Daily Crunch: AR startups face an uneasy future in 2019

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1. Magic Leap and other AR startups have a rough 2019 ahead of them 

2018 was supposed to be the year where the foundation of AR was set to expand, but now it looks like momentum has been sucked out of the industry’s heavy hitters.

2. Sorry I took so long to upgrade, Apple 

Apple missed Wall Street’s Q1 sales projections yesterday and the company blamed faltering sales in China for the reason behind the drop. But let’s not kid ourselves; anyone who has an iPhone now is part of the problem. As essential as these devices have become to our lives, it’s too hard for many consumers around the world to justify spending more than $1,000 for a new phone.


3. China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

China crossed a major milestone in space exploration last night by becoming the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e 4 will use a low-frequency radio to survey the terrain of the moon.

4. Mary Meeker targets $1.25B for debut fund, called Bond

With Bond, Meeker is set to be the first woman to raise a $1 billion-plus VC fund.

5. Money is no object: China’s Luckin sets sights on rivaling Starbucks 

Caffeinated drinks are taking off in the tea-drinking nation. Luckin, which is only a year old, has announced an ambitious plan to topple Starbucks and expand to 6,000 stores by 2022.

6. 10 predictions on the future of gaming in 2019 

Will the gaming industry clutch up in 2019?

7. Segway unveils a more durable electric scooter and autonomous delivery bot 

Segway’s Model Max scooter is designed to help services like Bird and Lime reduce their respective operating and maintenance costs, while its new Loomo delivery bot is made for autonomous deliveries for food, packages and other items.

NASA’s climate-monitoring space laser is the last to ride to space on a Delta II rocket

This weekend, NASA is launching a new high-tech satellite to monitor the planet’s glacier and sea ice levels — with space lasers, naturally. ICESat-2 will be a huge boon for climatologists, and it’s also a bittersweet occasion: it will be the final launch aboard the trusty Delta II rocket, which has been putting birds in the air for nearly 30 years.

Takeoff is set for 5:46 AM Pacific Time Saturday morning, so you’ll have to get up early if you want to catch it. You can watch the launch live here, with NASA coverage starting about half an hour before.

Keeping track of the Earth’s ice levels is more important than ever; with climate change causing widespread havoc, precise monitoring of major features like the Antarctic ice sheet could help climatologists predict and understand global weather patterns.

Like Aeolus, which launched in July, ICESat-2 is a spacecraft with a single major instrument, not a “Christmas tree” of sensors and antennas. And like Aeolus, ICESat-2 carries a giant laser. But while the first was launched to watch the movement of the air in-between it and the ground, the second must monitor the ground through that moving air.

It does so by using an industrial-size, hyper-precise altimeter: a single, powerful green laser split into six beams — three pairs of two, really, arranged to pass over the landscape in a predictable way.

But the real magic is how those lasers are detected. Next to the laser is a special telescope that watches for the beams’ reflections. Incredibly, it only collects “about a dozen” photons from each laser pulse, and times their arrival down to a billionth of a second. And it does this 10,000 times per second, which at its speed means a pulse is bouncing off the Earth every 2.3 feet or so.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, its altitude readings are accurate down to the inch. And with multiple readings over time, it should be able to tell whether an ice sheet has risen or fallen on the order of millimeters.

So if you’re traveling in the Antarctic and you drop a pencil, be sure to pick it up or it might throw things off.

Of course, it’s not just for ice; the same space laser will also return the exact heights of buildings, tree canopies and other features. It’s a pity there aren’t more of these satellites — they sound rather useful.

Although ICESat-2 itself is notable and interesting, this launch is significant for a second reason: this will be the final launch atop a Delta II rocket. Rocketry standby United Launch Alliance is in charge of this one, as it has been for so many others.

Introduced in 1989, the Delta II has launched everything from communication satellites to Mars orbiters and landers; Spirit and Opportunity both left the Earth on Delta IIs. All told, more than 150 launches have been made on these rockets, and if Saturday’s launch goes as planned, it will be the 100th successful Delta II launch in a row. That’s a hell of a record. (To be clear, that doesn’t mean 50 failed; but a handful of failures over the decades have marred the launch vehicle’s streak.)

