FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Perseverance lands safely on Mars and sends back its first images of the surface

By Devin Coldewey

Mars rover Perseverance has landed on the surface of Mars after a white-knuckle descent involving picking a landing spot just moments before making a rocket-powered sky crane landing. The rover immediately sent back its first image of Jezero crater, which it will be exploring over the course of its mission.

A clearly tense but optimistic team watched as Perseverance made its final approach to Mars a few hours ago, confirming it was on track to hit the bullseye of Jezero Crater, the ancient delta where the rover will soon be roving.

Except for a few brief but expected communications blackouts caused by the superheated air around the craft as it entered the thin Martian atmosphere, the lander sent back a continuous stream of updates to the team on Earth — considerably delayed, of course, by the distance to the other planet.

The team, and charmingly the on-screen hosts at mission HQ audibly gasped, whispered “yes!” and made other signs of their excitement as news trickled in that atmosphere entry had occurred on time, that the craft hadn’t broken up during the ten-G braking maneuver, that the parachute had deployed, that a landing site was found by the ground-facing radar, that the powered descent and sky crane had commenced, and at last finally that the rover had safely touched down on the surface.

NASA crew celebrating the landing of rover Perseverance on Mars.

Image Credits: NASA

Cheering but, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions not (as they normally would) hugging each other, the team celebrated the landing and soon were treated to the first images sent back from the rover.

These initial pictures are low-quality ones sent just seconds after landing by the “hazard camera,” a fisheye used for navigation. As the dust settles (literally) and the rover initiates its more powerful devices and cameras, we’ll have new, color images — probably within an hour or two.

For a more complete look at the mission and its remarkable landing method, you can read yesterday’s profile of the Perseverance mission. The next few days will probably be less exciting than the terror-inducing landing, but soon the rover will be up and running around Jezero, looking for evidence of life on Mars and testing technology that could be used by human visitors in the future.

“We’re not ready to go there with astronauts yet, but the robots are ready,” said JPL director Michael Watkins on the broadcast. “We start by sending, you know, our eyes and arms there in the form of a robot. It is just fantastic to be able to do that, and to learn from each rover, learn from the science and the engineering, and make the next one better, and make more and more discoveries. Every time we do one of these missions, we make fabulous discoveries — and you know, each one is more exciting than the last.”

The exciting thing everyone is looking forward to, Mars helicopter Ingenuity, will hopefully take flight soon as well.

“We have a series of major milestones between now and the first flight. Tomorrow, we’ll turn on the helicopter, and the space station could confirm its health. The next major milestone will be when the rover deploys the helicopter on the surface, and that marks the first moment that Ingenuity operates on its own in a standalone manner, said MiMi Aung, project manager and engineering lead for Ingenuity. “Surviving that first cold frigid night of Mars will be a major milestone, then we’ll execute a series of checkouts, and then we will perform that very important first flight. And if the first flight is successful, we have up to four more flights in the thirty Martian days that we have set aside for our flight experiments.”

Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The rise of “Zoom University” was only possible because edtech wasn’t ready to address the biggest opportunity of the past year: remote learning at scale. Of course, the term encapsulates more than just Zoom, it’s a nod to how schools had to rapidly adopt enterprise video conferencing software to keep school in session in the wake of closures brought on by the virus’ rapid spread.

Now, nearly a year since students were first sent home because of the coronavirus, a cohort of edtech companies is emerging, emboldened with millions in venture capital, ready to take back the market.

The new wave of startups are slicing and dicing the same market of students and teachers who are fatigued by Zoom University, which — at best — often looks like a gallery view with a chat bar. Four of the companies that are gaining traction include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. It signals a shift from startups playing in the supplemental education space and searching to win a spot in the largest chunk of a students day: the classroom.

While each startup has its own unique strategy and product, the founders behind them all need to answer the same question: Can they make digital learning a preferred mode of pedagogy and comprehension — and not merely a backup — after the pandemic is over?

Answering that question begins with deciding whether videoconferencing is what online, live learning should look like.

Ground up

“This is completely grounds up; there is no Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams anywhere in the vicinity,” said Dan Avida, co-founder of Engageli, just a few minutes into the demo of his product.

Engageli, a new startup founded by Avida, Daphne Koeller and Serge Plotkin, raised $14.5 million in October to bring digital learning to college universities. The startup wants to make big lecture-style classes feel more intimate, and thinks digitizing everything from the professor monologues to side conversations between students is the way to go.

Engageli is a videoconferencing platform in that it connects students and professors over live video, but the real product feature that differentiates it, according to Avida, is in how it views the virtual classroom.

Upon joining the platform, each student is placed at a virtual table with another small group of students. Within those pods, students can chat, trade notes, screenshot the lecture and collaborate, all while hearing a professor lecture simultaneously.

“The FaceTime session going on with friends or any other communication platform is going to happen,” Avida said. “So it might as well run it through our platform.”

The tables can easily be scrambled to promote different conversation or debates, and teachers can pop in and out without leaving their main screen. It’s a riff on Zoom’s breakout rooms, which let participants jump into separate calls within a bigger call.

