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SpaceX launches 60 more satellites during 15th Starlink mission

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, the primary ingredient for its forthcoming global broadband internet service. The launch took place at 11:31 AM EDT, with a liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the fifteenth Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has now launched nearly 900 of the small, low Earth orbit satellites to date.

This launch used a Falcon 9 first stage booster that twice previously, both times earlier this year, including just in September for the delivery of a prior batch of Starlink satellites. The booster was also recovered successfully with a landing at sea aboard SpaceX’s ‘Just Read the Instructions’ floating autonomous landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Earlier this week, Ector County Independent School District in Texas announced itself as a new pilot partner for SpaceX’s Starlink network. Next year, that district will gain connectivity to low latency broadband via Starlink’s network, connecting up to 45 households at first, with plans to expand it to 90 total household customers as more of the constellation is launched and brought online.

SpaceX’s goal with Starlink is to provide broadband service globally at speeds and with latency previously unavailable in hard-to-reach and rural areas. Its large constellation, which will aim to grow to tens of thousands of satellites before it achieves its max target coverage, offers big advantages in terms of latency and reliability vs. large geosynchronous satellites that provide most current satellite-based internet available commercially.

Boston startups expand region’s venture capital footprint

By Alex Wilhelm

This year has shaken up venture capital, turning a hot early start to 2020 into a glacial period permeated with fear during the early days of COVID-19. That ice quickly melted as venture capitalists discovered that demand for software and other services that startups provide was accelerating, pushing many young tech companies back into growth mode, and investors back into the check-writing arena.

Boston has been an exemplar of the trend, with early pandemic caution dissolving into rapid-fire dealmaking as summer rolled into fall.

We collated new data that underscores the trend, showing that Boston’s third quarter looks very solid compared to its peer groups, and leads greater New England’s share of American venture capital higher during the three-month period.

For our October look at Boston and its startup scene, let’s get into the data and then understand how a new cohort of founders is cropping up among the city’s educational network.

A strong Q3, a strong 2020

Boston’s third quarter was strong, effectively matching the capital raised in New York City during the three-month period. As we head into the fourth quarter, it appears that the silver medal in American startup ecosystems is up for grabs based on what happens in Q4.

Boston could start 2021 as the number-two place to raise venture capital in the country. Or New York City could pip it at the finish line. Let’s check the numbers.

According to PitchBook data shared with TechCrunch, the metro Boston area raised $4.34 billion in venture capital during the third quarter. New York City and its metro area managed $4.45 billion during the same time period, an effective tie. Los Angeles and its own metro area managed just $3.90 billion.

In 2020 the numbers tilt in Boston’s favor, with the city and surrounding area collecting $12.83 billion in venture capital. New York City came in second through Q3, with $12.30 billion in venture capital. Los Angeles was a distant third at $8.66 billion for the year through Q3.

Announcing the agenda for TC Sessions: Space 2020

By Darrell Etherington

TC Sessions: Space is happening this December 16 and 17 — our first-ever dedicated space event. This is a live, virtual two-day conference featuring the most important people in the space industry, across public, private and defense.

We’re thrilled to be hosting NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations General Jay Raymond, Lockheed Martin VP and head of civil space programs Lisa Callahan and many more. In addition to the firesides and panel discussions of the virtual stage, the event will also include networking, startup presentations and the chance to connect with attendees from around the world.

Below, you’ll find the official agenda for TC Sessions: Space. It’s a packed two days already, but we’ve got some extra surprises in store, so keep an eye on the agenda over the coming weeks for more great speakers and sessions we’re adding.

If you want to be a part of this event, you can grab a ticket to get exclusive access to watch these sessions live (with access to video on demand), network with the innovators changing the space industry, discover the hottest early-stage companies, learn how to score grants for your space company, recruit talent or even find a job with an early-bird ticket for just $125. And we have discounts available for groups, students, active military/government employees and for early-stage space startup founders who want to give their startup some extra visibility.

AGENDA

Wednesday, December 16

Asteroid Rocks and Moon Landings with Lisa Callahan (Lockheed Martin Space)

From robots scooping rockets from the surface of galaxy-traveling asteroids, to preparing for the return of humans to the surface of the moon, we’ll cover all aspects of scientific and civil exploration of the solar system.

From Space Rock Returns to Financial Returns – An investor panel with Chris Boshuizen (DCVC), Mike Collett (Promus Ventures), and Tess Hatch (Bessemer Venture Partners).

Some investors spend a lot of their time looking to the stars for the next venture capital opportunity. It’s a market unlike any other, but does that change the math on equity-based investment?

