Decluttering low-Earth orbit

New brooms needed

Its time to tidy up space


Jan 14th 2021 | words 708




EVERYBODYS BUSINESS, an old saw has it, is nobodys business. And that is a good description of the business of keeping outer space clean and tidy. Yet the part of space nearest Earth, known technically as low-Earth orbit, is getting cluttered. Some of the objects up there are working satellites. Some are satellites that have stopped working. Some are stages of the rockets which put those satellites into orbit. And a lot are debris left over from explosions and collisions between larger objects.


The risk of such collisions is increasing, for two reasons. First, the number of satellites being launched is rising. Second, collisions themselves beget collisions. The fragments they create add to the number of orbiting objects. At the moment, more than 20,000 such objects are being tracked, but there may be as many as 1m bigger than 1cm across.


In the long term, this accumulation of junk may lead to a chain reaction, known as Kessler syndrome, that would make some low-Earth orbits unusable. Even in the short term it puts lots of expensive hardware at risk. So plans are being laid to send up special craft to deorbit redundant satellites and rocket stages (see article). Given the current situation, this is a good, if expensive, idea. But a better one for the future would be to build deorbiting into the life-cycles of satellites and rocket stages from the beginning.


There are several ways of doing this. One is a launch tax. But that would load costs onto the satellite industry with no benefit unless the proceeds were actually spent on orbital clean upsand the record of tax-hypothecation of this sort is not good. A launch tax would also fail to attack the nub of the problem, which is that rocket stages and satellites need to be able to deorbit themselves unaided, even though building in such capability increases weight, and therefore launch costs.


A second idea is a space-going bottle deposit scheme. Satellite owners would pay an agreed sum into an escrow account that was redeemable when they deorbited their property. If they did not do so, enterprising salvagers could try to do it for them, and claim the deposit if successful. This has the virtue of encouraging built-in deorbiting capability, though claiming the bounty would require a separate launch.


The best idea, though, is to attack the problem at its roots. The littering of space is an example of the tragedy of the commons, in which no charge is made for the use of a resource that is owned collectively. So why not charge the beneficiaries for the right to put something into orbit and keep it there? The longer an object stays up, the more the satellite owner pays. The more popular (and hence crowded) the orbit chosen, the more expensive it would be to add a satellite to it.


That raises the question of who would do the charging. The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, assigns responsibility and liability for objects in orbit to the country which launches them, and entreats signatories to avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies. As far as low-Earth orbit is concerned, this has not really worked. France requires rocket boosters to be dumped in the sea, but thats about it. It would make sense for countries with space-launch capability, and thus an interest in keeping space clean, to hammer out a new and specific agreement. A well-crafted treaty would clean up space, cause it to be used more efficiently, and raise some useful revenue from a resource currently exploited for nothing.


To deal with non-participants acting as free-riders, participants might agree to make pariahs of firms that tried to take advantage in this way, while perhaps offering a share of orbital-use fees to countries without launch capacity of their own. Other natural commons, notably the oceans and the atmosphere, have suffered, and still suffer, from a lack of sensible arrangements for their joint exploitation. It is not too late to stop outer space being added to that list.


Economist | Decluttering low-Earth orbit

Start a conversation about electric cars, and it'll likely take less than five minutes until someone asks about charging times. Yes, the charging times for electric vehicles are still far from ideal typically, it will take more than an hour to fully charge an electric car at a commercial but this might improve soon, thanks to Israeli startup StoreDot. 

StoreDot is working on batteries for electric vehicles of all kinds, including e-scooters and cars, that charge in just five minutes. On Tuesday, the company announced it now offers engineering samples of its five-minute charge batteries. 

The sample cells, produced by China's EVE Energy, are different from traditional batteries as they have metalloid nano-particles instead of graphite in the cell's anode. This, StoreDot claims, is a "key breakthrough in overcoming major issues in safety, battery cycle life and swelling." Further in the future, StoreDot plans to use silicon (instead of germanium) for these nano particles, which should make these batteries a lot cheaper. 

In Dec. 2019, StoreDot demoed its batteries on an e-scooter. But the next step, the company says, is to move onto electric cars. 