There’s also a notetaking feature that allows students to screenshot slides and live annotate them within the Engageli platform. Each screenshot comes with a hyperlink that will take the student back to the live recording of that note, which could help with studying.

“We don’t want to be better than Zoom, we want to be different than Zoom,” Avida said. Engageli can run on a variety of products of differing bandwidth, from Chromebooks to iPads and PCs.

Engageli is feature-rich to the point that it has to onboard teachers, its main customer, in two phases, a process that can take over an hour. While Avida says that it only takes five minutes to figure out how to use the platform to hold a class, it does take longer to figure out how to fully take advantage of all the different modules. Teachers and students need to have some sort of digital savviness to be able to use the platform, which is both a barrier to entry for adoption but also a reason why Engageli can tout that it’s better than a simple call. Complexity, as Avida sees it, requires well-worth-it time.

The startup’s ambition doesn’t block it from dealing with contract issues. Other video conferencing platforms can afford to be free or already have been budgeted into. Engageli currently charges $9.99 or less per student seat for its platform. Avida says that with Zoom, “it’s effectively free because people have already paid for it, so we have to demonstrate why we’re much better than those products.”

Engageli’s biggest hurdle is another startup’s biggest advantage.

Built on top of Zoom

Class, launched less than a year ago by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, integrates exclusively with Zoom to offer a more customized classroom for students and teachers alike. The product, currently in private paid beta, helps teachers launch live assignments, track attendance and understand student engagement levels in real time.

While positioning an entire business on Zoom could lead to platform risk, Chasen sees it as a competitive advantage that will help the startup stay relevant after the pandemic.

“We’re not really pitching it as pandemic-related,” Chasen said. “No school has only said that we’re going to plan to use this for a month, and very few K-12 schools say we’re only looking at this in case a pandemic comes again.” Chasen says that most beta customers say online learning will be part of their instructional strategy going forward.

Investors clearly see the opportunity in the company’s strategy, from distribution to execution. Earlier this month, Class announced it had raised $30 million in Series A financing, just 10 weeks after raising a $16 million seed round. Raising that much pre-launch gives the startup key wiggle room, but it also gives validation: a number of Zoom’s earliest investors, including Emergence Capital and Bill Tai, who wrote the first check into Zoom, have put money into Class.

“At Blackboard, we had a six to nine month sales cycle; we’d have to explain that e-learning is a thing,” Chasen said, who was at the LMS business for 15 years. “[With Class] we don’t even have to pitch. It wraps up in a month, and our sales cycle is just showing people the product.

Unlike Engageli, Class is selling to both K-12 institutions and higher-education institutions, which means its product is more focused on access and ease of use instead of specialized features. The startup has over 6,000 institutions, from high schools to higher education institutions, on the waitlist to join.

Image Credits: Class

Right now, Class software is only usable on Macs, but its beta will be available on iPhone, Windows and Android in the near future. The public launch is at the end of the quarter.

“K-12 is in a bigger bind,” he said, but higher-ed institutions are fully committed to using synchronous online learning for the “long haul.”

“Higher-ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step,” he said. “Whereas with a lot of K-12, I’m actually seeing that this is the first step that they’re taking.”

The big hurdle for Class, and any startup selling e-learning solutions to institutions, is post-pandemic utility. While institutions have traditionally been slow to adopt software due to red tape, Chasen says that both of Class’ customers, higher ed and K-12, are actively allocating budget for these tools. The price for Class ranges between $10,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on the number of students in the classes.

“We have not run into a budgeting problem in a single school,” he said. “Higher ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step, whereas K-12, this is the first step they’re taking.”

Asynchronously, silly

Engageli and Class are both trying to innovate on the live learning experience, but Top Hat, which raised $130 million in a Series E round this past week, thinks that the future is pre-recorded video.

Top Hat digitizes textbooks, but instead of putting a PDF on a screen, the startup fits features such as polls and interactive graphics in the text. The platform has attracted millions of students on this premise.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies putting emphasis on creating a virtual classroom,” he said. “But replicating the same thing in a different medium is never a good idea…nobody wants to stare at a screen and then have the restraint of having to show up at a previous pre-prescribed time.”

In July, Top Hat launched Community to give teachers a way to make class more than just a YouTube video. Similar to ClassDojo, Community provides a space for teachers and students to converse and stay up to date on shared materials. The interface also allows students to create private channels to discuss assignments and work on projects, as well as direct message their teachers.

CEO Mike Silagadze says that Top Hat tried a virtual classroom tool early on, and “very quickly learned that it was fundamentally just the wrong strategy.” His mindset contrasts with the demand that Class and Engageli have proven so far, to which Silagadze says might not be as long-term as they think.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest that’s generated in people signing up to beta lists and like wanting to try it out. But when people really get into it, everyone pretty much drops off and focuses more on asynchronous, small and in-person groups.”

Instead, the founder thinks that “schools are going to double down on the really valuable in-person aspects of higher education that they couldn’t provide before” and deliver other content, like large lecture-style classes or meetings, through asynchronous content delivery.