Building Up a Business Looking Down at Earth with Payam Banazadeh (Capella Space), Peter Platzer (Spire Global), Rafal Modrzewski (ICEYE)

How Earth observation is one of the real moneymakers in the space category and what’s ahead for the industry.

Networking Break

With our virtual platform, attendees can network via video chat, giving folks the chance to make meaningful connections. CrunchMatch, our algorithmic matching product, will be available to ensure you’re meeting the right people at the show, as well as random matching for attendees who are feeling more adventurous.

Sourcing Tech for Securing Space with Lt. General John Thompson (United States Space Force)

Lt. General Thompson is responsible for fostering an ecosystem of non-traditional space startups and the future of Space Force acquisitions, all to the end goal of protecting the global commons of space. He’ll talk about what the U.S. is looking for in startup partnerships and emerging tech, and how it works with these young companies.

Launching a Launch Startup with Tim Ellis (Relativity Space) and Chris Kemp (Astra)

The launch business is booming, but besides SpaceX and Rocket Lab, there isn’t anyone far enough along to truly capitalize in terms of new space startups. We’ll talk to the founders of companies hoping to be next in line.

Taking Entrepreneurship to the Moon, Mars and Beyond with James Bridenstine (NASA)

NASA is going back to the Moon – this time to stay. The agency has made tremendous progress towards this goal under Administrator Bridenstine, who will join us to talk about how they’re taking private partners with them this time around, including a lot of startups.

Thursday, December 17

Public-private Partnerships in the Domain of Space Defense with General Jay Raymond (United States Space Force)

Hear from the head of the U.S. Space Force what it takes to secure an entirely new war-fighting domain, and how the newest branch of the U.S. military will be looking to private industry to make it happen.

The TechCrunch Desk 

Hang with us at the TechCrunch Desk to catch up on what you may have missed from across the show and a preview of what’s to come.

From Idea to Orbit with Peter Beck (Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab has quickly become one of the most sought-after launch providers in the world. Founder and CEO Peter Beck will discuss the company’s approach to making space more accessible, from cheaper, faster launches to its new satellite platform.

Bridging Today and Tomorrow’s Tech with Meagan Crawford (SpaceFund) and J. Christopher Moran (Lockheed Martin Ventures)

Corporate VC funds are a key source of investment for space startups, in part because they often involve partnerships that help generate revenue as well, and because they understand the timelines involved. We’ll talk about how they fit in with more standard venture to power the ecosystem.

How to Get the Air Force to Buy Your Stuff with Will Roper (United States Air Force)

We’ll be talking about the best ways to understand what the Air Force needs and how to sell it to them.

Ground Control to Major Tom with John Gedmark (Astranis), Ben Longmeir (Swarm Technologies), and Mina Mitry (Kepler Communications)

Data connectivity and communications are key to commercial space monetization and the strategic plans for further space exploration and development. Hear from the key players about the state of play in the industry.

In Space, No One Can Change Your Oil – Yet with Daniel Faber (Orbit Fab) and Ron Lopez (Astroscale)

Once a spacecraft is in orbit, it’s on its own – but what if it could be refueled, repaired, refurbished, and if necessary, retired? OrbitFab founder Daniel Faber and Astroscale U.S President Ron Lopez will discuss how in-space operations could upend today’s engineering and business models.

If you’re interested in a sponsored speaking opportunity to join the stage with these fantastic speakers, contact us here to speak with someone from our sales team!

Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck is coming to TC Sessions: Space 2020

By Devin Coldewey

Over the last few years Rocket Lab has gone from its very first orbital launch to regular commercial missions, with the goal of being the most responsive launch provider on the planet. Founder and CEO Peter Beck will join us at our all virtual TC Sessions: Space event happening on December 16 & 17 in December to talk about the new launch ecosystem and building a company to compete with industry giants.

Rocket Lab’s 15th mission, “In Focus,” is scheduled to take off this very afternoon, with 10 Earth observation satellites from Canon Electronics and Planet. It has already put satellites in orbit for NASA, the NRO, and numerous private companies. The company’s launch cadence has slowly increased, though the loss of a mission in July soured its plan to go from months to weeks between launches.

But Beck, who has led the company from its inception in 2006, saw this as just another challenge to take head-on, and within the month Rocket Lab had gotten to the bottom of the issue and was clear to fly again.

“If you’re going to own a rocket company and launch vehicles, you have to be prepared for this kind of thing,” he said at the time. And now Electron is even more reliable than it was before, he pointed out.

