DHS wants to expand airport face recognition scans to include US citizens

Homeland Security wants to expand facial recognition checks for travelers arriving to and departing from the U.S. to also include citizens, which had previously been exempt from the mandatory checks.

In a filing, the department has proposed that all travelers, and not just foreign nationals or visitors, will have to complete a facial recognition check before they are allowed to enter the U.S., but also to leave the country.

Facial recognition for departing flights has increased in recent years as part of Homeland Security’s efforts to catch visitors and travelers who overstay their visas. The department, whose responsibility is to protect the border and control immigration, has a deadline of 2021 to roll out facial recognition scanners to the largest 20 airports in the United States, despite facing a rash of technical challenges.

But although there may not always be a clear way to opt-out of facial recognition at the airport, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents — also known as green card holders — have been exempt from these checks, the existing rules say.

Now, the proposed rule change to include citizens has drawn ire from one of the largest civil liberties groups in the country.

“Time and again, the government told the public and members of Congress that U.S. citizens would not be required to submit to this intrusive surveillance technology as a condition of traveling,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union .

“This new notice suggests that the government is reneging on what was already an insufficient promise,” he said.

“Travelers, including U.S. citizens, should not have to submit to invasive biometric scans simply as a condition of exercising their constitutional right to travel. The government’s insistence on hurtling forward with a large-scale deployment of this powerful surveillance technology raises profound privacy concerns,” he said.

Citing a data breach of close to 100,000 license plate and traveler images in June, as well as concerns about a lack of sufficient safeguards to protect the data, Stanley said the government “cannot be trusted” with this technology and that lawmakers should intervene.

When reached, spokespeople for Homeland Security and Customs & Border Protection did not immediately have comment.

Max Q: SpaceX and Boeing gear up for commercial crew mission tests

Welcome back to Max Q, our weekly look at what’s happening in space and space startup news. This week was a bit more quiet than usual coming off of the amazingly over-packed International Astronautical Congress, but there were still some big moves that promise a lot more action to come before they year’s over – particularly in the race to fly American astronauts to space on a rocket launched from American soil once again.

There’s also startup news, including how an entirely different kind of race – one to make stuff in space – could be a foundational moment that opens up entirely new areas of opportunity for entrepreneurs big and small.

1. SpaceX’s crucial parachute tests are going well

SpaceX needs to nail one key ingredient before its Crew Dragon missions can proceed apace with people on board. Actually, it has to nail quite a few, but parachutes are a crucial one, and it has been developing the parachutes that will help Crew Dragon float back safely to Earth for years not.

The third iteration is looking like the one that will be used for the first Crew Dragon missions with astronauts, and luckily, that version three system has now completed 13 successful tests in a row. That’s approaching the kind of reliability it needs to show to be used for the real thing, so this is good news for the current goal of putting astronauts on board early next year.

2. SpaceX and Boeing ready key milestone tests

SpaceX has another key test for Crew Dragon coming up as early as this week – a static fire of its capsule abort engines. This is a key test because the last one didn’t go so well. Also, Boeing will be doing their pad abort test as early as this week as well, which sets things up nicely for a busy time next year in crewed spaceflight.

3. How in-space manufacturing could prompt a space business boom

Launching stuff to space is expensive and really limits what you can do in terms of designing spacecraft and components. There’s been efforts made to reduce the costs, including SpaceX and Blue Origin pursuing reusable rocketry, but just building stuff up there instead of launching it could unlock much deeper cost savings – and new technical possibilities. (ExtraCrunch subscription required)

4. Changing the economics of satellite propulsion

Satellite propulsion has, until very recently, been almost entirely a bespoke affair, which translates to expensive and generally not accessible to startup companies who actually have to worry about stuff like burn rates. But Morpheus Space has a new “Lego-like” system for offering affordable, compact and scalable propulsion that can serve pretty much any satellite needs.

