Amazon makes a satellite launch deal with SpaceX

Amazon’s Project Kuiper may be a competitor for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband network, but business is business: Amazon says it has signed a contract for three launches of Project Kuiper satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, supplementing scores of launches reserved on bigger rockets that haven’t yet made their debut.

“The additional launches with SpaceX offer even more capacity to support our deployment schedule,” Amazon said today in a news release. Amazon did not provide information about the potential timing of the launches, or their cost.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is designed to open up broadband internet access to tens of millions of people around the world who are underserved. SpaceX has a big head start in the market, with thousands of satellites already in orbit and more than 2 million subscribers for Starlink’s service.

Amazon, in contrast, had its first two prototype satellites sent into orbit on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket just this October. A couple of weeks ago, Amazon reported that the satellites passed a monthlong series of tests, opening the way for satellites to be mass-produced at a factory in Kirkland, Wash. (For what it’s worth, SpaceX’s satellites are built nearby at the company’s Redmond facility.)

Project Kuiper’s first production-quality satellites are due to be launched early next year, with beta service to begin in the latter half of 2024. At least half of Project Kuiper’s planned 3,236-satellite constellation will have to be placed in low Earth orbit by mid-2026 to comply with the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission. But the vast majority of launches that Amazon has reserved would use three types of rockets that haven’t yet flown a single mission: Blue Origin’s New Glenn, ULA’s Vulcan and Arianespace’s Ariane 6.

In addition to the three newly reserved Falcon 9 launches, Amazon has slots set aside on eight Atlas V rockets — a tried-and-true product line that is reaching its final days. So even though SpaceX and Amazon could be considered satellite network rivals, and even though SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos haven’t always been on the best of terms, the Falcon 9 reservations represent something of an insurance policy for Amazon’s deployment schedule.


Contest offers $101M for ways to boost healthy lifespan

Some of the biggest names in longevity research — and at least one Seattle biotech startup — say they’ll enter a $101 million, seven-year competition to turn back the clock on the effects of aging by at least 10 years.

XPRIZE Healthspan was unveiled today at a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s the richest incentive-based technology competition ever created by the XPRIZE foundation, beating out a $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal contest that’s being funded by Elon Musk, the world’s richest (and most controversial) billionaire.

The top prize in the Healthspan contest will go to the team that does the best job of creating a therapy that can be administered in a year or less, leading to the restoration of at least 10 years’ worth of muscular function, cognition and immune function in people aged 65 to 80.

Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, said the concept started out as a longevity prize, but the program’s planners “realized that the idea of waiting 20 years to see if someone won the prize was probably impractical.”

“We shifted from longevity to really looking at age reversal first, and then functional restoration second,” Diamandis explained. “You see, it doesn’t really matter what your epigenetic age is. Do you actually feel younger? Do you have the muscle, immune and cognition that you had 10 or 20 years ago? Because at the end of the game, that’s what really matters.”


Amazon’s Project Kuiper plays up satellite synergies

As Amazon gears up to build and launch thousands of satellites for its Project Kuiper constellation, it’s talking up the space-based broadband network’s potential to enable new options for managing data traffic with Amazon Web Services — including private connectivity services that never touch the public internet.

Amazon also announced that Japan’s Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., NTT Docomo and SKY Perfect JSAT have formed a strategic collaboration with Project Kuiper to bring advanced satellite connectivity options to their customers. NTT and SKY Perfect JSAT plan to distribute Kuiper services to enterprises and government organizations in Japan, while NTT Group companies will use Project Kuiper to boost wireless broadband connectivity for customers.

NTT and its associated companies, along with SKY Perfect JSAT, join Verizon and Vodafone as telecom partners for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which aims to provide broadband data services to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved.

Such partners are expected to be among the first beta testers for Project Kuiper’s network in the second half of 2024. Two weeks ago, Amazon said that two prototype satellites achieved a “100% success rate” in a series of orbital tests, opening the way for mass production to begin next month at a factory in Kirkland, Wash.

Project Kuiper is far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, which already has more than 2 million subscribers. Starlink’s satellites are built in Redmond, Wash., not far from Project Kuiper’s HQ. To catch up with Starlink, Amazon plans to leverage synergies with AWS as well as the company’s other lines of business, including Prime Video and online retail sales.


