NASA is keeping tabs on Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster

Astronomers aim to keep tabs on everything up in the night sky. A NASA database includes our solar system’s eight planets and their moons, more than 755,000 asteroids, 3,500 comets — and, as of this week, one cherry red sports car that belonged to a Silicon Valley billionaire.

Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, put on a stunning show Tuesday with the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which became the most powerful operational rocket in the world.

It was a demo mission, so the goal was just to show that the rocket could fire up its engines and fly into space.

Test flights typically have a dummy payload, such as a big hunk of metal, so that nothing important or expensive is damaged if the rocket blows up.

But Musk decided to offer up his personal Tesla roadster. The Falcon Heavy launch was nearly perfect, and the roadster is headed for orbit around the sun. Its path will take it as far away as Mars, and, later, as close to the sun as the Earth.

Behind the wheel is Starman, a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit. SpaceX also hid a few “Easter eggs” in the car.

“You might also catch a glimpse of a smaller passenger, which is a tiny little Hot Wheels roadster, carrying a tiny little Starman,” Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX engineer, said during the mission’s webcast.

Also on board the Tesla is a durable storage device, called an Arch, loaded with the text of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” sci-fi trilogy. The names of over 6,000 SpaceX employees are also etched onto some hardware below the car.

In the words of Musk, the Tesla was meant to be a silly stunt for SpaceX — but for NASA, the car is an object in our solar system that must be cataloged and tracked.

“We need to have it in our artificial object catalog so that we don’t confuse it with an asteroid discovery in the future,” NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown said in an email.

The roadster is now officially labeled a Near-Earth Object, which is a designation NASA gives to objects that can travel relatively close to our home planet. (Don’t worry, the odds of the car colliding with Earth anytime soon are very, very small.)

The Tesla now has it’s own entry in Horizons, a database run by the Solar System Dynamics group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Horizons keeps tabs on all the “bodies” of the solar system, including planets, moons, comets and asteroids. And there’s about 150 man-made objects. They include exploration probes, such as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and some stray rocket parts left over from the Apollo moon missions, according to Brown.

The Tesla is listed as object -143205, “SpaceX Roadster (spacecraft) (Tesla).”

Astronomers use the Horizons database to find out where they should point their telescopes to observe an object.

Over the past few days, a few astronomers did just that to get shots of the Tesla before it drifts too far away to be seen from Earth.

NASA’s Solar System Dynamics group uses the Horizons database to research how objects in our solar system move and interact. They also use it to help plan future missions to study asteroids or comets and investigate scientific theories.

To view a simulation of the Tesla’s orbit (based on the data in Horizons), go to OrbitSimulator.com and search for “roadster.”

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NASA breaks record for pictures taken farthest from Earth

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is making history again, this time one-upping the legendary Voyager 1.

New Horizons is the probe that flew by Pluto on July 14, 2015, and beamed back those amazing pictures. Now, it’s zipping along at more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) each day — moving farther and farther out into our solar system.

On December 5, 2017, it broke a record set by Voyager 1 in 1990.

NASA said in a statement that New Horizons snapped a picture of a group of stars known as the “Wishing Well” when the spacecraft was about 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth.

New Horizons broke its own record a couple of hours later that day by taking images of two space rocks in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune that may be home to hundreds of thousands of icy worlds and a trillion or more comets, according to a NASA statement.

Compare that achievement to Voyager 1, which was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it took the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of our home world on February 14, 1990. NASA says Voyager 1’s cameras were turned off after that, so its photography record has been unchallenged for more than 27 years.

“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, said in the NASA statement. “And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

New Horizons is sleeping now, resting up for its next big adventure. On January 1, 2019, the probe will fly by a small, frozen world in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69, which orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto.

MU69 will be the most distant world ever explored. Yes, MU 69 is a boring name and NASA is asking the public to help come up with a better one.

New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006. It finished its primary mission with the Pluto flyby in 2015 and is now on an extended mission to explore the Kuiper Belt, helping the US to complete its reconnaissance of our solar system.

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As Facebook stumbles, Twitter and Snapchat show new life

Facebook and Google cemented their dominance over digital media in 2017. But small cracks may be forming.

Snapchat and Twitter both showed signs of long-awaited turnarounds this week, with analysts suggesting their businesses may be benefiting from concerns about Facebook’s impact on users and society.

