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Rocket Lab successfully launches rideshare rocket with two experimental USAF satellites on board

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its eighth mission, an Electron rocket rideshare flight carrying four satellites to orbit for various clients. The Electron launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, at 12:12 AM NZST (8:12 AM ET). This was its second attempt, after a scrub last week due to adverse weather conditions on the launch range.

On board, it carried a rideshare mission from launch services provider Spaceflight, which works to bring together payloads to simplify the process of finding a provider for smaller payloads and companies. The Spaceflight portion of the payload included three satellites: One satellite from BlackSky, which does Earth-imaging, and which will join its twin launched by Rocket Lab in June already in low-Earth orbit to form a constellation.

Spaceflight’s cargo also included two experimental satellites launched by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which will carry out tests of new technology related to spacecraft propulsion, power, communications and more, and which are designed to pave the way for deployment of related technologies in future spacecraft.

There’s also a fourth satellite on board, a CubeSat that will be the anchor for a new constellation aimed at providing up-to-date and accurate monitoring of maritime traffic, operated by Unseenlabs.

Rocket Lab’s New Zealand LC-1 will be joined by a second launch site in Virginia, to provide a U.S.-based complimentary launch site for serving customers on a monthly basis.

The company also plans to eventually make its Electron rockets reusable, even though they were originally intended as fully expendable launch vehicles, using a recovery process that involves catching returning rockets mid-air after they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s launch included a test of recovery equipment for the Electron’s first stage – an initial test that aimed to have the rocket land back in the Pacific via parachute, where Rocket Lab will attempt to pick it up from the ocean for potential refurbishment.

Look inside Virgin Galactic’s shiny new Spaceport America

By Devin Coldewey

For a couple years now Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America was more aspirational than functional, but now it’s been built out with the necessaries for commercial spaceflight — mainly coffee. The company just showed off the newly redesigned space from which it plans to launch flights… sometime.

Much of the undulating, aesthetically rusted building, located deep in the desert of New Mexico, is dedicated to housing the carrier craft and rocket planes that the company has been testing for the last few years.

That was almost certainly the hard part, in fact: Relocating the infrastructure necessary to support the spacefaring vehicles, including engineers, equipment, and supply chain people, as Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told me in May.

But the spaceport itself must also become a place for humans to arrive, park at, nervously sip coffee and have a pre-flight meal — if that’s really a good idea for your first trip to space. Maybe stick to coffee.

The “first phase” of the consumer-side build-out includes an elegantly appointed little restaurant and cafe, and upstairs can be found “mission control,” which looks more like a conference room than a spaceplane pilot staging area.

[gallery ids="1869269,1869273,1869279,1869270,1869266,1869277,1869271,1869272"]

There are a number of little lounge areas for passengers and others to congregate in, and if the scale seems a little small, keep in mind that this isn’t an airport food court. These flights are going to be full, but they’re also going to be six passengers at a time

Jeremy Brown, design director for Spaceport America, explains that the choice of materials and terraced surfaces, leading up to the lighter, airier second story is meant to evoke the landscape outside, which nearly all the seating faces, and draw the attention outwards and upwards.

Although Virgin Galactic has had several successful test flights, there’s no indication when its first actual commercial flight will be.

“The last flight we did, we basically demonstrated a full commercial profile, including the interior of the vehicle,” Whitesides said in May. “Not only did we, you know, go up to space and come down, but because Beth was in the back — Beth Moses, our flight instructor — she was sort of our mock passenger. She got up a couple times and moved around, she was able to verify our cabin conditions.”

The paperwork is in order and the spaceport itself is now equipped with a cafe, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the first flight from Virgin Galactic before the end of the year.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will go reusable, with the company aiming for mid-air helicopter recovery

By Darrell Etherington

Private rocket launch startup and SpaceX competitor Rocket Lab made a big announcement today: It’ll be looking to re-use the first stage of its Electron rockets, returning them to Earth with a controlled landing after they make their initial trip to orbit with the payload on board. The landing sequence will be different from SpaceX’s however: They’ll attempt to catch the returned first stage mid-air using a helicopter.

That’s in part because, as Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told a crowd when announcing the news today, the company is “not doing a propulsive re-entry” and “we’re not doing a propulsive landing,” and instead will leach off its immense speed upon return to Earth through a turnaround burn in space before releasing a parachute to slow it down enough for a helicopter to catch it.