This self-confessed nerd is pioneering electric aviation

When Riona Armesmith moved from Britain to the Seattle area two and a half years ago to become chief technology officer for magniX, a company that’s pioneering electric aviation, she had to take a leap of faith.

Armesmith was leaving one of the world’s best-known manufacturing companies, Rolls-Royce, where she was head of programs for aviation futures. She would be joining a privately held company that builds electric propulsion systems for aircraft that won’t go into commercial service until the mid-2020s. And she’d be bringing her family along for an adventure in a whole new world.

“To move halfway across the world, for me, it was easy,” she says. “For my family, it was harder.”

MagniX and its technical team are facing daunting challenges, ranging from working around the limitations of battery technology to running a gauntlet of regulatory requirements. But Armesmith is unfazed. It’s a technological frontier that’s tailor-made for uncommon thinkers.

“There are many of us that moved here for this job because of the technology, because of what magniX is doing, and because we’ve flown five different aircraft in three years,” she says. “The opportunity to see what you’re doing fly in such a short amount of time — that opportunity is so rare in this industry.”

Fiction Science Club

How AI and quantum physics link up to consciousness

Will artificial intelligence serve humanity — or will it spawn a new species of conscious digital beings with their own agenda?

It’s a question that has sparked scores of science-fiction plots, from “Colossus: The Forbin Project” in 1970, to “The Matrix” in 1999, to this year’s big-budget tale about AI vs. humans, “The Creator.”

The same question has also been lurking behind the OpenAI leadership struggle — in which CEO Sam Altman won out over the nonprofit board members who fired him a week earlier.

If you had to divide the AI community into go-fast and go-slow camps, those board members would be on the go-slow side, while Altman would favor going fast. And there have been rumblings about the possibility of a “breakthrough” at OpenAI that would set the field going very fast — potentially too fast for humanity’s good.

Is the prospect of AI becoming sentient and taking matters into its own hands something we should be worried about? That’s just one of the questions covered by veteran science writer George Musser in a newly published book titled “Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation.”

Musser interviewed AI researchers, neuroscientists, quantum physicists, neuroscientists and philosophers to get a reading on the quest to unravel one of life’s deepest mysteries: What is the nature of consciousness? And is it a uniquely human phenomenon?

His conclusion? There’s no reason why the right kind of AI couldn’t be as conscious as we are. “Almost everyone who thinks about this, in all these different fields, says if we were to replicate a neuron in silicon — if we were to create a neuromorphic computer that would have to be very, very true to the biology — yes, it would be conscious,” Musser says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

But should we be worried about enabling the rise of future AI overlords? On that existential question, Musser’s view runs counter to the usual sci-fi script.

Cosmic Space

SpaceX’s Starship gets farther on its second test flight

SpaceX’s Starship and its Super Heavy booster blew through the primary objective for their second test flight today, but both rocket stages blew up sooner than the company hoped.

SpaceX took the day as a win — based not only on a successful liftoff from its South Texas launch pad a little after 7 a.m. CT (5 a.m. PT), but also on the successful execution of a hot-stage separation maneuver two and a half minutes after launch.


Amazon says its Kuiper satellites aced orbital tests

Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite network streamed its first video and facilitated its first online sale during a monthlong series of orbital tests that the company says achieved a “100% success rate.”

The performance of the two prototype satellites, known as KuiperSat 1 and 2, validated Amazon’s satellite design and will open the way for mass production to begin in earnest next month at a factory in Kirkland, Wash., said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper.

“It’s been an incredible success for the team, for Kuiper, and partly because everything we did went like clockwork,” Badyal said. “There were no fires to fight, so to speak. In some ways, the team made it look very easy. As you know very well, these things are extremely difficult to do. But everything we built, all the designs are working as designed, and the results we’re getting are nominal or better.”

The prototype satellites were launched into low Earth orbit from Florida on Oct. 6 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and after testing the satellites’ maneuverability, Amazon verified end-to-end network functionality last week. Further tests will be conducted in the months ahead while satellite production ramps up, Amazon said.

