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Facebook left 6,500 gallons of drilling fluid off the coast of Oregon

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Facebook abandoned broken equipment and thousands of gallons of drilling fluid under the ocean floor just off the coast of Oregon in April. The company was constructing a landing site for an undersea telecommunications cable when it hit an unexpected snag. A drill bit broke and got stuck after hitting hard rock about 50 feet under the seafloor on April 28th, Oregon Live and the Tillamook Headlight-Herald first reported in early August.

Residents of the seaside community of Tierra del Mar, Oregon, have feared that construction of the landing site would cause problems for locals and the environment since it was first proposed in 2018. One of the biggest threats with an incident like this, experts say, is the potential release of drilling fluid that could harm marine life and contaminate groundwater, depending on what chemicals are present in the fluid.

“Fifty feet is not much separation at all in terms of keeping something nasty out of the seafloor environment,” says Chris Goldfinger, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Rocks are very permeable, and fluids are flowing through them all the time, he adds. “It might not happen right away, but eventually, if it’s there, it would probably leak onto the seafloor,” he says.

The drilling mud used to lubricate the equipment was a clay called bentonite with small amounts of a polymer additive, according to Facebook. It’s biodegradable and nontoxic, the company tells The Verge. Bentonite on its own isn’t usually bad for the environment, John Dilles, another professor of geology at Oregon State, tells The Verge in an email. It’s sometimes used to absorb toxic metal at sites that need to be cleaned up or where waste needs to be contained, he says.

In the case of an accidental release, however, the drilling fluid components used at the site should be prevented from “entering sewers, waterways, or low areas,” according to safety data sheets published by the state. Facebook opted to leave 6,500 gallons of mud in place to “minimize the risk of leaks,” it wrote.

Facebook also left behind a drill tip, tools, and 1,100 feet of pipe. It’s not uncommon for companies to leave behind pieces of broken equipment when digging it up is more costly or could cause even more destruction. There’s a risk of losing more equipment when working through hard rock, according to Goldfinger.

Facebook determined that there wouldn’t be any “negative environmental or public health impact” from leaving behind the drill head, it said in an email. But the Oregon Department of State Lands thinks that other solutions might have been considered had it been notified earlier. Facebook didn’t inform the state that it had left behind the materials until June 17th, seven weeks after the drill broke. That delay “eliminated any potential options for recovery of the equipment,” Department of State Lands spokeswoman Ali Hansen told The Verge in an email. “The opportunity to fully evaluate recovery options was lost” when Facebook sealed the borehole without notifying the state, Hansen said.

The original permit for the project doesn’t allow Facebook subsidiary Edge Cable Holdings to “store” materials at the site. As a result, the Department of State Lands gave Facebook a month to come to an agreement on damages owed to the state for violating the permit. They also gave the company 180 days to either file a new permit or safely remove the equipment. Facebook plans to continue the construction of the cable landing in 2021. It will be the endpoint for the JUPITER cable system, which will connect the US to Japan and the Philippines. Amazon and SoftBank own parts of the cable also.

Facebook did not respond to The Verge‘s questions about whether it will continue to monitor all of the materials it abandoned at the site or pay for any problems that might crop up in the future. “Facebook should be assessed a major fine to cover all the state’s costs in dealing with this ugly fiasco. The state of Oregon has thus far been excessively welcoming to submarine cable companies,” nonprofit advocacy group Oregon Coast Alliance, which has consistently opposed the project, wrote in a July newsletter.

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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Max Q: NASA makes key discovery for future of deep space exploration

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Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This past week, we unveiled the agenda for TC Sessions: Space for the first time. It’s our inaugural event focused on space startups and related technologies, and it’s happening December 16 and 17. It’s entirely virtual, of course, and the good news is that means you can attend easily from anywhere in the world.

We’ve got an amazing lineup, including newsmakers we regularly cover here. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will be there, as well as U.S. Space Force commanding office Jay Raymond, and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, to name just a few. Tickets are available now, so sign up ASAP to get the best price possible.

SpaceX launched not one, but two separate Falcon 9 rockets loaded with Starlink satellites for its broadband internet service last week. The first took off on October 19, then just five days later, another full complement reached orbit. SpaceX has now launched nearly 1,000 of these, and it must be getting awfully close to kicking off its public beta of the consumer-facing internet service.

OSIRIS-REx probe 'tagging' the surface of asteroid Bennu

Image Credits: NASA

NASA has managed to collect a sample from the surface of an asteroid in a first for the agency. The sample collection came courtesy of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic exploration probe, which was built by partner Lockheed Martin. OSIRIS-REx still has some work to do at Bennu, the asteroid from which it collected the sample, but next year it’ll begin heading back with its precious cargo intended for study by scientists here on Earth.

NASA is full of special discoveries this week – scientists working on its SOFIA imaging project confirmed the presence of water on the surface of the Moon that’s exposed to sunlight. They’d suspected it was there previously, but this is the first confirmed proof, and while it isn’t a whole lot of water, it could still change the future of human deep space exploration.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft looks primed to invest in space-based business in a big way with Azure Space, a new business unit it formed to handle all space-related businesses attached to its cloud data efforts. That includes a new type of deployable mobile datacenter that will be connected in part via SpaceX’s Starlink global broadband network, putting computing power near where it’s needed in a scalable way.

Intel has loaded up a small satellite with a power-efficient edge AI processor, its Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit. That’ll help the satellite do its own on-board classification of images of Earth that it takes, saving key bandwidth for what it transfers back to researchers on the ground. Local AI could help satellite networks in general operate much more efficiently, but it’s still in its infancy as a field.

Image Credits: Relativity Space

Relativity Space has tons of promise in terms of its 3D-printed rockets, but it still hasn’t actually reached the launch stage. It did however secure a key government contract, with Lockheed Martin selecting its rocket for a forthcoming mission to test fluid management systems for NASA.

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