5. Dev kits for small satellites

Small satellite business is booming, and Kepler wants to make sure that developers are able to figure out what they can do with smallsats, so it’s offering a developer kit for its toaster-sized IoT communications satellites. Cooler than the Apple TV dev boxes that were on offer once upon a time.

6. Northrop Grumman launches ISS resupply mission

The ISS is getting a shipment of supplies and scientific material courtesy of a resupply cargo capsule launched by Northrop Grumman on Saturday. One thing on board is twelve containers of read wine, courtesy of startup Space Cargo Unlimited. I’ll have more info about that on Monday, so stay tuned.

Max Q: International Astronautical Congress 2019 recap edition

Our weekly round-up of what’s going on in space technology is back, and it’s a big one (and a day late) because last week was the annual International Astronautical Congress. I was on the ground in Washington, D.C. for this year’s event, and it’s fair to say that the top-of-mind topics were 1) Public-private partnerships on future space exploration; 2) So-called ‘Old Space’ or established companies vs./collaborating with so-called ‘New Space’ or younger companies, and 3) who will own and control space as it becomes a resource trough, and through what mechanisms.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I plan to do so not all at once, but through conversations and coverage to follow. In the meantime, here’s just a taste based on the highlights from my perspective at the show.

1. SpaceX aims for 2022 Moon landing for Starship

SpaceX timelines are basically just incredibly optimistic dreams, but it’s still worth paying attention to what timeframes the company is theoretically marching towards, because they do at least provide some kind of baseline from which to extrapolate actual timelines based on past performance.

There’s a reason SpaceX wants to send its newest there that early, however – beyond being aggressive to motivate the team. The goal is to use that demonstration mission to set up actual cargo transportation flights, to get stuff to the lunar surface ahead of NASA’s planned 2024 human landing.

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2. Starlink satellite service should go live next year

More SpaceX news, but significant because it could herald the beginning of a new era where the biggest broadband providers are satellite constellation operators. SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell says that the company’s Starlink broadband service should go live for consumers next year. Elon also used it this week to send a tweet, so it’s working in some capacity already.

3. NASA’s Jim Bridenstine details how startups will be able to participate in the U.S. mission to return to the Moon to stay

Bridenstine did a lot of speaking and press opportunities at IAC this year, which makes sense since it’s the first time the U.S. has hosted the show in many years. But I managed to get one question in, and the NASA Administrator detailed how he sees entrepreneurs contributing to his ambitious goal of returning to the Moon (this time to set up a more or less permanent presence) by 2024.

4. Virgin Galactic goes public

Virgin Galactic listed itself on the New York Stock Exchange today, and we got our very first taste of what public market investors think about space tourism and commercial human spaceflight. So far, looks like they… approve? Stock is trading up about 2 percent as of this writing, at least.

5. Bezos announces a Blue Origin-led space dream team

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos got a first-ever IAC industry award during the show (it has an actual name but it seems pretty clear it’s an invention designed to fish billionaire space magnates to the stage). The award is fine, but the actual news is that Blue Origin is teaming up with space frenemies Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper – old and new space partnering to develop a full-featured lunar lander system to help get payloads to the surface of the Moon.

6. Rocket Lab is developing a ride-share offering for the Moon and more

Launch startup Rocket Lab has become noteworthy for being among the extremely elite group of new space companies that is actually launching payloads to orbit for paying customers. It wants to do more, of course, and one of its new goals is to adapt its Photon payload delivery spacecraft to bring customer satellites and research equipment to the Moon – and eventually beyond, too. Why? Customer demand, according to Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.

7. Europe’s space tech industry is heading for a boom

It seems like there’s a lot of space startup activity the world over, but Europe has possibly more than its fair share, thanks in part to the very encouraging efforts of the multinational European Space Agency. (Extra Crunch subscription required.)