Project Kuiper is designed to provide affordable broadband internet access from above for tens of millions of people around the world who are underserved.

It’s been only four years since Kuiper came into the public spotlight — and Amazon is far behind SpaceX’s rival Starlink satellite network, which already has more than 2 million subscribers. But Project Kuiper aims to take advantage of synergies with Amazon’s other business lines, ranging from online retail sales to Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Web Services.

The tests conducted over the past month served as a demonstration of those synergies as well as confirmation that Project Kuiper’s hardware, software and ground-based infrastructure are on the right track.


Orbite begins the countdown to space training programs

After getting its start in Seattle and testing its business model in France and Florida, a space travel venture called Orbite is ready to start signing up customers for private-sector astronaut training programs.

And although it’ll be a while before those programs begin in earnest, Orbite CEO Jason Andrews says the first 500 people to make a refundable deposit will be in for some astronaut-worthy experiences between now and then.

“What we are announcing today is just the beginning,” he said.

Orbite plans to invite early-stage customers in its Founders Club to attend a series of space-adjacent events, starting with a rocket-launch watch party in Florida next spring and continuing with gatherings that could include an underwater adventure in the Florida Keys and a trip to Antarctica.

Andrews said Founders Club members could spend part of their $5,000 pre-booking deposit on one of those tours, or put all the money toward a training program at Orbite’s Astronaut Training and Spaceflight Gateway Campus in Florida.

That training facility, mapped out by French industrial designer Phillippe Starck, is due to be built at a site that’s yet to be disclosed in the area around Florida’s Space Coast and Orlando. Protracted business negotiations led to delays in the development schedule, but the facility is currently set to open in 2026, Andrews said.


AI influencers are worried about AI’s influence

What do you get when you put two of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on artificial intelligence together in the same lecture hall? If the two influencers happen to be science-fiction writer Ted Chiang and Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, you get a lot of skepticism about the future of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT.

“I don’t use it, and I won’t use it, and I don’t want to read what other people do using it,” Bender said Nov. 10 at a Town Hall Seattle forum presented by Clarion West

Chiang, who writes essays about AI and works intelligent machines into some of his fictional tales, said it’s becoming too easy to think that AI agents are thinking.

“I feel confident that they’re not thinking,” he said. “They’re not understanding anything, but we need another way to make sense of what they’re doing.”

What’s the harm? One of Chiang’s foremost fears is that the thinking, breathing humans who wield AI will use it as a means to control other humans. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, he compared our increasingly AI-driven economy to “a giant treadmill that we can’t get off” — and during Friday’s forum, Chiang worried that the seeming humanness of AI assistants could play a role in keeping us on the treadmill.

“If people start thinking that Alexa, or something like that, deserves any kind of respect, that works to Amazon’s advantage,” he said. “That’s something that Amazon would try and amplify. Any corporation, they’re going to try and make you think that a product is a person, because you are going to interact with a person in a certain way, and they benefit from that. So, this is a vulnerability in human psychology which corporations are really trying to exploit.”

AI tools including ChatGPT and DALL-E typically produce text or imagery by breaking down huge databases of existing works, and putting the elements together into products that look as if they were created by humans. The artificial genuineness is the biggest reason why Bender stays as far away from generative AI as she can.

“The papier-mâché language that comes out of these systems isn’t representing the experience of any entity, any person. And so I don’t think it can be creative writing,” she said. “I do think there’s a risk that it is going to be harder to make a living as a writer, as corporations try to say, ‘Well, we can get the copy…’ or similarly in art, ‘We can get the illustrations done much cheaper by taking the output of the system that was built with stolen art, visual or linguistic, and just repurposing that.’”


Starfish Space scrubs plan for satellite rendezvous

Five months after a tilt-a-whirl spin spoiled the debut of Starfish Space’s first spacecraft, the Tukwila, Wash.- based startup has halted efforts to put its Otter Pup back on track to demonstrate an on-orbit satellite rendezvous.

Starfish had to abandon its plan to regroup and attempt a rendezvous when the Otter Pup satellite’s electric propulsion thruster suffered an anomaly and could no longer function. “We determined that we just pushed it a little bit too far,” Starfish co-founder Austin Link told me.

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