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Schools of Robots Are Mapping the Unknown Features of the Deep Sea

Unknown Planet

If Planet Earth were the back of our hand, we’d disprove the truism about knowing it well pretty quickly. The problem: 71 percent of our planet is covered by ocean, and only about 15 percent of the features under the deep sea have been accurately mapped. These unknowns pose a problem for creating safe navigational charts for boats and underwater vehicles, inhibit scientists from identifying habitats that could host unknown or endangered biodiversity, and even affect our estimates of how the oceans are influencing climate change.

Leaders in science and industry are rallying to remedy this imbalance. In June 2017, Japan’s grant-making Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) announced a joint project to map the deep sea, and gave the scientific community a deadline: 100 percent of the ocean floor mapped by 2030.

To that end, Shell is holding the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million competition that challenges participants to create new technologies that allow fast, autonomous, and high-resolution ocean exploration and mapping. Presently, 19 semifinalist teams — hailing from Germany, Ghana, India, Portugal, France, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Japan — are in the process of Round 1 Testing for their products in the waters of their choice.

Earlier this month, the UK entrants, called Team Tao, demonstrated their entry in Lake Windermere: a group of torpedo-shaped robots called Bathypelagic Excursion Modules, or BEMs, which move together in a grid to rapidly map an area. The team likens them to “cubesats for the ocean.”

Several teams in the Shell competition have drawn inspiration from hive minds in nature, modeling small groups of robots after creatures like ants, which work together to accomplish a goal. The French team, Eauligo, plans to utilize hundreds of “marine bees” for mapping, controlled from an autonomous “hive” ship that launches the vehicles and recalls any bees that aren’t functioning properly. Germany’s team, ARGGONAUTS, plans to utilize multiple pairs of robots that collaborate: one at the surface (the “water strider”) and one in the depths (the “great diver”).

Send in the Swarm

Such designs mark a departure from previous methods of deep sea mapping, which often relied on bulky and expensive vehicles working solo. Yet as technology becomes ever more miniaturized, these robot “swarms” are likely the future of science and exploration in the ocean — and beyond.

Image Credit: Team Tao

Groups of ocean-exploring robots have been developed by researchers at the University of Lisbon, in Portugal; the Scripps Oceanographic Institution also has their own version made for studying ocean currents.

Collections of nanobots also hold great promise for medicine, where they can be used to deliver drugs from within the body, combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and destroy cancerous tumor cells. Ingenious robo-hives have been created to manufacture objects like a cooperative 3D printer and repair broken electronic circuitry. À la Netflix’s Black Mirror, swarms of robotic bees might even be recruited to help pollinate flowers amongst an insect extinction crisis.

Even within the field of ocean robotics, these automated swarms could take us well beyond learning more about our own world. With the discovery that multiple planets within our solar system — and likely millions more in the universe — are host to extraterrestrial oceans, these robo-schools could potentially help us learn more about other planets. Given that these oceans are one of the foremost places experts believe we may find alien life, efforts like that of the Nippon Foundation and Shell could end up discovering more about life on multiple worlds.

The post Schools of Robots Are Mapping the Unknown Features of the Deep Sea appeared first on Futurism.

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How Firefox won the 2017 browser wars

It’s been a great year for Firefox. After falling behind its rivals in terms of speed and market share, Mozilla launched itself back into the game in 2017 with Firefox Quantum – the browser’s biggest update since its first release in 2004.

“We fell behind for five years, so it feels good to come out swinging,” Mark Mayo, vice president of Firefox, told TechRadar just before the launch of Quantum in November. We’re just going to go straight at them!”

Quantum is a huge step up for Firefox, with speeds that challenge Chrome and a new interface designed to make browsing a smooth, more pleasant experience, but it was just one part of Mozilla’s 2017 success story.

Focus on privacy

Along with speed, privacy was one of Mozilla’s biggest focal points for 2017. We spoke to Mayo at Mozilla’s Glass Room exhibition in London – a pop-up art exhibition exploring the way our personal data is harvested, used and sold when we use online services – often without us fully realizing.