This is similar to what Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, told TechCrunch in November: Colleges are going to re-invest in their in-person and residential experiences, and begin offering credentials and content online to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve been on the journey to create a more and more complete platform that our customers can use since almost day one,” Silagadze said. “What the pandemic has brought is much more comprehensive testing functionality that Top Hat has rolled out and better communication tooling so basically better chat and communication tooling for professors.”

Community costs $30 per semester, per student. Currently Top Hat has most of its paying customers coming in through its content offering, the digital textbooks, instead of this learning platform.

College spin-out

InSpace, a startup spinning out of Champlain college, is similarly focused on making the communication between professors and students more natural. Dr. Narine Hall, the founder of the startup, is a professor herself who just wanted class to “feel more natural” when it was being conducted.

InSpace is similar to some of the virtual HQ platforms that have popped up over the past few months. The platforms, which my colleague Devin Coldewey aptly dubbed Sims for Enterprise, are trying to create the feel of an office or classroom online but without a traditional gallery view or conference call vibe. The potential success of inSpace and others could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

InSpace is using spatial gaming infrastructure to create spontaneity. The technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they walk, or click, away. When applied to a virtual world, spatial technology can give the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Similar to Engageli, inSpace is rethinking how an actual class is conducted. In inSpace, students don’t have to leave the main call to have a conversation during inSpace, which they do in Zoom. Students can just toggle over to their own areas and a professor can see teamwork being done in real time. When a student has a question, their bubble becomes bigger, which is easier to track than the hand-raise feature, says Hall.

InSpace has a different monetization strategy than other startups. It charges $15 a month per-educator or “host” versus per-student, which Hall says was so educators could close contracts “as fast as possible.” Hall agrees with other founders that schools have a high demand for the product, but she says that the decision-making process around buying new tooling continues to be difficult in schools with tight budgets, even amid a pandemic. There are currently 100 customers on the platform.

So far, Hall sees inSpace working best with classes that include 25 people, with a max of 50 people.

The company was born out of her own frustrations as a teacher. In grad school, Hall worked on research that combined proximity-based interactions with humans. When August rolled around and she needed a better solution than WebEx or Zoom, she turned to that same research and began building code atop of her teachings. It led to inSpace, which recently announced that it has landed $2.5 million in financing led by Boston Seed Capital.

The differences between each startup, from strategy to monetization to its view of the competition, are music to Zoom’s ears. Anne Keough Keehn, who was hired as Zoom’s Global Education Lead just nine months ago, says that the platform has a “very open attitude and policy about looking at how we best integrate…and sometimes that’s going to be a co-opetition.”

“In the past there has been too much consolidation and therefore it limits choices,” Keehn said. “And we know everybody in education likes to have choices.” Zoom will be used differently in a career office versus a class, and in a happy hour versus a wedding; the platform sees opportunity in it all beyond the “monolithic definition” that video-conferencing has had for so long.

And, despite the fact that this type of response is expected by a well-trained executive at a big company in the spotlight, maybe Keehn is onto something here: Maybe the biggest opportunity in edtech right now is that there is opportunity and money in the first place, for remote learning, for better video-conferencing and for more communication.

Magical raises $3.3M to modernize calendars

By Frederic Lardinois

Calendars. They are at the core of how we organize our workdays and meetings, but despite regular attempts to modernize the overall calendar experience, the calendar experience you see today in Outlook or G Suite Google Workspace hasn’t really changed at its core. And for the most part, the area that startups like Calendly or ReclaimAI have focused on in recent years is scheduling.

Magical is a Tel Aviv-based startup that wants to reinvent the calendar experience from the ground up and turn it into more of a team collaboration tool than simply a personal time-management service. The company today announced that it has raised a $3.3 million seed round led by Resolute Ventures, with additional backing from Ibex Investors, Aviv Growth Partners, ORR Partners, Homeward Ventures and Fusion LA, as well as several angel investors in the productivity space.

The idea for the service came from discussions on Supertools, a large workplace-productivity community, which was also founded by Magical founder and CEO Tommy Barav.

Image Credits: Magical

Based on the feedback from the community — and his own consulting work with large Fortune 500 multinationals — Barav realized that time management remains an unsolved business problem. “The time management space is so highly fragmented,” he told me. “There are so many micro tools and frameworks to manage time, but they’re not built inside of your calendar, which is the main workflow.”

Traditional calendars are add-ons to bigger product bundles and find themselves trapped under those, he argues. “The calendar in Outlook is an email sidekick, but it’s actually the center of your day. So there is an unmet need to use the calendar as a time management hub,” he said.

Magical, which is still in private beta, aims to integrate many of the features we’re seeing from current scheduling and calendaring startups, including AI-scheduling and automation tools. But Magical’s ambition is larger than that.

Image Credits: Magical

“We want to redefine how you use a calendar in the first place,” Barav said. “Many of the innovations that we’ve seen are associated with scheduling: how you schedule your time, letting you streamline the way you schedule meetings, how you see your calendar. […] But we’re talking about redefining time management by giving you a better calendar, by bringing these workflows — scheduling, coordinating and utilizing — into your calendar. We’re redefining the use of the calendar in the modern workspace.”

