Cavalry Ventures said: “We are convinced that Flip is setting new standards in this still young market with its safe, lightweight and extremely powerful product”.
As AI permeates the home, work, and public life, it’s increasingly important to be able to understand why and how it makes its decisions. Explainable AI isn’t just a matter of hitting a switch, though; Experts from UC Berkeley, SRI, and Fiddler Labs will discuss how we should go about it on stage at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.
What does explainability really mean? Do we need to start from scratch? How do we avoid exposing proprietary data and methods? Will there be a performance hit? Whose responsibility will it be, and who will ensure it is done properly?
On our panel addressing these questions and more will be two experts, one each from academia and private industry.
Trevor Darrell is a professor at Berkeley’s Computer Science department who helps lead many of the university’s AI-related labs and projects, especially those concerned with the next generation of smart transportation. His research group focuses on perception and human-AI interaction, and he previously led a computer vision group at MIT.
Krishna Gade has passed in his time through Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Microsoft, and has seen firsthand how AI is developed privately — and how biases and flawed processes can lead to troubling results. He co-founded Fiddler as an effort to address problems of fairness and transparency by providing an explainable AI framework for enterprise.
Moderating and taking part in the discussion will be SRI International’s Karen Myers, director of the research outfit’s Artificial Intelligence Center and an AI developer herself focused on collaboration, automation, and multi-agent systems.
Save $50 on tickets when you book today. Ticket prices go up at the door and are selling fast. We have two (yes two) Startup Demo Packages Left – book your package now and get your startup in front of 1000+ of today’s leading industry minds. Packages come with 4 tickets – book here.
“I cannot think of a reason not to share this with the public,” said Brianna Wu tweeted.
“Two of my non-campaign Google accounts were compromised by someone in Russia,” she said.
Wu isn’t just any other target. As a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Massachusetts’ 8th District, she has a larger target on her back for hackers than the average constituent. And as a former software engineer, she knows all too well the cybersecurity risks that come along with running for political office.
But the breach of two of her non-campaign Google accounts was still a wake-up call.
Wu said she recently discovered that the two accounts had been breached. One of the accounts was connected to her Nest camera system at home, and the other was her Gmail account she used during the Gamergate controversy, during which Wu was a frequent target of vitriol and death threats. TechCrunch agreed to keep the details of the breach off the record as to not give any potential attackers an advantage. Attribution in cyberattacks, however, can be notoriously difficult because hackers can mask their tracks using proxies and other anonymity tools.
“I don’t believe anyone in Russia is targeting me specifically. I think it’s more likely they target everyone running for office,” she tweeted.
Wu said that both of her accounts had “solid protection measures” in place, including “unique, randomly generated passwords for both accounts.” She said that she reported the intrusions to the FBI.
“The worry is obviously that it could hurt the campaign,” she told TechCrunch. But she remains concerned that it could be an “active measure,” a term often used to describe Russian-led political interference in U.S. politics.
Politicians and political candidates are frequently targeted by hackers both in the U.S. and overseas. During the 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta had his personal email account hacked and thousands of emails published by WikiLeaks. The recently released report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller blamed hackers working for Russian intelligence for the intrusion as part of a wider effort to discredit then-candidate Clinton and get President Trump elected.
Yet to this day, political campaigns remain largely responsible for their own cybersecurity.
“There is only so much the feds can do here, given the sheer size of the candidate pool for federal office,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, an election security expert and senior vice president at the Internet Society.
Hall said much of the federal government’s efforts have been on raising awareness and on “low-hanging fruit,” like enabling two-factor authentication. Homeland Security continues to brief both parties to the major cybersecurity threats ahead of voting later in November, and the FBI has online resources for political campaigns.
It’s only been in the past few months that tech companies have been allowed to step in to help.
Fearing a repeat of 2016, the Federal Elections Commission last year relaxed the rules to allow political campaigns to receive discounted cybersecurity help. That has also allowed companies like Cloudflare to enter the political campaign space, offering cybersecurity services to campaigns — which was previously considered a campaign finance violation.