Exhibits including an eight-hour video of a man reading the full Kindle terms and conditions, printed books of leaked LinkedIn logins that visitors could check for their own details, and a vast web of pins and string showing the hundreds of connections between Google and other online service providers.

The Glass Room pop-up art installation pulled no punches, highlighting the way other web companies collect, use and share your personal data

The show pulled no punches, and followed the release of the privacy-focused Firefox Focus for Android. The mobile browser, which was released for iOS in 2016, automatically deletes users’ browsing history at the end of each session. It also disables ads that track browsing activity, which has a knock-on effect of speeding up page load times.

“The focus is on simplicity, so you don’t have to go into private mode in your usual browser – you’re there straight away,” Barbara Bermes, senior product manager of Firefox Mobile Browsers, told us after the launch.

There’s no desktop version of Focus in the works yet, but Chromebook users can download it from the Google Play Store like any other app.

Firefox on phones

Mobile will continue to be a particular focus for Firefox in 2018, as the team aim to bring some of the improvements from Quantum to the small screen. There’s already been a halo effect, with installs of the mobile browser picking up pace since November.

It’s a challenge Mayo is looking forward to. “There’s more need for big leaps in performance on mobile than on desktop,” he told us just before Christmas, when we caught up to discuss 2017’s highlights, and what we can expect to see in the new year.

Firefox Focus for Android

Firefox Focus came to Android in 2017, letting you browse on mobile without leaving a trace

“The big [achievement] I’m super happy about is that we were able to release a new Firefox,” he said. “That’s been especially great for the team after a pretty intense 18 months.”

He sees Quantum’s speed as great news for all internet users, forcing Microsoft and Google to focus on delivering quicker, smoother performance as well.

“Other browsers should get faster as well,” he told us. “It’s just going to be great for all users because everyone is going to compete on speed again, which hasn’t happened for a while. Chrome will get faster, Edge will get faster.”

Mozilla is far from done, though. The Quantum project as a whole is only halfway done, so we’re expecting plenty more developments in the new year – on all platforms. That’s good for everyone; as Mayo says: “When the web gets better, everyone wins”.

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Top 5 uses for VPN software

Most VPN services come with pre-installed settings and protocols, making them extremely accessible. There are dozens of reasons why you should use a VPN, but here are our top five.

With the US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) stripping away current net neutrality provisions, there’s never been a better time to arm yourself with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Using a trustworthy VPN service is a great way to encrypt your online traffic and avoid government censorship, not to mention bypass certain ISP (Internet Service Provider) restrictions.

1. Browse anonymously

When you connect to a secure VPN, you’re able to browse the web with complete anonymity. That’s because a good VPN service will hide your actual location, letting you browse without ever leaving a ‘physical’ trace.

More than that, VPNs also block your ISP from tracking your every move on the internet. Whereas incognito mode simply hides your browsing history from your browser, a VPN lets you hide your traffic from your ISP. Connecting to a VPN server essentially ‘masks’ your location, connecting you to a location in another area, making it difficult for your ISP to see – and therefore block – the sites you’re accessing.

This is especially important if you’re concerned about your internet browsing history. In 2017, the US government gave ISPs the power to package and sell user data. That means everything you do online could become fodder for marketers or insurance companies. If that sounds spooky to you, then using a VPN is a great way to keep your digital life private.

2. Encrypt your network

2017 wasn’t a good year for cybersecurity, and the forecast for 2018 isn’t looking any better. Using a VPN to encrypt your internet connection lets you browse without worrying about exposing your network. This is especially helpful when you’re traveling and find yourself browsing via public Wi-Fi hotspots (in hotels for example).

ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, VyprVPN and other top-tier VPN providers use AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption. That means your network is fully encrypted, making it near impossible for anyone to see what you’re doing online, whether you’re browsing on a secure network or an open one.

Better yet, if you set up a VPN on your router, you can encrypt the traffic of all the devices in your house. That way you never have to remember to turn on the VPN each time you boot up your computer or switch on your phone.

