NASA chooses the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission

Five years and sixty potential locations later, NASA has chosen the Jezero Crater as the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover mission.

Slated to launch in July the Mars 2020 rover mission will touch down at the Jezero Crater as NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet enters its next phase.

The rover will be looking for signs of habitable conditions — and past microbial life — while also collecting rock and soil samples that will be stored in a cache on the Martian surface.

Alongside the European Space Agency, NASA is already studying future missions that will allow the agencies to retrieve the samples and return them to earth. According to NASA, this new landing is the first step of a planned decade-long exploration of Mars.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

The crater is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator, with some of the oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer, according to NASA scientists.

Mission scientists believe the 28-mile-wide crater once held an ancient river delta, and could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater.

NASA thinks it can collect up to five different kinds of Martian rock, including clays and carbonates that may preserve indicators of past life. There’s also the hope that minerals have been swept into the crater over the last billion years which Rover could also collect.

It was the geologic diversity of the Jezero crater that ultimately tipped the scales for NASA scientists, but the site’s contours will make it a bit more tricky for NASA entry, descent and landing engineers, according to a statement from the agency.

“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.”

This Mras mission will be the first to feature new Terrain Relative Navigation technologies to allow the rover to avoid hazardous areas during the “sky crane” descent stage — when the rocket-powered system carries the rover down to the surface.

The site selection is dependent upon extensive analyses and verification testing of the TRN capability. A final report will be presented to an independent review board and NASA Headquarters in the fall of 2019.

“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” said Zurbuchen. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision.  The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”

Now that the site has been selected, rover drivers and NASA’s science operations team can start planning for the exploration of the crater once the rover is on the ground. Using information from Mars orbiters, they will map the terrain and try to identify regions that could be the most interesting for the rover to explore.

Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Source: Tech Crunch

Inboard opens general availability of its premium electric scooter

Inboard, the startup that sells a range of electric scooters and skateboards, has just opened sales of its first premium scooter — just in time for the holiday season.

The company has already sold 285 of the scooters in a private pre-sale, with 80 percent of the orders coming from the United States and 35 percent coming from inside California.

Best known for its M1 electric skateboard, the “Glider” electric scooter will become the second product in the Inboard suite.

Retailing for $999, the Glider scooter boasts a swappable battery and an integrated app that gives users information about their location while on the go, and provides traffic information and diagnostics and maintenance alerts, according to the company.

“The Glider is the confluence of hardware mastery, software expertise and our team’s relentless ambition to provide safer and smarter urban transportation,” said Inboard co-founder and chief executive, Ryan Evans. “Our goal is not only to release the most advanced e-scooter on the market, but to enter the space responsibly and lead with safety. Our hardware will be the most innovative on the market, but it is our software that truly separates the Glider from the competition – allowing riders a safer and more efficient journey, while providing a fun way to re-imagine your city.”

Inboard pitches itself as a safer scooter, designed for a rider height below the axle centerline and featuring headlights, brake lights, turn signals, bigger tires and a wider deck.

Gliders also come with a three-axis accelerometer to detect board vibrations and inform riders about road obstacles through its app.

Backed with $11.7 million in venture financing from investors, including Upfront Ventures and the battery technology developer LION Smart, European investment firm Sunstone Capital and Sweet Capital, Inboard is betting on the same mobility revolution that has fueled the sky-high funding rounds for companies like Bird and Lime.

The company is betting that the mobility revolution isn’t something that riders will want to rent, but something that they’ll own as the types of people-moving options and services continue to expand.

The Glider’s pre-sale price of $999 is only available via pre-order until 12/31/18, the company said, at which point pricing will be increased to the full price of $1,299.


Source: Tech Crunch

Instagram kills off fake followers, threatens accounts that keep using apps to get them

Instagram is fighting back against automated apps people use to leave spammy comments or follow then unfollow others in hopes of growing their audience. Today Instagram is removing from people’s accounts who use these apps inauthentic follows, Likes and comments that violate its policies; sending them a warning to change their password to cut ties with these apps, and saying people who continue using these apps “may see their Instagram experience impacted.” Instagram tells me it “may limit access to certain features, for example” for those users.