It’s not a catch-all fix. A patchwork of laws and rules across the U.S. make it difficult for campaigns to prioritize internal cybersecurity efforts. It’s illegal in Maryland, for example, to use campaign finances for securing the personal accounts of candidates and their staff — the same kind of accounts that hackers used to break into Podesta’s email account in 2016. It’s an attack that remains in hackers’ arsenals. Just last year, Microsoft found Iranian-backed hackers were targeting personal email accounts “associated” with a 2020 presidential candidate — which later transpired to be President Trump’s campaign.
Both of the major U.S. political parties have made efforts to bolster cybersecurity at the campaign level. The Democrats recently updated their security checklist for campaigns and published recommendations for countering disinformation, and the Republicans have put on training sessions to better educate campaign officials.
But Wu said that the Democrats could do more to support campaign cybersecurity, and that she was speaking out to implore others who are running for Congress to do more to bolster their campaign’s cybersecurity.
“There is absolutely no culture of information security within the Democratic Party that I have seen,” said Wu. Fundraising lists are “freely swapped in unencrypted states,” she said, giving an example.
“There is generally not a culture of updating software or performing security audits,” she said. “The fact that this is not taken seriously is really underscored by Iowa and the Shadow debacle,” she said, referring to the Iowa caucus last week, in which a result-reporting app failed to work. It was later reported that the app, built by Shadow Inc., had several security flaws that made it vulnerable to hacking.
Spokespeople for the FBI and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
“Infosec is expensive, and I know for many campaigns it may seem like a low priority,” Wu told TechCrunch.
“But how can we lead the country on cybersecurity issues if we don’t hold ourselves to the same standards we’re asking the American people to follow?” she said.
SpaceX is getting very close to its goal of flying actual astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. After a successful in-flight abort (IFA) test in January, it had basically crossed off all the major milestones needed before flying people, first on a demonstration mission referred to as “Demo-2” by SpaceX and its commercial crew partner NASA.
We now know the working date that SpaceX is aiming for with that crucial mission: May 7. To be clear, that’s very much a working date and the actual mission could slip either later, or even earlier, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger who first reported the timeline.
We knew before today that SpaceX was getting very close to be mission-ready in terms of its spacecraft. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week detailing progress on the commercial crew program and noted that the Crew Dragon capsule that will be used to fly astronauts for Demo-2 was on track to be completed “3 months earlier” than was expected based on most recent timelines.
Demo-2 will be the second demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, following a Demo-1 uncrewed mission that flew in March of last year. That mission saw the SpaceX spacecraft fly to the International Space Station (ISS), dock with the orbital lab, undock and return safely to Earth with a controlled landing, all using automated processes and without anyone on board.
The Demo-2 mission will fly two crew, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both NASA astronauts who will be completing their third spaceflight during the mission. Bob and Doug will at least fly aboard Crew Dragon to the ISS, replicating the Demo-1 mission but with a crew on board, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently shared that it would be looking into the possibility of extending the duration of the mission (which had been planned for two weeks) to allow it to actually rotate the crew of the ISS, just like what currently happens with Soyuz astronaut flights.
As alway with space, expect some movement in that target date, but we are getting close enough now that the general ballpark should be a pretty accurate reflection of when things go down, barring any major issues between now and then.
Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.
Two rocket launches were set to take off Sunday, including one from Wallops Island in Virginia and another from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The first is a relatively standard (but still exciting – we are talking about rockets here, very little is ‘standard’) ISS resupply mission, and the second is a major scientific mission from NASA and the ESA called the ‘Solar Orbiter.’
Unfortunately, a technical issue meant the ISS resupply mission is rescheduled for Thursday – but the Solar Orbiter launched as planned, with as clean a delivery by the ULA Atlas V rocket that launched it as you can ask for.
Starliner, the crew spacecraft developed by Boeing for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, encountered not one, but two major software flaws during its most recent demonstration mission that would’ve been very bad had they not been corrected.