This is one of the defining differences between VPNs and proxy services: whereas a proxy only covers a single device’s web traffic, you can hook up your VPN to a router to cover every device in your network. Many small- and medium-sized businesses have begun installing VPNs on their office networks. It’s an upward trend that’s only expected to gain momentum as cybercrime becomes more prevalent.

3. Unblock blacklisted sites

When it comes to watching content from abroad – whether it be unblocking Netflix or Hulu – a VPN makes it easier to stream your favorite shows.

Connecting to a VPN automatically changes your IP address. Sites that may be blocked in your region become readily available, making it possible to access any site and service from virtually anywhere in the world.

You can also use a VPN to download and torrent without having to worry about your ISP zeroing in on your online activity. Most VPNs come with unlimited bandwidth and server switches, which means there are no data caps restricting the amount of content you’re able to access. It also means you can endlessly hop from location to location, which is useful when content is only available in certain areas.

Furthermore, this is a big deal when you’re logging on from censorship-heavy countries like China or Egypt. A VPN provides an important lifeline that keeps you connected with key sites like Facebook, YouTube and Google. Think of a VPN as the ultimate travel tool in this respect.

4. Avoid network throttling

With the net neutrality repeal, ISPs in the US now have more power over how they market their services, which means users can soon expect some sites to load faster – while others may load much, much slower.

In the UK, traffic throttling (or shaping) is an accepted fact that is detailed and documented by most of the country’s big ISPs (Virgin Media, BT, Plusnet).

Fortunately, a VPN service can help reset your online network to its original settings and allow you to browse, stream, and download without having to worry about slow-loading sites.

More than that, it’s a simple and effective way to fight back against the status quo. Privacy advocates say using a VPN to slip through the cracks and browse normally isn’t only recommended, it’s encouraged.

And while it’s entirely possible that Comcast, AT&T and other internet providers could one day ban VPNs, the staggering amount of both business and everyday VPN usage makes this a very unlikely scenario.

5. Find better deals online

This lesser-known VPN trick is a great way to save on flights and hotels. By connecting to a VPN server outside your home region and comparing prices online, you may be able to save a significant amount of money on rentals and airfares.

That’s because most sites (including Kayak and Priceline) actually charge different amounts based on a user’s IP address. Start by checking prices in and around your location.

Then try comparing prices between different cities and, if possible, nearby states. After that, try switching your VPN location to a few different countries and check the same prices. It’s a fairly simple trick, though it’s worth taking the time to do a more wide-ranging search – that way you’ll cast a more expansive net for trying to find the best deals.

Next time you’re looking for cheap flights, try using a VPN to check prices from different countries – just remember to browse in incognito mode and clear your cookies after each visit.

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4 things I learned from building a startup outside Silicon Valley


Building a startup in Silicon Valley has its advantages: close proximity to investors, availability of talent, and an appetite for — and history of — innovation.

However, not every successful startup begins in Silicon Valley. It can be expensive to sustain company growth there, or the startup might solve a pain point that exists outside the Valley. Even more simply, you just might have been somewhere else when you started the business. For these and other reasons, there are an increasing number of startup hubs in cities like Austin, Seattle, Toronto, and more recently Phoenix that produce innovative technology companies.

My own business, Varsity Tutors, stemmed from an immediate need I saw in my hometown of St. Louis. As a student at Washington University in St. Louis, I struggled to find high-quality tutoring for one of my courses. I quickly realized that most people don’t have convenient access to great one-on-one tutors, and Varsity Tutors was thus born.

Like any startup, we’ve experienced our challenges. Some were influenced by our location outside Silicon Valley. But over the past 10 years, we’ve also benefited from our decision to build a business elsewhere. Through that process, I’ve learned several things that can help other founders who are weighing a similar decision.

Silicon Valley has a lot of distractions

Maintaining focus is critical to business success, and there are a lot of distractions in Silicon Valley. As a founder, it can be tempting to want to spend your days networking, taking coffee meetings and attending cocktail events in hopes that you’ll meet the “right” people. But all of those meetings take up precious time. Another distraction comes from trying to outdo the startup that shares your coworking space or that’s located just down the road.