Now Rocket Lab is expanding into adjacent businesses as well with the secretive launch of its First Light satellite platform, demonstrating tech that it hoped to share with customers who don’t want to build a satellite from scratch. “It’s just really painful to go from an idea to getting something in orbit,” he said, and by making it easier to actually build a spacecraft, it both democratizes space and creates customers out of thin air.

At TC Sessions: Space, Beck will discuss all of this and more. You can get early-bird tickets right now, and save $100 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $360.

Is your company interested in presenting your company at TC Sessions: Space 2020Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

After historic OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample collection, Lockheed Martin VP Lisa Callahan will join us at TC Sessions: Space

By Darrell Etherington

This December 16 and 17, we’re hosting our very first TC Sessions: Space event. It’ll be a virtual, live-streamed two-day show, including conversations with some of the best and brightest in the space industry. We’re thrilled to be hosting Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. She’ll join us to discuss her company’s history-making work in robotic space exploration — including the asteroid mining sample collection at asteroid Bennu that happened today — as well as the future of human space exploration.

Callahan’s work at Lockheed covers all the work they do to support NASA and other civil exploration efforts of space, including both robotic and human transportation and science investigations. That includes OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid study and sample return mission that earlier today made a historic descent to the surface of rocky solar system visitor Bennu, an asteroid that’s over 200 thousand miles from Earth.

OSIRIS-REx already made plenty of history, including becoming the closest orbit to an asteroid ever conducted by a spacecraft. But today it topped all of that with a “tap-and-go” descent to the rocky surface, scooping samples that it will now attempt to return to Earth for direct study by scientists. That’s exactly the kind of ambitious extra-planetary robotic research that Callahan and her division at Lockheed have made possible with their work in advanced spacecraft and robotics design.

Callahan is also directly involved in NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the moon — including sending a woman on a lunar landing mission for the first time. Lockheed Martin is the manufacturing partner for NASA’s Orion lander, which will transport the first American woman and the next American man to the -oon for their historic mission in 2024.

We’ll talk in December with Callahan about what these achievements mean for the space industry, and the future of space exploration — and human spaceflight.

You can get Early-Bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.

Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx just snatched a rock sample from asteroid Bennu

By Devin Coldewey

Update: The spacecraft has touched down and sample collection was successful! OSIRIS-REx is now moving away from the asteroid with the goods and will begin its homeward journey as soon as it’s clear.

TOUCHDOWN!

Sampling in progress 💥#ToBennuAndBack pic.twitter.com/8dj2g8AUxK

NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 20, 2020

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is about to touch down on an asteroid for a smash-and-grab mission, and you can follow its progress live — kind of. The craft is scheduled to perform its collection operation this afternoon, and we’ll know within minutes if all went according to plan.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security — Regolith Explorer, was launched in September of 2016 and since arriving at its destination, the asteroid Bennu, has performed a delicate dance with it, entering an orbit so close it set records.

Today is the culmination of the team’s efforts, the actual “touch and go” or TAG maneuver that will see the probe briefly land on the asteroid’s surface and suck up some of its precious space dust. Just a few seconds later, once sampling is confirmed, the craft will jet upward again to escape Bennu and begin its journey home.

Image Credits: NASA

Image Credits: NASA

While there won’t be live HD video of the whole attempt, NASA will be providing both a live animation of the process, informed by OSIRIS-REx’s telemetry, and presumably any good images that are captured as it descends.

We know for certain this is both possible and very cool because Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission did something very similar last year, but with the added complexity (and coolness) of firing a projectile into the surface to stir things up and get a more diverse sample.

NASA’s coverage starts at 2 p.m. PDT, and the touchdown event is planned to take place an hour or so later, at 3:12, if all goes according to plan. You can watch the whole thing take place in simulation at this Twitch feed, which will be updated live, but NASA TV will also have live coverage and commentary on its YouTube channel. Images may come back from the descent and collection, but they’ll be delayed (it’s hard sending lots of data over a million-mile gap) so if you want the latest, listen closely to the NASA feeds.

Stotles secures funding for platform which brings transparency to government tenders, contracts

By Mike Butcher

The public sector usually publishes its business opportunities in the form of ‘tenders,’ to increase transparency to the public. However, this data is scattered, and larger businesses have access to more information, giving them opportunities to grab contracts before official tenders are released. We have seen the controversy around UK government contracts going to a number of private consultants who have questionable prior experience in the issues they are winning contracts on.

And public-to-private sector business makes up 14% of global GDP, and even a 1% improvement could save €20B for taxpayers per year, according to the European Commission .

Stotles is a new UK startup technology that turns fragmented public sector data — such as spending, tenders, contracts, meeting minutes, or news releases — into a clearer view of the market, and extracts relevant early signals about potential opportunities.

