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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

FCC Looks to Approve SpaceX’s Satellite Internet Plan

As reported by TechCrunch: SpaceX is planning to send up a pair of its own satellites in this weekend’s launch, in order to test a proposed space-based broadband internet service. But if you want to get into the broadband business, first you have to get past its U.S. gatekeepers: the FCC. Fortunately for SpaceX, Chairman Ajit Pai is all for it.

Pai issued a statement today saying that satellite internet might be able to “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”

Satellite internet is nothing new, of course, and has its own considerable limitations. But a new generation of the technology is certainly worth pursuing — especially if it’s from a U.S. company. Pai wrote:
"Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies."
SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 on February 17 (should the current target date stick) and the rocket is carrying a primary payload of a Spanish satellite for client Paz. The secondary cargo on the launch is more interesting, however, since it’s two of SpaceX’s own satellites – demonstration satellites the company is putting into orbit to test its plan to offer satellite-based broadband internet communications services.
The rocket will include Microsat-2A and Microsat-2B (via TheNextWeb), small satellites with a planned useful lifetime of just 20 months. Both will contain Ku-band broadband transmitter radios, allowing them to test their ability to offer Earth-based connectivity from low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX wants to test this before deploying a full constellation of its own broadband-providing satellites with a longer-term lifespan, since the private space company hopes to offer affordable, space-based broadband to clients on Earth as an additional revenue stream on top of its rocket launching business. The satellite internet side of its revenue picture could help it pay for ambitious projects like its proposed Mars missions, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained previously when outlining the company’s long-term plans.
Putting the Microsats into orbit is just one step towards making the broadband business a reality, but it’s a good sign that SpaceX’s grand vision is progressing. After a successful Falcon Heavy first flight earlier this month, and plans to fly Crew Dragon later this year, 2018 could be a banner year for Musk’s space venture.

The SpaceX application was filed late in 2016, and the chairman’s enthusiasm now suggests it’s soon to be considered and, with luck, approved. No doubt we’ll hear when it happens.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Triumphant First Launch for Elon Musk's Giant Rocket: The Falcon Heavy

As reported by The Atlantic: CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—Seven years ago, the Falcon Heavy was a model rocket, sitting on a table in a conference room in Washington, D.C., in front of some reporters and a couple empty seats.

On Tuesday, the rocket dreamed up by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stood 230 feet tall, on the famed launchpad at Kennedy Space Center where the Saturn V flew the first humans to the moon. An estimated 100,000 people traveled here to watch the Falcon Heavy power up and rise into the sky.

At about 3:45 p.m., the rocket’s 27 engines roared into life and thick plumes of white smoke unfurled from the pad. Within seconds, it was airborne and climbing against the backdrop of a clear blue sky over Florida’s Space Coast. Along for the ride was a cherry-red Tesla convertible, with a dummy called Starman wearing a SpaceX space suit sitting in the driver’s seat. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” blasted from the speakers.

It was a perfect day for a rocket launch.

After the Heavy left the launchpad and pierced the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere, the rocket’s boosters detached. In a complicated and delicate maneuver that SpaceX has nearly perfected in the last few years, the side boosters changed course and returned to Earth less than 10 minutes after liftoff, where they touched down at matching landing zones at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The center booster, which SpaceX planned to land on its drone ship off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, didn’t make it, Musk confirmed Tuesday night a press conference with reporters at Kennedy Space Center. Musk said the booster struck the water at 300 miles per hour. It came close, though; Musk said the impact scattered debris over the ship. He said they will try to salvage some footage of the hit.

“If the cameras didn’t get blown up as well, then we’ll put that out,” he said.

The upper stage of the rocket, which carried the Tesla, meanwhile, is cruising along just fine. Here’s a video Musk shared about an hour after liftoff, thanks to cameras mounted around the car:

The successful maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy restored a capability the United States lost years ago. The last time a powerful heavy-lift launch vehicle left Cape Canaveral was in 2011, when the Space Shuttle made its final flight after 30 years of ferrying astronauts back and forth from low-Earth orbit. Before that, it was the Saturn V rocket, the massive vehicle nasa used to send Apollo astronauts to the moon.

In 2018, the year nasa marks its 60th anniversary, the U.S. government is no longer doing the heavy lifting. That business, at least for now, falls for the first time in American spaceflight history to a commercial rocket company.

nasa is currently building a heavy-lift rocket of its own, the Space Launch System, or SLS, that will surpass the Heavy in liftoff and payload capacity and is supposed to someday return humans to the moon. But the first flight of the SLS is expected in late 2019, and delays could push that even further, so SpaceX will enjoy, at least for a while, the perks of holding an American record.

A day before the launch, Musk said he wasn’t feeling nervous.

“What I find strange about this flight is, normally I feel super stressed out the day before,” Musk told reporters in a teleconference at Kennedy Space Center. “This time, I don’t. Maybe a bad sign. I’m not sure. But I feel quite confident and happy, actually. I’m really hopeful for this flight going as planned. We’ve done everything we can. I’m sure we’ve done everything we could do to maximize the chance of success in this mission.”

The Falcon Heavy’s successful flight means that the Heavy is now the most powerful rocket in operation, surpassing its nearest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy of the United Launch Alliance, when it comes to lifting payload. In the future, the rocket will be capable of lifting more weight than any other U.S.-made rocket since the Saturn V. At an estimated $90 million per launch, the Falcon Heavy makes the cheapest heavy-lift launch option for potential customers ranging from commercial satellite companies to nasa. Delta IV Heavy launches can run upward of $400 million, and SLS, an expendable rocket, is expected to cost $1 billion per launch.