Beyond competing to be the market leader, in Silicon Valley technology companies fight to hire top talent with extravagant or unusual perks and lavish parties. Facebook and Google have even started to offer housing accommodations to employees. Outside of the Valley, you encounter fewer distractions, and you can focus on building a strong and successful company.

It’s easier to cultivate civic pride outside Silicon Valley

There are more than 31,000 startups in Silicon Valley, according to AngelList. As many as 9 out of 10 of them will ultimately fail. It can be both discouraging and overwhelming to start a company in the area. It is immensely difficult to stand out there.

In St. Louis and other similar cities, the number of startups is much lower. We’ve found that the local community rallies behind us for most announcements or initiatives we launch. In the early days, local TV stations and newspapers covered our news, no matter how small. Local civic leaders continue to recognize our business and include us in conversations about St. Louis as a growing tech hub. I still have deep ties to Washington University, my alma mater, where Varsity Tutors is touted as a local entrepreneurial success story.

Cultivating the same civic pride isn’t easy in the Valley, and we rarely see it with early-stage startups. It’s not until companies in the Valley are in the later stages of their lifecycle, often market leaders, that they’re able to garner the same enthusiasm and support around the product, mission, or leadership.

People outside the Valley may not understand your vision

Individuals in Silicon Valley are, in many ways, more accustomed and receptive to concepts that dramatically alter the face of an industry. Consider Airbnb — its founders spent their early days selling collectible cereal to pay their bills, all while trying to convince investors that people would welcome the opportunity to sleep in a stranger’s home. The idea sounded improbable, but Silicon Valley understood that sometimes you have to take risks. The risk worked out, and Airbnb is now valued at $31 billion.

In the Midwest and in other parts of the country, people are more risk-averse, and they may be more skeptical of radical ideas. When I founded Varsity Tutors, many people thought it would fail — in part because it was an unfamiliar concept to build a digital marketplace around what had been an offline service. It was challenging to convince people in our community that technology would fundamentally change how live instruction was accessed and consumed. Ultimately, it took more time than it might have in Silicon Valley to get people on board with our mission and our value proposition.

Cost of living provides a real operating advantage

When starting a company, saving money should be top of mind from day one. The costs of operating a business are significantly affected by the cost of living in a city. Take San Francisco, for instance. There’s no question that rent in San Francisco is astronomical compared to other parts of the country. The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco costs $2,800 per month, while in St. Louis, you can get a similar apartment for $720. And studies have shown you don’t need to make as much money in other areas of the country to reach peak happiness (because it costs less to meet your basic needs).

From leasing an office space to paying employees, the cost of living in a city affects a company’s bottom line. Operating a business outside of Silicon Valley can enable you to save money early on and be more strategic about how you spend that money to grow your business.

No matter your location, growing a startup isn’t easy. Silicon Valley offers a convincing case for startups to succeed, with easy access to investors and an environment that encourages innovative thinking. But it’s not the only path, and it isn’t free of challenges — it can be difficult to continually compete with others and to distinguish yourself there. Meanwhile, companies like CrossChx in Columbus, Ohio; Fanatics in Jacksonville, Florida; and my own Varsity Tutors are thriving in environments that haven’t traditionally been associated with startups. With the right leadership, team, mindset, and customer focus, no location is an obstacle to success.

Chuck Cohn is the founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors, a platform that connects students and professionals with personalized instruction to achieve any goal. Experts on the platform have delivered over two million hours of live, personalized instruction to students online, on mobile devices, and in person. 

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MacRumors Giveaway: Win a Pair of Nova True Wireless Earbuds From TRNDlabs

For this week’s giveaway, we’ve teamed up with TRNDlabs to offer MacRumors readers a chance to win a pair of NOVA True Wireless Earbuds, which are a wireless alternative to the AirPods.

Available for $70 as part of a New Year sale, the NOVA True Wireless Earbuds connect to an iPhone or other Apple device using Bluetooth 4.1, and there are no wires connecting the two earbuds together. Several different tips are available for the NOVA to ensure a comfortable fit.

Like other earbuds of this type, the NOVA Earbuds come with a Power Case for storage and charging purposes. With the built-in battery, the earbuds offer three hours of continuous music playback, with another 60 hours provided by the Power Case.