Airstream’s new Astrovan II is ready to move the first Boeing commercial crew astronauts

NASA and its commercial astronaut program partners are laser-focused on getting crew into space, but to get to space you first have to get to the rocket, and that’s where the Airstream Astrovan II comes in. This vehicle, which is the sequel to the original Astrovan that brought America’s astronauts to the launch pad in the days of the Shuttle Program, features modern updates, and is heading straight from being on display at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington to Cape Canaveral to ready for Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner crew launch next year.

I got a chance to take a look at the Astrovan II in person, but the Airstream staff on site had cordoned off the door to the van and when I asked if I could go in, they explained it was off limits to attendees – for good reason, since this is literally the van that will be used by NASA’s commercial crew astronauts during the first launches next year.

The original Astrovan had that signature Airstream ‘silver bullet’ look, as you can see in the photo below. The updated version looks more like your standard commercial shutter van, but what it lacks in exterior styling it makes up for in interior creature comforts.

Astronauts and Astrovan NASA Photo

The outside of the Astrovan II has a full-wrap which shows off Boeing’s CST-100 Starline capsule, which is the spacecraft that Boeing is developing for NASA as part of its commercial crew program, along with second supplier SpaceX, which is simultaneously readying its Crew Dragon capsule for service.

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The Astrovan II status up to eight passengers (compete with flight suits) and is a custom version of the Airstream Atlas Touring Coach that was handbill in Jackson Center, Ohio. As you can see, they opted for a minimalist, sci-fi stainless steel look on the inside, with large, comfy looking chairs that should provide a smooth ride before the considerably rockier one commercial crew will experience strapped to a massive, powerful rocket en route to the International Space Station.

SpaceX intends to offer Starlink satellite broadband service starting in 2020

SpaceX will look to launch its Starlink service for consumers sometime next year, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell confirmed at a media roundtable meeting at the company’s offices in Washington during the International Astronautical Congress this week (via SpaceNews). Shotwell, who also appeared on stage at the event to share some updates around SpaceX’s recent progress across the company, told reporters present that in order to make the date, it’ll need to launch between six and eight different grouped payloads of Starlink satellites, a number that includes the batch that went up in May of this year.

All told, SpaceX has shared previously that it’ll need 24 launches in order to make the constellation global, and it also shared at that time that it intends to start with service in the Northern United States and parts of Canada beginning next year. Though 24 launches will provide full global coverage, Shotwell told media that it’ll still be doing additional launches after that in order to expand and improve coverage.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell

In fact, SpaceX recently filed paperwork to launch as many as 30,000 satellites in addition to the 12,000 it has already gotten permission to put up, for a total constellation size of up to 42,000. A SpaceX spokesperson previously described this as “taking steps to responsibility scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs” in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Owning and operating a global broadband satellite constellation could be a considerable revenue driver for SpaceX, and an important product pillar upon which the company can rely for recurring profit as it pursues its more ambitious programs, including eventual Mars launch services. Setting up the satellite constellation, especially at the scale intended, will definitely be a cost-intensive process on its own, but SpaceX is looking to its product developments like its Starship, which will be able to take much more cargo to orbit in terms of payload capacity, to reduce its own, and customer launch costs over time.

Shotwell also told reporters at the gathering that the company is already testing Starlink connectivity for U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory use, and while she didn’t reveal consumer pricing, did note that many in the U.S. pay $80 for service that is sub-par already, per SpaceNews.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explains how startups can help with Artemis Moon missions

At this week’s International Astronautical Congress, where the space industry, international space agencies and researchers from around the world convene to discuss the state of space technology and business, I asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about what role he sees for startups in contributing to his agency’s ambitious Artemis program. Artemis, named after Apollo’s twin sister Artemis, one the gods of Greek myth, is NASA’s mission to return human beings to the surface of the Moon – this time to stay – and to use that as a staging ground for further exploration to Mars and beyond.

Bridenstine, fielding the question during a press Q+A about Artemis, said that the program is incredibly welcoming of contributions from startups large and small, and that it sees a number of different areas where contributions from younger space companies can have a big impact.