Since Magical is still in its early days, the team is still working out some of the details, but the general idea is to, for example, turn the calendar into the central repository for meeting notes — and Magical will feature tools to collaborate on these notes and share them. Team members will also be able to follow those meeting notes without having to participate in the actual meeting (or get copied on the emails about that meeting).

“We’ll help teams reduce pointless meetings,” Barav noted. To do this, the team is also integrating other service into the calendar experience, including the usual suspects like Zoom and Slack, but also Salesforce and Notion, for example.

“It’s rare that you find an entrepreneur who has so clearly validated its market opportunity,” said Mike Hirshland, a founding partner of Magical investor Resolute Ventures. “Tommy and his team have been talking to thousands of users for three years, they’ve validated the opportunity, and they’ve designed a product from the ground-up that meets the needs of the market. Now it’s ‘go time’ and I’m thrilled to be part of the journey ahead.”

SpaceX reportedly raises $850M in new funding

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has raised a fresh round of funding, totalling $850 million, per a new report by CNBC, citing sources “familiar” with the matter. The new capital brings the total valuation of the company, which is still privately-held, to around $74 billion according to the report.

This is a massive round, by most standards – but not by SpaceX’s own. The space launch company, which was founded in 2002, has raised a total of over $6 billion to date including this latest injection, with a $2 billion venture round raised last August. That funding was invested at a valuation of $46 billion, meaning the company’s value, at least in the eyes of private investors, leapt considerably in the six months separating the two raises.

SpaceX has accomplished a lot between now and then, including building its Starlink broadband constellation to more than 1,000 active satellites; launching its first operational NASA crew to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon spacecraft; launching not one, but two high-altitude flight tests of its Starship spacecraft with relatively good results; and launched its first dedicated rideshare mission, demonstrating the viability of a big potential new group of launch customers.

While the company has achieved a lot on the back of its existing capital, its recent successes no doubt provided a good base to go out and get more. That’s likely going to go to good use, since it has plenty of work yet to do, like continued develop of Starship to prove out its space-worthiness, and the capital-intensive activity of building Starlink into a true, globe-spanning network.

Mars rover Perseverance touches down tomorrow – how to watch and what to expect

By Devin Coldewey

There will be one more robot on Mars tomorrow afternoon. The Perseverance rover will touch down just before 1:00 Pacific, beginning a major new expedition to the planet and kicking off a number of experiments — from a search for traces of life to the long-awaited Martian helicopter. Here’s what you can expect from Perseverance tomorrow and over the next few years.

It’s a big, complex mission — and like the Artemis program, is as much about preparing for the future, in which people will visit the Red Planet, as it is about learning more about it in the present. Perseverance is ambitious even among missions to Mars.

If you want to follow along live, NASA TV’s broadcast of the landing starts at 11:15 AM Pacific, providing context and interviews as the craft makes its final approach:

Until then, however, you might want to brush up on what Perseverance will be getting up to.

Seven months of anticipation and seven minutes of terror

Illustration of the Perseverance landing capsule entering the Martian atmosphere like a meteor.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, the car-sized rover has to get to the surface safely. It’s been traveling for seven months to arrive at the Red Planet, its arrival heralded by new orbiters from the UAE and China, which both arrived last week.

Perseverance isn’t looking to stick around in orbit, however, and will plunge directly into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft carrying the rover has made small adjustments to its trajectory to be sure that it enters at the right time and angle to put Perseverance above its target, the Jezero crater.

The process of deceleration and landing will take about seven minutes once the craft enters the atmosphere. The landing process is the most complex and ambitious ever undertaken by an interplanetary mission, and goes as follows.

After slowing down in the atmosphere like a meteor to a leisurely 940 MPH or so, the parachute will deploy, slowing the descender over the next minute or two to a quarter of that speed. At the same time, the heat shield will separate, exposing the instruments on the underside of the craft.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a crucial moment, as the craft will then autonomously — there’s no time to send the data to Earth — scan the area below it with radar and other instruments and find what it believes to be an optimal landing location.

Once it does so, from more than a mile up, the parachute will detach and the rover will continue downwards in a “powered descent” using a sort of jetpack that will take it down to just 70 feet above the surface. At this point the rover detaches, suspended at the end of a 21-foot “Sky Crane,” and as the jetpack descends the cable extends; once it touches down, the jetpack boosts itself away, Sky Crane and all, to crash somewhere safely distant.

All that takes place in about 410 seconds, during which time the team will be sweating madly and chewing their pencils. It’s all right here in this diagram for quick reference:

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And for the space geeks who want a little more detail, check out this awesome real-time simulation of the whole process. You can speed up, slow down, check the theoretical nominal velocities and forces, and so on.

Rocking the crater

Illustration of Perseverance very small against a Martian landscape.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other rovers and orbiters have been turning up promising signs of life on Mars for years: the Mars Express Orbiter discovered liquid water under the surface in 2018; Curiosity found gaseous hints of life in 2019; Spirit and Opportunity found tons of signs that life could have been supported during their incredibly long missions.

