China’s 9-ton Tiangong-1 space station will burn up tonight, but no one knows quite where

What goes up must come down. That’s generally the rule, anyway, certainly for spacecraft that have fulfilled their purpose and have no way to stay in orbit. Such is the case of Tiangong-1, China’s first space station, which after nearly 7 years in space is making an uncontrolled descent and should provide a nice fiery light show in the skies over… somewhere.

Because there are so many unknowns about Tiangong-1’s trajectory, observers can only give an educated guess. The only thing they’re pretty sure about is that it’s going to drop some time in the next 24 hours — probably sometime tonight, and somewhere between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south.

But owing to the speeds involved and the inherently unpredictable nature of how a large body will tumble through the atmosphere, the exact time and location won’t be known basically until the event occurs. “At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible,” explained reentry experts at the European Space Agency.

That sounds quite dire, but it isn’t.

Sure, Tiangong-1 is about the size of a schoolbus and weighs 9.4 tons, but unlike a meteorite of that size the station is hollow and fragile, and should break apart completely during its descent. There’s no danger, experts insist. No one is on board the station and it isn’t on a collision course with any crewed craft.

It may seem a little crazy, but burning up in the atmosphere is just a part of the natural life cycle of large spacecraft. This one isn’t even that big.

Tiangong-1 (the name roughly translates to “Heavenly Palace”) was launched in late 2011 in two parts, which connected in space — the first such feat accomplished by China’s space program. Over the next two years, three spacecraft docked with the newly formed station: one robotic craft, Shenzhou-8, and two crewed missions, Shenzhou-9 and 10, each with three on board.

These missions proved the viability of China’s space station tech (another test platform, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016), and in 2013 Tiangong-1, having accomplished what its creators set out to do, was deactivated. Its creators planned to have it execute a controlled descent at some point, using its thrusters to put it on a path to break up over the ocean.

As little risk as there may be of debris hitting someone, it’s good practice not to take that risk if you don’t have to, and good manners not to dispose of your space junk over someone else’s country.

A helpful visualization of the expected debris footprint of Tiangong-1 from The Aerospace Corporation.

Unfortunately, the spacecraft stopped responding to its handlers in China about two years ago, meaning that a controlled descent was no longer possible. As a result, Tiangong-1’s orbit has decayed naturally and it’s only in the last few months that it’s become clear when it would come down.

Because we have no telemetry from the station, we only know what we can observe from outside the station (like Fraunhofer’s radar imagery, shown above), and a host of variables make it difficult to say anything with certainty. It wasn’t until this week that its deorbit path has become clear enough that space authorities are confident giving even a 24-hour window when it will come down.

Those on the ground there may possibly be treated to a “splendid” light show, as China’s space agency put it, as if a large meteor is breaking up in the upper atmosphere. It should be visible for a minute or so as the station tumbles and breaks up and its constituent pieces burn.

Predictions may get slightly better depending on observations, so I’ll update this post if the window is significantly altered.

Source: Tech Crunch

STEAMRole is like Tinder for mentorship

Providing ongoing mentorship can be impractical for busy professionals. With STEAMRole, the idea is to empower professionals to easily share their stories with students and young professionals.

It’s like Tinder for finding your role model and dream career in science, technology, engineering, art or math, STEAMRole founder and CEO Clarence Wooten told me.

“As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see,” Wooten said.

Similar to Snapchat’s story functionality, students and aspiring professionals can consume inspirational content from role models. For role models, they can post about how their backgrounds, the work they do and how they landed their dream job.

“We want to make it easy for role models to give back and who want to mentor,” Wooten said. “We do it in a way that’s like creating a Snapchat story, and then followers can subscribe to content.”

STEAMRole is also incorporating blockchain technology to incentivize learners to achieve certain skills through its digital currency, RoleCoin. STEAMRole currently has several hundred role models signed up to be notified when it launches.

Source: Tech Crunch

DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms

The Defense Department’s research wing is serious about putting drones into action, not just one by one but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program is kicking off its second “sprint,” a period of solicitation and rapid prototyping of systems based around a central theme. This spring sprint is all about “autonomy.”

The idea is to collect lots of ideas on how new technology, be it sensors, software, or better propeller blades, can enhance the ability of drones to coordinate and operate as a collective.