The launch marked the first time SpaceX tested such a complicated booster separation and recovery sequence.

Here’s the flight path Musk shared on social media hours before the launch:

The center booster made a successful separation. The upper stage of the rocket—with the Tesla in tow—continued on. In orbit, the stage will coast for about six hours and then fire up its engine again to help put the Tesla in an elliptical orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars. That’s what Musk means when he says he’s sending his Tesla to the red planet.

“I’m not worried about the car,” Musk said Monday. “It’s gonna be fine.”

Musk said he expects the Tesla to zoom around in orbit for hundreds of millions of years. “At times it will come extremely close to Mars,” he said. “And there’s a tiny chance that it will hit Mars. Extremely tiny.”



Many, including Musk himself, thought the Heavy launch was as likely to go up in flames as it was to leave Earth. Musk told reporters on Monday that if the Heavy did explode, he hoped the rocket would travel far enough to avoid damaging the historic launchpad, which would be costly and take months to repair.

SpaceX is on a high right now. It ended 2017 with a company-record-breaking 18 launches of its smaller Falcon 9 rocket, accounting for most of the orbital launches on U.S. soil. The company’s failures, including explosions in 2015 and 2016 that destroyed rockets and payloads and damaged a launchpad, are quickly receding in the rearview mirrors. The focus now is on the increased cadence of launches the company has promised for 2018, and the far bigger BFR, the rocket previously known as the Interplanetary Transport System. Musk says the development of the BFR is “moving quickly.” He hopes the BFR will fast-track international travel, launch satellites and spacecraft, and carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, the moon, and Mars.

When the Saturn V blasted off from the Earth in the 1960s with Apollo astronauts in tow, the idea of someone other than a nation’s esteemed federal space agency doing the work of launching stuff—any stuff, from communications satellites to humans, let alone an electric car—seemed impossible. No one had even thought to entertain the idea. In a short time—in the last few years, really—SpaceX took this prospect and turned into not only a reality, but a regular occurrence.

“A lot of people thought we couldn’t do it—a lot, actually,” Musk said in 2008 when, after three failed attempts, SpaceX launched the Falcon 1 rocket into orbit from an atoll in the Marshall Islands, becoming the first private rocket company to do it. “[Reaching orbit] is normally a country thing, not a company thing.”

A decade later, reaching orbit and beyond is very much a company thing.










Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ford Wants to Patent a Driverless Police Car that Ambushes Lawbreakers using AI

As reported by The Washington Post: Imagine a police car that issues tickets without even pulling you over.

What if the same car could use artificial intelligence to find good hiding spots to catch traffic violators and identify drivers by scanning license plates, tapping into surveillance cameras and wirelessly accessing government records?

What if a police officer tapping on your car window asking for your license and registration became a relic of transportation’s past?

The details may sound far-fetched, as if they belong in the science-fiction action flick “Demolition Man” or a new dystopian novel inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but these scenarios are grounded in a potential reality. They come from a patent developed by Ford and being reviewed by the U.S. government to create autonomous police cars. Ford’s patent application was published this month.

Although experts claim autonomous vehicles will make driving safer and more rule-bound, Ford argues in its application that in the future, traffic violations will never disappear entirely.

“While autonomous vehicles can and will be programmed to obey traffic laws, a human driver can override that programming to control and operate the vehicle at any time,” the patent’s application says. “When a vehicle is under the control of a human driver there is a possibility of violation of traffic laws. Thus, there will still be a need to police traffic.”

The patent application says that autonomous police vehicles don’t necessarily replace the need for human police officers for catching traffic scofflaws. Some “routine tasks,” such as issuing tickets for failure to stop at a stop sign, can be automated, the patent says, but other tasks that can’t be automated will be left to people.

The application, which was filed in July 2016 and includes elaborate diagrams depicting the autonomous police car interacting with its environment, says officers could be inside the vehicle at all times and reclaim control of the car when necessary.


But the application also shows how an autonomous police vehicle could be able to carry out many tasks we associate with human officers.

In one scenario, a surveillance camera or roadside sensor documents a speeding vehicle. A signal is relayed through a “central computing system” to the autonomous police vehicle, which is tasked with pursuing the vehicle, tracking its location and capturing video that can be used to analyze the fleeing vehicle’s movement.

In another, the police vehicle analyzes traffic patterns using machine learning — a type of artificial intelligence that gives computers the ability to learn without being programmed — to determine ideal spots for catching traffic violators. Once a hiding spot has been located, the vehicle uses sensors — lasers, cameras or some combination thereof — to monitor traffic in the most efficient way possible, according to the patent.

“Autonomous police vehicle may determine the threshold speed for a given section of road by searching a local traffic laws database for a legal speed limit for that section of road or by querying remote central computing system,” the patent says.

The vehicle would be able to communicate wirelessly with other vehicles on the road and determine whether a car is in self-driving mode or being controlled by a human driver, according to the patent. The patent says the offending vehicle would be able to communicate with the police car as well, providing  a driver’s license, for example.

Like traffic cameras already in use, tickets could be issued remotely, the application notes, and a record of the incident could be sent to a police station or a department of motor vehicles.

But Ford noted in a statement that even if the patent is approved, it does not ensure that a product will be produced.

“We submit patents on innovative ideas as a normal course of business,” the statement said. “Patent applications are intended to protect new ideas but aren’t necessarily an indication of new business or product plans.”