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Astronauts successfully depart the ISS aboard SpaceX Dragon, starting their trip home

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have successfully undocked from the International Space Station, which is the first crucial stage of their return to Earth. Next, they’ll travel on a coast phase that will take them on a descent course back through the atmosphere from space, shedding speed as they prepare to deploy the parachutes of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and drop into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.

The undocking, coast and splashdown phase are all meant to be performed entirely via automation, with the control systems SpaceX designed for Crew Dragon managing the entire process, including burns to control the capsule’s travel away from the Station and its controlled descent through the atmosphere. While re-entering the atmosphere, the Dragon will undergo tremendous stress, and its angle of descent is intended to slow its velocity to the point where it can safely deploy those parachutes to slow its fall even further, all the while keeping Behnken and Hurley safe.

The coast phase will take many hours, with SpaceX and NASA expecting the eventual splashdown of the capsule happening sometime around 2:42 PM EDT (11:42 PM PDT) tomorrow, Sunday August 2.

This is the final phase of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission from its Commercial Crew program with NASA, which is the qualification program that the agency requires to certify Crew Dragon for regular operational missions taking astronauts to and from the station. Behnken and Hurley launched on the first part of this historic mission, which is the first to see humans fly aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, on May 30, and have spent the intervening months on the Space Station contributing to regular crew missions.

Crew Dragon will splash down off the coast of Florida to conclude Demo-2, and SpaceX crews are on hand to recover the astronauts at that point and bring them the rest of the way back to terra firma. If everything goes to plan, then SpaceX will officially be ready to begin standard astronaut flights, as mentioned – and the first of those is planned for sometime in late September, so they won’t have to wait long.

We’ll have updates for the remainder of this final leg as they become available, so stay tuned.

Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

🚨 Announcement time! We recently received a CPUC permit granting permission to move CA residents in driverless cars.

We join a tiny group of companies with this permit (👋@zoox @Cruise @Waymo @aurora_inno) & can’t wait to get back on the road to serve seniors. We miss you ❤pic.twitter.com/VBPtNQjRI1

— Voyage (@voyage) April 20, 2020

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

Elon Musk says Starship should reach orbit within six months – and could even fly with a crew next year

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered an update about Starship, the company’s nest generation spacecraft, which is being designed for full, “rapid reusability.” Musk discussed the technology behind the design of Starship, which has evolved somewhat through testing and development after its original introduction in 2017.

Among the updates detailed, Musk articulated how Starship will be used to make humans interplanetary, including its use of in-space refilling of propellant, by docking with tanker Starships already in orbit to transfer fuel. This is necessary for the spacecraft to get enough propellant on board post-launch to make the trip to the Moon or Mars from Earth – especially since it’ll be carrying as much as 100 tons of cargo on board to deliver to these other space-based bodies.

Elon Musk

These will include supplies for building bases on planetary surfaces, as well as up to 100 passengers on long-haul planet-to-planet flights.

Those are still very long-term goals, however, and Musk also went into detail about development of the current generation of Starship prototypes, as well as the planned future Starships that will go to orbit, and carry their first passengers.

The Starship Mk1, Mk2 and the forthcoming Mk3 and Mk4 orbital testers will all feature a fin design that will orient the vehicles so they can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere flat on their ‘bellies,’ coming in horizontal to increase drag and reduce velocity before performing a sort of flip maneuver to swing past vertical and then pendulum back to vertical for touch-down. In simulation, as shown at the event, it looks like it’ll be incredible to watch, since it looks more unwieldy than the current landing process for Falcon boosters, even if it’s still just as controlled.

SpaceX Starship Mk1 29

The front fins on the Starship prototype will help orient it for re-entry, a key component of reuse.

Musk also shared a look at the design planned for Super Heavy, the booster that will be used to propel Starship to orbit. This liquid-oxygen powered rocket, which is about 1.5 times the height of the Starship itself, will have 37 Raptor engines on board (the Starship will have only six) and will also feature six landing legs and deployable grid fins for its own return trip back to Earth.

In terms of testing and development timelines, Musk said that the Starship Mk1 he presented the plan in front of at Boca Chica should have its first test flight in just one to two months. That will be a flight to a sub-orbital altitude of just under 70,000 feet. The prototype spacecraft is already equipped with the three Raptor engines it will use for that flight.

Next, Starship Mk2, which is currently being built in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at another SpaceX facility, will attempt a similar high altitude test. Musk explained that both these families will continue to compete with each other internally and build Starship prototypes and rockets simultaneously. Mk3 will begin construction at Boca Chica beginning next month, and Mk4 will follow in Florida soon after. Musk said that the next Starship test flight after the sub-orbital trip for Mk1 might be an orbital launch with the full Super Heavy booster and Mk3.

Elon Musk 1

Musk said that SpaceX will be “building both ships and boosters here [at Boca Chica] and a the Cape as fast as we can,” and that they’ve already been improving both the design and the manufacture of the sections for the spacecraft “exponentially” as a result of the competition.

The Mk1 features welded panels to make up the rings you can see in the detail photograph of the prototype below, for instance, but Mk3 and Mk4 will use full sheets of stainless steel that cover the whole diameter of the spacecraft, welded with a single weld. There was one such ring on site at the event, which indicates SpaceX is already well on its way to making this work.

This rapid prototyping will enable SpaceX to build and fly Mk2 in two months, Mk3 in three months, Mk4 in four months and so on. Musk added that either Mk3 or Mk5 will be that orbital test, and that they want to be able to get that done in less than six months. He added that eventually, crewed missions aboard Starship will take place from both Boca Chica and the Cape, and that the facilities will be focused only on producing Starships until Mk4 is complete, at which point they’ll begin developing the Super Heavy booster.