It’s now raised a £1.4m seed round led by Speedinvest, with participation from 7Percent Ventures, FJLabs, and high-profile angels including Matt Robinson, co-founder of GoCardless and CEO at Nested; Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas, COO at Go -Cardless; Charlie Songhurst, former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft; Will Neale, founder of Grabyo; and Akhil Paul. It received a previous investment from Seedcamp last year.

Stotles’ founders say they had “scathing” experiences dealing with public procurement in their previous roles at organizations like Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum.

The private beta has been open for nine months, and is used by companies including UiPath, Freshworks, Rackspace, and Couchbase. With this funding announcement, they’ll be opening up an early access program.

Competitors include: Global Data, Contracts Advance, BIP Solutions, Spend Network/Open Opps, Tussel, TenderLake. However, most of the players out there are focused on tracking cold tenders, or providing contracting data for periodic generic market research.

Microsoft debuts Azure Space to cater to the space industry, partners with SpaceX for Starlink datacenter broadband

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.

One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.

The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).

This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.

Intel is providing the smarts for the first satellite with local AI processing on board

By Darrell Etherington

Intel detailed today its contribution to PhiSat-1, a new tiny small satellite that was launched into sun-synchronous orbit on September 2. PhiSat-1 has a new kind of hyperspectral-thermal camera on board, and also includes a Movidius Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit. That VPU is found in a number of consumer devices on Earth, but this is its first trip to space – and the first time it’ll be handling large amounts of local data, saving researchers back on Earth precious time and satellite downlink bandwidth.

Specifically, the AI on board the PhiSat-1 will be handling automatic identification of cloud cover – images where the Earth is obscured in terms of what the scientists studying the data actually want to see. Getting rid of these images before they’re even transmitted means that the satellite can actually realize a bandwidth savings of up to 30%, which means more useful data is transmitted to Earth when it is in range of ground stations for transmission.

The AI software that runs on the Intel Myriad 2 on PhiSat-1 was created by startup Ubotica, which worked with the hardware maker behind the hyperspectral camera. It also had to be tuned to compensate for the excess exposure to radiation, though a bit surprisingly testing at CERN found that the hardware itself didn’t have to be modified in order to perform within the standards required for its mission.

Computing at the edge takes on a whole new meaning when applied to satellites on orbit, but it’s definitely a place where local AI makes a ton of sense. All the same reasons that companies seek to handle data processing and analytics at the site of sensors hear on Earth also apply in space – but magnified exponentially in terms of things like network inaccessibility and quality of connections, so expect to see a lot more of this.

PhiSat-1 was launched in September as part of Arianspace’s first rideshare demonstration mission, which it aims to use to show off its ability to offer launch services to smaller startups for smaller payloads at lower costs.

Austin-based Verifiable raises $3 million for its api toolkit to verify healthcare credentials

By Jonathan Shieber

Before Nick Macario launched Verifiable, the Austin-based company that just raised $3 million for its api toolkit that verifies healthcare credentials, he ran a series of other businesses designed to offer public credentials for professionals.

His first foray into the world of identity management services was the personal website builder, branded.me. After that company was sold, Macario launched Remote.com, an outsourced provider of human resources services that was constantly running background checks and verifying employee credentials.

That’s where Macario got the idea for Verifiable and struck on a market opportunity that’s exploding thanks to the proliferation of telemedicine and on-demand services, and the shortage of qualified medical candidates to fill positions and meet growing demand.

This boom in remote medical services is one reason why Macario, working with co-founder and chief technology officer, Vivekanand Rajkumar, was able to raise $3 million from investors including Tiger Global, Liquid2 Ventures, Struck Capital, Soma Capital, Jack Altman, Max Mullen, and Sahil Lavingia.

“We’re at an inflection point with healthcare,” said Macario. “There are large volumes of healthcare verifications and certifications that are being verified manually… and the lack of infrastructure and credentialing is a big part of the bottleneck holding healthcare back.”

Verifiable uses Dock, a blockchain based ledger company that issues digital credentials and anchors them to a public ledger.

Verifiable provides an API that connects to hundreds of primary sources to keep updated records on the 17 million licensed healthcare providers working in the U.S.

Companies like Talkspace, Sesame and Verge Health are already using the  API to automate real-time verifications for more than 50,000 healthcare providers.

“From a broader scale, we’re automating credentialing processes, but specifically we’re automating licensing verification and monitoring,” Macario said.

The Verifiable chief executive estimates that several billions of dollars in revenue and fines are lost every year because healthcare providers don’t keep up with the credentialing and licensing practitioners need to work in the U.S.