Specifically, swarms of 50 will need to “isolate an urban objective” within half an hour or so by working together with each other and ground-based robot. That at least is the “operational backdrop” that should guide prospective entrants in their decision whether their tech is applicable.

So a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while practical for farmers, isn’t really something the Pentagon is interested in here. On the other hand, if you can sell that idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they might take a shine to it.

But you could also simply demonstrate how using a compact ground-based lidar system could improve swarm coordination at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you’ve designed a midair charging system that lets a swarm perk up flagging units without human intervention.

Those are pretty good ideas, actually — maybe I’ll run them by the program manager, Timothy Chung, when he’s on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley this May. Chung also oversees the Subterranean Challenge and plenty more at DARPA . He looks like he’s having a good time in the video explaining the ground rules of this new sprint:

You don’t have to actually have 50 drones to take part — there are simulators and other ways of demonstrating value. More information on the program and how to submit your work for consideration can be found at the FBO page.

Source: Tech Crunch

Charting the adoption of direct startup investments by family offices

There’s money, and then there’s wealth. In all likelihood, money is what most of us have (or don’t have). It’s what we use to buy lunch, pay rent or put a down payment on a house. Wealth, on the other hand, is what buys yachts. But more than superficial material things, wealth also buys financial security (and all the good and ill that comes with it) for subsequent generations.

What is a family office?

Although close to half of Americans hold no stocks, bonds or real estate, most of the remaining half that are lucky and prosperous enough to do so choose to manage their assets on their own, or perhaps with the help of a financial advisor. But as you move further along the privileged end of the socio-economic curve, managing, preserving and growing one’s wealth becomes more complicated.

Many of the world’s highest-net-worth (HNW) families employ an entire office full of accountants, lawyers and investment professionals to manage their assets. These “family offices” sometimes manage the assets of more than one family, but they are still relatively close-knit.

Historically, family offices haven’t made many direct investments into individual tech startups, instead favoring a more diversified approach to tech investing by being limited partners in venture capital and other private-market funds. Or, outside of tech, they invest in public-market equities, real estate, fixed income or other “alternative” asset classes besides VC, PE and hedge funds, according to a 2017 article about ultra HNW investors’ portfolios from KKR.

Increasingly, however, family offices are investing more into individual tech startups, at least according to anecdotal reports and a recent funding round Crunchbase News covered. But one anecdote doesn’t document a trend, so let’s take a look at the numbers.

Family offices’ direct investment into startups picked up the pace

Data covering direct startup investments from family offices listed in Crunchbase bears out that trend. The chart below is based on more than 1,700 venture deals (seed, angel, equity crowdfunding, Series A, Series B, etc.) struck with individual technology companies by 193 family offices located around the world.

The 193 family offices with listed venture investments are, no doubt, only a fraction of the total count of such groups, which tend to be private. Combined with the fact that many startups are slow to announce funding, it’s not like the list of funding rounds or their participants is comprehensive. However, assuming it’s fairly representative, we can treat the figure above as a directional indicator of general trends.

And what are those trends?

First off, at least when it comes to deal volume, family offices’ startup investment activity tracks with the broader venture investment market (which includes individual angels, venture capital groups, seed funds, accelerators and others).

During the several years leading up to 2015, there was a run-up in the number of deals being struck. After that high point, though, deal volume began to decline in the U.S., which Crunchbase News has documented, as investors eschewed writing many smaller checks to early-stage startups, instead favoring fewer, larger checks with later-stage tech companies. On a global scale, projected deal volume is roughly flat on an annualized basis from 2015 through 2017, whereas reported deal data is down primarily due to reporting delays. Because there are more U.S. family offices that invest in startups than international ones, it’s not surprising to see that family office deal volume hews closer to the U.S. market in general.

Family office venture deal volume growth outpaced VC

But what’s different about family offices — and what lends credence to the anecdotal evidence suggesting there are more family offices investing in more startups — is the growth rate in deal volume over time as compared to institutional venture capital investors. To be sure, worldwide, there were more deals struck by both types of investor in 2017 than in 2010 (even when accounting for reporting delays). But the difference between these two types of investor is in the magnitude of the change.

In the chart below, we compare reported deal volume between VC funds (which have a lot of known deals per year) and family offices (which, as we showed above, have much fewer recorded startup investment deals per year). We adjust for this discrepancy in deal volume by indexing reported deal volume against 2010 levels. In doing so, we’re able to deliver a relativistic, apples-to-apples comparison between the two.