There are a number of steps required to get to that point, but already, Rocket Lab has been looking to measure all the data it needs to ensure this is possible through its last few launches. It’s upgrading the instrumentation for its eighth flight to gather yet more data, and then on flight 10 it’ll have the rocket splash down into the ocean to recover that rocket for even more learning. Then, during a flight to be determined later (Beck is unwilling to put a number on it at this stage) they’ll try to actually bring one down in good enough shape to reuse it.

As for why, there’s a clear advantage to being able to re-fly rockets, and it’s a simple one to understand when you realize that there’s a huge amount of demand for commercial launches.

“The fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency,” Beck said. “Even if I can get the stage done once, I can effectively double production ratio.”

Beck also added that the biggest difficulty will be braking the rocket’s speed as it returns to Earth — a feat next to which he said the actual mid-air capture of the Electron via helicopter is actually pretty easy, from his POV as an amateur helicopter pilot in training.

Rocket Lab has an HQ in Huntington Beach, Calif. and its own private launch site in New Zealand; it was founded in 2006 by Beck. The company has been test launching its orbital Electron rocket since 2017, and serving customers commercially since 2018. It also intends to launch from Virginia in the U.S. starting in 2019.

The company revealed its Photon satellite platform earlier this year, which would allow small satellite operators to focus on their specific service and use the off-the-shelf Photon design to skip the step of actually designing and building the satellite itself.

Optimus Ride’s Brooklyn self-driving shuttles begin picking up passengers this week

By Darrell Etherington

Self-driving startup Optimus Ride will become the first to operate a commercial self-driving service in the state of New York – in Brooklyn. But don’t expect these things to be contending with pedestrians, bike riders, taxis and cars on New York’s busiest roads; instead, they’ll be offering shuttle services within Brooklyn Navy Yards, a 300-acre private commercial development.

The Optimus Ride autonomous vehicles, which have six seats across three rows for passengers, and which also always have both a safety driver and another Optimus staff observer on board, at least for now, will offer service seven days a week, for free, running a service loop that will cover the entire complex. It includes a stop at a new ferry landing on-site, which means a lot of commuters should be able to pretty easily grab a seat in one for their last-mile needs.

Optimus Ride’s shuttles have been in operation in a number of different sites across the U.S., including in Boston, Virginia, California and Massachusetts.

The Brooklyn Navy Yards is a perfect environment for the service, since it plays host to some 10,000 workers, but also includes entirely private roads – which means Optimus Ride doesn’t need to worry about public road rules and regulations in deploying a commercial self-driving service.

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor-based startup also focused on low-speed autonomous shuttles, has deployed in partnership with some smaller cities and on defined bus route paths. The approach of both companies is similar, using relatively simple vehicle designs and serving low-volume ridership in areas where traffic and pedestrian patterns are relatively easy to anticipate.

Commercially viable, fully autonomous robotaxi service for dense urban areas is still a long, long way off – and definitely out of reach for startup and smaller companies in the near-term. Tackling commercial service in controlled environments on a smaller scale is a great way to build the business while bringing in revenue and offering actual value to paying customers at the same time.

India has labeled hyperloop a public infrastructure project — here’s why that matters

By Kirsten Korosec

Hyperloop, the futuristic and still theoretical transportation system that could someday propel people and packages at speeds of more than 600 miles per hour, has been designated a “public infrastructure project” by India lawmakers in the state of Maharashtra.

Wrapped in that government jargon is a valuable and notable outcome. The upshot: hyperloop is being treated like any other public infrastructure project such as bridges, roads and railways. In other words, hyperloop has been plucked out of niche, futuristic obscurity and given a government stamp of approval.

That’s remarkable, considering that the idea for hyperloop was first proposed by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a nearly 60-page public white paper just five years ago.

It also kicks off a process that could bring hyperloop to a 93-mile stretch of India between the cities of Mumbai and Pune. The Pune Metropolitan Regional Development Authority will begin the procurement process in mid-August when it starts accepting proposals from companies hoping to land the hyperloop contract.

The frontrunner is likely Virgin Hyperloop One -DP World, a consortium between the hyperloop company and its biggest backer that pitched the original project to India. The MahaIDEA Committee earlier approved Virgin Hyperloop One-DP World Consortium as the Original Project Proponent.

Under the VHO-DPW proposal, a hyperloop capable of transporting 200 million people every year would be built between Pune and Mumbai. That stretch of road now takes more than three hours by car; VHO says its hyperloop would reduce it to a 35-minute trip.