It takes about an hour to charge the earbuds using the case, and the case itself is charged using a microUSB cable, which comes in the box. As an added bonus, the Power Case can be used as a backup battery for your phone as well.

With an included microphone, the NOVA can be used to make phone calls, and there are touch controls for playing/pausing music, ending a call, and redialing a phone number.

We have five of the NOVA True Wireless Earbuds to give away to MacRumors readers. To enter to win, use the Rafflecopter widget below and enter an email address. Email addresses will be used solely for contact purposes to reach the winners and send the prizes. You can earn additional entries by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, subscribing to our YouTube channel, following us on Twitter, or visiting the MacRumors Facebook page.

Due to the complexities of international laws regarding giveaways, only U.S. residents who are 18 years or older and Canadian residents (excluding Quebec) who have reached the age of majority in their province or territory are eligible to enter. To offer feedback or get more information on the giveaway restrictions, please refer to our Site Feedback section, as that is where discussion of the rules will be redirected.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
The contest will run from today (December 29) at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time through 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time on January 5. The winners will be chosen randomly on January 5 and will be contacted by email. The winners will have 48 hours to respond and provide a shipping address before new winners are chosen.

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Odd sighting from SpaceX rocket launch leads to highway crash

SpaceX’s last Falcon 9 launch of 2017, which carried yet another batch of Iridium satellites into space, was particularly stunning. The launch was so visually spectacular, in fact, that it ultimately caused a three-car pileup on Interstate 10 in Beaumont, located roughly 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

The incident was caught on tape and shared on YouTube by Mark Sales, who was traveling on the highway with his family. In a dashcam video recording of the incident, Sales and his family could be heard excitedly talking about the aerial display, with people in the vehicle audibly wondering what it could be.

As could be seen in the video, several drivers on the highway seemed to have gotten transfixed by the event. Not long after, a mid-sized SUV braked suddenly, causing a compact sedan to slam on its brakes as well. Unfortunately, a crossover SUV was not able to slow down on time, causing it to violently slam into the sedan, which in turn crashed into the mid-sized SUV.

The impact from the accident was so violent that the compact sedan was totaled and thrown across the road and into another lane. The mid-sized SUV was also pushed to the curb due to the impact. Details about the crash remain unknown, however, as Sales opted to move along after the incident, seemingly as a way to prevent a possible traffic jam.

Rocket launches are always quite the spectacle, and SpaceX, which conducts missions fairly frequently, has managed to freak people out on more than one occasion. The aerial displays that ensue after that the launch of the private space firm’s rockets, for one, have managed to consistently grab the attention of people from all walks of life, from random bystanders to dedicated UFO enthusiasts.

Last Friday’s mission, however, was a little bit special. Due to the launch occurring around 30 minutes after the sunset, the exhaust plume of the spacecraft was illuminated at high altitude by the sun, resulting in an aerial display that could only be described as atmospheric art. The trails left by the Falcon 9 rocket were so prominent in the sky; even Hollywood stars took to Twitter to excitedly discuss the event, as noted in a Vanity Fair report.

Unsurprisingly, the spectacle also attracted several alien enthusiasts, many of which speculated on possible UFO sightings. True to form, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to add a little joke to the ongoing discussions, stating that the lights in the sky were definitely caused by aliens. 

It was definitely aliens

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 23, 2017

Considering that SpaceX is preparing to launch the “world’s most powerful rocket” that will be carrying Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster into space, there is a pretty good chance that the trails it would leave in the sky would be even more prominent than the ones left by its smaller Falcon 9 siblings. In order to prevent a similar accident from happening, SpaceX would need to thoroughly warn everyone in the area about the massive rocket’s launch. Otherwise, more fun discussions about aliens, and other non-fun road incidents, might happen once more. 

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Snapchat Copies Facebook Feature For Once With ‘A Look Back at 2017’

Snapchat today turned the tables on Facebook for once by mimicking one of the social media giant’s favorite features – your year in review, based on photos and videos posted in the last 12 months.