Worldwide, in 2015, reported deal volume from VC firms was almost precisely 2.5x that of 2010’s totals. But that multiple for family offices is roughly 6x. And, although it isn’t pictured above, family office deal volume growth outperformed traditional VC between 2011-2017, 2012-2017 and 2013-2017.

In relative terms, across a range of measures, deal volume growth was higher and faster among family offices than VC funds for a significant period of time. The data suggest that family offices making direct investments into startups recently became a trend. Especially for that period through 2014, family offices were on the early side of the adoption curve for making direct startup investments. Whatever growth we see on the VC side is the product of growth in the market in general, but it’s not like VC funds are still adopting direct startup investments into their repertoire. It’s been their model for decades. For comparatively stodgy family offices, it was still the new, new thing.

Source: Tech Crunch

Nostalgia eats itself in ‘Ready Player One’

First things first: I had a really good time watching Ready Player One. As promised, the movie feels like a chance for Steven Spielberg to return to his roots as a blockbuster filmmaker, and to take all the toys out of the box and smash them together.

The film is based on Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel, with a script by Cline and Zak Penn. It’s ostensibly set in Columbus, Ohio, 30 years in the future, in a world overwhelmed by climate change and overpopulation. But Ready Player One‘s real setting is the OASIS, an enormous virtual reality world.

The story’s hero is Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), who spends most of his time in the OASIS, hoping to complete three challenges  left behind by James Halliday, the technology’s inventor. Halliday has promised that the first person to complete the challenges will gain control of the OASIS.

The film’s central achievement is bringing this virtual world to life. Rather than aiming for a photo-real effect, Spielberg has embraced the OASIS’ essentially cartoony and video game-like qualities, and after a few minutes of acclimation, I had no problem jumping back-and-forth between the movie’s digital free-for-all and its live action dystopia.

ready player one

It’s clear that the characters take what happens in the OASIS as seriously as anything in the “real world,” and that they see their virtual avatars as an extension or expression of their real selves, so I was happy to follow their lead.

And as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Wreck-it Ralph have already shown, there can be something exhilarating about seeing elements from classic films and video games thrown together. I genuinely felt like I was 10 years old again as I watched the first big set piece, with Wade racing through the streets of New York City in his Back to the Future-style DeLorean, dodging King Kong and the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park.

But I also felt a rapidly growing sense of diminishing returns.

True, Spielberg and other directors of his generation have openly borrowed from old movies throughout their careers. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars were inspired by the pop culture that Spielberg and his friend George Lucas loved as kids, but those movies transformed what had come before into something new.

There’s nothing quite as magical here. At its worst, Ready Player One amounts to little more than a game of spot-the-reference. And even at its best, any excitement feels more like a rapidly fading sugar rush, not the indelible thrill of Spielberg’s best work.

He’s has been happy to talk about Ready Player One as a return to making movies “from the audience, for the audience,” but Spielberg’s also suggested that he has more on his mind than pure entertainment — that the film is meant to highlight some of the ways that the Internet and virtual reality could be used to isolate us, to distract from the world’s very real problems.

Some of that comes across in the film’s opening moments, when Wade climbs down a tower of rundown trailers. Inside each one, we can see that his neighbors are all hidden behind goggles, living in their own fantasies.

But despite a few pious nods towards the importance of the real world, the film doesn’t seem very interested in the flaws of the OASIS — or the dark side of the nostalgic fan culture that Wade embodies. Sure, Wade has a hard time to talking to girls, but it’s clear that when he confronts the film’s villain (a corporate executive who could never love John Hughes movies the way Wade does), we’re meant to see cheer him on as he declares, “A fanboy knows a hater.”

And while Mark Rylance delivers the film’s most compelling performance as Halliday, the script falls short. By portraying the most powerful technologist in the world as a lonely, awkward but ultimately benign and Willy Wonka-ish figure, it feels strangely out-of-sync with 2018, when everyone seems to be wrestling with the damage that these digital platforms may be doing.

And yet … I had a good time. I felt plenty of reservations as I left the theater, but I made my peace with them by accepting Ready Player One as the ultimate expression of geek nostalgia, with all the virtues and the limitations that implies.

I suspect Spielberg and Cline have taken us as far down the pop culture rabbit hole as any movie can go. Hopefully, other filmmakers will realize that, and they’ll look elsewhere for inspiration.

Source: Tech Crunch