A new industry alliance led by Alphabet’s Loon high-altitude balloon technology company and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile stratospheric glider subsidiary aims to work together on standards and tech related to deploying network connectivity using high-altitude delivery mechanisms.
This extends the existing partnership between HAPSMobile and Loon, which began with a strategic alliance between the two announced last April, and which recently resulted in Loon adapting the network hardware it uses on its stratospheric balloons to work with the HAPSMobile stratospheric long-winged drone. Now, they two are welcoming more members, including AeroVironment, Airbus Defence and Space, Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Intelsat, Nokia, HAPSMobile parent SoftBank and Telefonica.
The new HAPS Alliance, as it’s being called (HAPS just stands for ‘High Altitude Platform Station’) will be working together to promote use of the technology, as well as work with regulators in the markets where they operate on enabling its use. They’ll work towards developing a set of common industry standards for network interoperability, and also figure how to essentially carve up the or stake out the stratosphere so that participating industry players can work together without stepping on each other’s toes.
This new combined group is no slouch: It includes some of the most powerful network operators in the world, as well as key network infrastructure players and aerospace companies. Which could mean big things for stratospheric networks, which have the advantages of being closer to Earth than satellite-based internet offerings, but also avoid the disadvantages of ground-based cell towers like having to deal with difficult terrain or more limited range.
Is this the first step towards a future where our connected devices rely on high-flying, autonomous cell towers for connectivity? It’s too early to say how ubiquitous this will get, but this new group of heavyweights definitely lends more credence to the idea.
A bold mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mars’ two moons, including a lander component for one of them, is all set to enter the development phase after the plan was submitted to the Japanese government’s science ministry this week.
Dubbed the “Martian Moons Exploration” (MMX) mission, the goal is to launch the probe in 2024, using the new H-3 rocket being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is expected to launch for the first time sometime later in 2020. The probe will survey and observe both Phobos and Deimos, the two moons that orbit the Red Planet, which are both smaller and more irregularly shaped than Earth’s Moon.
The MMX lander will park on Phobos, while the probe studies the two space-based bodies from a distance. This is the first-ever mission that seeks to land a spacecraft on one of the moons of Mars, and it’ll include a rover that is being developed by JAXA in partnership with teams at German space agency DLR and French space agency CNES.
The mission will include an ambitious plan to actually collect a sample of the surface of Phobos and return it to Earth for study — which will mean a round-trip for the MMX spacecraft that should see it make its terrestrial return by 2029.
NASA is also planning a Mars-sample return mission, which would aim to bring back a sample from the Red Planet itself using the Mars 2020 six-wheel rover that it’s planning to launch later this year.
Both of these missions could be crucial stepping stones for eventual human exploration and colonization of Mars. It’s possible that Phobos could act as an eventual staging ground for Mars missions, as its lower gravity makes it an easier body from which to depart for eventual astronauts. And Mars is obviously the ultimate goal for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to first establish a more permanent human scientific presence on the Moon before heading to the Red Planet.
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.
We’re not in immediate danger of any asteroids colliding with Earth — at least not as far as anyone’s aware. But it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, and there is an expected near-miss coming up in 2029. Accordingly, it’s probably best to be prepared, and MIT researchers have developed a system that could help determine the best possible method to avoid a collision — long before the situation becomes desperate.
An MIT team led by former MIT graduate student Sung Wook Paek describe a “decision map” in newly published research that would take into account the mass and relative momentum of an approaching asteroid, as well as the expected time we have before it enters into a so-called “keyhole” — basically a gravitational halo around Earth that, once entered, all but guarantees the asteroid will collide with the planet.
The MIT-developed decision map basically details three different choices in terms of how to deflect an approaching asteroid: Launching a projectile at it to alter its course; sending a scout first to get accurate measurements to inform the best possible development of said projectile; and sending two scouts, in order to get measurements and also potentially nudge the object using propulsion, setting it up for an easier projectile-based knockout later on.
Time is the key factor in the model based on simulations run using asteroids Apophis and Bennu, two known objects we know relatively a lot about, including the locations of their gravitational keyholes in terms of proximity to Earth. The tests showed that with five or more years, the best course is to send two scouts and then the projectile. Between two and five years out, you’re most likely to succeed with the single scout followed by a projectile fired from Earth. At one year or less, the bad news is that nothing seems all that likely to succeed.
The official plan for avoiding impacts from near-Earth objects involves potentially firing nuclear weapons at them, which is not a super-popular option. This method developed by MIT could help mean it never comes to that, provided our advanced detection methods are effective enough.
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.
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This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.
Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.
The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.
Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.
Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.
Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.
Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.
Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.
Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.
Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.
Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.
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.
For the next installment of the informal TechCrunch book club, we are reading the fourth story in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. The goal of this book club is to expand our minds to new worlds, ideas, and vistas, and The Lifecycle of Software Objects doesn’t disappoint. Centered in a future world where virtual worlds and generalized AI have become commonplace, it’s a fantastic example of speculative fiction that forces us to confront all kinds of fundamental questions.