“This is history in the making. The race is on to host the first hyperloop transportation system in the world, and today’s announcement puts India firmly in the lead. This is a significant milestone and the first of many important steps toward bringing hyperloop to the masses,” Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Jay Walder said in a statement Wednesday.

The hope is that India’s government will award the contract by the end of 2019, a VHO executive told TechCrunch. If that occurs, Phase 1 of the project — an 11.8 kilometer (or 7.3 mile) section — would begin in 2020.

The cost of building Phase 1 will be covered by DP World, which has committed $500 million to this section. The government is covering the cost and logistics of acquiring the land for the hyperloop.

Phase 1 will initially act as a certification track, which will be used to certify the hyperloop technology for passenger operations. VHO wants this certification track built and operating by 2024. If this section meets safety standards it will become part of the larger hyperloop line between Pune and Mumbai.

There is a lot of work to do, and technical milestones to meet, before hyperloop is whisking people in pods through a tunnel. But if it works and is built, the region’s economy could be transformed, supporters insist.

Once commercialized, the hyperloop will transform the Pune-Mumbai corridor into a mega-economic region, according to Harj Dhaliwal, managing director of India and Middle East at Virgin Hyperloop One.

Today, some 75 million people travel between Pune and Mumbai each year, and forecasts suggest that number could rise to 130 million annually by 2026. The VHO-DPW consortium says its hyperloop will have the capacity to handle 16,000 passengers day, or about 200 million people annually.

Using the same tactics as ‘Big Tobacco,’ Juul may have intentionally targeted teens

By Jordan Crook

After a hearing this week, members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform said that Juul, the ultra-popular e-cigarette brand, may have intentionally targeted teens in schools and online.

Based on 55,000 non-public documents out of Juul Labs, the subcommittee said that Juul’s Youth Prevention Plan recruited schools into a program that put Juul representatives and students in the same room. Schools received payment for participating in the program.

According to the release, one testimony put before the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy described a Juul representative telling students that vaping was “totally safe,” and recommended that one already nicotine-addicted student use Juul.

The subcommittee also reported that Juul spent $134,000 to set up a five-week summer camp for 80 children through a charter school, according to documents obtained for the hearing. The camp was meant to be a “holistic health education program.”

Dr. Robert Jackler, Stanford University School of Medicine, testified about his conversations with Juul co-founder James Monsees, who said the use of Stanford’s tobacco advertising database was “very helpful as they designed JUUL’s advertising,” according to information provided by the subcommittee.

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“The Subcommittee found that: JUUL deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children; JUUL also targeted teenagers and children, as young as eight years old, in summer camps and public out-of-school programs; and JUUL recruited thousands of online ‘influencers’ to market to teens,” the memo states.

The company also turned to more modern methods. Using an influencer marketing program to “curate and identify 280 influencers in LA/NY to seed JUUL product” and find social media “buzzmakers” with “a minimum of 30,000 followers” to attend launch events for the company’s products.

Juul shut down its social media marketing program in November of last year. While it closed its Facebook and Instagram accounts, the company’s products still circulate on social media through hashtags from users themselves.

Documents delivered to the subcommittee show that Juul was aware that its prevention programs were “eerily similar” to those used by the big tobacco companies (which were ultimately forced to pay states and the U.S. government  $27.5 billion in a master settlement agreement over their marketing and sales practices).

Juul also took steps to stop selling flavored products in response to FDA criticism.

As we reported:

Juul currently sells eight different flavors of pods. Pods that don’t come in existing tobacco flavors — Virginia Tobacco, Classic Tobacco, Mint and Menthol — will only be available online effective immediately. In other words, the only place to buy Creme, Fruit, Cucumber and Mango (Juul’s most popular flavor) is on the Juul website.

There, the company verifies that customers are 21+ by either cross-referencing information, such as DOB and the last four digits of a Social Security number, with publicly available data, or asking users to upload a scan of their driver’s license.

Responding to pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, JUUL has taken other steps to limit access and curb underage use of its products.

Juul also targeted Native American populations, where smoking rates are higher than the general population. Rae O’Leary, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, testified that Juul targeted Native American tribes to use as “guinea pigs.” According to O’Leary’s testimony, in exchange for a $600,000 investment, Juul solicited tribal medical professionals to provide their devices to tribal members for free and collect information on the tribal members.

Juul declined to comment at the time of publication.

Is space truly within reach for startups and VC?

