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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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Apple invests $45 million more in Gorilla Glass-maker Corning

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Apple has invested an additional $45 million in US-based Corning Incorporated, the maker of Gorilla Glass, the companies announced today.

A news release from Apple says the investment will help “expand Corning’s manufacturing capacity in the US” and “drive research and development into innovative new technologies that support durability and long-lasting product life.”

The investment will come out of Apple’s $5 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which was established in 2017 to invest in manufacturing jobs and infrastructure in the United States related to Apple’s products like the iPhone.

Up to this point, Corning has received $450 million from that fund. The prior cash influx played a role in the development of the ceramic shield, a new screen material that made the new iPhone 12 lineup more drop-resistant than prior iPhone models.

Apple describes the technology, its use, and the process behind it this way:

The new material was enabled by a high-temperature crystallization step which forms nano-crystals within the glass matrix. Those specialized crystals are kept small enough that the material is transparent. The resulting material makes up the revolutionary Ceramic Shield, which Apple used to fashion the new front cover featured on iPhone in the iPhone 12 lineup. Prior to Ceramic Shield, embedded crystals have traditionally affected the material’s transparency, a crucial factor for the front cover of iPhone because so many features, including the display, the camera, and sensors for Face ID, need optical clarity to function.

Apple’s relationship with Corning goes back to the very first iPhone, when a last-minute change to that product before launch replaced a scratch-prone plastic screen with a brand-new kind of comparatively scratch-resistant glass called Gorilla Glass from Corning.

Gorilla Glass has since been refined to be more durable, and it appears not just in iPhones but in numerous other mobile products from Samsung and others.

Apple hasn’t said how Corning will use this new investment. Corning is known to be working on new forms of durable, bendable glass that could be suitable to a hypothetical future foldable iPhone, but there’s no guarantee that’s what’s going on here.

We also don’t know if whatever Corning will develop with these funds will be exclusive to Apple’s products. It is likely, however, that the investment will lead to at least some new jobs at Corning, probably in the US state of Kentucky, where glass for Apple products is manufactured.

Listing image by Apple

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Google: We put YouTube TV in the main YouTube app. What now, Roku?

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Enlarge / Google tells users where they can find YouTube TV now: inside the regular YouTube app.

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Previously on Google versus Roku: Roku and Google needed to renew the contract for YouTube TV, Google’s $65-per-month cable TV replacement, on Roku’s TV platform. The two companies weren’t able to come to an agreement on the new contract, resulting in YouTube TV being pulled from the Roku store. Oh no! While existing customers could still use the YouTube TV app they had already installed, new users couldn’t sign up. Will the two companies ever be able to settle their differences, or is their friendship ruined forever?

The next exciting episode in this saga aired on Friday, when Google announced in a blog post that it was just going to run an end-around on Roku and stick the YouTube TV app in the YouTube app. YouTube and YouTube TV exist as separate apps, and while the YouTube TV contract expired and the app was taken off the Roku store, the YouTube contract does not expire until December.

Since the YouTube app is still running, Google was able to quickly shove YouTube TV functionality into it. On the side navigation menu, the last link in the list reads, “Go to YouTube TV.” This is not unprecedented—it’s actually the way YouTube Music works, too, with a sort of app-within-an-app interface.

Google says it is “still working to come to an agreement with Roku to ensure continued access to YouTube TV for our mutual customers.” But Google threatened Roku with another escalation, saying, “We’re also in discussions with other partners to secure free streaming devices in case YouTube TV members face any access issues on Roku.”

A few weeks ago, Google offered to “renew the YouTube TV deal under the existing reasonable terms” with Roku, so Roku seems to be the current aggressor. In response to this latest move, Roku sent the following statement to The Verge.