The second one was only revealed in detail this week, and was discovered and patched only because the first software issue caused the ground team on the mission to go back over all the software relating to the capsule’s re-entry and check for potential errors. Otherwise, the mission team says it would not have been caught. No word yet on what this means definitively for Boeing’s crew program, but we’ll find out at the end of this month according to NASA officials.
NASA could get significantly more funding than it did in 2020 for its fiscal 2021 operating year, with the bulk of a proposed $3 billion increase earmarked for development of human landers to be used in the Artemis program. Trump will still have to make that official during his budget presentation on February 10 (that’s today), but it looks like a strong endorsement of the agency’s plans by the current administration.
NASA may be looking to lock its Lander plans this coming year, but it’s also asking industry to provide concepts and input on lunar rovers, including robotic designs and ideas for human-carrying Moon buggies. This will likely lead to some kind of formal RFP for commercial rover partners down the road.
Meanwhile, Starlink competitor OneWeb launched its second batch of satellites, a group of 34 spacecraft. The company says this is just the beginning of its plans that include launching a group of at least 30 satellites per month until its constellation reaches its goal of 650, though it did also note that its going to pause the campaign in April to incorporate a satellite redesign.
SpaceX has launched a new online booking portal for its rideshare rocket service, which actually lets anyone with a credit card book a rocket launch starting at $1 million with a $5,000 downpayment. Don’t do this unless you actually plan to launch something and have your ducks in a row, however – unless you really want to just donate $5,000 to SpaceX .
Astra is a new launch startup that’s been developing its rocket for at least three years, but that only recently broke cover. I spoke to CEO and founder Chris Kemp about the company’s business model – and found out it’s not like anything else currently in the market, by design. ExtraCrunch subscription required.
Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early Bird pricing applies.
Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.
A report into the use of artificial intelligence by the U.K.’s public sector has warned that the government is failing to be open about automated decision-making technologies which have the potential to significantly impact citizens’ lives.
Ministers have been especially bullish on injecting new technologies into the delivery of taxpayer-funded healthcare — with health minister Matt Hancock setting out a tech-fueled vision of “preventative, predictive and personalised care” in 2018, calling for a root and branch digital transformation of the National Health Service (NHS) to support piping patient data to a new generation of “healthtech” apps and services.
Policing is another area where AI is being accelerated into U.K. public service delivery, with a number of police forces trialing facial recognition technology — and London’s Met Police switching over to a live deployment of the AI technology just last month.
However the rush by cash-strapped public services to tap AI “efficiencies” risks glossing over a range of ethical concerns about the design and implementation of such automated systems, from fears about embedding bias and discrimination into service delivery and scaling harmful outcomes to questions of consent around access to the data sets being used to build AI models and human agency over automated outcomes, to name a few of the associated concerns — all of which require transparency into AIs if there’s to be accountability over automated outcomes.
The role of commercial companies in providing AI services to the public sector also raises additional ethical and legal questions.
Only last week, a court in the Netherlands highlighted the risks for governments of rushing to bake AI into legislation after it ruled an algorithmic risk-scoring system implemented by the Dutch government to assess the likelihood that social security claimants will commit benefits or tax fraud breached their human rights.
The court objected to a lack of transparency about how the system functions, as well as the associated lack of controlability — ordering an immediate halt to its use.
The U.K. parliamentary committee that reviews standards in public life has today sounded a similar warning — publishing a series of recommendations for public-sector use of AI and warning that the technology challenges three key principles of service delivery: openness, accountability and objectivity.
“Under the principle of openness, a current lack of information about government use of AI risks undermining transparency,” it writes in an executive summary.
“Under the principle of accountability, there are three risks: AI may obscure the chain of organisational accountability; undermine the attribution of responsibility for key decisions made by public officials; and inhibit public officials from providing meaningful explanations for decisions reached by AI. Under the principle of objectivity, the prevalence of data bias risks embedding and amplifying discrimination in everyday public sector practice.”