If you’ve missed the earlier parts in this book club series, be sure to check out:
Some questions for the fifth story in the collection, Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny, are included below.
And as always, some more notes:
This is a much more sprawling story than the earlier short stories in Exhalation, with much more of a linear plot than the fractal koans we experienced before. That wider canvas offers us an enormous buffet of topics to discuss, from empathy, the meaning of humanity, and the values we vouch for to artificial entities, the economics of the digital future, and onwards to the futures of romance, sex, children, and death. I have pages of notes from this story, but we can’t cover it all, so I want to zoom in on just two threads that I found particularly deep and rewarding.
One core objective of this story is to really interrogate the meaning of a “person.” Chiang sets up our main character Ana as a mother of a digital entity (a “digient”) who was a zookeeper in a past life. That career history gives us a nice framing: it allows us via Ana to compare humans to animals, and therefore to contextualize the personhood debate around the digients throughout the story.
On one hand, humans uniquely value themselves as a species, and even the most dedicated digient owner eventually moves on. As one particularly illuminating passage discusses when a digient’s owner announces that his wife is pregnant:
“Obviously you’re going to have your hands full,” says Ana, “but what do you think about adopting Lolly?” It would be fascinating to see Lolly’s reaction to a pregnancy.
“No,” says Robyn, shaking her head. “I’m past digients now.”
“You’re past them?”
“I’m ready for the real thing, you know what I mean?”
Carefully, Ana says, “I’m not sure that I do.”
“…Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.”
This owner has made a clear distinction: there is only one form of entity worth caring for, only one thing that a human can consider a person, and that is another human.
Indeed, throughout this short story, Chiang constantly notes how the tastes, values, norms, rules, and laws of human society are designed almost exclusively with humans in mind. Yet, the story never takes a definitive stance, and even Ana is not at all convinced of any one point of view, even right up to the end of the story. However, the narrative does offer us one model to think through that I thought was valuable, and that’s around experience.
What separates humans from other animals is that we base decisions on our own prior experiences. We collect these experiences, and use them to guide our actions and drive us toward the right outcomes that we — also from experience — desire. We might want to make money (because experience tells us that money is good), and so we decide to go to college to get the right kind of learning in order to compete effectively in the job market. Essential to that whole decision is lived experience.
Chiang makes a very clear point here when it comes to a company called Exponential, which is interested in finding “superhuman AI” that comes without the work that Ana and the other owners of digients have put in to raise their entities. Ana eventually realizes that they can never find what they are looking for:
They want something that responds like a person, but isn’t owed the same obligations as a person, and that’s something that she can’t give them.
No one can give it to them, because it’s an impossibility. The years she spent raising Jax didn’t just make him fun to talk to, didn’t just provide him with hobbies and a sense of humor. They were what gave him all the attributes Exponential is looking for: fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgment you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.
She wants to tell them that Blue Gamma was more right than it knew: experience isn’t merely the best teacher; it’s the only teacher … experience is algorithmically incompressible.
Indeed, as the owners start to think about when they might offer their digients independence to make their own decisions, experience becomes the key watchword. Their ability to make their own decisions in the context of past experiences is what defines their personhood.
And so when we think about generalized artificial intelligence and the hope of creating a sentient artificial life, I think this litmus test starts to get at the real challenge what this technology can even be. Can we train an AI purely through algorithms, or will we have to guide these AIs with their open but empty minds every step of the way? Chiang discusses this a bit earlier in the story:
They’re blind to a simple truth: complex minds can’t develop on their own. If they could, feral children would be like any others. And minds don’t grow the way weeds do, flourishing under indifferent attention; otherwise all children in orphanages would thrive. For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds.
Indeed, Ana and the other main character Derek are forced to keep pushing their digients along, assigning them homework and guiding them to new activities to continue propelling them to get the kind of experience they need to succeed in the world. Why should we assume a generalized AI wouldn’t be any less lazy than a child today? Why would we expect that it can teach itself when humans can’t teach themselves?
Speaking about children, I want to head over to the other thread in this story I found particularly trenchant. Clearly, there is a whole parallel to real-life human childrearing that is sort of intrinsic to the whole story. I think that’s obvious, and while interesting, a lot of the conclusions and meanings from that concept are obvious.
What’s more interesting is what affection and bonding signifies in a world where entities don’t have to be “real.” Ana is a zookeeper who had deep affection for the animals under her care (“Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about the last time she saw her apes, wishing that she could explain to them why they wouldn’t see her again, hoping that they could adapt to their new homes.”) She vigorously defends her relationship with those animals, as she does with the digients throughout the story.
But why are some entities loved more than others if they are all just code running in the cloud? The main digients featured in the book were literally designed to be attractive to humans. As Blue Gamma scans through the thousands of algorithmically-generated digients, it carefully selects the ones that will attract owners. “It’s partly been a search for intelligence, but just as much it’s been a search for temperament, the personality that won’t frustrate customers.”