“It’s not a one-and-done verification,” says Macario. “You need to check on a monthly basis to make sure that providers are compliant.”

Verifiable’s management service can range anywhere from two to ten dollars depending on how deeply a potential employer wants to dive to confirm the standing and licensing of their practitioners. The price is based on the number of verifications and the number of healthcare providers that need to be verified.

And while Verifiable is starting with a specific focus on verification, the company has much bigger vision. “Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data. It connects to many different areas of healthcare,” Macario said.

We’re starting in a specific focus with verification.. Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data… it connects to many different areas of healthcare. 

 

Daily Crunch: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

By Anthony Ha

TikTok returns to Pakistan, Apple launches a music-focused streaming station and SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites. This is your Daily Crunch for October 19, 2020.

The big story: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the video app 11 days ago, over what it described as “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar” videos. The authority said today that it’s lifting the ban after negotiating with TikTok management.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused,” it continued.

This isn’t the first time this year the country tried to crack down on digital content. Pakistan announced new internet censorship rules this year, but rescinded them after Facebook, Google and Twitter threatened to leave the country.

The tech giants

Apple launches a US-only music video station, Apple Music TV —  The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour live stream of popular music videos and other music content.

Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool — The tool is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents.

Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram — The update means businesses will be able to integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more than 800 — That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational.

Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2M seed round — Propseller combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly.

Ready Set Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class — Ready Set Raise has changed its programming to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

Advice and analysis for Extra Crunch

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election? — Several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making these decisions.

Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes — With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed.

Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups — Investors backed a record 88 megarounds of $100 million or more.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

US charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack — Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion — SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora.

Original Content podcast: It’s hard to resist the silliness of ‘Emily in Paris’ — The show’s Paris is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that we’re happy to visit.

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.

Lockheed picks Relativity’s 3D-printed rocket for experimental NASA mission

By Devin Coldewey

Relativity Space has bagged its first public government contract, and with a major defense contractor at that. The launch startup’s 3D-printed rockets are a great match for a particularly complex mission Lockheed is undertaking for NASA’s Tipping Point program.

The mission is a test of a dozen different cryogenic fluid management systems, including liquid hydrogen, which is a very difficult substance to work with indeed. The tests will take place on a single craft in orbit, which means it will be a particularly complicated one to design and accommodate.

The payload itself and its cryogenic systems will be designed and built by Lockheed and their partners at NASA, of course, but the company will need to work closely with its launch provider during development and especially in the leadup to the actual launch.

Relativity founder and CEO Tim Ellis explained that the company’s approach of 3D printing the entire rocket top to bottom is especially well suited for this.

“We’re building a custom payload fairing that has specific payload loading interfaces they need, custom fittings and adapters,” he said. “It still needs to be smooth, of course — to a lay person it will look like a normal rocket,” he added.

Every fairing (the external part of the launch vehicle covering the payload) is necessarily custom, but this one much more so. The delicacy of having a dozen cryogenic operations being loaded up and tested until moments before launch necessitates a number of modifications that, in other days, would result in a massive increase in manufacturing complexity.

“If you look at the manufacturing tools being used today, they’re not much different from the last 60 years,” Ellis explained. “It’s fixed tooling, giant machines that look impressive but only make one shape or one object that’s been designed by hand. And it’ll take 12-24 months to make it.”

Not so with Relativity.

“With our 3D-printed approach we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days,” Ellis said. “It’s also software defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last-minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise you’d have to lock in the design now.”

Ellis was excited about the opportunity to publicly take on a mission with such a major contractor. These enormous companies field billions of government dollars and take part in many launches, so it’s important to be in their good books, or at least in their rolodexes. A mission like this, complex but comparatively low stakes (compared with a crewed launch or billion-dollar satellite) is a great chance for a company like Relativity to show its capabilities. (Having presold many of its launches already, there’s clearly no lack of interest in the 3D-printed launch vehicles, but more is always better.)

The company will be going to space before then, though, if all continues to go according to plan. The first orbital test flight is scheduled for late 2021. “We’re actually printing the launch hardware right now, the last few weeks,” Ellis mentioned.

The NASA Tipping Point program that is funding Lockheed with an $89.7 million contract for this experiment is one intended to, as its name indicates, help tip promising technologies over the edge into commercial viability. With hundreds of millions awarded yearly for companies pursuing things like lunar hoppers and robotic arms, it’s a bit like the agency’s venture fund.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Is About to Touch an Asteroid

By Daniel Oberhaus
After years of studying Bennu, the spacecraft will make its first attempt at a sample collection on Tuesday.