Jezero Crater was chosen as a region rich in possibilities for finding evidence of life, but also a good venue for many other scientific endeavors.

The most similar to previous missions are the geology and astrobiology goals. Jezero was “home to an ancient delta, flooded with water.” Tons of materials coalesce in deltas that not only foster life, but record its presence. Perseverance will undertake a detailed survey of the area in which it lands to help characterize the former climate of Mars.

Part of that investigation will specifically test for evidence of life, such as deposits of certain minerals in patterns likely to have resulted from colonies of microbes rather than geological processes. It’s not expected that the rover will stumble across any living creatures, but you know the team all secretly hope this astronomically unlikely possibility will occur.

One of the more future-embracing science goals is to collect and sequester samples from the environment in a central storage facility, which can then be sent back to Earth — though they’re still figuring out how to handle that last detail. The samples themselves will be carefully cut from the rock rather than drilled or chipped out, leaving them in pristine condition for analysis later.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance will spend some time doubling back on its path to place as many as 30 capsules full of sampled material in a central depot, which will be kept sealed until such a time as they can be harvested and returned to Earth.

The whole time the rover will be acting as a mobile science laboratory, taking all kinds of readings as it goes. Some of the signs of life it’s looking for only result from detailed analysis of the soil, for instance, so sophisticating imaging and spectroscopy instruments are on board, PIXL and SHERLOC. It also carries a ground-penetrating radar (RIMFAX) to observe the fine structure of the landscape beneath it. And MEDA will continuously take measurements of temperature, wind, pressure, dust characteristics, and so on.

Of course the crowd-pleasing landscapes and “selfies” NASA’s rovers have become famous for will also be beamed back to Earth regularly. It has 19 cameras, though mostly they’ll be used for navigation and science purposes.

Exploring takes a little MOXIE and Ingenuity

Animated image showing the Ingenuity Mars helicopter taking off and flying on Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is part of NASA’s long-term plan to visit the Red Planet in person, and it carries a handful of tech experiments that could contribute to that mission.

The most popular one, and for good reason, is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. This little solar-powered two-rotor craft will be the first ever demonstration of powered flight on another planet (the jetpack Perseverance rode in on doesn’t count).

The goals are modest: the main one is simply to take off and hover in the thin air a few feet off the ground for 20 to 30 seconds, then land safely. This will provide crucial real-world data about how a craft like this will perform on Mars, how much dust it kicks up, and all kinds of other metrics that future aerial craft will take into account. If the first flight goes well, the team plans additional ones that may look like the GIF above.

Being able to fly around on another planet would be huge for science and exploration, and eventually for industry and safety when people are there. Drones are have already become crucial tools for all kinds of surveying, rescue operations, and other tasks here on Earth — why wouldn’t it be the same case on Mars? Plus it’ll get some great shots from its onboard cameras.

Image of the MOXIE device, which will isolate oxygen from Mars's atmosphere.

MOXIE is the other forward-looking experiment, and could be even more important (though less flashy) than the helicopter. It stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, and it’s all about trying to make breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.

This isn’t about making oxygen to breathe, though it could be used for that too. MOXIE is about making oxygen at scales large enough that it could be used to provide rocket fuel for future takeoffs. Though if habitats like these ever end up getting built, it will be good to have plenty of O2 on hand just in case.

For a round trip to Mars, sourcing fuel from the there rather than trucking all the way from Earth to burn on the way back is an immense improvement in many ways. The 30-50 tons of liquid oxygen that would normally be brought over in the tanks could instead be functional payloads, and that kind of tonnage goes a long way when you’re talking about freeze-dried food, electronics, and other supplies.

MOXIE will be attempting, at a small scale (it’s about the size of a car battery, and future oxygen generators would be a hundred times bigger), to isolate oxygen from the CO2 surrounding it. The team is expecting about 10 grams per hour, but it will only be on intermittently so as not to draw too much power. With luck it’ll be enough of a success that this method can be pursued more seriously in the near future.

Self-roving technology

An orbital image of the Jezero Crater region of Mars with a potential path for the rover on it.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the big challenges for previous rovers is that they have essentially been remote controlled with a 30-mintue delay — scientists on Earth examine the surroundings, send instructions like go forward 40 centimeters, turn front wheels 5 degrees to the right, go 75 centimeters, etc. This not only means a lot of work for the team but a huge delay as the rover makes moves, waits half an hour for more instructions to arrive, then repeats the process over and over.

Perseverance breaks with its forbears with a totally new autonomous navigation system. It has high resolution, wide-angle color cameras and a dedicated processing unit for turning images into terrain maps and choosing paths through them, much like a self-driving car.

Being able to go farther on its own means the rover can cover far more ground. The longest drive ever recorded in a single Martian day was 702 feet by Opportunity (RIP). Perseverance will aim to cover about that distance on average, and with far less human input. Chances are it’ll set a new record pretty quickly once it’s done tiptoeing around for the first few days.

