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SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites – TechCrunch

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Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple of years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the star tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually, and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

A SpaceX representative told me that the debris tracker hooks into the Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center, where trajectories of all known space debris are tracked. These trajectories are checked against those of the satellites, and if a possible collision is detected the course changes are made, well ahead of time. This isn’t a matter of seeing a rock and dodging it, more like air traffic control.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

In a media briefing last week Musk described it in slightly more specific terms: “It’s like a flat disc, but unlike a, say, a DirecTV satellite dish which has to point in a specific direction, has to point very precisely at the geostationary satellite.  In the case of a Starlink dish, you can basically kind of put it at almost any angle that is reasonably pointed at the sky.”

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are we won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year.

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Facebook’s next hardware product will be “smart” Ray-Ban glasses

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Enlarge / Don’t get too excited about how well these Ray-Bans go with Gitta Banko’s outfit—we don’t know what Facebook’s new smart glasses will look like, only that they’re made in partnership with the brand and its parent company.

In an earnings conference call on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors that the company’s next hardware launch will be “smart glasses” made in partnership with classic sunglasses vendor Ray-Ban.

Zuckerberg segued into the Ray-Ban announcement following a lengthy discussion of Facebook’s plans for Oculus Quest, its all-in-one virtual reality (VR) platform. Zuckerberg says that social media is the real “killer app” for VR, backing that up with data from Oculus Quest: “The most popular apps on Quest are social, which fits our original thesis [that] virtual reality will be a social platform.”

Zuckerberg intends the as yet unnamed smart glasses to be a stepping stone, not an end goal. He remained cagey about their actual purpose, saying only that the glasses “have their iconic form factor, and [let] you do some pretty neat things,” with no concrete details about what those “neat things” might be.

We do know that the glasses aren’t expected to have integrated display, thanks to reporting from The Verge on their initial announcement in September 2020. Without display capabilities, the Ray-Ban/Facebook glasses seem likely to fall in the same category as Amazon’s Echo Frames or Lucyd Lyte—a mostly normal-looking pair of sunglasses with integrated Bluetooth pairing and directional speakers that we reviewed in March.

Zuckerberg describes the smart glasses as a stepping stone toward not only virtual or augmented reality as we know it, but something he calls the metaverse. “So what is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment [like] an embodied Internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. And we believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile Internet.”

After warning that building his vision will require significant investment not only from Facebook itself but from its entire ecosystem of partners, he doubled down on its eventual importance, saying, “In addition to being the next chapter of the Internet, the metaverse is also going to be the next chapter for us as a company.”

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Facebook set a new ad revenue record, despite Apple’s iOS privacy change

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Faebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For months, Apple and Facebook waged a PR war (with threats of a legal one) over App Tracking Transparency, a change in recent versions of the iPhone’s iOS software that will often limit how advertising-focused apps and companies can monetize iPhone users.

Facebook’s original public predictions about App Tracking Transparency’s effect were apocalyptic. But even though App Tracking Transparency took effect during Facebook’s most recent quarter (Q2 of 2021) the company still posted huge ad revenue growth.

Facebook’s revenue, which is largely driven by the kinds of advertising that Apple’s iOS change undermines, grew 56 percent year-over-year in Q2, beating investor expectations. The company had 1.9 billion daily active users and 2.9 billion monthly active users. It earned $10.12 of revenue per user, on average.

This was the first earnings report Facebook has delivered on a quarter that should show any effects of App Tracking Transparency on the company’s bottom line. Fifty-six percent YOY growth certainly doesn’t look apocalyptic, but CFO David Wehner told investors to expect a less rosy story in the next quarter:

We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recent iOS updates, which we expect to have a greater impact in the third quarter compared to the second quarter.

Data on user opt-in rates for tracking has varied quite a bit. Some firms put the figure at just 4 percent, but others place opt-in rates as high as around 30 percent. And it likely depends on the app in question. In any case, users who opt in are definitely not the majority; most users are declining to be tracked when prompted. And each user who does is worth a lot less money to Facebook, which makes much of its money leveraging each user’s data to charge advertisers money to microtarget them and other users with similar attributes.

While Facebook’s initial messaging around App Tracking Transparency was combative and dire, Zuckerberg began changing his tune recently. He began to argue that the change could even be good for Facebook in some ways.

As for today, Zuckerberg is dedicating much of his time to describing his vision for the “metaverse,” which he has identified as the new direction for the company. He has described this vision as a mixed reality layer on our lives whereby people can interact with and socialize with one another virtually in new ways, crossing geographic barriers as if they were simply walking from room to room.

But Apple executives have also outlined a somewhat similar longterm vision, albeit with a very different approach in mind. By forcing Facebook to play by different ad-targeting rules, Apple has strengthened its position against the social media company in any coming battle over a future mixed reality computing landscape.

But at least for this quarter, Facebook doesn’t look like it is suffering too badly from the wound.

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Google Play gets mandatory app privacy labels in April 2022

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In iOS 14, Apple added a “privacy” section to the app store, requiring app developers to list the data they collect and how they use it. Google—which was one of the biggest targets of Apple’s privacy nutrition labels and delayed app updates for months to avoid complying with the policy—is now aping the feature for Google Play.

Google posted a demo of what the Google Play “Data privacy & security” section will look like, and it contains everything you’d expect if you’ve looked at the App Store lately. There’s information on what data apps collect, whether or not the apps share the data with third parties, and how the data is stored. Developers can also explain what the data is used for and if data collection is required to use the app. The section also lists whether or not the collected data is encrypted, if the user can delete the data, and if the app follows Google’s “Families” policy (meaning all the usual COPPA stuff).

Google Play’s privacy section will be mandatory for all developers in April 2022, and starting in October, Google says developers can start populating information in the Google Play Console “for review.” Google also says that in April, all apps will need to supply a privacy policy, even if they don’t collect any data. Apps that don’t have an “approved” privacy section by April may have their app updates rejected or their app removed.

Google says, “Developers are responsible for providing accurate and complete information in their safety section.”

All of this information is basically just running on the honor system, and on iOS, developers have already been caught faking their privacy labels.

Listing image by Google Play

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