How to Build a Spacecraft to Save the World

By Daniel Oberhaus
WIRED paid a visit to NASA's first probe designed to protect Earth from killer asteroids. It launches next year.

UK’s ICO reduces British Airways data breach fine to £20M, after originally setting it at £184M

By Ingrid Lunden

One of the biggest data breaches in UK corporate history has been closed off by regulators not with a bang, but a whimper — as a result of Covid-19. Today the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data watchdog, announced that it would be fining British Airways £20 million for a data breach in which the personal details of more than 400,000 customers were leaked after BA suffered a two-month cyberattack and lacked adequate security to detect and defend itself against it. It had originally planned to fine BA nearly £184 million, but it reduced the penalty in light of the economic impact that BA (like other airlines) has faced as a result of Covid-19.

The major step down in the fine underscores what kind of an impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on regulations. In some cases, in order more quickly address issues that potentially impact business growth, we’ve seen regulators try to speed up their responsiveness and even leave behind some previous reservations to green light activities, as in the case of e-scooters.

But in the case of the BA fine, we’re seeing the other side of the Covid-19 impact: regulators are taking a less hard line with penalties on companies that are already struggling. That raises questions of how impactful their decisions are, and what kind of a precedent they are setting for future security and data protection neglect.

Even with the reduced penalty size, the ICO is sticking by its original conclusions:

“People entrusted their personal details to BA and BA failed to take adequate measures to keep those details secure,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement. “Their failure to act was unacceptable and affected hundreds of thousands of people, which may have caused some anxiety and distress as a result. That’s why we have issued BA with a £20m fine – our biggest to date. When organisations take poor decisions around people’s personal data, that can have a real impact on people’s lives. The law now gives us the tools to encourage businesses to make better decisions about data, including investing in up-to-date security.”

The fine is the highest-ever leveled by the ICO. But it’s a major step down from the £184 million penalty — 1.5% of BA’s revenues in the 2018 calendar year — that the regulator had originally set last year. That was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, halting travel globally and bringing many airlines to their knees. The original order went through a process of appeal, which included an assessment of the state of the company in the current market.

“In June 2019 the ICO issued BA with a notice of intent to fine,” the ICO noted in its statement on the reduced fine. “As part of the regulatory process the ICO considered both representations from BA and the economic impact of COVID-19 on their business before setting a final penalty.”

The salient facts of the investigation’s findings remained the same: the ICO had determined that BA had “weaknesses in its security” that could have been prevented with security systems — procedures and software — that were available at the time.

As a result, data from 429,612 customers and staff was leaked, including “names, addresses, payment card numbers and CVV numbers of 244,000 BA customers,” the ICO said, adding that the combined card and CVV numbers of 77,000 customers and card numbers only for 108,000 customers were also believed to be a part of the breach, as well as the usernames and passwords of BA employee and administrator accounts, and the usernames and PINs of up to 612 BA Executive Club accounts (these last two were also not completely verified, it seems).

On top of that, BA never detected the attack, it said: it was notified of the breach by a third party.

The ICO said that its action has been approved by other DPA’s in the European Union: this is because the attack happened while the UK was still in the EU, and so the investigation was carried out by the ICO on behalf of the EU authorities, it said.

FAA streamlines commercial launch rules to keep the rockets flying

By Devin Coldewey

The FAA has published its updated rules for commercial space launches and reentries, streamlining and modernizing the large and complicated set of regulations. With rockets launching in greater numbers and variety, and from more providers, it makes sense to get a bit of the red tape out of the way.

The rules provide for licensing of rocket launch operators and approval of individual launches and reentry plans, among other things. As you can imagine, such rules must be complex in the first place, more so when they’ve been assembled piecemeal for years to accommodate a quickly moving industry.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called the revisions a “historic, comprehensive update.” They consolidate four sets of regulations and unify licensing and safety rules under a single umbrella, while allowing flexibility for different types of operators or operations.

According to a press release from the FAA, the new rules allow:

  • A single operator’s license that can be used to support multiple launches or reentries from potentially multiple launch site locations.
  • Early review when applicants submit portions of their license application incrementally.
  • Applicants to negotiate mutually agreeable reduced time frames for submittals and application review periods.
  • Applicants to apply for a safety element approval with a license application, instead of needing to submit a separate application.
  • Additional flexibility on how to demonstrate high consequence event protection.
  • Neighboring operations personnel to stay during launch or reentry in certain circumstances.
  • Ground safety oversight to be scoped to better fit the safety risks and reduce duplicative requirements when operating at a federal site.

