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Crowdfunded spacecraft LightSail 2 prepares to go sailing on sunlight – TechCrunch

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Among the many spacecraft and satellites ascending to space on Monday’s Falcon Heavy launch, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 may be the most interesting. If all goes well, a week from launch it will be moving through space — slowly, but surely — on nothing more than the force exerted on it by sunlight.

LightSail 2 doesn’t have solar-powered engines, or use solar energy or heat for some secondary purpose; it will literally be propelled by the physical force of photons hitting its immense shiny sail. Not solar wind, mind you — that’s a different thing altogether.

It’s an idea, explained Planetary Society CEO and acknowledged Science Guy Bill Nye said in a press call ahead of the launch, that goes back centuries.

“It really goes back to the 1600s,” he said; Kepler deduced that a force from the sun must cause comet tails and other effects, and “he speculated that brave people would one day sail the void.”

So they might, as more recent astronomers and engineers have pondered the possibility more seriously.

“I was introduced to this in the 1970s, in the disco era. I was in Carl Sagan’s astronomy class… wow, 42 years ago, and he talked about solar sailing,” Nye recalled. “I joined the Planetary Society when it was formed in 1980, and we’ve been talking about solar sails around here ever since then. It’s really a romantic notion that has tremendous practical applications; there are just a few missions that solar sails are absolutely ideal for.”

Those would primarily be long-term, medium-orbit missions where a craft needs to stay in an Earth-like orbit, but still get a little distance away from the home planet — or, in the future, long-distance missions where slow and steady acceleration from the sun or a laser would be more practical than another propulsion method.

Mission profile

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the “2” in the name of the mission. LightSail 2 is indeed the second of its type; the first launched in 2015, but was not planned to be anything more than a test deployment that would burn up after a week or so.

That mission had some hiccups, with the sail not deploying to its full extent and a computer glitch compromising communications with the craft. It was not meant to fly via solar sailing, and did not.

“We sent the CubeSat up, we checked out the radio, the communications, the overall electronics, and we deployed the sail and we got a picture of that deployed sail in space,” said COO Jennifer Vaughn. “That was purely a deployment test; no solar sailing took place.”

The spacecraft itself, minus the sail, of course.

But it paved the way for its successor, which will attempt this fantastical form of transportation. Other craft have done so, most notably JAXA’s IKAROS mission to Venus, which was quite a bit larger — though as LightSail 2’s creators pointed out, not nearly as efficient as their craft — and had a very different mission.

The brand new spacecraft, loaded into a 3U CubeSat enclosure — that’s about the size of a loaf of bread — is piggybacking on an Air Force payload going up to an altitude of about 720 kilometers. There it will detach and float freely for a week to get away from the rest of the payloads being released.

Once it’s safely on its own, it will fire out from its carrier craft and begin to unfurl the sail. From that loaf-sized package will emerge an expanse of reflective Mylar with an area of 32 square meters — about the size of a boxing ring.

Inside the spacecraft’s body is also what’s called a reaction wheel, which can be spun up or slowed down in order to impart the opposite force on the craft, causing it to change its attitude in space. By this method LightSail 2 will continually orient itself so that the photons striking it propel it in the desired direction, nudging it into the desired orbit.

1 HP (housefly power) engine

The thrust produced, the team explained, is very small — as you might expect. Photons have no mass, but they do (somehow) have momentum. Not a lot, to be sure, but it’s greater than zero, and that’s what counts.

“In terms of the amount of force that solar pressure is going to exert on us, it’s on the micronewton level,” said LightSail project manager Dave Spencer. “It’s very tiny compared to chemical propulsion, very small even compared to electric propulsion. But the key for solar sailing is that it’s always there.”

“I have many numbers that I love,” cut in Nye, and detailed one of them: “It’s nine micronewtons per square meter. So if you have 32 square meters you get about a hundred micronewtons. It doesn’t sound like much, but as Dave points out, it’s continuous. Once a rocket engine stops, when it runs out of fuel, it’s done. But a solar sail gets a continuous push day and night. Wait…” (He then argued with himself about whether it would experience night — it will, as you see in the image below.)

Bruce Betts, chief scientist for LightSail, chimed in as well, to make the numbers a bit more relatable: “The total force on the sail is approximately equal to the weight of a house fly on your hand on Earth.”

Yet if you added another fly every second for hours at a time, pretty soon you’ve got a really considerable amount of acceleration going on. This mission is meant to find out whether we can capture that force.

“We’re very excited about this launch,” said Nye, “because we’re going to get to a high enough altitude to get away from the atmosphere, far enough that we’ll really gonna be able to build orbital energy and take some, I hope, inspiring pictures.”

Second craft, same (mostly) as the last

The LightSail going up this week has some improvements over the last one, though overall it’s largely the same — and a relatively simple, inexpensive craft at that, the team noted. Crowdfunding and donations over the last decade have provided quite a bit of cash to pursue this project, but it still is only a small fraction of what NASA might have spent on a similar mission, Spencer pointed out.

