Extra Portion of SpaceX Rocket Recovered from Launch, Musk Says

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday salvaged half of the $6 million nosecone of its rocket, in what the space entrepreneur deemed an important feat in the drive to recover more of its launch hardware and cut the cost of space flights.

Shortly after the main section of SpaceX’s first recycled Falcon 9 booster landed itself on a platform in the ocean, half of the rocket’s nosecone, which protected a communications satellite during launch, splashed down via parachute nearby.

“That was the cherry on the cake,” Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, told reporters after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Measuring 43 feet (13 meters) long and 17 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the nosecone is big enough to hold a school bus. It separates into two pieces, exposing the satellite, about 4 minutes after liftoff.

 

As a test, SpaceX outfitted the fairing with thrusters and a steerable parachute.

“It’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said. “The thrusters maintain its orientation as it re-enters and then … the parachute steers it to a particular location.”

SpaceX has focused most of its efforts and more than $1 billion into developing technologies to recover the Falcon 9’s main section, which accounts for about 75 percent of the $62 million rocket. Musk’s goal is to cut the cost of spaceflight so that humanity can migrate beyond Earth.

“I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars,” he said.

Landing on ‘bouncy castle’

After some debate about whether the nosecone could be recovered, Musk said he told his engineering team, “Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that’s just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would.”

Musk envisions deploying a kind of “bouncy castle” for the fairing to land on so it can be recovered intact and reused.

The company plans up to six more flights of recycled boosters this year, including two that will strapped alongside a third, new first stage for the debut test flight of a heavy-lift rocket.

Originally slated to fly in 2013, Falcon Heavy is now expected to fly late this summer.

“At first it sounded easy: We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters,” Musk said. “It was actually shockingly difficult to go from single core to a triple-core vehicle.”

SpaceX also may try to land the rocket’s upper-stage section, a feat the company has never attempted. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” Musk wrote Friday on Twitter.

Privately owned SpaceX also is developing a commercial space taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a venture to send two space tourists on a trip around the moon and a Mars lander that is slated to launch in 2020.

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Snapchat Adds More Accessible Search Feature

Snap Inc. said Friday that its Snapchat messaging app would add an option for users to search through photos and videos that users have posted to the public.

The move came days after larger rival Facebook Inc. stepped up efforts to encourage users to take more photos and edit them with digital stickers that show the influence of Snapchat.

Snapchat will enable users to search for photos and videos known as “Snaps” posted to the “Our Story” option on the app, by creating new “Stories” using machine learning technology, the company said in a blog post.

The “Our Story” option is derived from Snap’s widely copied “Stories” feature that is a slideshow of user content that disappears after 24 hours.

“Our Story” allows users to post their Snaps as part of a larger public collection, which users will be able to search through with the latest update.

For instance, users can use the search feature to find “Snaps” related to events such as local basketball games and topics such as puppies.

The search feature, which was rolled out in some cities Friday, is an addition to curated “Stories,” where public “Snaps” about major events like Wimbledon or the Coachella music festival already appear.

Snapchat popularized the sharing of digitally decorated photographs on social media, especially among teenagers, but faces intense competition from larger Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram.

Users will now be able to search for over 1 million “Stories” on Snapchat, Snap said, making the app more accessible.

Snap’s shares were up 1.5 percent in afternoon trading, while Facebook’s stock was down marginally.

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Georgian Entrepreneurs Look to Silicon Valley for Funding

Boris Kiknadze, chief executive of Pawwwn, took a deep breath as he looked out to the crowd of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and began his pitch.

With just 10 minutes to speak, Kiknadze rapidly described his business idea — Pawwwn, an online payment and management system to make transactions easier for pawnshop owners and their customers. The pain point for pawn shops is payment. Pawwwn takes away that pain, he said.

For months, Kiknadze and his co-founder had developed Pawwwn in his home country of Georgia before getting on a plane for San Francisco. Since the firm launched in March, Kiknadze has had 20 customers trying out the service.

But with 1,400 pawnshops in Georgia and 12,000 more in the U.S., Kiknadze saw a big opportunity. And to achieve that, he needs cash — $1 million, which he said he would use to launch Pawwwn in the U.S.

Competing for investors

Kiknadze is part of Startup Georgia, a project administered by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency, that connects U.S. experts and investors with startups in Georgia.

More than 250 entrepreneurs tried out in Georgia to qualify for a week of training in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. Among those 50 who participated in the training, 20 were selected for seed funding and three months of additional training with a Silicon Valley expert with weekly videoconferencing meetings.

Of those, eight were chosen to travel to the U.S. for a boot camp and to pitch to investors directly.

Georgia, a country of fewer than 4 million people, is looking to the success of small countries, such as Estonia and Israel, to pitch itself as a burgeoning tech hub, said Mark Iwanowski, founder and president of Global Visions-Silicon Valley, which provided the U.S. support for the program.