Instagram is also hoping to discourage users from ever giving another company the login details to their accounts as this can lead to them being hacked or having their account used to send spam. So if you see Instagram follower accounts drop, it’s not because that profile offended people, but because the followers were fake.The renewed vigor for policy enforcement comes amidst the continuing threat of foreign misinformation campaigns on Facebook and Instagram designed to polarize communities and influence elections in the U.S. and abroad. Facebook has said that inauthentic accounts are often the root of these campaigns, and it has removed 754 million fake accounts in the past quarter alone, and stopping these spam apps could prevent them from misusing clients’ accounts. Instagram has been taking down fake accounts since at least 2014, but this is the first time it’s publicly discussed removing fake likes from posts. It now says “We’ve built machine learning tools to help identify accounts that use [third-party apps for boosting followers] and remove the inauthentic activity.”

Some of the most popular bot apps for growing followers like Instagress and Social Growth have been shut down, but others like Archie, InstarocketProX and Boostio charge $10 to $45 per month. They often claim not to violate Instagram’s policies, though they do. The New York Times this year found many well-known celebrities had stooped to buying fake Twitter followers from a company called Devumi.

Users typically have to provide their username and password to these services, which then take control of their accounts and automatically Like, comment on and follow accounts associated with desired hashtags to dupe them into following the unscrupulous user back. The spam app users will now get scolded by Instagram, which will send “an in-app message alerting them that we have removed the inauthentic likes, follows and comments given by their account to others” and be told to change their passwords.

InstarocketProX advertises how it sends fake likes and follows from your account to get you followersOne big question, though, is whether Instagram will crack down harder on ads for services that sell fake followers that appear on its app. I’ve spotted these in the past, and they sometimes masquerade as analytics apps for assisting influencers with tracking the size of their audience. We asked Instagram and a spokesperson told us “Ads are also subject to our Community Standards, which prohibit spammy activity like collecting likes, followers, etc. — so you are correct that ads promoting these services violate our policies. Please feel free to report them if you see them.”

Follower accounts on apps like Instagram have become measures of people’s influence, credibility and earning potential. This is becoming especially true for social media stars who are paid for brand sponsorships in part based on their audience size. Now that brands are even paying “nanoinfluencers” with as few as one thousand followers to post sponsored content, the allure to use these services can be high and lead to an immediate return on illicit investment.

If no one can believe those counts are accurate, it throws Instagram’s legitimacy into question. And every time you get a notification about a fake follow or Like, it distracts you from real life, dilutes the quality of conversation on Instagram and makes people less likely to stick with the app. Anyone willing to pay for fake followers doesn’t deserve your attention, and Instagram should not hold back from terminating their accounts if they don’t stop.

Source: Tech Crunch

Virgin Orbit successfully takes its 747 flying launchpad out for a spin

In the next step on its path to getting its low earth orbit payload launch system up and running, Virgin Orbit successfully took its LauncherOne system out for a spin with an actual rocket attached under its wing. 

The company’s specially modified 747-400 carried a 70-foot-long rocket as part of a test flight proving that the carbon-fiber, two-stage rocket works with the plane.

It’s a necessary step toward Virgin Orbit’s plans to begin launching rockets early next year.

The launch took place in Victorville, Calif., near Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and the Mojave Air and Space Port, which serves as an operational launch site for Virgin.

“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.), in a statement. “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

The company said that it expects to conduct several more flights of its 747-400, both with and without the LauncherOne rocket. The critical culmination of all of these tests will be a drop test, when a rocket will be released from the 747 (dubbed “Cosmic Girl”) without igniting. 

That test is designed to provide data about the systems aboard the 747 that control detachment and about the rocket’s performance in an atmospheric free-fall.

Virgin Orbit is one of several new companies racing to get new launch systems in orbit. Already capacity-constrained as companies push to launch new satellites into low earth orbit, companies like Virgin Orbit, RocketLab, Relativity Space, ARCA, AstroSpace, Blue Origin, Generation Orbit, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and others around the world have raised hundreds of millions to take payloads into space.