“When we talk about entrepreneurs, there are big entrepreneurs and there are small entrepreneurs, but know this: What we’re building it the [Lunar] Gateway is open architecture, and we want to go with commercial partners,” Bridenstine said. “So there are in fact, a number of companies here [at IAC], big companies that have said they want to go to the Moon, they want to go sustainably, they want to be part of Artemis, and the Gateway is available to them.”

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Artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Gateway with the Orion capsule approaching to dock.

The Lunar Gateway is a station NASA intends to put in orbit around the Moon to act as a staging ground for its vehicles, a key step to ensure the process of landing things on the Moon once they reach lunar orbit is more easily accomplished. Bridenstine pointed out that in the Broad Agency Agreement (BAA) that NASA originally put out for the Artemis program, it went further still and said that it welcomed proposals from private space companies that involve going directly to the Moon, bypassing the Gateway entirely .

Actually getting to the Moon has been taken on by some of the deeper-pocketed and more well-established entrepreneurs among the so-called ‘New Space’ companies, including SpaceX . But Artemis participation goes well beyond the high-priced task of building vehicles capable of getting from Earth to lunar orbit, according to Bridenstine.

“We’re going to need cargo on the surface of the Moon,” he said, noting that the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule Artemis will use to take humans to the Moon in 2024 will lean on advance payloads to better ensure mission success. “[W]hen we talk about aggregating a lander at the gateway – when we talk about, maybe even putting hardware on the surface the Moon, including science hardware, like the Viper neutron spectrometer, an IR spectrometer helping us understand the regolith and the water ice, what’s there on the surface of the Moon, where it is and in what quantities […] we’re going to need those science instruments delivered to the surface of the Moon.”

Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander.

Indeed, there are companies poised to deliver cargo via lunar landers in advance of, or in time with, NASA’s 2024 target for a human landing, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon lander, which is looking to launch in 2021, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander. Both these landers, and the payloads they carry, could include startup-designed equipment and systems to pave the way for sustainable human occupation of our large natural satellite. In fact, Bridenstine suggested some potential payloads that could be even more wild than advance data-gathering hardware.

“Maybe even – again it depends on budgets, and I’m not promising anything between now and 2024 – but maybe even an inflatable habitat on the surface of the moon so that when our astronauts get there they have a place to go, and they can stay for longer periods of time,” he said. “Is that in the realm of possibility? Absolutely.”

Bridenstine continued that the agency is already working with many smaller, entrepreneurial businesses, and intends to continue exploring partnerships with more. There’s a clear and growing need for lunar cargo from NAA, in increasing volumes, the Administrator pointed out.

“On top of SLS and Orion we need additional capability, there are opportunities there for all kinds of commercial companies entrepreneurs,” he said. “We also have small business investment and research that NASA is involved in, and we’re on-ramping small businesses all the time. In fact, right now we have the Commercial Lunar Payload Services [CLPS] program underway. We have nine companies that have signed up […] two of them now have task orders to deliver to the Moon in 2021 […] We’re on-ramping, not only those nine companies, but we want to on ramp additional companies, and maybe even bigger companies for larger landing opportunities because like I said, we’re going to have a lot more needs in the future for cargo on the surface of the Moon.”

Lawmakers ask US intelligence chief to investigate if TikTok is a national security threat

Two lawmakers have asked the government’s most senior U.S. intelligence official to assess if video-sharing app TikTok could pose “national security risks” to the United States.

In a letter by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), the lawmakers asked the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire if the app maker could be compelled to turn Americans’ data over to the Chinese authorities.

TikTok has some 110 million downloads to date and has spiked in popularity for its ability to record short, snappy videos that are sharable across social media networks. But the lawmakers say because TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company, it could be compelled by the Chinese government to turn over user data — such as location data, cookies, metadata and more — even if it’s stored on servers it owns in the United States.