A Delta II launching for the Aquarius mission in 2011

One charming yet perhaps daunting idiosyncrasy of the system is that someone somewhere has to literally click a button to initiate takeoff — no automation for this thing; it’s someone’s job to hit the gas, so they better look sharp.

The ULA’s Bill Cullen told Jason Davis of the Planetary Society, for his epitaph on the rocket:

Yes, the Delta II engine start command is initiated by a console operator. The launch control system is 25 years old, and at the time this used a ‘person in the loop’ control which was preferred compared to the complexities of a fault-tolerant computer system.

So why are we leaving this tried and true rocket behind? It’s expensive and not particularly big. With a payload capacity of 4 tons and a cost (for this mission anyway) approaching a hundred million dollars, it’s just not a good value any more. Not only that, but Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Base is the only place left on Earth with the infrastructure to launch it, which significantly limits the orbits and opportunities for prospective missions. After ICESat-2’s launch, even that will be torn down — though hopefully they’ll keep the pieces somewhere, for posterity.

Although this is the last Delta II to launch, there is one more rocket left without a mission, the last, as it were, on the lot. Plans are not solid yet, but it’s a good bet this classic rocket will end up in a museum somewhere — perhaps standing upright with others at Kennedy Space Center.

Inside Planet Labs’ new satellite manufacturing site

Satellite imaging and analytics company Planet is taking the wraps off its new manufacturing space in San Francisco. Founded by ex-NASA employees, Planet is leveraging some of the $183 million in funding it’s amassed to expand. In the basement of a nondescript office building in the middle of Harrison Street in San Francisco, Planet is hard at work building low-orbit satellites that take images of our changing planet, and now the aerospace imaging company has more room to do so, claiming that the new facility is the most prolific satellite manufacturing spot in the world. 

Inside the new 27,000-square-foot manufacturing site are satellite-building stations where Planet engineers piece together “doves,” as the machines are called. The new site is six times the size of their old factory, and with that new space Planet claims its engineers will produce up to 40 satellites/week. Fluorescent panels illuminate the industrial work stations, and the small satellites sit plugged into their “dove nests.”

Planet says their satellites can be built using only 10 tools

The way Planet builds satellites is different from how NASA or Lockheed Martin does. Planet operates off the idea that instead of building large, cumbersome machines that sit in space taking images with outdated technology and old sensors, many smaller satellites with a one to three-year lifespan can get the job done faster and provide better images of the Earth’s surface. With the new site, Planet will bring all aspects of spacecraft production — from R&D to manufacturing to testing — under one roof.

California is ‘launching our own damn satellite’ to track pollution, with help from Planet

So what exactly do these satellites do? Each satellite can take two images per second, and Planet’s systems then work to classify images as water, coral, rivers, roads, infrastructure and forests. 

Doves in the dove nest

Planet’s philosophy is that “you can’t fix what you can’t see.” Partners in the defense, humanities and agriculture sectors are using data from Planet’s satellite fleet for projects like classifying deforestation in Brazil and detecting urban change in Tanzania. The satellites derive images from lesser traveled parts of the planet. The imaging systems have gathered data on the destruction of roads in Syria, and even recently detected the sudden appearance of a chemical lab in North Korea. One partner is using Planet data to measure coral reef destruction in Australia. 

In the past, Planet has worked with launch partners like SpaceX. However, this first fleet of satellites manufactured in the new facility will be shipped out to India for launch on the PSLV rocket next month. In four years, Planet has launched 298 satellites, 150 of which are currently in orbit collecting over 300 million square kilometers of imagery daily. 

Planet Labs Nabs $95 Million And A New COO To Cover The Earth With Flocks Of Tiny Satellites

SpaceX announces plan to announce plan to send someone around the moon in planned spaceship

It’s been too long without any kind of outlandish news from any of Elon Musk’s companies, but SpaceX has filled the void with the announcement of a newly redesigned BFR spacecraft and the news that it will fly around the moon with a soon-to-be-named first passenger. Whenever they get around to actually engineering and building the thing, anyway.