“This review found that the government is failing on openness,” it goes on, asserting that: “Public sector organisations are not sufficiently transparent about their use of AI and it is too difficult to find out where machine learning is currently being used in government.”
In 2018, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights raised concerns about the U.K.’s rush to apply digital technologies and data tools to socially re-engineer the delivery of public services at scale — warning then that the impact of a digital welfare state on vulnerable people would be “immense,” and calling for stronger laws and enforcement of a rights-based legal framework to ensure the use of technologies like AI for public service provision does not end up harming people.
Per the committee’s assessment, it is “too early to judge if public sector bodies are successfully upholding accountability.”
Parliamentarians also suggest that “fears over ‘black box’ AI… may be overstated” — and rather dub “explainable AI” a “realistic goal for the public sector.”
On objectivity, they write that data bias is “an issue of serious concern, and further work is needed on measuring and mitigating the impact of bias.”
The use of AI in the U.K. public sector remains limited at this stage, according to the committee’s review, with healthcare and policing currently having the most developed AI programmes — where the tech is being used to identify eye disease and predict reoffending rates, for example.
“Most examples the Committee saw of AI in the public sector were still under development or at a proof-of-concept stage,” the committee writes, further noting that the Judiciary, the Department for Transport and the Home Office are “examining how AI can increase efficiency in service delivery.”
It also heard evidence that local government is working on incorporating AI systems in areas such as education, welfare and social care — noting the example of Hampshire County Council trialing the use of Amazon Echo smart speakers in the homes of adults receiving social care as a tool to bridge the gap between visits from professional carers, and points to a Guardian article which reported that one-third of U.K. councils use algorithmic systems to make welfare decisions.
But the committee suggests there are still “significant” obstacles to what they describe as “widespread and successful” adoption of AI systems by the U.K. public sector.
“Public policy experts frequently told this review that access to the right quantity of clean, good-quality data is limited, and that trial systems are not yet ready to be put into operation,” it writes. “It is our impression that many public bodies are still focusing on early-stage digitalisation of services, rather than more ambitious AI projects.”
The report also suggests that the lack of a clear standards framework means many organisations may not feel confident in deploying AI yet.
“While standards and regulation are often seen as barriers to innovation, the Committee believes that implementing clear ethical standards around AI may accelerate rather than delay adoption, by building trust in new technologies among public officials and service users,” it suggests.
Among 15 recommendations set out in the report is a call for a clear legal basis to be articulated for the use of AI by the public sector. “All public sector organisations should publish a statement on how their use of AI complies with relevant laws and regulations before they are deployed in public service delivery,” the committee writes.
Another recommendation is for clarity over which ethical principles and guidance applies to public sector use of AI — with the committee noting there are three sets of principles that could apply to the public sector, which is generating confusion.
“The public needs to understand the high level ethical principles that govern the use of AI in the public sector. The government should identify, endorse and promote these principles and outline the purpose, scope of application and respective standing of each of the three sets currently in use,” it recommends.
It also wants the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop guidance on data bias and anti-discrimination to ensure public sector bodies’ use of AI complies with the U.K. Equality Act 2010.
The committee is not recommending a new regulator should be created to oversee AI — but does call on existing oversight bodies to act swiftly to keep up with the pace of change being driven by automation.
It also advocates for a regulatory assurance body to identify gaps in the regulatory landscape and provide advice to individual regulators and government on the issues associated with AI — supporting the government’s intention for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), which was announced in 2017, to perform this role. (A recent report by the CDEI recommended tighter controls on how platform giants can use ad targeting and content personalisation.)
Another recommendation is around procurement, with the committee urging the government to use its purchasing power to set requirements that “ensure that private companies developing AI solutions for the public sector appropriately address public standards.”
“This should be achieved by ensuring provisions for ethical standards are considered early in the procurement process and explicitly written into tenders and contractual arrangements,” it suggests.
Responding to the report in a statement, shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah MP accused the government of “driving blind, with no control over who is in the AI driving seat.”
