Watch SpaceX launch its first dedicated rideshare mission live, carrying a record-breaking number of satellites

[UPDATE: Today’s attempt was scrubbed due to weather conditions. Another launch window is available tomorrow at 10 AM ET]

SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 133 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 9:40 AM EST (6:40 AM PST) today.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines

Web infrastructure company Cloudflare is releasing a new tool today that aims to provide a way for health agencies and organizations globally tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue – completely free of charge. The company’s ‘Project Fair Shot’ initiative will make its new Cloudflare Waiting Room offering free to any organization that qualifies, essentially providing a way from future vaccine recipients to register and gain access to a clear and constantly-updated view of where they are in line to receive the preventative treatment.

“The wife of one of Cloudflare’s executives in our Austin was trying to register her parents for the COVID-19 vaccine program there,” explained Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince via email. “The registration site kept crashing. She said to her husband: why doesn’t Cloudflare build a queuing feature to help vaccine sites? As it happened, we had exactly such a feature under development and scheduled to be launched in early February.”

After realizing the urgency of the need for something like this tool to help alleviate the many infrastructure challenges that come up when you’re trying to vaccinate a global population against a viral threat as quickly as possible, Cloudflare changed their release timetable and devoted additional resources to the project.

“We talked to the team about moving up the scheduled launch of our Waiting Room feature,” Prince added. “They worked around the clock because they recognized how important helping with vaccine delivery was. These are the sorts of projects that really drive our team: when we can use our technical expertise and infrastructure to solve problems with broad, positive impact.”

On the technical side, Cloudflare Waiting Room is simple to implement, according to the company, and can be added to any registration website built on the company’s existing content delivery network without any engineering or coding knowledge required. Visitors to the site can register and will receive a confirmation that they’re in line, and then will receive a follow-up directing them to a sign-up page for the organization administering their vaccine when it’s their turn. Further configuration options allow Waiting Room operators to offer wait time estimates to registrants, as well as provide additional alerts when their turn is nearing (though that functionality is coming in a future update).

As Prince mentioned, Waiting Room was already on Cloudflare’s project roadmap, and was actually intended for other high-demand, limited supply allocation items: Think must-have concert tickets, or the latest hot sneaker release. But the Fair Shot program will provide it totally free to those organizations that need it, whereas that would’ve been a commercial product. Interested parties can sign up at Cloudflare’s registration page to get on the waitlist for availability.

“With Project Fair Shot we stand ready to help ensure everyone who is eligible can get equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines and we, along with the rest of humanity, look forward to putting this disease behind us,” Prince explained.

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging

Apple is said to be working on a new version of the MacBook Air with a brand new physical case design that’s both thinner and lighter than its current offering, which was updated with Apple’s M1 chip late last year, per a new Bloomberg report. The plan is to release it as early as late 2021 or 2022, according to the report’s sources, and it will also include MagSafe charging (which is also said to be returning on Apple’s next MacBook Pro models sometime in 2021).

MagSafe would offer power delivery and charging, while two USB 4 ports would provide data connectivity on the new MacBook Air. The display size will remain at its current 13-inch diagonal measurement, but Apple will reportedly realize smaller overall sizes by reducing the bevel that surrounds the screen’s edge, among other sizing changes.

Apple has a plan to revamp its entire Mac lineup with its own Apple Silicon processors over the course of the next two years. It debuted its first Apple Silicon Macs, powered by its M1 chip, late last year, and the resulting performance benefits vs. their Intel-powered predecessors have been substantial. The physical designs remained essentially the same, however, prompting speculation as to when Apple would introduce new case designs to further distinguish its new Macs from their older models.

The company is also reportedly working on new MacBook Pros with MagSafe charging, which could also ditch the company’s controversial TouchBar interface – and, again according to Bloomberg, bring back a dedicated SD card slot. All these changes would actually be reversions of design changes Apple made when it introduced the current physical notebook Mac designs, beginning with the first Retina display MacBook Pro in 2012, but they address usability complaints by some of the company’s enthusiast and professional customers.

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips

MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called ‘robomorphic computing’ to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new – if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.

In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.

The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations – like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.

Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:

The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)

The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.

Neuman’s team used an field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.

Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increase manufacturing speed and efficiency – though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The ‘Another One Leaves The Crust’ mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.