For U.S. investors, typically reluctant to invest beyond U.S. tech hubs, there is an opportunity to get more value in overseas companies, where labor costs are lower, he said. To attract these investors, foreign companies need to incorporate in the U.S. and set up a team here.

Over the past week in Silicon Valley, the Georgian entrepreneurs received one-on-one mentorship training as they refined their pitches. They heard from lawyers on protecting intellectual property and listened to venture capitalists talk about how to approach investors.

“If a venture capitalist says they love it, it kind of doesn’t mean anything,” said Steve Goldberg, operating partner at Venrock, a venture firm. “My advice is to have people on the team who understand venture-speak.”

“Understand what the investor is looking for,” said Ron Weissman of Band of Angels, Silicon Valley’s oldest seed fund. He suggested approaching investors seeking a conversation — “I’m not here to raise money. I’m here to get a sense of what it would take to interest you.”

Tech’s next ‘unicorn’?

That is the kind of approach honed by Vamekh Kherkheulidze, founder and medical adviser to ORsim, a Georgian operating room virtual reality simulator.

By slipping on a virtual reality headset and a special glove that gives all the sensations of holding instruments and operating on a person, medical students can better learn how to become surgeons, Kherkheulidze said. And that’s important, because there’s a shortage of surgeons both in the U.S. and worldwide.

From potential investors, ORsim is looking “for supporters,” he said. “We promote new ways of education and we want investors who understand that.”

Still, his ambition is big. “We want to expand and expand fast,” Kherkheulidze said. Already, ORsim, with $35,000 in pre-seed funding from Startup Georgia, has an appendectomy simulator.

“Our hope is to be a unicorn,” Kherkheulidze said, referring to the term used to describe startups worth more than $1 billion in valuation. But in addition to greatly improving surgical training worldwide, he sees his company as a way to help his home country.

“If we are worth $1 billion, you can increase the economy. What was Skype’s influence in Estonia?” he said, referring to the Estonian internet communication service bought by Microsoft for more than $8 billion.

After the pitches, the entrepreneurs mingled with investors. No one got investment on the spot, but most are hopeful and are following up with meetings next week.

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British Robot Helps Autistic Children With Social Skills

“This is nice, it tickles me,” Kaspar the social robot tells four-year-old Finn as they play together at an autism school north of London.

Kaspar, developed by the University of Hertfordshire, also sings songs, imitates eating, plays the tambourine and combs his hair during their sessions, aimed at helping Finn with his social interaction and communication.

If Finn gets too rough, the similarly sized Kaspar cries: “Ouch, that hurt me.” A therapist is on hand to encourage the child to rectify his behavior by tickling the robot’s feet.

Finn is one of around 170 autistic children that Kaspar has helped in a handful of schools and hospitals over the last 10 years.

But with approximately 700,000 people in Britain on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autistic Society who will mark World Autism Day on Sunday, the university want Kaspar to help more people.

“Our vision is that every child in a school or a home or in a hospital could get a Kaspar if they wanted to,” Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, told Reuters.

Achieving that goal will largely depend on the results of a two-year clinical trial with the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, which, if successful, could see Kaspar working in hospitals nationwide.

TRACKS, an independent charity and specialist early-years center for children with autism in Stevenage, have seen positive results from working with Kaspar, who sports a blue cap and plaid shirt for play sessions.

“We were trying to teach a little boy how to eat with his peers. He usually struggled with it because of his anxiety issues,” said deputy principal Alice Lynch. “We started doing it with Kaspar and he really, really enjoyed feeding Kaspar, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. Now he’s started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers. So, things like that are just a massive progression.”

Many children with autism find it hard to decipher basic human communication and emotion so Kaspar’s designers avoided making him too lifelike and instead opted for simplified, easy-to-process features.

Autism support groups have been impressed.

“Many autistic people are drawn to technology, particularly the predictability it provides, which means it can be a very useful means of engaging children, and adults too,” Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, told Reuters.

“This robot is one of a number of emerging technologies which have the potential to make a huge difference to people on the autism spectrum.”

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How Ebola Impacted Liberia’s Appetite for Bushmeat

When Ebola struck Liberia, consumption of bushmeat dropped dramatically. But in an odd twist, poorer households cut their consumption much more than well-to-do households.

The findings have implications for public health, as well as wildlife conservation. Education campaigns about the risks and consequences of bushmeat hunting have focused on rural villagers near protected nature reserves.

But, it turns out, the more tenacious consumers may be the wealthier city-dwellers.

Bushmeat — wild animals like monkeys, duikers and pangolins — is an essential protein source for many rural West Africans, but it’s also a favorite of urbanites.

Satisfying that demand has created, in some places, “empty forests” that are otherwise pristine but are devoid of critical wildlife.

