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A spacecraft is about to slingshot around Venus, putting it on course for Mercury

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A joint European and Japanese spacecraft is about to slingshot around the planet Venus, performing a short gravitational dance that will change the vehicle’s course through space. This critical maneuver will take place just before midnight Eastern Time, and the spacecraft has to nail its routine in order to reach its ultimate destination — Mercury — within the next five years.

The spacecraft making this planetary swing is BepiColombo, which is really two spacecraft wrapped into one. The vehicle consists of one spacecraft overseen by the European Space Agency and another overseen by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Once they reach Mercury, the spacecraft will separate and independently orbit the tiny world, gathering data about Mercury’s structure, atmosphere, magnetic field, and more.

Launched in October 2018, BepiColombo is currently in the midst of a long seven-year journey, with the spacecraft entering Mercury’s orbit in late 2025. The road to Mercury is a lengthy one because of where the planet is situated in our Solar System. Since Mercury is so close to the Sun, any spacecraft trying to visit the planet is going to feel an extra big tug from the massive star — a gravitational pull that causes vehicles to speed up.

When designing the BepiColombo mission, the engineers decided to use the inner planets as brake pedals to slow the spacecraft down. “You need a lot of energy, actually, to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury,” Johannes Benkhoff, a project scientist for BepiColombo at ESA, tells The Verge. “And there are two alternatives in order to get this energy: one is to have a lot of fuel, which will make your spacecraft bulky and heavy. The other alternative is to use the help of the planets.”

Throughout its seven-year road trip, BepiColombo is slated to perform nine flybys of planets, leveraging the gravity from these worlds to slow the spacecraft down and slightly alter the vehicle’s orbit around the Sun. BepiColombo already did a flyby of Earth in February, and at 11:58PM ET tonight, the spacecraft will perform the first of two flybys of Venus. After those are done, BepiColombo will do six flybys of Mercury before settling into orbit around the planet in December 2025.

Flying by Venus is crucial for the spacecraft’s trajectory, but the maneuver also provides a great opportunity for BepiColombo to study the planet. And there are a lot of scientists very eager to study Venus at the moment. In September, scientists announced that they had detected traces of a gas called phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus — a gas that is overwhelmingly associated with life here on Earth. The detection is nowhere near enough to say that life exists on Venus, but scientists are very curious to learn more about the gas and where it may be coming from.

Benkhoff says that the BepiColombo team has received many requests for the spacecraft to search for phosphine in the Venusian clouds. “Of course, the phosphine detection put a lot of attraction to Venus,” he says. “We were asked by many sources, ‘What can you do about phosphine? Will you look at it?’”

He says the team is happy to look for the gas, but he doesn’t expect to get very good data since BepiColombo’s instruments are optimized for Mercury, where temperatures are warmer. “I doubt that our instrument is sensitive enough to detect it,” Benkhoff says. “That does not mean that we do not look at it, but chances are very, very unlikely that we will contribute here.” However, the engineers do hope to study many other types of gases thought to be present in the clouds of Venus. And they expect to get some nice pictures with a few “selfie cameras.”

While this Venus flyby is exciting, Benkhoff notes that the next one will be even sweeter. Tonight, BepiColombo will come within about 6,650 miles, or 10,700 kilometers, of the planet’s surface. But in November, the spacecraft will fly by Venus again, getting 20 times closer and coming within 341 miles, or 550 kilometers. In many ways, this is a scientific test run for that second slingshot maneuver, Benkhoff says. “We hope that during that flyby we can even get better results and higher resolution.”

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Political strategist turned tech investor Bradley Tusk on SPACs as a tool for VCs

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Bradley Tusk has become known in recent years for being involved in what’s about to get hot, from his early days advising Uber, to writing one of the first checks to the insurance startup Lemonade, to pushing forward the idea that we should be using the smart devices in our pockets to vote.

Indeed, because he’s often at the vanguard, it wasn’t hugely surprising when Tusk, like a growing number of other investors, formed a $300 million SPAC or special acquisition company, one that he and a partner plan to use to target businesses in the leisure, gaming, and hospitality industries.

Because Tusk — a former political operative who ran the successful third mayoral campaign for Michael Bloomberg —  seems adept at seeing around corners, we called him up late last week to ask whether SPACs are here to stay, how a Biden administration might impact the startup investing landscape, and how worried (or not) big tech should be about this election. You can hear the full conversation here. Owing to length, we are featuring solely the part of our conversation that centered on SPACs.

TC: Lemonade went public this summer and its shares, priced at $29, now trade at $70. 

BT: They are down today last I checked. When you only check once in a blue moon, you’re like, ‘Hey, look at how great this is,’ whereas if, like me, you check me every day, you’re like, ‘It lost 4%. Where’s my money?’

We got really lucky; Lemonade was our second deal that we did out of our first fund, and the fact that it IPO’d within four years of the company’s founding is pretty amazing.

TC: Is it amazing? I wonder what it says about the common complaint that the traditional IPO process is bad — is it just an excuse that founders and investors use to keep a company private longer?

BT: [CEO] Daniel Schrieber was very clear that he and [cofounder] Shai Wininger had a strategy from day one to go public as quickly as they possibly could, because in his view, an IPO is supposed to represent kind of the the beginning. It’s the ‘Okay, we’ve proven that there’s product market fit, we’ve proven that there’s customer demand; now let’s see what we can really do with this thing.’ And it’s supposed to be about hope and promise and future and excitement. And if you’ve been a private company for 10 years, and you’re worth tens of billions of dollars and your growth is already starting to flatten out a little bit, it’s just much less exciting for public investors.