Starship Mk1 night

In total, Musk said that SpaceX will need 100 of its Raptor rocket engines between now and its first orbital flight. At its current pace, he said, SpaceX is producing one every eight days – but they should increase that output to one every two days within a few months, and are targeting production of one per day for early in Q1 2019.

Because of their aggressive construction and testing cycle, and because, Musk said, the intent is to achieve rapid reusability to the point where you could “fly the booster 20 times a day” and “fly the [starship] three or four times a day,” the company should theoretically be able to prove viability very quickly. Musk said he’s optimistic that they could be flying people on test flights of Starship as early as next year as a result.

Part of its rapid reusability comes from the heat shield design that SpaceX has devised for Starship, which includes a stainless steel finish on one half of the spacecraft, with ceramic tiles used on the bottom where the heat is most intense during re-entry. Musk said that both of these are highly resistant to the stresses of reentry and conducive to frequent reuse, without incurring tremendous cost – unlike their initial concept, which used carbon fibre in place of stainless steel.

Musk is known for suggesting timelines that don’t quite match up with reality, but Starship’s early tests haven’t been so far behind his predictions thus far.

NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket take its first re-flight

SpaceX is sending of one of newest Falcon 9 rockets back into space for the second time this early morning U.S. time.

The Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket is designed to be able to go into space and return 100 times, but these are early days. The rocket leaving today is taking Indonesian satellite Merah Putih in what will be its second trip — a re-flight — into space. If all goes well and the SpaceX robotic drone successfully collects the rocket off the Florida coast as planned, then this particular vehicle will be the first Block 5 to manage a repeat lift-off following a previous trip in May.

The next major focus for the firm is to reduce the preparation time and cost required between the relaunch of rockets. Obviously, there’s plenty of benefits for faster turnaround time and the cost-savings associated. But first thing is first and the vehicle out today could become the first Falcon 9 to go into space three times.

The launch happened a few minutes ago, but you can keep up with progress via the SpaceX live feed above.

Watch this reporter rescuing dolphins beached by Hurricane Irma

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Reporters tend to keep their distance from the story, but when a baby dolphin needed help, one reporter rose to the occasion.

NBC News reporter Kerry Sanders helped rescue a stranded baby dolphin on Marco Island, Florida during a storm surge caused by Hurricane Irma. Sanders’ rescue attempt was broadcast live on Today.

Today reports that the dolphin had been brought back to the beach by a local after being found washed all the way to a sidewalk.

Sanders reports the surges as measuring 4 feet, enough to wash wildlife ashore. After finding the exhausted dolphin on the beach, Sanders teamed up with a passing tourist to help it back into the Gulf of Mexico. Read more…

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Cruise ship company is rescuing its employees from Irma—on a cruise ship

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The high seas are not where anyone wants to be as Hurricane Irma rips through the Caribbean and southern Atlantic. 

To evacuate employees usually stationed aboard ships now in hurricane-churned waters, Royal Caribbean is using its most valuable resource: its own gigantic cruise boat.

Royal Caribbean is taking the 2,500-passenger Enchantment of the Seas mega-boat to calmer waters with the cruise company’s employees and families onboard.

.@RoyalCaribbean Enchantment of the Seas leaving #Miami – taking employees + fam out to safer waters before #Irma hitspic.twitter.com/mgT9j3qDAa

— Erica Hill (@EricaRHill) September 8, 2017 Read more…

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Florida man in liquor store forklift rampage

A 32-year old man from Freeport, Florida, is in custody after a weekend rampage at the liquor store. But this was a liquor store rampage with a difference, reports WKRG: it was under construction, and he inflicted $100,000 damage with a forklift left on-site.

According to police, Jones allegedly broke into the fenced-in construction site on the north side of the Ferdon Boulevard South using a JCB extendable forklift parked at the job site.

The building under construction was destroyed. Additionally, the suspect damaged a city fire hydrant and a 2-inch water meter worth about $3,200. … When Crestview Police Officers arrived on scene, Jones aimed the forklift toward officers. The officers stopped Jones at gunpoint and were able to detain him.

Jones stated his name was “Alice Wonderland and he was told to commit the offenses by a hookah-smoking caterpillar.”

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Florida town plagued by triple-arse graffiti

Authorities in St. Petersburg, Florida, are battling an onslaught of graffiti depicting a three-buttocked arse. NBC affiliate WFLA reports that the design has appeared at least twenty times across the city. It is thought to be the calling card of a single anonymous artist, who police stress is breaking the law.

St. Pete is a city known for its beautiful art and stunning murals. Many people are upset by this new graffiti involving a tush trend. They don’t like the fact that the bold buttocks are suddenly everywhere.

“This is not art. At all,” said one woman. “It’s vandalism.”

“There should be consequences. You can’t just take it upon yourself to do whatever you want to do,” another man said.

We shall speak in hushed tones, over the beachfires where the Suwannee meets the shore, of the great triple-arsed god worshiped by those who once lived in the sunken cities of the Florida sea.

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Waste away at Jimmy Buffet's new retirement community

Aging Jimmy Buffett fans, aka Parrotheads, take note! Latitude Margaritavile is a new senior housing community under construction in Daytona Beach, Florida. The facility is scheduled to open in the fall and promises to “reflect Margaritaville’s authentic, ‘no worries,’ tropical vibe.” Sounds lovely. I can just imagine my life there, “nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake.”

A Margaritaville-Themed Retirement Community is Coming to Florida(Mental Floss)

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