Source: Tech Crunch

BuzzFeed News launches a paid membership program (and yes, there’s a tote bag)

BuzzFeed News is giving readers a new way to support its journalism — by paying a monthly or yearly fee.

BuzzFeed might not seem like the most obvious publication to ask readers for financial support, as it doesn’t really have the high-minded appeal of (say) NPR or The New Yorker. However, the company has been working to establish a separate identity for its team focused on real journalism (as opposed to the quizzes and other entertainment for which BuzzFeed is known). In fact, it launched a separate website for BuzzFeed News a few months ago.

In August, BuzzFeed News started giving readers a way to make one-off donations of between $5 and $100. It says the average donation was more than $20, with some readers asking for a way to support the organization on an ongoing basis.

So today, it’s launching a recurring membership program. For $5 a month, readers will receive members-only emails highlighting the latest scoops and taking them behind the scenes of BuzzFeed reporting. For $100 a year, they’ll also receive a BuzzFeed News tote bag.

BuzzFeed memberships

The memberships are available internationally, but you can only get a tote bag if you’re in the United States.

BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue target last year by as much as 20 percent, so it’s not surprising that the company is looking beyond advertising for ways to make money. However, in an email to the BuzzFeed team, Global News Director Lisa Tozzi said, “A membership program takes time to build, and we don’t expect it to be a huge portion of BuzzFeed’s revenue in 2019. That’s why we’re investing in it now and hope to see it contribute more to our work over time.”

And if you’re worried that this might be setting the stage for a paywall or meter on BuzzFeed News stories, Tozzi said flatly, “This is not a prelude to any sort of paywall.”

Source: Tech Crunch

Original Content podcast: The disappointment of ‘House of Cards’ and its final season

It seems like Netflix’s “House of Cards” had a real opportunity for a fresh start with season six.

Granted, the behind-the-scenes turmoil probably made this season particularly challenging: Production was already underway when “Star Trek: Discovery” actor Anthony Rapp came forward with allegations that Kevin Spacey made a sexual advance towards him when Rapp was only 14. In response, Netflix and production company Media Rights Capital halted production and ultimately decided to rewrite the season without Spacey’s character Frank Underwood.

If you’ve watched “House of Cards,” you know that this must have been a big change, since Underwood and his political schemes have been at the center of the show for five years. Still, the previous season ended with Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood taking over the presidency, so it seemed like the right time to rethink this as a show that’s centered on Claire.

What we got, however, was a season that’s still very much about Frank Underwood. Sure, he’s died offscreen before the season starts, and Spacey never appears in these new episodes. But he still casts a long shadow over the show, with all of the characters focused on the mystery of his death and the power vacuum he left behind. On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we try to explain why we found this approach so unsatisfying.

In addition, we talk about the death of comics legend Stan Lee and Hulu’s plans to create multiple series based on “Wild Cards,” a set of superhero stories edited by George R.R. Martin. This, in turn, leads us to the question on every “Song of Ice and Fire” fan’s mind: When is he going to finish the next book?

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Source: Tech Crunch

Google looks to former Oracle exec Thomas Kurian to move cloud business along

Diane Greene announced on Friday that she was stepping down after three years running Google’s cloud business. She will stay on until the first of the year to help her successor, Thomas Kurian in the transition. He left Oracle at the end of September after more than 20 years with the company, and is charged with making Google’s cloud division more enterprise-friendly, a goal that has oddly eluded the company.

Greene was brought on board in 2015 to bring some order and enterprise savvy to the company’s cloud business. While she did help move them along that path, and grew the cloud business, it simply hasn’t been enough. There have been rumblings for months that Greene’s time was coming to an end.

So the torch is being passed to Kurian, a man who spent over two decades at a company that might be the exact opposite of Google. He ran product at Oracle, a traditional enterprise software company. Oracle itself has struggled to make the transition to a cloud company, but Bloomberg reported in September that one of the reasons Kurian was taking a leave of absence at the time was a difference of opinion with Chairman Larry Ellison over cloud strategy. According to the report, Kurian wanted to make Oracle’s software available on public clouds like AWS and Azure (and Google Cloud). Ellison apparently didn’t agree and a couple of weeks later Kurian announced he was moving on.