Both Schumer and Cotton warn that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is “still required to adhere” to Chinese law.

“Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” the letter, dated Wednesday, said. “Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.”

That same legal principle works both ways. U.S. companies have been shut out, or had their access limited, in some nation states — including China — over fears that they could be compelled to spy on behalf of the U.S. government.

In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden disclosures, which revealed the U.S. government’s vast surveillance operation, several major tech companies were all dropped from China’s approved state purchases list amid fear of U.S. cooperation in surveillance.

The senators also said they are concerned that the app was censoring content “deemed politically sensitive” to Beijing. In September, The Guardian revealed that the app’s moderators actively censor content relating to Tibetan independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the banned religious group Falun Gong.

They also said the app could pose a “counterintelligence” threat as it could be used as a foreign influence tool as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

When reached, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would not comment.

TikTok said it was “carefully reviewing” the letter.

“We will not be offering any further comment on it at this time other than to reaffirm that TikTok is committed to being a trusted and responsible corporate citizen in the U.S., which includes working with Congress and all relevant regulatory agencies,” said TikTok spokesperson Josh Gartner.

Legged lunar rover startup Spacebit taps Latin American partners for Moon mission

UK-based lunar rover startup Spacebit, a company developing robotic exploration hardware for use on the Moon, announced two new partners that will help it develop and finalize its technology ahead of its target mission date of 2021. The Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency (EXA) and Mexico’s Dereum will be providing the technology that Spacebit will employ on both its deployer and the robot rover it’s preparing for use on the Moon.

This marks the first time that Latin American companies will participate in a mission to the lunar surface, and Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk was joined by Dereum CEO Carlos Mariscal and EXA COO Ronnie Nader to talk about the news at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C.

“We have Ecuador, and Mexico as our technical partners,” Tanasyuk said. “So in addition to this being the first lunar mission from the UK, it also is the first Latin American mission with a consortium of Latin American countries participating along with the UK.”

Both the EXA and Dereum have strong technical chops when it comes to spacecraft and space-based robotics, with the EXA sousing on developing technology that is “efficient, cheap and reliable,” according to Nader, while Dereum’s Mariscal said that his organization is well-known globally for its work on building robots for use in space, with an extensive track record. Their expertise should help a lot in Spacebit’s efforts to build, test and validate its robotic lunar rover, which employs a novel walking system for getting around, whereas all rovers to date have used wheels for transportation.

Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk

Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk

“We are planning on doing a swarm technology exploration plan, where we have multiple small spider walking rovers deployed from a wheeled mothership, along with being able to have some redundancy and the ability to do 3D LIDAR scanning of the interior  lunar caves and lava tubes,” Tanasyuk said.

“It’s essentially a data as a service business model,” he added, explaining how they’ll seek to monetize the business. “Our primary focus for early missions are to do exploration and mapping of lunar lava tubes to be able to characterize the lunar subsurface environment for potential suitability for future human habitation.”

Spacebit, founded in 2014, is funded privately via Tanasyuk himself, along with a couple of other private investors. He said that his company is fully funded through its first mission, a berth aboard the Peregrine Moon lander being launched by Astrobotic in 2021 (which itself has a price tag of $1.7 million he said). The first mission won’t be an entire swarm, but a single rover sent up as a demonstration unit to prove out its technology.

Small rocket launch startup Firefly teams up with Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a perfect example of a small, new space startup teaming up with a legacy industry heavyweight with plenty of experience, Firefly is teaming up with Aerojet Rocketdyne. Firefly Aerospace was founded in 2013, and has raised $21.6 million so far to bring its first product, the Alpha small satellite launch vehicle, to market.