“This mission is going to be much more robust than the previous LightSail 1, but as we said previously, it’s done by a small team,” he said. “We’ve had a very small budget relative to our NASA counterparts, probably 1/20th of the budget that a similar NASA mission would have. It’s a low-cost spacecraft.”

Annotated image of LightSail 2, courtesy of Planetary Society.

But the improvements are specifically meant to address the main problems encountered by LightSail 2’s predecessor.

Firstly, the computer inside has been upgraded to be more robust (though not radiation-hardened) and given the ability to sense faults and reboot if necessary — they won’t have to wait, as they did for LightSail 1, for a random cosmic ray to strike the computer and cause a “natural reboot.” (Yes, really.)

The deployment of the sail itself has also improved. The previous one only extended to about 90% of its full width and couldn’t be adjusted after the fact. Subsequently tests have been done, Betts told me, to exactly determine how many revolutions the motor must make to extend the sail to 100%. Not only that, but they have put markings on the extending booms or rods that will help double check how deployment has gone.

“We also have the capability on orbit, if it looks like it’s not fully extended, we can extend it a little bit more,” he said.

Once it’s all out there, it’s uncharted territory. No one has attempted to do this kind of mission, even IKAROS, which had a totally different flight profile. The team is hoping their sensors and software are up to the task — and it should be clear whether that’s the case within a few hours of unfurling the sail.

It’s still mainly an experiment, of course, and what the team learns from this they will put into any future LightSail mission they attempt, but also share it with the spaceflight community and others attempting to sail on sunlight.

“We all know each other and we all share information,” said Nye. “And it really is — I’ve said it as much as I can — it’s really exciting to be flying this thing at last. It’s almost 2020 and we’ve been talking about it for, well, for 40 years. It’s very, very cool.”

LightSail 2 will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy no sooner than June 24th. Keep an eye on the site for the latest news and a link to the live stream when it’s almost time for takeoff.

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Google isn’t moving Legacy G Suite users again, despite admin console warnings

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Google

Grandfathered-in “Legacy G Suite” users got a scare recently when another new “transition” message started popping up in the Google Admin console. “The transition to Google Workspace has started,” said the new message that suddenly appeared in people’s accounts. This was after Legacy G Suite users went through a contentious transition last year, where Google’s opening position involved shutting down their accounts if people didn’t start paying, but eventually, it was talked into not doing that. A Google spokesperson tells us the Workspace transition message was “a bug that surfaced an old banner from earlier in the process last year, and our team is working on removing it. More changes are not happening at this time, and those who previously opted-in for personal use are not expected to take any further action.”

We’ve received a few questions about this message, and this Reddit post has people wondering what the deal is, but it’s just a bug. That’s great because Legacy G Suite users have gone through enough already. To recap, Google currently offers businesses the option to pay a monthly fee for a Google/Gmail account that ends in a custom domain name instead of @gmail.com. Today this is called “Google Workspace,” but due to Google’s constant rebrands, it was first called “Google Apps for your Domain,” then “Google Apps,” and then “G Suite.” Google’s custom domain service was not always paywalled and not always exclusively aimed at businesses—it was free from 2006 to 2012. Google even pitched these accounts to families as a way to let everyone have similar email addresses. Some people did so, which means today they are getting a paid service for free.

Don't believe a word of this message.
Enlarge / Don’t believe a word of this message.

Last year, the Google accounting department turned its Eye of Sauron on these long-term users and threatened to take away their nearly 16-year-old accounts if they didn’t start paying a business rate for these formerly free and not necessarily business accounts. After a public outcry, Google eventually left these “Legacy G Suite accounts” alone after making users confirm that they were using their accounts for “non-business” purposes. After that, everything was settled.

Legacy G Suite users are specifically not a part of “Workspace,” which is a paid service. So this new message that popped up yesterday suggests they would have moved to another new service. Even though Google says it’s an error that users could see this message, actually following the prompt would lead you to another error message about “Google Workspace for personal use” which is a product that does not exist. Workspace has tiers like “Business Starter,” and grandfathered-in users are on “Legacy G Suite”, but “Workspace for personal use” is not a thing. Apparently, this was all the beta branding for the original plan last year, and somehow it all got published yesterday.

Enlarge / “Google Workspace for personal use” is not a thing that exists.

Lee Hutchinson

Google Workspace for personal use would be a great product for Google to sell, by the way. We’ve complained before that while Apple and Microsoft both sell custom domain email services to consumers at a reasonable rate, Google does not, only offering business email at much more expensive rates. A big part of the Legacy G suite problem is that these personal users have nowhere to go inside Google.

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Apple Q1 earnings miss the mark almost across the board

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Enlarge / Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Apple reported its earnings for Q1 2023 today, and it was one of the company’s poorest-performing quarters in recent years. It was the company’s biggest decline since 2016 and the first since 2019. Overall revenue was down more than 5 percent year-over-year as the company failed to match sales from the same quarter last year across most of its hardware categories.

iPhone revenue was $65.78 billion for the quarter, down 8.17 percent year over year. Similarly, “Other Products”—which includes the Watch, AirPods, and some other outliers—was down 8.3 percent year over year at $13.48 billion. The real underperformer was the Mac, which was down almost 30 percent at $7.74 billion.