Even though Kurian’s background might not seem to be perfectly aligned with Google, it’s important to keep in mind that his thinking was evolving. He was also in charge of thousands of products and helped champion Oracle’s move to the cloud. He has experience successfully nurturing products enterprises have wanted, and perhaps that’s the kind of knowledge Google was looking for in its next cloud leader.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research says Google still needs to learn to support the enterprise, and he believes Kurian is the right person to help the company get there. “Kurian knows what’s required to make a cloud company work for enterprise customers,” Wang said.

If he’s right, perhaps an old-school enterprise executive is just what Google requires to turn its Cloud division into an enterprise-friendly powerhouse. Greene has always maintained that it was still early days for the cloud and Google had plenty of time to capture part of the untapped market, a point she reiterated in her blog post on Friday. “The cloud space is early and there is an enormous opportunity ahead,” she wrote.

She may be right about that, but marketshare positions seem to be hardening. AWS, which was first to market, has an enormous marketshare lead with over 30 percent by most accounts. Microsoft is the only company with the market strength at the moment to give them a run for their money and the only other company with double digit market share numbers. In fact, Amazon has a larger marketshare than the next four companies combined, according to data from Synergy Research.

While Google is always mentioned in the Big 3 cloud companies with AWS and Microsoft, with around $4 billion revenue a year, it has a long way to go to get to the level of these other companies. Despite Greene’s assertions, time could be running out to make a run. Perhaps Kurian is the person to push the company to grab some of that untapped market as companies move more workloads to the cloud. At this point, Google is counting on him to do just that.

Source: Tech Crunch

The slow corrosion of techno-optimism

Two weeks from now, the Swahilipot Hub, a hackerspace / makerspace / center for techies and artists in Mombasa, Kenya, is hosting a Pwani Innovation Week, “to stimulate the innovation ecosystem in the Pwani Region.” Some of its organizers showed me around Mombasa’s cable landing site some years ago; they’re impressive people. The idea of the Hub and its forthcoming event fills me with unleavened enthusiasm, and optimism … and a bleak realization that it’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about a tech initiative.

What happened? How did we go from predictions that the tech industry would replace the hidebound status quo with a new democratized openness, power to the people, now that we all carry a networked supercomputer in our pocket … to widespread, metastasizing accusations of abuse of power? To cite just a few recent examples: Facebook being associated with genocide and weaponized disinformation; Google with sexual harassment and nonconsensual use of patients’ medical data; and Amazon’s search for a new headquarters called “shameful — it should be illegal” by The Atlantic.

To an extent some of this was inevitable. The more powerful you become, the less publicly acceptable it is to throw your increasing weight around like Amazon has done. I’m sure that to Google, subsuming DeepMind is a natural, inevitable corporate progression, a mere structural reshuffling, and it’s not their fault that the medical providers they’re working with never got explicit consent from their patients to share the provided data. Facebook didn’t know it was going to be a breeding ground for massive disinformation campaigns; it was, and remains, a colossal social experiment in which we are all participating, despite the growing impression that its negatives may outweigh its positives. And at both the individual and corporate levels, as a company grows more powerful, “power corrupts” remains an inescapable truism.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s more going on here than mischance and the natural side effects of growth, and this is particularly true for Facebook and Twitter. When we talk about loss of faith in tech, most of the time, I think, we mean loss of faith in social media. It’s true that we don’t want them to become censors. The problem is that they already are, as a side effect, via their algorithms which show posts and tweets with high “engagement” — i.e. how vehemently users respond. The de facto outcome is to amplify outrage, and hence disinformation.

It may well be true, in a neutral environment, that the best answer to bad speech is more speech. The problem is that Facebook and Twitter are anything but neutral environments. Their optimization for “engagement” is a Brobdingnagian thumb on their scales, tilting their playing fields into whole Himalayas of advantages for bad faith, misinformation, disinformation, outrage and hate.

