SpaceX could catch future Crew Dragons with astronauts onboard using ships at sea

SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, but during a post-mission press conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.

Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that ‘catch’ the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recovering it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it’d be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing,” Musk said.
“Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”

This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon’s actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA’s buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it’s caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.

“We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon,” he added. “But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water.”

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First crewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launch could happen in Q2 this year

SpaceX and NASA hosted a press conference following their successful test of the Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system on Sunday to discuss the mission and next steps. The first question asked by media in attendance was about what this means for the timeline for a mission with actual crew on board, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided an answer sketching out a rough schedule of events.

“The hardware necessary for the first crewed launch, we believe will be ready by the end of February,” he said. “However, there’s still a lot of work once the hardware is ready to just cross-check everything, triple-check, quadruple-check, go over everything everything again until every every stone has been turned over three or four times. And then there’s also the schedule for getting to the Space Station, because the Space Station has a lot of lot of things going to it, so what’s the right timing because, and the collective wisdom at this point is that we think that hardware will be ready in q1, most likely in February, but no later than March, and that we think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed up with additional perspective from the agency’s side, noting that there could be some shifting mission parameters for that first trip that change the timing of when it actually goes up.

“I think, I think that’s a very fair assessment,” Bridenstine said. “I would also say we have to make some decisions on our end from a NASA perspective. Do we want that first crew to be a short duration, or do we want it to be a longer duration? If it’s going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station that we weren’t planning to have that initial test crew necessarily do.”

Bridenstine added that those decisions will be made in the “coming weeks,” and depending on whether they opt to make this first mission a quick trip, or a longer duration mission with more objectives, it could change their timing due to scheduling and training requirements for the astronauts actually going up aboard Crew Dragon.

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Shadows’ Dylan Flinn and Kombo’s Kevin Gould on the business of ‘virtual influencers’

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 2 of 3: the business of virtual influencers

Today’s discussion focuses on virtual influencers: fictional characters that build and engage followings of real people over social media. To explore the topic, I spoke with two experienced entrepreneurs:

  • Dylan Flinn is CEO of Shadows, an LA-based animation studio that’s building a roster of interactive characters for social media audiences. Dylan started his career in VC, funding companies such as Robinhood, Patreon and Bustle, and also spent two years as an agent at CAA.
  • Kevin Gould is CEO of Kombo Ventures, a talent management and brand incubation firm that has guided the careers of top influencers like Jake Paul and SSSniperWolf. He is the co-founder of three direct-to-consumer brands — Insert Name Here, Wakeheart and Glamnetic — and is an angel investor in companies like Clutter, Beautycon and DraftKings.

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SpaceX successfully completes key test of its Crew Dragon human spacecraft

SpaceX completed a crucial test of a key safety system of its Crew Dragon spacecraft today. The test involved launching its Crew Dragon using a Falcon 9, though without any actual crew on board. The launch was then intentionally cut short, with the In-Flight Abort (IFA) system triggered to separate the Crew Dragon from the rocket about about a minute and a half into the launch process.

As intended, the Dragon capsule used its eight Super Draco engines to quickly move itself away from the rocket, which in a real mission would ensure the safety of the astronauts on board the vehicle in case of any unexpected failure of the rocket. The Crew Dragon’s engines can propel it half a mile in just 7.5 seconds, exerting up to 4 Gs (4x the force of Earth’s gravity) on astronauts during this acceleration.

The Crew Dragon then deployed its parachutes once it reached a safe distance, and descended to the Atlantic Ocean for splashdown, where crews are in the process of recovering the capsule. In a real emergency scenario, an elite Air Force rescue team would deploy as quickly as possible to rescue the crew, for but this demo, the recovery could take two hours or more since the main objective is recovering the capsule intact, safely.

The Falcon 9 rocket used her had flown on three previous missions, and was in fact the first booster produced as part of SpaceX’s run of human-rated variants of the Falcon 9 design. As intended, the Falcon 9 broke up once the Crew Dragon ejected, with the on-board fuel generating a pretty impressive explosion.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX has demonstrated that its Crew Dragon system is nearly ready for human flight. It performed a successful pad abort test in 2015, which demonstrated that it could cancel the launch as intended before actual liftoff, in a safe manner. The Crew Dragon’s Super Dracos were also successfully tested in November of last year with a static test fire on the ground. SpaceX also encountered a fatal error during an earlier test of the Super Draco in 2019, but subsequently identified the cause working with NASA and has made changes to ensure that fault isn’t repeated.

SpaceX also performed a full ucnrewed demo mission with Crew Dragon last year, which saw the capsule launch atop a Falcon 9, deploy to orbit, rendez-vous and dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on its own, and then return to Earth. That means it’s checked a lot of the boxes required for actually flying its first astronauts for an initial demonstration mission before it begins commercial service – and that should take place later this year.

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TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

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