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk’s SpaceX managed to pull off something very few people thought it could — by disrupting one of the most fixed markets in the world with some of the most entrenched and protected players ever to benefit from government contract arrangements: rocket launches. The success of SpaceX, and promising progress from other new launch providers including Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, have encouraged interest in space-based innovation among entrepreneurs and investors alike. But is this a true boom, or just a blip?

There’s an argument for both at once, with one type of space startup rapidly descending to Earth in terms of commercialization timelines and potential upside, and the other remaining a difficult bet to make unless you’re comfortable with long timelines before any liquidity event and a lot of upfront investment.

Cheaper, faster, lighter, better

GettyImages 840530492

Image via Getty Images / Andrey Suslov

There’s no question that one broad category of technology at least is a lot more addressable by early-stage companies (and by extension, traditional VC investment). The word ‘satellite’ once described almost exclusively gigantic, extremely expensive hunks of sophisticated hardware, wherein each component would eat up the monthly burn rate of your average early-stage consumer tech venture.

Rocket Lab successfully launches seventh Electron rocket for ‘Make It Rain’ mission

By Darrell Etherington

Private rocket launch startup Rocket Lab has succeeded in launching its ‘Make It Rain’ mission, which took off yesterday from the company’s private Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. On board Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket (its seventh to launch so far) were multiple satellites flow for various clients in a rideshare arrangement brokered by Rocket Lab client Spaceflight.

Payloads for the launch included a satellite for Spaceflight subsidiary BlackSky, which will join its existing orbital imaging constellation. There was also a CubeSat operated by the Melbourne Space Program, and two Prometheus satellites launched for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Rocket Lab had to delay launch a couple of times earlier in the week owing to suboptimal launch conditions, but yesterday’s mission went off without a hitch at 12:30 AM EDT/4:30 PM NZST. After successfully lifting off and achieving orbit, Rocket Lab’s Electron also delayed all of its payloads to their target orbits as planned.

Later this year, Rocket Lab hopes to have a second privately owned launch complex fully constructed and operational, located in Virginia on Wallops Island. The company, founded by engineer Peter Beck, intends to be able to serve both U.S. government and commercial missions as frequently as monthly from this second launch site.

TransferWise’s new debit card for the US fires the starting gun on a new war for travelers

By Mike Butcher

International money transfer service TransferWise, has made a significant incursion into the US market today, launching a MasterCard debit card alongside a multicurrency account. Mirroring the card it has already launched in the UK and Europe last year, the card will work in over 40 currencies without balance limits, and conversion fees will be competitive with current exchange rates. A similar card aimed at businesses will follow the consumer launch.

Co-founder Taavet Hinrikus told me that the card effectively makes the average person able to act like a millionaire when they are traveling. “Alternative ‘travel’ cards are four times more expensive for every dollar spent and are only available to the top 10% of people who pass credit checks and also pay hundreds of dollars per year,” he said.

He believes this card will democratize the whole market. That means it’s likely that US tourists in Europe or elsewhere will be hugely attracted to this card because they will be charged as if they were a local person, in the local currencies, without all the normal fees.

Transferwise is also pushing an immigration angle to the launch featuring Tan France (pictured), star of “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy”.

Key features of the account and debit card include international bank details for the UK, the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, meaning account and routing numbers that are unique to the account holder. Additionally, if a holder swipes a card in a currency they don’t have in their account, the card knows to choose the cheapest option from their available balances. The card is also free to get, with now no subscription, no sign-up fees, and no monthly maintenance fee. Holders can also freeze/unfreeze the card from the Transferwise app and receive push notifications every time they spend. It will also sync with Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay.

Hinrikus added: “Our goal is to offer bank details for every country in the world through one account — the world’s first global account — and we’re starting with five of the world’s top currencies. The 40-currency debit card completes the package, so we’re excited to be releasing the card in the US.

Earlier this year TransferWise said it was now valued at $3.5 billion after closing a $292 million secondary funding round. In November it reported an annual post-tax net profit of $8 million for the year ending March 2018. At the time it said it had five million users transacting $5 billion across its platform a month.

While Transferwise competes with the smaller Revolut and WorldRemit, as well as incumbents like Western Union and MoneyGram, with the launch of this new card it will also be breathing down the neck of Paypal.

Its investors include Old Mutual, Institutional Venture Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Lead Edge Capital, Lone Pine Capital, Vitruvian Partners, BlackRock, Valar Ventures, Baillie Gifford, PayPal founder Max Levchin, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, among others.

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