"Today's announcement marks an important milestone, moving XFC for the first time beyond innovation in the lab to a commercially-viable product that is scalable for mass production. This paves the way for the launch of our second-generation, silicon-dominant anode prototype battery for electric vehicles later this year," Dr. Doron Myersdorf, CEO of StoreDot, said in a statement. 

An electric car that charges in five minutes could drastically reduce queues at electric charging stations and all but eliminate range anxiety, which is currently a part of owning an electric vehicle. But it'll take some time until we get there. 

Charging a car battery that fast requires chargers with more power. According to The Guardian, StoreDot thinks it can deliver 100 miles of charge to a car battery in five minutes in 2025 using existing infrastructure. That's nice, but not that far off from what Tesla can do today with its V3 SuperChargers. 

StoreDot's investors include Daimler, BP, TDK, and Samsung. 

Other companies, including Tesla Motors and Enevate, are developing fast-charging batteries. But the way from engineering samples from mass scale production could be a long one. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently identified manufacturing battery cells at scale as a complex and important problem. 



Startup shows off e-car batteries that charge in 5 minutes

WeChat continues to advance its shopping ambitions as the social networking app turns 10 years old. The Chinese messenger facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its "mini programs," third-party services that run on the super app that allow users to buy clothes, order food, hail taxis and more.

That is double the value of transactions on WeChat's mini programs in 2019, the networking giant announced at its annual conference for business partners and ecosystem developers, which normally takes place in its home city of Guangzhou in southern China but was moved online this year due to the pandemic.

To compare, e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo, Alibaba's archrival, saw total transactions of $214.7 billion in the third quarter.

WeChat introduced mini programs in early 2017 in a move some saw as a challenge to Apple's App Store and has over time shaped the messenger into an online infrastructure that keeps people's life running. It hasn't recently disclosed how many third-party lite apps it houses, but by 2018 the number reached one million, half the size of the App Store at the time.

From Tencent's strategic perspective, the growth in mini program-based transactions helps further the company's goal to strengthen its fintech business, which counts digital payments as a major revenue driver.

A big proportion of WeChat's mini programs are games, which the app said exceeded 500 million monthly users thanks to a boost in female and middle-aged users, as well as players residing in China's Tier 3 cities, WeChat said.

The virtual conference also unveiled a set of other milestones from China's biggest messaging app, which surpassed 1.2 billion monthly active users last year.

Among its monthly users, 500 million have tried the WeChat Search function.

WeChat said 240 million people have used its "payments score." When the feature debuted back in 2019, there was speculation that it signaled WeChat's entry into consumer credit finance and participation in the government's social credit system. WeChat reiterated at this year's event that the WeChat score does neither of that.

Like Ant's Sesame Score, the rating system works more like a royalty program, "designed to build trust between merchants and users." For instance, people who reach a certain score can waive deposits or delay payments when using merchant services on WeChat. The score, WeChat said, helped users save more than $30 billion in deposits a year.

WeChat's enterprise version has surpassed 130 million active users. Its biggest rival, Dingtalk, operated by Alibaba, reached 155 million daily active users last March.

The one-day event concluded with the much-anticipated appearance of Allen Zhang, WeChat's creator. Zhang went to great lengths to talk about WeChat's nascent short-video feature, which is somewhat similar to Snap's Stories. He didn't disclose the performance of short videos because "the PR team doesn't allow" him to, but said that "if we set a goal for ourselves, we will have to achieve it."

Zhang also announced the WeChat team is weighing up an input tool for users.



WeChat advances e-commerce goals with $250B in transactions

Scientists may have identified the gravitational waves that make up some of the universe's background, not just those coming from unusual events like black hole collisions. New Atlas reports that the NANOGrav research team has discovered a "strong signal" that might represent the gravitational wave background that is, the waves from supermassive black hole mergers across the cosmos.

Rather than try to detect the waves directly, NANOGrav has been looking for the effects of those waves on pulsars, whose light patterns are mostly consistent over long periods. The researchers looked at as many pulsars as possible (45 so far) for as long as possible (at least three years) and noticed a common process that appeared to skew the collective timing by hundreds of nanoseconds.

This isn't a definitive result. Scientists will want to verify the data with more pulsars and longer studies, and that could take years. If this does represent background gravitational waves, though, it could help pinpoint the sources of those waves and, ultimately, just how these 'hidden' forces shape the universe.