The feature can be accessed using the memories icon at the bottom of Snapchat’s home screen interface. Selecting “A Look Back at 2017” automatically generates a Story around your timeline of pictures, but the arrangement can be tweaked by selecting “Edit Story” and tapping the X on individual snaps to remove them from the collage. The Story can then be saved and shared with friends.

Image via The Verge

As The Verge notes, the “Look Back” feature may not appear if there isn’t enough media from the last 12 months to create a story, so only avid Snapchat users are likely to see it.

Facebook continued its seemingly relentless trend of copying Snapchat features last month, when it began testing a new feature that plays on the latter’s chat streak challenge, which encourages users to “keep your streak going” when messaging friends.

Prior to that, Facebook created a carbon copy of Snapchat’s day-long, vanishing post idea in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, which gained 100 million users following the update last year. The company also previously aped Snapchat’s face filters and rewinded video features for Instagram, which also proved a hit.

Today’s feature debut follows news yesterday that Snapchat is testing a feature which will let users share stories outside of the mobile app, in an effort to boost sign-ups to the app.

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy goes vertical with Musk’s Tesla as launch nears

After approximately half a decade of concerted and less-than-patient waiting, long-time followers of SpaceX have, for the first time ever, seen SpaceX’s first completed Falcon Heavy rocket roll out to the launch pad and go vertical at the same complex that hosted every single Apollo moon landing, LC-39A.

This is a historic moment in SpaceX’s history, even if it culminates in nothing more than a quiet rollout and roll-back to the historic pad’s integration facilities. For at least several years, it has been a running (lighthearted) joke within the fan community that Falcon Heavy is permanently six months away from launch. Outside of the rocket company’s supporters, however, that fan humor gained a heavier tinge, and Falcon Heavy essentially became the strawman with which SpaceX detractors could ream the company’s greater (and even relatively minor) ambitions as over-promised, unrealistic dreams to one day also become permanently delayed. While seasoned spaceflight journalists rarely partook in the Falcon Heavy bashing, pop journalism and the titans of the global launch industry certainly took advantage of the apparent weakness as the preeminent example of SpaceX’s tendency towards delays. Even SpaceX’s conservative supporters understandably saw the significance when two customers ultimately chose to move their payloads elsewhere due to Falcon Heavy’s relentless delays.

Falcon Heavy went vertical at LC-39A for the first time today! Here’s a few shots (taken through much haze) from Playalinda Beach.

— John Kraus (@johnkrausphotos) December 28, 2017

However, the reality was rather clear to those that followed the agile launch company and paid attention to the statements of its executive management, including CEO Elon Musk. Ultimately, Falcon Heavy was not a priority and was only ever going to capitalize upon a minority of the satellite launch industry, given the rarity of satellites heavy enough to need the massive vehicle. While Falcon Heavy would undoubtedly be invaluable for SpaceX’s grander ambitions of interplanetary exploration and transport, those ambitions simply did not compare in importance to solving Falcon 9 design and supply chain issues that caused the failures of CRS-7 and Amos-6. Nor were they more crucial than the launch company’s need for a stable cadre of trusting customers, simply upgrading the already-operational Falcon 9, or the perfection of first stage reusability – all of which would explicitly impact the utility of Falcon Heavy.

A panorama of LC-39A from late-November. Falcon Heavy will likely launch from this pad in January 2018. (Tom Cross/Teslarati)

SpaceX’s official July 2017 confirmation that Red Dragon had been cancelled further guaranteed that Falcon Heavy would only ever be a niche product, maybe even little more than a symbolic stopgap to fill a tiny industry niche and soothe delay-stricken nerves. SpaceX does have at least a handful of Falcon Heavy customers still hopefully awaiting its operational status, but it is quite clear that the company sees its value most as a method of both reassuring the world that its infamous delays are only temporary, as well as relatively economically fueling the development of a reusable super-heavy launch vehicle, expertise that would inevitably benefit the Mars-focused BFR as it too begins development. At a minimum, it will provide SpaceX’s launch, design, and manufacturing experts a sort of base of knowledge about building and operating rockets with ~30 or more first stage engines – the 2017 iteration of BFR is likely to sport 31. It’s also possible that Falcon Heavy could provide the margins necessary to allow SpaceX to attempt recoveries of Falcon’s second stage, a purely experimental effort that would feed directly into the development of the fully-reusable BFR upper stage the company hopes to build, BFS.

