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The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow – TechCrunch

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Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.



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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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