The question now for everyone in our business is what happens with Airbnb in a few weeks or whenever they are [staging an IPO]. Will that pixie dust be there, or will they have been around so long that the market is kind of indifferent?

TC: Is that why we’re seeing so many SPACs? Some of that pixie dust is gone. No one knows when the IPO window might shut. Let’s get some of these companies out into the public market while we still can?

BT: No, I don’t I don’t think so. I think SPACs have become a way to raise a lot of money very quickly. It took me two years to raise $37 million for my first venture fund, and three months was the entire process for me to raise $300 million for my SPAC. So it’s a mechanism that is highly efficient and right now is so popular with public market investors that there is just a lot of opportunity, and people are grabbing it. In fact, now you’re hearing about people who are planning SPACs having to pull [them] back because there’s a ton of competition right now.

At the end of the day, the fundamentals still rule. If you take a really bad company public through a SPAC, maybe the excitement of the SPAC gets you an early pop. But if the company has neither good unit economics nor high growth, there’s no real reason to believe it will be successful. And especially for the people in the SPAC, where they have to hold on to it for a little while, by the time the lockup ends, the world has probably figured out that this is not the greatest IPO of all time. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

TC: You say you raised the SPAC very quickly. How is the investor profile different than that of a typical venture fund investor?

BT:  The investors for this SPAC — at least when I did the roadshow, and I think I did 28 meetings over a couple of days — is mainly hedge funds and people who don’t really invest in venture at all, so there was no overlap between my [venture fund] LP base and the people who invested in our SPAC that I’m aware of. These are public market investors who are used to moving very quickly. There’s a lot more liquidity in a SPAC. We have two years to acquire something, but ultimately, it’s a public property, so investors can come in and out as they see fit.

TC: So it’s mostly hedge funds that are getting paid management fees to deploy their capital in this comparatively safe way and that are getting interest on the money invested, too, while it’s sitting around in a trust while [the SPAC managers] look for a target company.

BT: Why it kind of does make sense for [them to back] VCs is they are basically making the bet to say: does this person running the SPAC have enough deal flow, enough of a public profile, enough going on that they are going to come across the right target? And venture investors in many ways fit that profile because we just look at so many companies before deploying capital.

TC: Do you have to demonstrate some kind of public markets expertise in order to convince some of these investors that you know what it takes to take a company public and grow it in the public markets?

BT: I guess. We raised the money, so I guess I passed the test. But I did spend a little under two years on Wall Street; I created the lottery privatization group of Lehman Brothers. And my partner [in the SPAC], Christian Goode, has a lot of experience with big gaming companies. But overall, I think that if you are a venture investor with a ton of deal flow and a good track record but very little or no public market experience, I don’t know that that would disqualify you from being able to rate a SPAC.

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Google sued by DOJ over antitrust practices: What you need to know

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The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Google today, claiming the company has an illegal monopoly of search traffic. It’s a major challenge to the dominance of the Big Tech companies — the first from the DOJ. But it’s been coming on for a long time.

The DOJ’s complaint is 57 pages long, but to sum it up, it contends that Google uses a series of business deals and shady practices to kneecap any potential competition, calling it “a monopoly gatekeeper for the internet.” The deals it’s made with Apple and other hardware manufacturers to make its search engine the default on so many machines gives it a whopping 80% of the market share. One line of the complaint contends that Google’s dominance is so absolute that “Google” has become a verb that means “to search for something on the internet.”

Google’s response is that its dominance is because of consumer choice, not because of anything illegal it’s done. In a statement issued this morning, Google’s VP of Public Affairs Kent Walker refuted specific allegations that its agreements with other tech companies are the result of anything but competence on the company’s part. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”

If the lawsuit succeeds, what would it mean for consumers? Google contends that it would “artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.” While the DOJ‘s complaint doesn’t specifically address how it would change things for us, the users, it does say that, at the moment, “American consumers are forced to accept Google‘s policies, privacy practices, and use of personal data.”

The DOJ first opened its investigation into Google last year, and had previously investigated the company in 2013 but opted not to sue it. U.S. Attorney General William Barr allegedly opted to go against advice of the DOJ‘s lawyers in bringing the case this month — initially they’d wanted more time to build their case. State attorney generals in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, and Texas have signed on to support the lawsuit, and it’s possible that other states could bring their own actions against Google.

It’s worth noting that Google isn’t the only company that’s facing criticism from the American government. Earlier this year, the heads of Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — a veritable Four Horsemen of Big Tech — sat in a hearing in July specifically over this issue. While the hearing was not the most productive — as my colleague Tristan Greene pointed out, the congresspeople present seemed to want to talk about everything except antitrust regulation — at least one or two congresspeople said that the companies in general, and Google in particular, have “too much power.” Both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on that point, though I’m not entirely sure they’d agree on what breaking up that monopoly would look like.

It’s not the first time Google has faced antitrust allegations, but it’s the biggest of any of the lawsuits so far. It could presage antitrust laws being modified or expanded to account for Big Tech, but that would require the complaint to have some measure of success. In any case, it might have to take a backseat to the US Presidential Election taking place next month.

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Watch GM unveil the $80,000 GMC Hummer EV right here

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GM just took the wraps off the Hummer EV and it looks great. The vehicle is coming to dealers in 2022, with pre-orders starting in 2021. You can watch the unveiling here.

The vehicle is detailed here. With 1,000 HP, 350 mile range, and autonomous drive modes, it’s an impressive vehicle though still significantly more than Tesla said the Cybertruck will cost.

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