Scientists may have found the background ripples of the universe

To date, Sensel's force-sensing technology has only been found in its own Morph product, but at CES 2021, the company showed off a touchpad that might appear in other company's laptops. Now, Sensel has announced that the first product to use its tech will be Lenovo's thinnest-ever ThinkPad, the X1 Titanium Yoga.

As I discovered with the Morph, Sensel's ultra-thin sensor can detect X and Y position with high accuracy and also do force sensing in the Z direction. "This allows for a dramatic reduction in device thickness, making it a perfect fit for the thinnest ThinkPad ever," Sensel wrote in a press release. Since it detects force uniformly, it also allows for zero wasted space and you can even wear gloves while using it.

As for the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga itself, Lenovo's premium ultrathin convertible notebook is a mere 11.5mm thick and weighs 2.54 pounds. It packs Intel's 11th-generation Core i7 vPro processors, up to 16GB of RAM, 1TB of PCIe SSD storage, 5G connectivity and two Thunderbolt 4 ports. Meanwhile, the 13.5-inch 2K 450 nit display has a 3:2 aspect ratio (2,256 x 1,504) and supports Dolby Vision. It'll arrive sometime this month with prices starting at $1,899.

Unlike Apple, very few PC laptop manufacturers have got touchpads right. To that end, it'll be interesting to see what Lenovo and Sensel can deliver if it's any good, lots of other laptop makers might want to jump on board.



Titanium Yoga laptop will feature Sensel's force-sensing tech

Samsung is expanding its SSD lineup with the 870 Evo. It features the company's latest V-NAND and controller, which allows the drive to reach the maximum SATA sequential read and write speeds of 560MB/s and 530MB/s respectively, according to Samsung. 

The SSD delivers approximately 30 percent improvement in sustained performance compared with the 860 Evo, Samsung claims. The company also says the SSD offers 38 percent higher random read performance speeds than its predecessor.

The 870 Evo is not nearly as fast as Samsung's 970 series SSDs (which have peak sequential read speeds of 3,500MB/s) and other M.2 storage. So, it won't be the perfect choice for gamers looking for zippiest storage for their games. However, the 870 is perhaps a more budget-friendly option that might be best suited to general functions, such as for your media library, multi-tasking and web browsing.

The 870 Evo will be available later this month, starting at $50 for 250GB. The 500GB version costs $80 and a terabyte drive will set you back $140. If you'd prefer the 2TB model, you'll need to fork over $270, while the 4TB 870 Evo costs $530.



Samsung's 870 Evo boosts the performance of entry-level SSDs

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Chinas gross domestic product rose 2.3 percent last year, thanks to the nations success in controlling the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic; flexible, targeted and effective macroeconomic policies; and active opening-up measures, according to economists.
Flexible and targeted economic policies have helped achieve stability of employment, finance, trade, investment, and expectations besides having ensured jobs, livelihoods, market entities, food and energy safety, stable supply chains and grassroots operations. Meanwhile, active efforts to open up the economy to the wider world have stabilized foreign trade, foreign investment and supply chains.
Growing from 10 trillion yuan 20 years ago, China's economy is now likely to account for around 17 percent of the global economy, Ning told a press conference, attributing the growth to progress in fields including grain production, industrial production, high-speed railway construction and 5G technologies.201017%5G
In 2020, China's per capita disposable income rose 2.1 percent to 32,189 yuan, basically keeping pace with the GDP increase, according to NBS data. Meanwhile, a total of 11.86 million new urban jobs were created in 2020, completing 131.8 percent of the target set for the whole year.20202.1%32189GDP

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China's GDP tops 100 trillion yuan in 2020





The roaring 20s?

Pessimism about technological change is giving way to hopemuch of it justied



Jan 16th 2021 | words 1019




FOR MUCH of the past decade the pace of innovation underwhelmed many peopleespecially those miserable economists. Productivity growth was lacklustre and the most popular new inventions, the smartphone and social media, did not seem to help much. Their malign side-effects, such as the creation of powerful monopolies and the pollution of the public square, became painfully apparent. Promising technologies stalled, including self-driving cars, making Silicon Valleys evangelists look naive. Security hawks warned that authoritarian China was racing past the West and some gloomy folk warned that the world was finally running out of useful ideas.