In addition, bushmeat can spread diseases like Ebola because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “human infections have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing meat from infected animals.”

Before the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Jessica Junker and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology based in Leipzig, Germany, had studied Liberians’ preferences for bushmeat compared to chicken or fish.

Tradition, taste

“We asked people, ‘If you were at a party and you could choose the type of meat you could eat there, what would you like to eat?'” Junker told VOA. That scenario aimed to take cost out of the equation.

Bushmeat often topped the list.

People prefer the taste, Junker said. Bushmeat also is often cheaper than domesticated meat. Plus, it’s a traditional part of their diet.

“Many people have told me, ‘Well, we’ve always eaten bushmeat. Our fathers have eaten bushmeat,'” Junker said.

When Ebola hit, she decided it would be a good time to see how attitudes toward eating wildlife had changed.

Bushmeat consumption dropped, as expected. However, it dropped less among wealthier people.

Rich or poor, before Ebola, people said they ate bushmeat every other day on average. During the outbreak, that dropped to once a month among the lowest-income survey respondents, but once a week among the highest-income respondents.

It’s not clear why that should be, but Junker notes that poorer people hunt bushmeat themselves. “During the Ebola crisis, a lot of people didn’t leave their houses,” she said.

In the cities, it was illegal to sell bushmeat. But “there was an underground bushmeat market,” she said. “If you wanted to get bushmeat, you could still get it,” as long as you had money.

Awareness campaigns

The study was published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

It presents a challenge for those seeking to preserve wildlife or protect public health.

“If you really like something, you’re not very likely to change that,” Junker said. “Ebola is quite a drastic event, but it doesn’t change your preference. You stop eating it because it’s dangerous.”

She says her group would like to repeat the survey now that the crisis is over. They suspect that people have gone back to their old eating habits.

And, she notes, the study suggests education efforts may need a change in focus.

“Most of the awareness campaigns nowadays are centered around protected areas where the animals actually live. But maybe those are not the people who then consume the bushmeat,” she noted. “It might be people much farther away in the urban centers and who need to be educated about the impact this has.”

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Oculus Co-founder Palmer Luckey Leaves Facebook

Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Facebook’s Oculus virtual-reality business, is leaving the company.

Facebook didn’t give a reason for Luckey’s departure. His last day is Friday.

Luckey, who is 24, is leaving Facebook in the heels of controversies. Earlier this year, a federal jury found that Oculus, Luckey and co-founder Brendan Iribe violating the intellectual property rights of video-game maker ZeniMax Media. The jury awarded $500 million in damages, including $50 million from Luckey.

Luckey was also criticized for a donation of $10,000 to a pro-Donald Trump group called Nimble America, which created offensive memes online during the 2016 election season.

Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion. Oculus makes the stand-alone Rift virtual-reality headset along with the Gear VR headset for Samsung.

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Trump to Sign Executive Orders Targeting Trade Abuses

President Donald Trump talked tough on trade on the campaign trail, vowing to renegotiate a slew of major deals and to label China a currency manipulator on “Day One.” Now his administration appears to be taking a more cautious approach.

On Friday, the president will sign a pair of executive orders aimed at cracking down on trade abuses. The orders come a week before the president is scheduled to host President Xi Jinping of China at his estate in Florida. The U.S. has its highest trade deficit with China at $347 billion last year.

 

But Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, insisted the orders had nothing to do with the visit and were not an attempt to send a message to China.

 

Nothing we’re saying tonight is about China. Let’s not make this a China story. This is a story about trade abuses, this is a story about an under-collection of duties,” he told reporters at a Thursday evening briefing.

 

The first of the two orders Trump will sign calls for completion of a large-scale report to identify “every form of trade abuse and every non-reciprocal practice that now contributes to the U.S. trade deficit,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Officials will have 90 days to produce a country-by-country, product-by-product report that will serve as the basis of future decision-making by the administration on trade-related issues.

 

“It will demonstrate the administration’s intention not to hip-shoot, not to do anything casual, not to do anything abruptly, but to take a very measured and analytical approach, both to analyzing the problem and therefore to developing the solutions for it,” he said, describing the report as the first of its kind.

 

While Trump has long argued that trade deficits imperil U.S. workers, Ross cautioned that they aren’t necessarily all bad. In some cases, for instance, the U.S. simply can’t produce enough of a product to meet domestic demand. In others, foreign countries may make products substantially cheaper or better than in the U.S. Deficits in trade can also mean that foreign countries and entities are investing in U.S. assets.

 

The report, Ross said, will examine whether deficits are being driven by things like cheating, specific trade obligations, lax enforcement and World Trade Organization rules.

 

Ross argued the U.S. has the lowest tariff rates of any developed country.  But a World Bank report contradicts that claim: The report found that the weighted average U.S. tariff in 2012 was 1.6 percent. That is below the global average, but it’s still higher than countries in the European Union such as Germany and France, as well as Singapore and Hong Kong, which both have average rates of zero.