The two parts of the business that did grow were services— which include things like Apple Music and TV+, iCloud, and AppleCare—and the iPad. Services were up 6.4 percent at $20.77 billion, while the iPad grew 29.66 percent to $9.4 billion.

CEO Tim Cook said in the company’s earnings call that Apple faces a “challenging macroeconomic environment.” Besides that, he named two other main factors behind the down quarter: production and supply issues in China and a strong US dollar. Apple struggled to meet consumer demand across many of its products, with shipping sometimes running several weeks behind. Cook said that while Apple might have met analysts’ estimates had the supply issues not been a factor, it’s impossible to know for sure.

On the bright side, Apple says it has resolved many of those supply problems for now and that there are now 2 billion active Apple devices in users’ hands worldwide. And obviously, $117.15 billion in revenue for the quarter is still huge, even if it didn’t meet expectations or match last year.

Apple declined to give guidance on what it expects for the next quarter. It has not done so for any quarter since the pandemic began in 2020.

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Razer’s $280 mouse is covered in gaping holes 

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Razer

There are a lot of cookie-cutter mice out there that, although made by different manufacturers, have the same shapes and features but rely on mild changes in color or sensor specs to differentiate themselves. So when Razer announced the Viper Mini Signature Edition (SE) today, a wireless mouse that looks like it forgot to get dressed, we took notice.

The Viper Mini SE uses a magnesium alloy chassis “exoskeleton,” as Razer describes it. Lines of dark gray stretch across the mouse’s palm area, creating a web-like design and bold, gaping holes. Razer’s using an extreme take on the honeycomb design, which has holes drilled into a mouse’s chassis to reduce weight. However, the typical honeycomb mouse, like the Glorious Model I, has many more holes that are smaller, while the Viper Mini SE has holes that are so big, it looks like you could poke your finger through them.

It'll be easy for dust to fall into those openings.
Enlarge / It’ll be easy for dust to fall into those openings.

Razer

At first look, I’m immediately concerned about the mouse’s durability. Despite what Razer claims, I still think I’m more likely to break a mouse with 18 holes in it than one with none. Large openings can also attract dust and debris, but bigger holes should make the mouse easier to clean with, for example, an air blower than a  honeycomb mouse topped with more, smaller openings.

Razer graciously gives the mouse a three-year warranty, which is one year longer than it usually gives mice. We’ll be keen to check out reviews and long-term experiences with the Viper Mini SE to see how it fares, especially among power users, like gamers, who tend to use their mice aggressively.

From a glass-half-full perspective, the cavernous mouse could have the benefit of helping the hand on top of it stay cool. With less contact between the user’s hand and the electronics, plus more air flow, users may find their hands clamming up less easily during long hours of intense use. Razer didn’t go so far as to install a cooling fan in the mouse like Marsback’s Zephyr, though.

Big holes help make the Viper Mini SE Razer’s lightest mouse. It’s 1.73 ounces, which is about 30 percent lighter than the Viper Mini (2.15 ounces) with the same form factor and nearly identical dimensions. It’s still not the lightest mouse around, however. For example, Cooler Master’s MM720 is also 0.11 pounds, and Finalmouse has sold mice weighing as little as 1.48 ounces.

With the weight savings gained, it would have been nice if Razer added buttons to the mouse’s right side so it could be truly ambidextrous, like the Razer Viper Ultimate.

Razer's mouse uses a 2.4 GHz USB-A dongle.
Enlarge / Razer’s mouse uses a 2.4 GHz USB-A dongle.

Razer

Razer used magnesium alloy for the mouse because it had the preferred “strength-to-weight ratio.” Plastic, it said, was less sturdy with drilled holes and had minimal weight reduction comparatively. And titanium, while lightweight, stronger, and sturdier, had fabrication limitations. Finally, fabrication limits, plus a heavier weight than plastic, precluded Razer from making the Viper Mini SE with carbon fiber.

According to Razer’s press release, the mouse is made “with an injection-molded exoskeleton that is then CNC machined and polished. The exoskeleton shell then undergoes passivation to reduce any susceptibility to corrosion, after which it is painted and assembled. At each step, each unit is meticulously inspected…”

The Razer Viper Mini SE targets gamers seeking a mouse that’s as easy as possible to flick around their desk. But a featherweight mouse with a high dots-per-inch (DPI) spec (up to 30,000 DPI in the Viper Mini SE’s case) can also appeal to users of increasingly high-resolution monitors and multi-screen setups, or those who find their arm or hand getting tired while mousing.

If you’re looking for a lot of chassis for your buck, this isn’t it. The wireless peripheral will cost a whopping $280 when it debuts February 11.

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