Today a dawn of technological optimism is breaking. The speed at which covid-19 vaccines have been produced has made scientists household names. Prominent breakthroughs, a tech investment boom and the adoption of digital technologies during the pandemic are combining to raise hopes of a new era of progress: optimists giddily predict a roaring Twenties. Just as the pessimism of the 2010s was overdonethe decade saw many advances, such as in cancer treatmentso predictions of technological Utopia are overblown. But there is a realistic possibility of a new era of innovation that could lift living standards, especially if governments help new technologies to flourish.




In the history of capitalism rapid technological advance has been the norm. The 18th century brought the Industrial Revolution and mechanised factories; the 19th century railways and electricity; the 20th century cars, planes, modern medicine and domestic liberation thanks to washing machines. In the 1970s, though, progressmeasured by overall productivity growthslowed. The economic impact was masked for a while by women piling into the workforce, and a burst of efficiency gains followed the adoption of personal computers in the 1990s. After 2000, though, growth flagged again.


There are three reasons to think this great stagnation might be ending. First is the flurry of recent discoveries with transformative potential. The success of the messenger RNA technique behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and of bespoke antibody treatments, shows how science continues to empower medicine. Humans are increasingly able to bend biology to their will, whether that is to treat disease, edit genes or to grow meat in a lab. Artificial intelligence is at last displaying impressive progress in a range of contexts. A program created by DeepMind, part of Alphabet, has shown a remarkable ability to predict the shapes of proteins; last summer OpenAI unveiled GPT-3, the best natural-language algorithm to date; and since October driverless taxis have ferried the public around Phoenix, Arizona. Spectacular falls in the price of renewable energy are giving governments confidence that their green investments will pay off. Even China now promises carbon neutrality by 2060.


The second reason for optimism is booming investment in technology. In the second and third quarters of 2020 Americas non-residential private sector spent more on computers, software and research and development (R&D) than on buildings and industrial gear for the first time in over a decade. Governments are keen to give more cash to scientists (see Briefing). Having shrunk for years, public R&D spending across 24 OECD countries began to grow again in real terms in 2017. Investors enthusiasm for technology now extends to medical diagnostics, logistics, biotechnology and semiconductors. Such is the markets optimism about electric vehicles that Teslas CEO, Elon Musk, who also runs a rocket firm, is the worlds richest man.


The third source of cheer is the rapid adoption of new technologies. It is not just that workers have taken to videoconferencing and consumers to e-commercesignificant as those advances are, for example to easing the constraints on jobseeking posed by housing shortages. The pandemic has also accelerated the adoptions of digital payments, telemedicine and industrial automation (see article). It has been a reminder that adversity often forces societies to advance. The fight against climate change and the great-power competition between America and China could spur further bold steps.


Alas, innovation will not allow economies to shrug off the structural drags on growth. As societies get richer they spend a greater share of their income on labour-intensive services, such as restaurant meals, in which productivity growth is meagre because automation is hard. The ageing of populations will continue to suck workers into low-productivity at-home care. Decarbonising economies will not boost long-term growth unless green energy realises its potential to become cheaper than fossil fuels.


Yet it is reasonable to hope that a fresh wave of innovation might soon reverse the fall in economic dynamism which is responsible for perhaps a fifth of the 21st centurys growth slowdown. Over time that would compound into a big rise in living standards. Perhaps still more is achievable because many service industries, including health care and education, would benefit greatly from more innovation. Eventually, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and robotics could up-end how almost everything is done.


Its not rocket science


Although the private sector will ultimately determine which innovations succeed or fail, governments also have an important role to play. They should shoulder the risks in more moonshot projects (see article). The state can usefully offer more and better subsidies for R&D, such as prizes for solving clearly defined problems. The state also has a big influence over how fast innovations diffuse through the economy. Governments need to make sure that regulation and lobbying do not slow down disruption, in part by providing an adequate safety-net for those whose livelihoods are upended by it. Innovation is concentrated among too few firms (see Free exchange). Ensuring that the whole economy harnesses new technologies will require robust antitrust enforcement and looser intellectual-property regimes. If governments rise to the challenge, then faster growth and higher living standards will be within their reach, allowing them to defy the pessimists. The 2020s began with a cry of pain but, with the right policies, the decade could yet roar.


Economist | The new era of innovation

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and delivered them successfully to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It's a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the 'Cosmic Girl' carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of mission.