 

Ross said the report would not focus extensively on currency manipulation, which is under the purview of the U.S. Treasury Department, despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

 

The second order will focus on stepping up the collection of anti-dumping and countervailing duties, which are levied against foreign governments that subsidize products so they can be sold below cost.

 

Navarro said the U.S. is leaving billions of dollars on the table as a result of lax enforcement of commitments in trade pacts. The order will establish more effective bonding requirements, among other measures.

Trump tweeted Thursday evening that his first meeting with the Chinese leader would “be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits … and job losses.”

 

“American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” he wrote. The U.S. deficit with China was $347 billion last year.

But Navarro insisted the orders had nothing to do with the visit or sending a message to China.

 

“Nothing we’re saying tonight is about China. Let’s not make this a China story. This is a story about trade abuses, this is a story about an under-collection of duties,” he said, later adding: “We’re not here for tweets.”

 

The U.S. trade deficit totaled $502.3 billion last year, a slight increase from 2015, according to the Commerce Department. The trade gap rose to its highest level since 2012 last year, though the imbalance remains below its 2006 high, shortly before the Great Recession struck.

 

Trump has portrayed trade deficits as strangling economic growth and devastating factory jobs at home. Research last year by academic economists, including David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that China’s emergence hurt some communities and they have yet to fully recover.

 

But foreign trade has also helped reduce prices for clothing, cars and furniture, among other items. This has created savings for U.S. consumers.

 

While economists concede the benefits of trade can be uneven, they argue the job losses that Trump blames on trade pacts can largely be attributed to automation. A study released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that robots account for up to 670,000 lost factory jobs between 1990 and 2007.

 

Both exports abroad and imports into the United States fell in 2016, but exports declined by a greater sum in part due to a stronger dollar making American-made goods and services more expensive overseas.

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Research Bridges Spinal Cord Injury, Restores Some Movement

Researchers in a pilot clinical trial have made it possible for a paralyzed man to move his arm. As Bronwyn Benito reports, it is a critical step toward restoring mobility to people with paralysis.

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Huge Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Every vessel has an identification number administered by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization or IMO. But crews are able to change the digital identity of their ship, making it possible to conceal previous journeys.

The Israeli firm Windward has developed software to track the changes. Its CEO, Ami Daniel, showed VOA several examples of suspicious shipping activity, including one vessel that changed its entire identity in the middle of a voyage from a Chinese port to North Korea.

“It’s intentionally changing all of identification numbers. Also its name, and its size, and its flag and its owner. Everything that’s recognizable in its digital footprint. This is obviously someone who is trying to circumvent sanctions [on North Korea],” says Daniel.

Transfers at sea

In a joint investigation with the Times of London newspaper, Windward showed that in January and February more than 1,000 cargo transfers took place at sea. Security experts fear traffickers are transporting drugs, weapons, and even people.

Suspicious activity can be highlighted by comparing a vessel’s journey with all its previous voyages. In mid-January a Cyprus-flagged ship designed to carry fish deviated from its usual route between West Africa and northern Europe to visit Ukraine, deactivating its tracking system on several occasions.

“It’s leaving Ukraine, transiting all through the Bosphorus Straits into Europe, then drifting off Malta,” explains Daniel, as the Windward system plots the route of the reefer [refrigerated] vessel on the screen. “On the way it turns off transmission a few times … then it comes into this place east of Gibraltar. This area is known for ship-to-ship transfers and smuggling, because of the proximity to North Africa.”

Under global regulations all vessels must report their last port of call when arriving in a new port.

“But as you can understand, when it does ship-to-ship transfers here, it doesn’t actually call into any port, right, because it’s the middle of the ocean. So it’s finding a way to bypass what it already has to report to the authorities,” Daniel said.

Finally the vessel sails to a remote Scottish island called Islay, but again it anchors around 400 meters off a tiny deserted bay. The specific purpose of this voyage hasn’t yet been identified.

Lack of political will

Daniel shows another example of a vessel leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk before drifting just off the Greek island of Crete, raising suspicions that it is involved in people smuggling.

But he says using information like this to investigate suspicious shipping activities requires political will as well as technological advances.

“Regulation, coordination, legislation. And then proof in the court of law. And not all of this necessarily exists. The high seas, which means 200 nautical miles onwards by definition, are not regulated right now. The U.N. is still working on it.”

Meanwhile the scale of smuggling around the United States’ coastline was underlined this month, as the Coast Guard intercepted 660 kilos of cocaine off the coast of Florida, with a street value of an estimated $420 million.

 

 

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern that the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected. New technology enables authorities to follow the routes of suspect vessels, but security experts say taking on the smugglers will require greater coordination. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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