This optimization isn’t even necessary for their businesses to be somewhat successful. In 2014, Twitter had a strict chronological timeline, and recorded a $100 million profit before stock-based compensation — with relatively primitive advertising infrastructure, compared to today. Twitter and Facebook could kill the disinformation problem tomorrow, with ease, by switching from an algorithmic, engagement-based timeline back to a strict chronological one.

Never going to happen, of course. It would hurt their profits and their stock price too much. Just like Google was never going to consider itself bound to DeepMind’s cofounder’s assurance two years ago that “DeepMind operates autonomously from Google.” Just like Amazon was never going to consider whether siphoning money from local governments at its new so-called “co-headquarters” was actually going to be good for its new homes. Because while technology has benefited individuals, enormously, it’s really benefited technology’s megacorporations, and they’re going to follow their incentives, not ours.

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest post begins: “Many of us got into technology because we believe it can be a democratizing force for putting power in people’s hands.” I agree with that statement. Many of us did. But, looking back, were we correct? Is it really what the available evidence show us? Has it, perhaps, put some power in people’s hands — but delivered substantially more to corporations and governments?

I fear that the available evidence seems to confirm, instead, the words of tech philosopher-king Maciej Ceglowski. His most relevant rant begins with a much simpler, punchier phrase: “Technology concentrates power.” Today it seems harder than ever to argue with that.

Source: Tech Crunch

Vision Direct reveals breach that skimmed customer credit cards

European online contact lens supplier Vision Direct has revealed a data breach which compromised full credit card details for a number of its customers, as well as personal information.

Compromised data includes full name, billing address, email address, password, telephone number and payment card information, including card number, expiry date and CVV.

It’s not yet clear how many of Vision Direct’s customers are affected — we’ve reached out to the company with questions.

Detailing the data theft in a post on its website Vision Direct writes that customer data was compromised between 12.11am GMT November 3, 2018 and 12.52pm GMT November 8 — with any logged in users who were ordering or updating their information on in that time window potentially being affected.

It says it has emailed customers to notify them of the data theft.

“This data was compromised when entering data on the website and not from the Vision Direct database,” the company writes on its website. “The breach has been resolved and our website is working normally.”

“We advise any customers who believe they may have been affected to contact their banks or credit card providers and follow their advice,” it adds.

(As an aside, Fintech startup Revolut didn’t hang around waiting for concerned customers to call — blogging today that, on hearing the breach news, it quickly identified 80 of its customers who had been affected. “As a precaution, we immediately contacted all affected customers letting them know that we had cancelled their existing cards and would be sending them a replacement one for free,” it adds.)

Vision Direct says affected payment methods include Visa, Mastercard and Maestro — but not PayPal (although it says PayPal users’ personal data may still have been swiped).

It claims existing personal data previously stored in its database was not affected by the breach — writing that the theft “only impacted new information added or updated on the website” (and only during the aforementioned time window).

“All payment card data is stored with our payment providers and so stored payment card information was not affected by the breach,” it adds.

Data appears to have been compromised via a Javascript keylogger running on the Vision Direct website, according to security researcher chatter on Twitter.

After the breach was made public, security researcher Troy Mursch quickly found a fake Google Analytics script had been running on Vision Direct’s UK website:

The malicious script also looks to have affected additional Vision Direct domains in Europe; and users of additional ecommerce sites (at least one of which they found still running the fake script)…

Another security researcher, Willem de Groot, picked up on the scam in September, writing in a blog post then that: “The domain is not owned by Google, as opposed to its legitimate counterpart. The fraud is hosted on a dodgy Russian/Romanian/Dutch/Dubai network called HostSailor.”

He also found the malware had “spread to various websites”, saying its creator had crafted “14 different copies over the course of 3 weeks”, and tailored some versions to include a fake payment popup form “that was built for a specific website”.

“These instances are still harvesting passwords and identities as of today,” de Groot warned about two months before Vision Direct got breached.

Source: Tech Crunch