The two companies, thought to be on the ropes at various points last year, surprised Wall Street this week with stronger than expected sales for the final three months of 2017. Snap showed renewed user growth; Twitter turned a profit for the first time.

Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, surged nearly 50% on Wednesday, pushing the company above its IPO price for the first time since July. Twitter is now trading above $30 a share for the first time since 2015.

Facebook’s stock, on the other hand, is down slightly this year. The company rattled investors by tweaking News Feed to show less content from publishers and brands. It also revealed users are spending less time on the social network as it chooses to show fewer viral videos.

Both issues are the result of Facebook trying to address its questionable impact on the world. Facebook has faced a groundswell of criticism for enabling fake news, filter bubbles, foreign election meddling and social media addiction.

Now, some industry watchers are revisiting their assumptions about whether Facebook and Google will continue to run away with the online advertising market.

“We might need to rethink… whether digital advertising really is going to trend towards a duopoly,” James Cordwell, an analyst with Atlantic Equities, told CNN Tech. “That still looks like the most likely outcome, but the results… certainly give one pause for thought.”

In addition to Snap and Twitter, Cordwell noted that Amazon’s ad sales business appears to be growing fast too. Amazon’s “other” revenue, a category that includes advertising, grew 62% year-over-year to $1.7 billion.

Facebook and Google have dominated the online ad market for years thanks to their massive reach and vast amounts of data. The companies are estimated to have gobbled up more than 60% of digital ad spending in 2017.

Advertisers and publishers have long hoped for a viable third alternative to combat the tremendous leverage that Facebook and Google have over them. Now Facebook may inadvertently be helping the cause.

“What we didn’t factor in were users being equally desperate for alternatives,” James Cakmak, an analyst with Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., wrote in an investor note this week about Snap’s improved user growth. “The backlash against Facebook may very well have played a factor.”

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel has previously played up the societal concerns about Facebook to his advantage, without actually naming names.

While announcing a Snapchat redesign in November, Spiegel said other social media platforms “fueled ‘fake news’ because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information.”

Twitter, along with Google’s YouTube, has also come under scrutiny for spreading fake news and Russian propaganda, but Facebook has arguably endured more of the criticism by virtue of its unmatched size.

Daniel Ives, an analyst with GBH Insights, wrote in an investor note Thursday that Facebook’s decision to tweak the News Feed may prove to be a “tailwind” for Twitter’s advertising business.

Facebook’s move “is forcing publishers and online advertisers to ‘dip their toe in the water’ on the Twitter platform and start to ramp up ad investments on this platform,” Ives said.

For now, though, Facebook remains miles ahead.

Facebook has grown to more than two billion monthly users, while Twitter is stalled at 330 million. Facebook has 1.4 billion daily users, while Snapchat has 187 million. Facebook’s $40 billion in annual sales last year was more than ten times the sales brought in by Twitter and Snap combined.

But this week may be a reminder not to count the little guys out just yet.

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Grubhub to start delivering KFC, Taco Bell

You may soon be able to order KFC and Taco Bell to your doorstep via Grubhub.

Yum Brands is partnering with the food delivery app Grubhub to deliver KFC and Taco Bell to your door, the companies announced Thursday.

Grubhub investors were wild about the news — its stock soared 28% by mid-morning. Thursday.

As part of the partnership, Yum Brands is also going to buy $200 million of Grubhub’s stock, and a Yum executive will join Grubhub’s board.

Though Taco Bell already offers delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub says that Yum’s $200 million investment will allow it to “further enhance the ordering and delivery experience for diners, restaurants and drivers,” according to the company’s press release.

Grubhub will test the new service in a handful of locations starting Thursday, but the company says the initial phase of the partnership will start “over the coming months.”

Yum is not the first fast food company to partner with a food delivery service, but it is the first to invest in one.

Rival McDonald’s began partnering with UberEats in 2017, allowing the fast-food company to deliver internationally with a push of a button.

Wendy’s also uses food delivery service DoorDash as its official delivery service. And Amazon announced last September that it is teaming up with food delivery service Olo to its Prime members with “more options for fast delivery from their favorite brands.”

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Florida’s annoying mosquito to be new emoji

The unofficial state bug of Florida is getting its own emoji, perfect for residents to express the annoyance of outdoor life in the Sunshine State.