“This serious report sadly confirms what we know to be the case — that the Conservative Government is failing on openness and transparency when it comes to the use of AI in the public sector,” she said. “The Government is driving blind, with no control over who is in the AI driving seat. The Government urgently needs to get a grip before the potential for unintended consequences gets out of control.
“Last year, I argued in parliament that Government should not accept further AI algorithms in decision making processes without introducing further regulation. I will continue to push the Government to go further in sharing information on how AI is currently being used at all level of Government. As this report shows, there is an urgent need for practical guidance and enforceable regulation that works. It’s time for action.”
The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight newly revealed practices by the Department of Homeland Security which used commercially available cell phone location data to track suspected illegal immigrants.
“DHS should not be accessing our location information without a warrant, regardless whether they obtain it by paying or for free. The failure to get a warrant undermines Supreme Court precedent establishing that the government must demonstrate probable cause to a judge before getting some of our most sensitive information, especially our cell phone location history,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
Earlier today, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Homeland Security through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agencies were buying geolocation data from commercial entities to investigate suspects of alleged immigration violations.
The location data, which aggregators acquire from cellphone apps including games, weather, shopping, and search services, is being used by Homeland Security to detect undocumented immigrants and others entering the U.S. unlawfully, the Journal reported.
According to privacy experts interviewed by the Journal, since the data is publicly available for purchase, the government practices don’t appear to violate the law — despite being what may be the largest dragnet ever conducted by the U.S. government using the aggregated data of its citizens.
It’s also an example of how the commercial surveillance apparatus put in place by private corporations in Democratic societies can be legally accessed by state agencies to create the same kind of surveillance networks used in more authoritarian countries like China, India, and Russia.
“This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,” said Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a think tank that pushes for stronger privacy laws, told the newspaper.
Behind the government’s use of commercial data is a company called Venntel. Based in Herndon, Va., the company acts as a government contractor and shares a number of its executive staff with Gravy Analytics, a mobile-advertising marketing analytics company. In all, ICE and the CBP have spent nearly $1.3 million on licenses for software that can provide location data for cell phones. Homeland Security says that the data from these commercially available records is used to generate leads about border crossing and detecting human traffickers.
The ACLU’s Wessler has won these kinds of cases in the past. He successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Carpenter v. United States that geographic location data from cellphones was a protected class of information and couldn’t be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant.
CBP explicitly excludes cell tower data from the information it collects from Venntel, according to a spokesperson for the agency told the Journal — in part because it has to under the law. The agency also said that it only access limited location data and that data is anonymized.
However, anonymized data can be linked to specific individuals by correlating that anonymous cell phone information with the real world movements of specific individuals which can be either easily deduced or tracked through other types of public records and publicly available social media.
ICE is already being sued by the ACLU for another potential privacy violation. Late last year the ACLU said that it was taking the government to court over the DHS service’s use of so-called “stingray” technology that spoofs a cell phone tower to determine someone’s location.
At the time, the ACLU cited a government oversight report in 2016 which indicated that both CBP and ICE collectively spent $13 million on buying dozens of stingrays, which the agencies used to “locate people for arrest and prosecution.”
NASA and Boeing are sharing more details about the issues that were encountered during the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew spacecraft uncrewed demo mission in December, and their progress on investigating the causes and implementing fixes. In a new blog post, NASA lays out the three different specific issues that occurred, and notes that for two of them, the spacecraft would’ve been lost without direct intervention by the ground crew.
The first issue identified is the mission timer issue that Boeing and NASA were very transparent about during the actual mission itself. This led to the spacecraft’s automated navigation systems believing it was in a different part of the mission, later than it actually was. That then incurred thruster firing which used up fuel, and necessitated ground control stepping in to manually position the spacecraft in a different orbit than planned to ensure it could continue flying.
The second issue detailed in this new post was a software issue in the part of the launch where the Service Module attached to the capsule is discarded prior to re-entry and landing, which resulted in another propulsion issue and another case where the ground crew had to step in and execute corrective action roughly two hours ahead of its planned de-orbit to save the spacecraft.