In speaking with leaders in the commercial space industry, a common theme is the burden of regulation. Any reform that simplifies and unifies will likely be welcomed by the community.

The actual regulations are hundreds of pages long, so it’s still hardly a simple task to get a license and start launching rockets. But at least it isn’t several sets of 500-page documents that you have to accommodate simultaneously.

The new rules have been submitted for entry in the Federal Register, and will take effect 90 days after that happens. In addition, the FAA will be putting out Advisory Circulars for public comment — additions and elaborations on the rules that the agency says there may be as many as two dozen of in the next year. You can keep up with those here.

News that Calm seeks more funding at a higher valuation is not transcendental thinking

By Alex Wilhelm

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that meditation app Calm is looking into raising $150 million more at a valuation of around $2.2 billion, more than double its last private price. This should not surprise.

Calm has raised capital at high prices before, including its 2018 Series A which valued the startup at more than a quarter billion dollars. Its 2019 Series B made Calm a unicorn. And the space that Calm plays in has been hot for years, so to see the company attract new capital at a higher price feels downright pedestrian.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Sure, $2.2 billion for an app company might sound silly if your head is still suck in 2009. In 2020, the app stores of the world are not just economic engines that aging monopolies are desperate to preserve past their sell-by date, they are geopolitical footballs.

Back to Calm: Let’s rewind the clock a minute and review data from 2018, 2019 and 2020 about the meditation app, its broader category’s venture capital results through Q3 2020 and how the startup and its rivals have marched forward in terms of consumer and venture interest.

Calm down for more Headspace

At the time of its Series B, TechCrunch reported that Calm had “topped 40 million downloads worldwide, with more than one million paying subscribers” and that it had “quadrupled its revenue in 2018 — the company is now profitable — and is on track to do $150 million in annual revenue.” The company announced its Series B in February 2019, making the 2018 result pertinent at the time.

Since then, data has continued to be kind to the meditation sector, where Calm and its rival Headspace — which has its own history of rapid growth — have often led the pack.

Turning to 2019 from Calm’s 2018 data, the top 10 grossing meditation apps saw revenues of $195 million, up some 52% from 2018 results. Still, in 2018 these apps grossed $128 million, hardly a small sum — even with intermediaries Apple and Google taking a huge tax for their hard, and utterly defensible work.

The downloads and resulting revenue were not missed by VCs this year.

As TechCrunch reported in August, while wellness startups didn’t excel as a group in the first half of 2020 in VC terms, inside of the category, mental health-focused apps did rather well. According to CB Insights data at the time, “in Q1 and Q2 2020 [mental health] startups saw 106 rounds worth $1.08 billion. In the year-ago period, the figures were 87 rounds worth $750 million,” we wrote.

That’s a healthy step up in venture interest in a single year.

The Wing co-founder admits the co-working space upheld ‘the kind of social inequality we set out to upend’

By Megan Rose Dickey

Audrey Gelman, the former CEO of The Wing who resigned in June, today posted a letter she sent to former employees of The Wing last week. In it, Gelman apologized for not taking action to combat mistreatment of women of color at The Wing. She also acknowledged that her drive for success and scaling quickly “came at the expense of a healthy and sustainable culture that matched our projected values, and workplace practices that made our team feel valued and respected.”

That meant, Gelman said, The Wing “had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler [sic], gentler version.”

Here are some other highlights from her letter:

  • “Members’ needs came first, and those members were often white, and affluent enough to afford The Wing’s membership dues.”
  • “White privilege and power trips were rewarded with acquiescence, as opposed to us doubling down on our projected values.”
  • “When the realization set in that The Wing wasn’t institutionally different in the ways it had proclaimed, it hurt more because the space we claimed was different reinforced the age-old patterns of women of color and especially Black women being disappointed by white women and our limited feminist values.”

A public apology from Gelman and The Wing COO Lauren Kassan is just one of the demands from members of Flew the Coup, a group of former staffers at The Wing. Another demand is for The Wing to drop the non-disclosure agreements in their contracts.

“Collectively, we have faced racism and anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric from management, HQ staff, and members,” the group wrote on Instagram back in June. “We have faced physical and psychological violence within the various Wing locations, and discrimination when attempting to move up within the company.”

The group went on to say that while The Wing was built on the idea of being a safe and inclusive place for women and non-binary folks, “we have continuously seen the exact opposite of this mission.”

The Wing has raised $117.5 million from a number of investors, including New Enterprise Associates, AlleyCorp, Sequoia Capital, Serena Williams and Kerry Washington. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Washington told me a bit about how she felt about the drama at The Wing.