In a tweet Thursday evening, SpaceX (though it was clearly Musk) announced that it has “signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle.”

Attached to the tweet was an image of the BFR itself (above), much changed from its last appearance. It used to look like this:

And now it looks like this:

The old version was also two-toned, as you can see if you look closely at the ISS render, with the darker part likely corresponding to a heat-resistant surface. But this new one is more reminiscent of the Space Shuttle thanks to considerably lengthened fins and the addition of a top one. Perhaps the cool, smooth two-fin style simply proved impractical; flight stability in atmosphere probably makes that top fin necessary. There’s also what appears to be a front stabilizer of some kind.

The engine cluster is also different; the original design had 4 Raptor engines in a square, with two smaller “sea-level” engines for landing operations in-between them. This new render has 7 Raptors in a honeycomb formation. We can only speculate why that might be: the engines may have been scaled down a bit for some reason or another, or the 7-thruster formation might be more robust to failures.

Since this is all basically concept work, it’s hard to say how much is real and how much is fantasy. Considering how early the craft is in production, it’s not surprising that major changes like these would be made.

A commentator on Twitter noted that the whole thing is very “Tintin-esque,” no doubt referring to the rocket flown by the beloved Belgian comic book hero in “Destination Moon” and “Explorers on the Moon.”

Although Musk responded with “Intentionally so,” the similarities are actually pretty few. Perhaps he meant the whole concept of a private lunar mission. At any rate, Musk is clearly a fan of the comics, and any Tintin reference is a good reference.

There are also 6 rows of windows behind the cockpit, up from 3, suggesting SpaceX has expanded the seating in the planned craft. That fits with the passenger-related nature of the announcement.

As for that: This first circumlunar tourist will be announced at an event on Monday, September 17th. Who will it be? Likely a billionaire. Unfortunately, they’ll have a long time to wait. By the time the BFR is up and running, space tourism (though perhaps not round-the-moon trips) may very well have been going on for years. So if it will be this intrepid, extremely rich person’s first trip to our satellite, I doubt it will be their first trip above the Kármán line.

Virgin Galactic’s third supersonic test flight hits Mach 2.4 and 170,000 feet

Virgin Galactic is celebrating the third successful supersonic test flight of VSS Unity, the passenger spacecraft it intends to make available for space tourism in the near future. This flight took the craft higher and faster than ever, stressing the system and providing useful data for the rocket plane’s engineers.

Virgin’s two-part flight system uses a traditional jet-powered plane, the WhiteKnightTwo-class VMS Eve, to carry the spacecraft up to about 45,000 feet, after which the latter detaches and zooms ahead (and upward) on rocket power.

Each of Unity’s flights has pushed its specs a bit further: The first one, in April, achieved Mach 1.6 and just over 84,000 feet of altitude. The second, in May, hit Mach 1.9 and reached 114,500 feet.

Virgin Galactic Unveils New SpaceShipTwo, The VSS Unity

Today’s went to Mach 2.47 and got up to 170,800 feet, touching the Earth’s mesosphere before gliding down to a soft landing. It’s still not nearly to space; the Karman Line, where space “officially” begins, is about twice as high. But at this rate it sure just seems like a matter of time before they get up there. (Max speed was originally reported as Mach 2 but updated in an email from Virgin Galactic.)

Importantly, the rocket powering Unity’s flight burned this time for 42 seconds, well over the 30 seconds or so it’s been fired for until now. These tests necessarily have to advance degree by degree, but going from 30 to 42 is a big jump that the engineers are probably thrilled about.

“Having been a U2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 feet was just totally amazing,” said one of the pilots, Mike “Sooch” Masucci, in a Virgin Galactic press release. “The flight was exciting and frankly beautiful. We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”

The team is working on analyzing the data from this flight, and of course inspecting and tweaking the spacecraft, and we can probably expect another test flight in the next few months.