“Regarding the first two anomalies, the team found the two critical software defects were not detected ahead of flight despite multiple safeguards,” NASA explains in the post. “Ground intervention prevented loss of vehicle in both cases. Breakdowns in the design and code phase inserted the original defects. Additionally, breakdowns in the test and verification phase failed to identify the defects preflight despite their detectability. While both errors could have led to risk of spacecraft loss, the actions of the NASA-Boeing team were able to correct the issues and return the Starliner spacecraft safely to Earth.”
As for what this means for the Boeing commercial crew program, NASA continues that these defects finding their way all the way through design and development to flight can be attributed to “no simple cause,” and instead will “require systemic corrective actions” starting with 11 “top-priority” ones already identified by the investigation team, with more to follow as the investigation continues.
NASA also said that it’s too early to definitely identify either the root causes of the problems, or all the fixes that will be required for Boeing’s Starliner system prior to future flights. The agency does say it expects that it will reach that point by the end of February, however. It’s holding a press conference with Boeing later this afternoon at 3:30 PM EST to discuss these findings and its progress in more detail.
Astronaut Christina Koch made the return trip from the International Space Station (ISS) early on Thursday, along with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. The three boarded a Soyuz capsule docked at the ISS at around 12:50 AM EST, and had a safe landing as planned at around 4:12 AM EST (3:12 PM local time) in Kazakhstan.
Koch’s trip was significant because it set a record, officially making her the U.S. astronaut with the second-longest stay in space with 328 consecutive days at the Station. She’s second only to Scott Kelley, who spent 340 days in space, and she’s officially the woman with the longest stay in space worldwide, passing fellow U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson’s record of 289 days.
As NASA notes, Koch’s tour included 5,248 orbits of the Earth, with a total distance traversed of 139 million miles in terms of how far the Space Station traveled during its orbit while she was on board. Koch also spent quite a bit of time outside the station, completing six spacewalks, including the record-setting first ever spacewalk involving all women with fellow astronaut Jessica Meir – and two more all-women spacewalks after that.
Koch and her fellow returning space travellers all appeared to be in good shape upon landing, but will get the standard medical checks common for all returning astronauts before returning home. And Koch’s science mission isn’t done now that she’s back. She’s participating in NASA research about long-duration spaceflight that will pave the way for trips further out into the solar system, including the Moon and Mars under the agency’s Artemis program.
What will I miss? The exquisite beauty of both the planet Earth and this marvel that its amazing people created. pic.twitter.com/VWIFXuJMTp
— Christina H Koch (@Astro_Christina) February 5, 2020
The Credit Union National Association, a major lobbyist and trade association for credit unions, is recovering after its systems were knocked offline earlier this week following a “cyber incident.”
CUNA, headquartered in Washington DC, represents state and federally-chartered credit unions across the U.S., and provides lobbying, advocacy and other trade association services.
But its systems were knocked offline Monday as a result of ransomware, according to a source familiar with the incident who was not authorized to talk to the press. The type of ransomware used is not immediately known, but CUNA is understood to predominantly run Microsoft software, which is frequently a target of ransomware.
A banner on the organization’s website described the outage only as “technical issues” with its systems.
Vicky Christner, a spokesperson for CUNA, would not confirm ransomware was the cause of the outage but said the organization was “addressing a cyber incident,” describing it as a “business disruption issue.”
“CUNA does not store Social Security numbers or credit card numbers of our members,” said Christner. “Based on our investigation to date, we have no evidence to suggest that any data in our system – such as names, businesses addresses and email addresses – have been accessed.”
“Our investigation remains ongoing,” said Christner.
The incident comes just month after CUNA hosted a simulated ransomware attack, aimed at helping credit unions defend against ransomware.
CUNA becomes the latest organization to be hit by ransomware in recent months. Last year, aluminum manufacturer Aebi Schmidt, postage and shipping company Pitney Bowes, and drinks maker Arizona Beverages were all hit by ransomware, each knocking their systems offline for days.
At the time of writing, CUNA’s website said aims to have systems up “soon.”