Firefly is on track to make its crucial first launch in time for the February to March timeframe next year, according to Firefly founder and CEO Dr. Tom Markusic, who spoke at the International Astronautical Congress this year in Washington, D.C., to provide an update on his company’s progress and talk about the newly formed partnership between Firefly and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Firefly Space Systems CEO Tom Markusic

Firefly founder and CEO Tom Markusic

Markusic was joined by Aerojet Rocketdyne SVP of Space Business Jim Maser, and the two executives explained how Aerojet will provide engines for Firefly to use on its next-generation launch vehicle, aptly named ‘Beta,’ the full development of which will follow once Alpha has launched and enters into regular commercial service.

Beta will be a medium launch vehicle, with greater cargo capacity compared to Alpha and a maxim load of around 8.5 metric tons. Alpha, the startup’s first rocket, will be able to take 1 metric ton to orbit, which Markusic said his company has identified as the “sweet spot” for current unaddressed demand.

That medium band is also underserved, Markusic said, and since it’ll need a bigger booster to transport that larger cargo capacity to orbit, they looked around for solutions and found that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 Engine, which can produce 500,000 lbs of thrust, was the perfect solution.

In general Markusic and Maser both expressed the opinion that startup and younger companies just getting into the industry are prime partners for older companies like Aerojet, which was founded in 1942 and has been serving the rocket and missile industry ever since.

firefly alpha

Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle

“It’s okay to move fast and it’s okay to make mistakes, but let’s not make other peoples’ mistakes and let’s not make our own mistakes twice,” Markusic said, characterizing the benefits of teaming up with someone with lots more experience. This partnership goes beyond just the engine supply arrangement, Markusic said, and will provide more far ranging benefits for the startup.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne has a whole corral of amazing in space propulsion options for example the XR-5,” Markusic said. “Which is a five kilowatt hull thruster that can be utilized on our OTV (orbital transfer vehicle), and advanced OTV, we could do some heavier missions in cis-lunar space, and they also have a large corral of flight proven by proposed chemical thrusters that can be used on these other stages as well.”

AR1 Successful Engine Preburner Test min

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine undergoing a preburner test

Firefly plans to do an orbital transfer vehicle to provide more advanced launch capabilities, and its ambitions extend even beyond launchers and to in-space manufacturing, which Markusic said is attractive to the company since the ultimate way to reduce launch costs is to obviate the need for launch costs altogether, and the company’s ultimate goal is to get more commercial satellites into orbit, regardless of method. Still, there’s plenty of opportunity bu Markusic says ultimate, the company’s biggest challenge right now is remaining focused on their most immediate, and most important goal.

“Their are at least 100 companies like Firefly talking about going to space,” he said. “We’re in that crowd of talkers right now, and it is my focus with this company to get us out of that crowd of people talking about it as soon as possible, and into the elite crowd of people that are actually flying a spacecraft to space.”

Arianespace will offer the first rocket rideshare mission to the Moon in 2023

European launch provider Arianespace announced some exciting news regarding its ambitions for the Moon at the International Astronautical Congress today. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël revealed on stage that its forthcoming space launch vehicle, the Ariane 6, will aim to deliver the first rideshare mission to the Moon in four years.

”By 2023 we are ready to offer the first ride share mission to the Moon with Ariane 6 and we are contemplating the first public and private customers for that launch,” he said during a fireside discussion on stage at the event.

This rideshare mission will be able to transport up to 8.5 tons of cargo, and deliver that to direct lunar transfer orbit. Israël said that while it currently in Arianespace’s planning scope to transport crew aboard their spacecraft, they could delivery landers and orbiters aboard the Ariane 6, which would set the stage for crew missions to follow – including potentially NASA’s Artemis program.

Ariane 6 is a two-stage medium-heavy lift launch system currently in development by Arianespace, under the direction of the European Space Agency. It’s aiming to have its first test flights next year, which makes the 2023 target for its first lunar orbit mission with paying customer cargo on board ambitious.

If Ariane 6 can make that target, however, it could become a crucial transport mechanism for any long-term attempts to not only ensure we can get crew to the Moon, but establish a working infrastructure and stay there, with humans spending long spans of time there living, working and researching.