Virgin's Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a "clean separation" as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOnes main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and released its payload of satellites to their target orbit sometime later on schedule, making the mission a complete success.

Virgin Orbit's unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.



Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

Lee Jae-yong known as Jay Y. Lee in the West the de facto leader and heir to the Samsung Group conglomerate, has been ordered back to prison for two years and six months on bribery charges, according to Bloomberg.

The billionaire son of controversial Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who died in October, was first jailed in 2017 in a succession scandal that saw the removal of president Park Geun-hye. Lee served just one year of a five-year sentence before a retrial was ordered in 2019.

Lee had been accused of offering horses and other bribes to a friend of the former president to win government support for his succession at Samsung. Park is serving a 20-year sentence on a variety of charges including bribery related to Samsung.

In December, Lee offered a rare public apology for his role in the succession plot. He also pledged that he would not pass management control of the Korean dynasty to his children. Lee Jae-yong, 52, is the grandson of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul.

The ruling is expected to create a leadership vacuum at the top of the conglomerate, potentially complicating major strategic decisions. Samsung is currently run by a team of senior executives.

An attorney for Lee called the decision "regrettable," according to Bloomberg.



Samsung heir ordered back to prison on bribery charge

As 2021 kicks into high gear, a harsh reality is setting in for gamers: Major delays are coming. In our 2021 predictions, we noted that this was a very real possibility due to the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of 2020's releases got shuffled around, those games were largely near the end of their development cycle. The real worry was what the pandemic would mean for games that weren't quite as far along.

That anxiety is quickly turning into reality. Delays are dropping left and right, as some of the year's biggest games move further down the line or to next year. That's leading to a much slimmer release schedule than fans initially expected heading into an exciting year for gaming. To help put things into perspective, here's a roundup of all the major video game delays that have happened so far.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake March 18

Ubisoft is going to be a recurring name on this list. Even before 2021, the company started making significant changes to its plans. Far Cry 6, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Quarantine, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game Complete Edition were all moved out of their 2020 launch windows, signaling that more titles could follow. As far as planned 2021 releases go, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake was the first to move. Originally slated for a January 20 release, the remake is now scheduled to drop on March 18.

Outriders: April 1

Outriders has had a tough time locking down a release date. Originally positioned as one of the big games that would launch alongside next-gen consoles in late 2020, developer People Can Fly quietly pushed it back to February 2. As 2021 got into full gear, the game got delayed once again, this time to April 1. In the meantime, players will get a demo on February 25 that covers the first few hours of the full game.

Halo Infinite: Fall 2021

While it was originally scheduled for a 2020 launch alongside the Xbox Series X debut, Microsoft delayed Halo Infinite indefinitely. We now know that the company is planning for a ffall 2021 launch, putting it a full year out from its original release plan. Like many games on this list, it's not fully clear if the pandemic has been a key factor in Halo's delay. While companies like Ubisoft have been transparent about the struggles of work from home, others are a bit more tight-lipped about why the schedule shake-ups are happening. Whatever the case may be, Halo Infinite's delay is the most significant to occur yet.

Riders Republic: TBA 2021

Following Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake's delay, Riders Republic was the sole Ubisoft game that had yet to be pushed back in some form. Unfortunately, that didn't last long. Originally scheduled for a February release, the game was pushed back to "later this year," with no specific time frame attached. Ubisoft has not shared new details on the game since it was first announced during a Ubisoft Forward stream in September.

Hogwarts Legacy: TBA 2022

Hogwarts Legacy was set to be one of 2021's biggest power players. The open-world Harry Potter game was first shown during a PlayStation 5 livestream, signaling that it would be a next-gen game to watch. Unfortunately, the title has been pushed back a full year to 2022. Warner Bros. hasn't clarified how deep into 2022 the game is expected to launch, so next year is already looking like as much of a mystery as this year.

Pragmata: 2023

Pragmata was tentatively scheduled to come out in 2022, but it's worth mentioning here because it highlights how long-term the industry's problems might be. According to a Sony video reel dropped during CES, Capcom's mysterious sci-fi game has been pushed back to 2023. Since the video came out, Sony has since released a new version that scrubs the game out of the fine print, along with all other third-party games.



Every major video game delay that's happened in 2021 already