Thus, while Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch may not be explicitly important to SpaceX’s near-term business strategy, it will in almost every way mark one of its first tailor-made steps towards Mars, perhaps both literally and figuratively. Rather humorously, SpaceX (or Elon Musk … probably just Elon Musk) has chosen to replace the boilerplate mass simulator often flown as a payload for inaugural launches of most launch vehicles (Falcon 9 included) with a rather unique mass simulator: Musk’s own first-generation Tesla Roadster. While it has yet to be specified what the specific destination of the second stage and Roadster are, nor what – if any – functional payload is to be included, Musk did suggest that the destination would be a “billion-year Mars orbit.” The nitpick here is hugely significant, as ‘simply’ launching the Roadster into a solar orbit at a similar distance to Mars (still an impressive accomplishment) would be decidedly less impressive than actually injecting the Roadster into orbit around Mars. Pictures released by SpaceX show no additional boost stages attached to the Roadster, so a Martian orbit would require Falcon Heavy’s second stage to coast in deep space for several months while generating enough power to prevent its propellant from freezing and maintain contact with ground control, especially in the rather likely event that SpaceX (and Musk) hope to acquire some rather absurd and iconic images from the inaugural launch and its space travels.


History and symbolism aside, it can now be said with utter certainty that Falcon Heavy is very real and is likely to launch very soon. The vehicle’s first-ever integrated rollout to Pad 39A is almost certainly intended only for “fit-checks,” a verification that the pad and brand new vehicle are meshing well together, but it is still the first time in the company’s history that FH visibly exists, and there can be little doubt that the photo opportunity was not taken advantage of. After fit checks are performed, likely over the course of a day or two, Falcon Heavy will be most likely be brought horizontal and rolled back into 39A’s integration facilities, where it will be prepared for its first full-up wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire, possibly including the cautionary removal of the second stage and Roadster payload. Because the vehicle is inherently new, as are many of the upgraded ground systems needed to support it, bugs are highly probable along the road to launch. However, if the first WDR and static fire go precisely as planned, the first launch attempt can be expected to occur about a week later – maybe sooner, maybe later.

All things considered, SpaceX is clearly moving full speed ahead with Falcon Heavy’s launch preparations, and it seems highly probable that the company’s schedule will allow for January launch, even if minor issues mean that multiple WDRs or static fires are required. Elon Musk certainly hedged his bets earlier this summer by aggressively inflating the probability that Falcon Heavy fails on its launch pad, famously stating that a success in his eyes would be the vehicle clearing the pad without destroying LC-39A. In reality, SpaceX would not in a million years haphazardly risk the destruction of Pad 39A, and the company is almost certainly quite confident that the pad is at most marginally at risk of severe damage. One thing that Musk cannot be criticized for is the argument that one way or another, Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch will be a sight to behold. While the payload may indeed be heading to or towards Mars, SpaceX still plans to attempt recovery of all three of Falcon Heavy’s first stages: both side cores are expected to land almost simultaneously at LZ-1’s two landing pads, while the center booster will follow a parabola out into the Atlantic for a landing aboard the droneship Of Course I Still Love You, truly a spectacle to behold regardless of success or failure.

My capture of @SpaceX #FalconHeavy making her #39A debut today. Taken with my Nikon D3300 with 300mm lens from the Canaveral National Seashore Vista 8. I must admit I have enjoyed watching the reactions to seeing it on the pad. My reaction… WHOA @NASASpaceflight @lorengrush

— Julia (@julia_bergeron) December 28, 2017

Follow along live on Twitter and Instagram as our launch photographer Tom Cross documents Falcon Heavy’s last steps along its journey to first flight, as well as Falcon 9’s imminent launch of the mysterious Zuma payload, currently NET January 4.

Cover photo courtesy of spaceflight fan and photographer Richard Angle. Follow him on Instagram at @rdanglephoto!

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