“Well, you know, I’m not new to scandal, so there’s that,” Washington said. “I was and I am really deeply still inspired by the original vision of the company. And, I think like a lot of companies in this time, because of the several pandemics that we’re facing, whether it’s our awareness around racial injustice, or COVID, lots of people are in a moment of recalibration and self-reflection. So I think that there is incredible space to improve the dynamics. And as somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.”

Over the past few months, Washington said her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” as well as expressing to those leaders a “deep desire” for transparency and accountability.

The Wing, like many other tech companies, struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, The Wing laid off or furloughed “the majority” of its workers, the company said. Then, in July, The Wing laid off another 56 people.

As part of Flew the Coup’s organizing, it’s also raising money to help support people who were laid off from The Wing. As of today, the group has raised more than $15,000 for its grant program. Its goal is to raise $100,000.

We’ve reached out to The Wing and will update this story if we hear back.

Virgin Galactic readies first spaceflight from Spaceport America for ‘later this this fall’

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic is getting ready to fly its first mission to space from its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. This is the site that the company will use to host all of its commercial flights, and making it to space from this launch locale is crucial to getting to that point.

Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic successfully flew a number of tests of its SpaceShipTwo launch craft from New Mexico, but these didn’t include a trip to space. That launch, which will be performed by two of the company’s test pilots (while also carrying a number of experiments for the passenger hatch) should happen before the year is out, hopefully putting Virgin Galactic on pace to begin offering its commercial services next year to paying passengers.

Those private astronauts will include one newly announced individual: Dr. Alan Stern, a noted and well-regarded planetary scientist who has held a number of positions, and is most recently the associate Vice President of South West Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division. Dr. Stern is the first researcher named to be flying on board Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft on a NASA-funded science mission.

This won’t be the first of SpaceShipTwo’s commercial flights, it seems. Stern’s trip will take place on a “yet unscheduled” suborbital flight from Spaceport America in the future. Stern will be conducting two key pieces of science aboard the spacecraft, including actually wearing instrumentation that monitors his vial signs throughout, as well as using a low light camera to see how well observing space from the vantage point of inside the SpaceShipTwo cabin works.

NASA loads 14 companies with $370M for ‘tipping point’ technologies

By Devin Coldewey

NASA has announced more than a third of a billion dollars worth of “Tipping Point” contracts awarded to over a dozen companies pursuing potentially transformative space technologies. The projects range from in-space testing of cryogenic tech to a 4G LTE network for the Moon.

The space agency is almost always accepting applications for at least one of its many grant and contract programs, and Tipping Point is directly aimed at commercial space capabilities that need a bit of a boost. According to the program description, “a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications.”

In this year’s awards, which take the form of multi-year contracts with multiple milestones, the focus was on two main areas: cryogenics and lunar surface tech. Note that the amounts provided are not necessarily the cost of developing the tech, but rather the sums deemed necessary to advance it to the next stage. Here’s a brief summary of each award:

Cryogenics

  • Eta Space, $27M: In-space demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen management system
  • Lockheed Martin, $89.7M: In-space demonstration of liquid hydrogen in over a dozen cryogenic applications
  • SpaceX, $53.2M: Flight demonstration transferring 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks in Starship
  • ULA, $86.2M: Demonstration of a smart propulsion cryogenic system on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage

Lunar surface innovation

  • Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, $22.1M: Develop a small tech and science platform for lunar surface testing
  • Astrobotic, $5.8M: “Mature” a fast wireless charging system for use on the lunar surface
  • Intuitive Machines, $41.6M: Develop a hopper lander with a 2.2-pound payload capacity and 1.5-mile range
  • Masten Space Systems, $2.8M: Demonstrate a universal chemical heat and power source for lunar nights and craters
  • Masten Space Systems, $10M: Demonstrate precision landing an hazard avoidance on its Xogdor vehicle (Separate award under “descent and landing” heading)
  • Nokia of America, $14.1M: Deploy the first LTE network in space for lunar surface communications
  • pH Matter, $3.4M: Demonstrate a fuel cell for producing and storing energy on the lunar surface
  • Precision Compustion, $2.4M: Advance a cheap oxide fuel stack to generate power from propellants
  • Sierra Nevada, $2.4M: Demonstrate a device using solar energy to extract oxygen from lunar regolith
  • SSL Robotics, $8.7M: Develop a lighter, cheaper robotic arm for surface, orbital, and “terrestrial defense” applications
  • Teledyne Energy Systems, $2.8M: Develop a hydrogen fuel cell power system with a 10,000-hour battery life

You can read more about the proposal process and NASA’s areas of interest at the Tipping Point solicitation page.

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