In fact the first 30 sols after the terrifying landing will be mostly checks, double checks, instrument deployments, more checks, and rather unimpressive-looking short rolls around the immediate area. But remember, if all goes well, this thing could still be rolling around Mars in 10 or 15 years when people start showing up. This is just the very beginning of a long, long mission.

Astra hires longtime Apple veteran Benjamin Lyon as Chief Engineer

By Darrell Etherington

New Space startup Astra, which is currently focused on commercial rockets, but which plans to eventually build satellites, too, has hired one of Apple’s key engineering leaders to head its own engineering efforts. Benjamin Lyon spent over two decades at Apple, where he worked on everything from the iPhone, to input devices and sensor hardware, to special projects: the department at Apple working on autonomous vehicle technology.

“When I’ve looked at what to do next at Apple, it has always been this combination of ‘What is the most impactful thing that I can do for humanity?’ – the iPhone was very much one of these,” Lyon told me in an interview. “Phones were awful [at the time], and if we could fundamentally come up with a new interface, that would completely change how people interact with devices.”

Creating a mobile device with an interface that was “completely flexible and completely customizable to the application” was what seemed so transformative to Lyon about the iPhone, and he sees a direct parallel in the work that Astra is doing to lower the barrier of access to space through cheap, scalable and highly-efficient rocketry.

“Astra me feels very, very much like redefining what it means for a phone to be smart,” Lyon said. “I think the Astra vision is this magical combination of fundamentally taking the rocket science out of space. How do you do that? Well, you better have a great foundation of a team, and a great foundation of core technologies that you can bring together in order to make a compelling series of products.”

Foundations are the key ingredient according not only to Lyon, but also to Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, who explained why an experienced Apple engineer made the most sense to him to lead a rocket startup’s engineering efforts.

“We did not want anyone from aerospace – I’ll just I’ll say that out of the gate,” Kemp told me. “Aerospace has not figured out how to build rockets at scale, or do anything profitably – ever. So I found no inspiration from anyone I talked to who had anything to do with with any of the other space-related companies. We do feel that there are people that are at SpaceX and Blue Origin who are really good at what they do. But in terms of the culture that we’re trying to establish at Astra, if you look back at Apple, and the things that that Benjamin worked on there over many decades, he really took on not only designing the the thing, but also designing the thing that makes the thing, which was more important than the thing itself.”

Kemp’s alluding to Apple’s lauded ability to work very closely with suppliers and move fundamental component engineering in-house, crafting unique designs for things like the system-on-a-chip that now powers everything from the iPhone to Macs. Apple often designs the processes involved in making those fundamental components, and then helps its suppliers stand up the factories required to build those to its exacting specifications. Astra’s approach to the space industry centers around a similar approach, with a focus on optimizing the output of its Alameda-based rocket factory, and iterating its products quickly to match the needs of the market while keeping pricing accessible.

And Astra’s definition of ‘iteration’ matches up much more closely with the one used by Silicon Valley than that typically espoused by legacy aerospace companies – going further still in questioning the industry’s fundamentals than even watershed space tech innovators like SpaceX, which in many ways still adheres to accepted rocket industry methods.

“You don’t do the iPhone X at iPhone 1 – you start with the iPhone 1 and you work your way to the iPhone X,” Lyon told me. “You’re going to see that with Astra as well, there’s going to be this amazing evolution, but it’s going to be tech company-rate evolution, as opposed to an ‘every 20 years’ evolution.”

That sentiment lines up with Astra and Kemp’s approach to date: The company reached space for the first time late last year, with a rocket that was the second of three planned launches in a rapid iteration cycle designed to achieve that milestone. After the first of these launches (Rocket 3.1 if you’re keeping track) failed to make space last September, Astra quickly went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design to come back for its successful attempt in December (Rocket 3.2) – an extremely fast turnaround for an aerospace company by any measure. The company is now focused on its Rocket 3.3 launch, which should only require software changes to achieve a successful orbit, and put it on track to begin delivering commercial payloads for paying customers.

Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.

Astra’s rocket is tiny compared to the mammoth Starship that SpaceX is currently developing, but that’s part of the appeal that drew Lyon to the startup in the first place. He says the goal of “design[ing] a rocket to match the application,” rather than simply “design[ing] a rocket to end all rockets” makes vastly more sense to serve the bourgeoning market.

“And that’s just the beginning,” he added. “Then you’ll take the next step, which is if you look at the technology that’s in a satellite, and a bunch of the smart technology that’s in a rocket, there’s a tremendous amount of duplication there. So, get rid of the duplication – design the rocket and the satellite together as one system.”

Eventually, that means contemplating not only launch and satellite as a single challenge, but also managing “the entire experience of getting to space and managing a constellation” as “a single design problem,” according to Lyon, which is the level of ambition at Astra that he views as on par with that of Steve Jobs at Apple at the outset of the iPhone project.

Ultimately, Astra hopes to be able to provide aspiring space technology companies with everything they need so that the actual space component of their business is fully handled. The idea is that startups and innovators can then focus on bringing new models and sensing technologies to Astra, worrying only about payload – leaving launch, integration and eventually constellation management to the experts. It’s not unlike what the App Store unlocked for the software industry, Lyon said.