A new mosquito emoji will be one of 157 set to be released by the end of the year. 

No longer will Floridians be forced to sit outside in the summer without the ability to text friends an emoji of the bothersome bug that caused those itchy bites over fresh legs.

Instead of actually using words to explain how a certain obnoxious insect is forcing your family picnic inside, residents will be able to articulate their pain with a push of the button.

The mosquito will join much more lovable creatures such as a lobster, kangaroo, parrot, swan and raccoon in the emoji universe.

Thanks to bgr.com, here’s a list of all the new emojis:

  • smiling face with 3 hearts
  • hot face
  • cold face
  • partying face
  • woozy face
  • pleading face
  • man, red haired
  • man, red haired: light skin tone
  • man, red haired: medium-light skin tone
  • man, red haired: medium skin tone
  • man, red haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • man, red haired: dark skin tone
  • woman, red haired
  • woman, red haired: light skin tone
  • woman, red haired: medium-light skin tone
  • woman, red haired: medium skin tone
  • woman, red haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman, red haired: dark skin tone
  • man, curly haired
  • man, curly haired: light skin tone
  • man, curly haired: medium-light skin tone
  • man, curly haired: medium skin tone
  • man, curly haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • man, curly haired: dark skin tone
  • woman, curly haired
  • woman, curly haired: light skin tone
  • woman, curly haired: medium-light skin tone
  • woman, curly haired: medium skin tone
  • woman, curly haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman, curly haired: dark skin tone
  • man, bald
  • man, bald: light skin tone
  • man, bald: medium-light skin tone
  • man, bald: medium skin tone
  • man, bald: medium-dark skin tone
  • man, bald: dark skin tone
  • woman, bald
  • woman, bald: light skin tone
  • woman, bald: medium-light skin tone
  • woman, bald: medium skin tone
  • woman, bald: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman, bald: dark skin tone
  • man, white haired
  • man, white haired: light skin tone
  • man, white haired: medium-light skin tone
  • man, white haired: medium skin tone
  • man, white haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • man, white haired: dark skin tone
  • woman, white haired
  • woman, white haired: light skin tone
  • woman, white haired: medium-light skin tone
  • woman, white haired: medium skin tone
  • woman, white haired: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman, white haired: dark skin tone
  • superhero
  • superhero: light skin tone
  • superhero: medium-light skin tone
  • superhero: medium skin tone
  • superhero: medium-dark skin tone
  • superhero: dark skin tone
  • woman superhero
  • woman superhero: light skin tone
  • woman superhero: medium-light skin tone
  • woman superhero: medium skin tone
  • woman superhero: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman superhero: dark skin tone
  • man superhero
  • man superhero: light skin tone
  • man superhero: medium-light skin tone
  • man superhero: medium skin tone
  • man superhero: medium-dark skin tone
  • man superhero: dark skin tone
  • supervillain
  • supervillain: light skin tone
  • supervillain: medium-light skin tone
  • supervillain: medium skin tone
  • supervillain: medium-dark skin tone
  • supervillain: dark skin tone
  • woman supervillain
  • woman supervillain: light skin tone
  • woman supervillain: medium-light skin tone
  • woman supervillain: medium skin tone
  • woman supervillain: medium-dark skin tone
  • woman supervillain: dark skin tone
  • man supervillain
  • man supervillain: light skin tone
  • man supervillain: medium-light skin tone
  • man supervillain: medium skin tone
  • man supervillain: medium-dark skin tone
  • man supervillain: dark skin tone
  • leg
  • leg: light skin tone
  • leg: medium-light skin tone
  • leg: medium skin tone
  • leg: medium-dark skin tone
  • leg: dark skin tone
  • foot
  • foot: light skin tone
  • foot: medium-light skin tone
  • foot: medium skin tone
  • foot: medium-dark skin tone
  • foot: dark skin tone
  • red-haired
  • curly-haired
  • bald
  • white-haired
  • bone
  • tooth
  • goggles
  • lab coat
  • hiking boot
  • woman’s flat shoe
  • raccoon
  • llama
  • hippopotamus
  • kangaroo
  • badger
  • swan
  • peacock
  • parrot
  • lobster
  • mosquito
  • microbe
  • mango
  • leafy green
  • bagel
  • salt
  • moon cake
  • cupcake
  • compass
  • bricks
  • skateboard
  • luggage
  • firecracker
  • red envelope
  • softball
  • flying disc
  • lacrosse
  • nazar amulet
  • jigsaw
  • teddy bear
  • chess pawn
  • thread
  • yarn
  • abacus
  • receipt
  • toolbox
  • magnet
  • test tube
  • petri dish
  • dna
  • lotion bottle
  • safety pin
  • broom
  • basket
  • roll of paper
  • soap
  • sponge
  • fire extinguisher
  • infinity
  • pirate flag