Google’s actions are the clear conduct of an unchecked monopolist bent on crushing fair competition and harming consumer choice. The bundling announcement by YouTube highlights the kind of predatory business practices used by Google that Congress, Attorney Generals and regulatory bodies around the world are investigating. Roku has not asked for one additional dollar in financial value from YouTubeTV. We have simply asked Google to stop their anticompetitive behavior of manipulating user search results to their unique financial benefit and to stop demanding access to sensitive data that no other partner on our platform receives today. In response, Google has continued its practice of blatantly leveraging its YouTube monopoly to force an independent company into an agreement that is both bad for consumers and bad for fair competition.

These are the same claims Roku has made before, and Google has already responded to them, saying, “To be clear, we have never, as they have alleged, made any requests to access user data or interfere with search results. This claim is baseless and false.”

The real reason for the rift between the two companies seems to be over Google’s AV1 video codec requirements for YouTube (presumably only for new devices), and it seems these requirements would start in December, when the mainline YouTube app contract expires.

AV1 is a cutting-edge, royalty-free video codec that will likely be the next de facto video standard, since it’s backed by Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, Facebook, Arm, Hulu, and a ton of other companies. AV1 would save on bandwidth for streaming companies and customers, but it requires hardware decode support on cheaper devices like a Roku box. Google wants to make AV1 a requirement for YouTube, but that requires new chips, which are probably more expensive than the older chips Roku would prefer to use.

Google says, “Separately, we are also in ongoing, long-term conversations with Roku to certify that new devices meet our technical requirements. This certification process exists to ensure a consistent and high-quality YouTube experience across different devices, including Google’s own—so you know how to navigate the app and what to expect. We’ll continue our conversations with Roku on certification, in good faith, with the goal of advocating for our mutual customers.”

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Security researcher successfully jailbreaks an Apple AirTag

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This weekend, German security researcher stacksmashing declared success at breaking into, dumping, and reflashing the microcontroller of Apple’s new AirTag object-location product.

Breaking into the microcontroller essentially meant being able both to research how the devices function (by analyzing the dumped firmware) and to reprogram them to do unexpected things. Stacksmashing demonstrated this by reprogramming an AirTag to pass a non-Apple URL while in Lost Mode.

Lost Mode gets a little more lost

When an AirTag is set to Lost Mode, tapping any NFC-enabled smartphone to the tag brings up a notification with a link to found.apple.com. The link allows whoever found the lost object to contact its owner, hopefully resulting in the lost object finding its way home.

After breaching the microcontroller, stacksmashing was able to replace the found.apple.com URL with any other URL. In the demonstration above, the modified URL leads to stacksmashing.net. By itself, this is pretty innocuous—but it could lead to an additional minor avenue toward targeted malware attacks.

Tapping the AirTag won’t open the referenced website directly—the owner of the phone would need to see the notification, see the URL it leads to, and elect to open it anyway. An advanced attacker might still use this avenue to convince a specific high-value target to open a custom malware site—think of this as similar to the well-known “seed the parking lot with flash drives” technique used by penetration testers.

AirTag’s privacy problems just got worse

AirTags already have a significant privacy problem, even when running stock firmware. The devices report their location rapidly enough—thanks to using detection by any nearby iDevices, regardless of owner—to have significant potential as a stalker’s tool.

It’s not immediately clear how far hacking the firmware might change this threat landscape—but an attacker might, for instance, look for ways to disable the “foreign AirTag” notification to nearby iPhones.

When a standard AirTag travels near an iPhone it doesn’t belong to for several hours, that iPhone gets a notification about the nearby tag. This hopefully reduces the viability of AirTags as a stalking tool—at least if the target carries an iPhone. Android users don’t get any notifications if a foreign AirTag is traveling with them, regardless of the length of time.

After about three days, a lost AirTag will begin making audible noise—which would alert a stalking target to the presence of the tracking device. A stalker might modify the firmware of an AirTag to remain silent instead, extending the viability window of the hacked tag as a way to track a victim.

Now that the first AirTag has been “jailbroken,” it seems likely that Apple will respond with server-side efforts to block nonstandard AirTags from its network. Without access to Apple’s network, the utility of an AirTag—either for its intended purpose or as a tool for stalking an unwitting victim—would become essentially nil.

Listing image by stacksmashing

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