“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in aerospace, which is to really scale the production of rockets, and also focus on the overall economics of the business,” Kemp explained about additional advantages of having Lyon on board. “As we become a public company, in particular, we have very aggressive EBITDA targets, and very aggressive production targets, much the same way Apple does. We also want to have a new rocket every year, just like [the iPhone] and so to some degree, we found every aspect of Benjamin’s ethos aligned with our values, and the culture that we’re creating here at Astra of relentless, constant innovation and iteration.”

Daily Crunch: Axiom Space raises $130M

By Anthony Ha

A space startup connected to the International Space Station raises $130 million, Atlassian releases a new version of Trello and bitcoin briefly passes $50,000. This is your Daily Crunch for February 16, 2021.

The big story: Axiom Space raises $130M

Founded in 2016, Axiom Space is working with NASA to add privately developed space station modules to the International Space Station. It’s also the service provider for the first private astronaut launch to the ISS, scheduled for January 2022 using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Eventually, the startup hopes to create its own orbital platforms. And in his story on the funding, Darrell Etherington says Axiom is emerging as “the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry.”

The tech giants

Atlassian launches a whole new Trello — Trello is one of the most popular project management tools around, and in many ways it brought digital Kanban boards to the mainstream.

TikTok hit with consumer, child safety and privacy complaints in Europe — TikTok is facing a fresh round of regulatory complaints in Europe.

Reddit’s transparency report shows a big spam problem and relatively few government requests — Volume-wise, the largest problem by far is spam.

Startups, funding and venture capital

01 Advisors, the venture firm of Dick Costolo and Adam Bain, has closed fund two with $325M — Costolo and Bain previously served as Twitter’s CEO and its chief operating officer, respectively.

Shared scooter startup Revel adds electric bike subscriptions to its business — Revel will start offering monthly electric bike subscriptions in New York.

Tencent backs digital rights startup Pex in $57M round — The startup describes its Attribution Engine as the “licensing infrastructure for the Internet.”

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Inside Rover and MoneyLion’s SPAC-led public debuts — Looking at the financial health of two companies that we’ve heard about for ages and never got to see inside of.

Four strategies for deep tech startups recruiting top growth marketers — How do deep tech companies connect and cultivate strong relationships with talented nontechnical growth people outside of their industry?

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Bitcoin briefly breaks the $50K barrier as Coinbase’s direct listing looms — The hodl-crew are having quite the moment.

Imagine a better future for social media at TechCrunch Sessions: Justice — We’ll discuss how much responsibility social networks have in the rise of toxic culture, deadly conspiracies and organized hate online.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Axiom Space raises $130 million for its commercial space station ambitions

By Darrell Etherington

One of the new space startups with the loftiest near-term goals has raised $130 million in a Series B round that demonstrates investor confidence in the scope of its ambitions: Axiom Space, which has been tapped by NASA to add privately-developed space station modules to the ISS, announced the new funding led by C5 Capital on Tuesday.

This is the latest in a string of high-profile announcements for Axiom, which was founded in 2016 by a team including space professionals with a history of demonstrated expertise working on the International Space Station. Eventually, Axiom hopes to go from adding the first private commercial modules to the existing station, to creating their own, wholly private on-orbital platforms – for research, space tourism and more.

Axiom announced the people who will take part it it first ever private astronaut launch to the ISS, which is set to fly next January using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Axiom is the service provider for the mission, brokering the deal for the private spacefarers and setting up training and mission profile. That should be the first time we see a crew made up entirely of private individuals (ie., not astronauts selected, trained and employed by their respective national government) make its way to the station.

The company was also in discussions with Tom Cruise about filming at least part of an upcoming film aboard the ISS, and it’s in development with a production company on a forthcoming competition reality show that will see contestants vie for a spot on a private flight to the station.

Axiom is emerging as the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry, covering both public sector partners like NASA, and the ‘rails’ of the bourgeoning industry – SpaceX and its ilk. It’s been focused on this unique opportunity longer than most in the private market, and it has all the relationships and in-house expertise to make it work.

This new, significant injection of capital will help the company hire, as well as boost its ability to construct the pieces of its forthcoming private space station modules, as well as its eventual station itself. The Houston-based company aims to put its ISS modules on the station by 2024, and it has raised $150 million to date.

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

Use today’s tech solutions to meet the climate crisis and do it profitably

By Walter Thompson
Bertrand Piccard Contributor
Bertrand Piccard initiated the Solar Impulse Foundation after his history-making flight around the world in a solar-powered plane. Fueled only by the rays of the sun, his flight proved that existing methods and technologies can provide clean energy and solutions that protect the environment in a profitable way.

Five years ago I landed the Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi after flying around the globe powered solely by solar energy, a first in aviation history.

It was also a milestone in energy and technology history. Solar Impulse was an experimental plane, weighing as little as a family car and using 17,248 solar cells. It was a flying laboratory, full of groundbreaking technologies that made it possible to produce renewable energy, store it and use it when necessary in the most efficient manner.