 

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Elon Musk just launched our earthshaking new adventure

The new Space Age began Tuesday, even though so much of it felt like the old one — in a good way.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that carried men to the moon a half-century ago was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral with a Mars fly-by as its objective.

Once the massive rocket sprinted off historic launchpad 39A about 3:45 p.m., everything seemed to go off as planned, from the activation of David Bowie’s music as soundtrack to the pinpoint return of two reusable booster rockets to separate platforms on the ground.

Let us elaborate: The boosters fired retro rockets, unfolded their landing gear and touched down like helicopters.

As we say: This is a new Space Age.

What felt familiar, however, was the breathtaking and (literally) earthshaking excitement of watching a massive man-made launch vehicle destined to push something man-made farther than anyone can now imagine. The only thing that could have stoked the emotions harder was knowing there was a human being aboard.

There wasn’t. There was a red Tesla Roadster with a dummy in a space suit behind the wheel. That’s “dummy” as in mannequin, not a figure of speech or a joke.

“Red car for red planet” is what Elon Musk tweeted several months ago when this whole project was becoming a reality. Musk is the founder and CEO of SpaceX. Tesla is his car company.

And that is the biggest distinction of this new Space Age: private companies seizing the initiative in space travel that once belonged solely to government. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to pay a dime for SpaceX projects. The Falcon Heavy costs Musk $90 million, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with Falcon Heavy’s nearest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV rocket, whose comparative costs are estimated at as much as $400 million.

We speak of a $90 million booster system, you understand, with reusable components, capable, by some estimates, of carrying a fully loaded, totally booked Boeing 737 jet liner with room enough for a couple more Tesla sedans.

Indeed, after the sheer exhilaration of Tuesday’s test flight wears away, you’re still left pondering the stunning possibilities unleashed by its (so far) apparent success. Space X could begin fielding offers from other companies, even governments, to service long-range, long-distance missions into deep space. We could be entering a period of buccaneers, free-lance adventurers, speculators…

Actually, that’s all pretty frightening to contemplate, and in good and bad ways. But maybe it takes the go-for-broke entrepreneurship of Musk and his fellow privately endowed dreamers to rekindle possibilities many of us thought had vanished when the last space shuttle mission touched down seven years ago.

Yes, there were elements of big-tent entertainment and hoopla to Tuesday’s test launch, right down to the Bowie music (“Life on Mars”? of course). But admit it. Hype was the booster engine that drove the mid-20th century space race. Hype. All those solemn words asserting the importance of American democratic purpose and know-how triumphing over what was then perceived as “dark” Soviet machinations toward global domination.

Sounds silly now, somewhat. But at the time, it got everybody’s blood pumping, inspired generations of schoolchildren throughout the world to dream big and aim high, though there were just as many people complaining about the cost to the taxpayer.

Speaking of which, where’s NASA in all this, you might wonder? It’s building its own version of a heavy booster, the Space Launch System, that’s expected to send humankind back to the moon and then beyond. The earliest that’s expected to be ready for test launching is 2020. Nothing is assured in life, or in space.

So if there’s a “space race” now, it may well be between private enterprise with its resources and government programs with their history of expertise. The guess here is that there won’t be a winner in the race so much as an unwieldy mix of competitors for, if you will, space. Is this how space exploration goes on now for the foreseeable future?

“Forever” is a long time, especially in the future. But something about this new Space Age and its myriad players comes across as not only familiar, but inevitable. Whether we’ve chosen to acknowledge it or not, we’ve been heading for this moment, probably as far back as the 1960s, when thoughtful people were wondering, even in the blush of government-subsidized space spectaculars, if all this effort is worth it.

Well, IS it worth it? We won’t know until we try. Musk will likely tell you that, and so will NASA. It’s not the most detailed or satisfying answer. But until a better one occurs, sit back and enjoy the show.

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