The reason of course is obvious: these creatures need attention to thrive, but they won’t get it if they are not adorable and desirable. Derek spends his time animating the avatars of the digients to make them more attractive, generating spontaneous and serendipitous facial expressions to create a bond between their human owners and them.
Yet, the story pushes so much harder on this theme in layers that connect with each other. Derek is attracted to Ana throughout the story, even as Ana stays focused on developing her own digient and keeping her relationship with her boyfriend Kyle going. Derek eventually realizes that his own obsession with Ana has become untenable, which is a subtle parallel to Ana’s own obsession with her digients:
He no longer has a wife who might complain about this, and Ana’s boyfriend, Kyle, doesn’t seem to mind, so he can call her up without recrimination. It’s a painful sort of pleasure to spend this much time with her; it might be healthier for him if they interacted less, but he doesn’t want to stop.
Indeed, the book’s strongest thesis may be that this sort of love just isn’t reproducible. Ana wants to join a company called Polytope in order to raise funding to port her digient to a new digital platform. As part of the employer agreement, she is expected to wear a “smart transdermal” called InstantRapport that uses chemical alterations in the brain to rewire a human’s reward centers to love a specific individual automatically. Ana’s love for her digient pushes her to consider rewiring her own brain to get the resources she needs.
And yet, the digients eventually develop similar thought processes. Marco and Polo, two digients owned by Derek, eventually agree to be copied as sex toys, in order to provide funding for the port. Their clones will have their “reward maps” rewired to make them love the customer that purchases them.
The story gives us a haunting reminder that we are ultimately a bunch of neurons that respond to stimuli. Some of that stimuli is under control, but much of it is not, instead programmed by our experiences without our conscious intervention. And there we see how these two threads come entwined together — it is only through experience that we can create affection, and it is precisely affection and therefore experience that creates a person in the first place.
Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.
The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.
The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.
Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.
CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.
“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”
In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.
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.
On-orbit manufacturing startup Made In Space has tapped Colorado’s Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT) to help support its Archinaut One demonstration mission contracted by NASA, which is currently set to take place in 2022. The mission will see Made In Space show off the assembly of two 10-meter solar arrays on orbit, which will then be used to power an ESPA-class satellite, providing up to five times more power than is available via power sources used for those satellites not assembled on orbit.
BCT will be providing development of the spacecraft platform (along with Northrop Grumman) that Made In Space will use to delver its Archinaut manufacturing platform, which employs additive manufacturing and robotic assembly to be able to build structures while on orbit. The Colorado company, founded in 2008, has developed a number of spacecraft for a variety of projects, including JPL’s first-ever operational CubeSat project, the Asteria space telescope.
I spoke to BCT systems engineer Brian Crum about the Made In Space project, and he said that it’s representative of the kind of work they’ve been doing, which mainly concentrates around interesting demonstration missions and initial operations of novel space technologies that could have tremendous impact on how work is done in space.
“Given the size of spacecraft that we develop and specialize in, and at that price point, it really lends itself to these Demonstration Missions that are follow-on to operational concepts,” he said. “We are a good solution for testing out concepts, and we get approached quite a bit for that […] we get a lot of interesting ideas of people wanting to try things, and this is definitely one of them.”
BCT is actually in the process of building more than 60 spacecraft, and it doubled in size over the past year. Next, the company plans to open a new combined headquarters and production facility that spans more than 80,000 acres, which should be opening sometime later this year. That growth is directly driven by an uptick in business — something Crum says is the result of a boom in experimentation and technology demonstrations coming from all vectors, including government and private industry.
“There are definitely more people that have more appetite for risk,” he said. “We we are growing because the demand for the spacecraft is growing, that’s the simple answer. We’re hiring the right people to support these programs, and the number of programs is greatly increasing. Along with that, as we grow larger in size, and the spacecraft grow larger and size, they become more complex, which means they need a little bit more effort. So there’s there’s a little bit more engineering that goes into them as well.”
Eight Sleep does sell mattresses, albeit smart ones packed with sensors and temperature regulation controls. The company has raised north of $70 million from backers including Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures. A great deal of this funding surrounds the idea that there is more untapped potential in the sleep economy than existing players in the space have been able to imagine.
While Franceschetti says he intends for his company to remain private for the “foreseeable future,” Eight Sleep is in a less-than-comfortable spot following Casper’s botched IPO last week. Though Casper’s stock popped on its first day of trading, the process of pricing its shares ended up leaving its private investors a bit less than ecstatic. Casper debuted trading at a value of $575 million, a far cry from the $1.1 billion private market valuation it had previously achieved.
Franceschetti has been aiming to transform Eight Sleep into a company more focused on a robust tech platform than your average bed-in-a-box company. The startup’s initial effort, a smart sleep cover for your existing mattress, evolved into a mattress with a layer of sensors that then transformed into a sensor-laden mattress with a heating and cooling unit, called “The Pod.” The company’s product development has aimed to build out a more end-to-end platform for sleep, something Franceschetti says has made him reticent to compare his company to other direct-to-consumer mattress companies.