The time has come to use technology again to address the climate crisis affecting us all. As we enter the most crucial decade of climate action — and most likely our last chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C — we need to ensure that clean technologies become the only acceptable norm. These technologies exist now and they can be profitably implemented at this crucial moment.

Hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way,

Here are just four innovations from our solar-powered plane that the market can start using now before it’s too late.

From insulating the cabin to insulating our homes

The building sector is one of the largest energy consumers in the world. Next to a reliance on carbon-heavy fuels for heating and cooling, poor insulation and associated energy loss are among the main reasons.

Inside Solar Impulse’s cockpit, insulation was crucial for the plane to fly at very high altitudes. Covestro, one of our official partners, developed an ultra-lightweight and insulating material. The cockpit insulation performance was 10% higher than the standards at the time because the pores in the insulating foam were 40% smaller, reaching a micrometer scale. Thanks to its very low density of fewer than 40 kilograms per cubic meter, the cockpit was ultra-lightweight.

This technology and many others exist. We now need to ensure that all market players are motivated to make hyperefficient building insulation their standard operating procedure.

From propelling an electric aircraft to propelling clean mobility

Solar Impulse was first and foremost an electric airplane when it flew 43,000 km without a single drop of fuel. Its four electric motors had a record-beating efficiency of 97%, far ahead of the miserable 27% of standard thermal engines. This means that they only lost 3% of the energy they used versus 73% for combustion propulsion. Today, electric vehicle sales are soaring. According to the International Energy Agency, when Solar Impulse landed in 2016, there were approximately 1.2 million electric cars on the road; the figure has now risen to over 5 million.

Nevertheless, this acceleration is far from enough. Power sockets are still far from replacing petrol pumps. The transport sector still accounts for one-quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Electrification must happen much more quickly to reduce CO2 emissions from our tailpipes. To do so, governments need to boost the adoption of electric vehicles through clear tax incentives, diesel and petrol engine bans, and major infrastructure investments. 2021 should be the year that puts us on a one-way road to zero-emission vehicles and puts thermal engines in a dead end.

An aircraft microgrid can work for off-grid communities

To fly for several days and nights, reaching a theoretically endless flight potential, Solar Impulse relied on batteries that stored the energy collected during the day and used it to power its engines during the night.

What was made possible with Si2 on a small scale should guide the way to future-proofing power-generation systems that are made up entirely of renewable energy. In the meantime, microgrids, like those used in Si2, could benefit off-grid systems in remote communities or energy islands, allowing them to abolish diesel or other carbon-heavy fuels already today.

On a larger scale, we are looking at smart grids. If all “stupid grids” were replaced by smart grids, it would allow cities, for example, to manage production, storage, distribution and consumption of energy and to cut peaks in energy demand that would reduce CO2 emissions dramatically.

Energy efficiency in the air and on the ground

Solar Impulse’s philosophy was to save energy instead of trying to produce more of it. This is why the relatively small amount of solar energy we collected became enough to fly day and night. All the airplane parameters, including wingspan, aerodynamics, speed, flight profile and energy systems, had therefore been designed to minimize energy loss.

Unfortunately, this approach still stands out against the inefficiency of most of our energy use today. Even though the IEA found energy efficiency improved by an estimated 13% between 2000 and 2017, it is not enough. We need bolder action by policymakers to encourage investors. One of the best ways to do so is to put strict energy efficiency standards in place.

For example, California has set efficiency standards on buildings and appliances, such as consumer electronics and household appliances, estimated to have saved consumers more than $100 billion in utility bills. These measures are as good for the environment as they are for the economy.

Si2 was the future; now, it should define the present

When we used all these different innovations to build Solar Impulse, they were groundbreaking and futuristic. Today, they should define the present; they should be the norm. Next to the technologies mentioned above, hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way, many of which have received the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label.

Just as for the Si2 technologies, we must now ensure that they enter the mainstream market. The faster we scale them, the faster we will set our economy on track to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and attain sustainable economic growth.

NASA Wants to Set a New Radiation Limit for Astronauts

By Eric Niiler
As the agency considers sending people to the moon and Mars, it’s taking a fresh look at the research on cancer risk and recalculating acceptable thresholds.

Google refreshes its mobile search experience

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

By Kirsten Korosec

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2021

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

Alphabet shuts down Loon internet balloon company

By Manish Singh

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using a fleet of balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon, a nine-year-old project and a two-and-a-half-year-old spin off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners.

The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

What happens next

In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.

Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.

Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.

It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.

NASA Is Training an AI to Detect Fresh Craters on Mars

By Daniel Oberhaus
An algorithm discovered dozens of Martian craters. It’s a promising remote method for exploring our solar system and understanding planetary history.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The “Another One Leaves The Crust” mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

Virgin Orbit Just Launched a Rocket From a 747

By Daniel Oberhaus
Launching rockets from planes is a decades-old concept that never really took off. Billionaire Richard Branson thinks its time has come.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

❌