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The UAE’s Hope probe is about to arrive at Mars in a historic first



Fewer than half of all the spacecraft that have been sent to Mars have actually made it. For every celebrated mission like NASA’s Curiosity Rover, there’s a story of failure like the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander, which crashed into the Martian surface upon descent in 2016.

So on Tuesday, February 9, when the United Arab Emirates makes its first attempt to get a spacecraft into Martian orbit, it will be fighting the odds. If the Emirates Mars Mission succeeds, the UAE’s space program will become just the fifth in the world to reach the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, NASA, the ESA, and India.

“The team has prepared as well as they could possibly prepare to reach orbit around Mars,” says Sarah Al Amiri, chair of the UAE Space Agency.

There’s some pretty exciting science in store if all things go well. But for the UAE and its partners, the Emirates Mars Mission is about much more than capping off a journey that began last summer. It’s about the future of a budding space program that wants to take on more ambitious projects down the road, and a country that wants to become a new hub of tech and science innovation for Asia. Whether the Hope mission succeeds on Tuesday or not, its impact is already being felt. 

The sciences

The Emirates Mars Mission is part of a larger investigation that planetary scientists have been pursuing for decades now, hoping to discover what transformed Mars from a wet, warm, potentially habitable world into a miserably dry and cold one. A big piece of that puzzle is to figure out how Mars hemorrhaged most of its atmosphere so that its lakes and rivers evaporated over time. 

The mission plans to study the atmosphere with an orbiter named Hope and its three key instruments. A camera will snap pictures of the planet using a slew of filters that restrict different wavelengths, helping scientists learn more about the water and ice content in the atmosphere or the nature of dust storms closer to the ground. An infrared spectrometer should be able to measure different elements in the lower atmosphere, like water vapor and carbon dioxide. And an ultraviolet spectrometer will monitor the top of the atmosphere, tracking how it’s still disappearing into space. 

Hope will orbit Mars at a higher altitude than any previous Mars mission, allowing scientists to see half of the planet no matter where the orbiter is. Most other Mars orbiters move around the poles, so they are forced to observe locations at the same times of day with each pass overhead. Instead, Hope will orbit nearly parallel to the equator, so it will be able to watch locations at many different points throughout the day and see how things might change over time as the sun rises and sets. And its elliptical orbit will afford different ways of looking at the planet. At greater distances the spacecraft has a planet-wide view of Mars to observe global atmospheric changes over a single day, while at closer distances it can peer at specific regions to see how the atmosphere in those locations changes minute by minute, hour by hour. 

“The riskiest phase” 

Hope is set to rendezvous with Mars on Tuesday after a 27-minute thruster burn slows the spacecraft down by nearly 3,600 kilometers per hour, allowing it to fall into the Martian orbit safely. That thruster burn is set to occur at around 7:32 p.m. UAE time (10:32 a.m. US Eastern time). The 11-minute lag in communication caused by the distance between the two planets, however, means that the burn is effectively an automated process—ground crews won’t really be able to control what is happening. They will mainly have to hope for the best as they receive intermittent updates. 

“A lot of the engineering emphasis has been on making the [Mars orbital insertion] event completely autonomous,” says Pete Withnell, a scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is working with the Hope mission. “During the event, we are observers. We get to see what’s happening, but we do not get to interact in real time.”

Mission control expects to receive a signal shortly after the burn that should indicate whether Hope has fallen into a Martian “capture orbit,” although if they miss this signal, they’ll have to wait another hour or so as Hope is eclipsed by Mars and waits to emerge from around the bend. 

“This is the riskiest phase of the project,” says Omran Sharaf, project manager for the mission, adding that the propulsion system for the mission is “something you cannot really test on Earth 100%, because you cannot really simulate the environment.”

Should everything go as planned, the mission will transition from its “capture orbit” into its “science orbit” over the next few months, using that time to turn its instruments on and calibrate them for formal investigations. That transition should be completed by around the end of April or early May. According to Al Amiri, the team hopes to make the first science data available to the research community by early September. 

More than a single mission

The risks inherent in this mission are actually the point. One of the UAE’s biggest objectives through the Emirates Mars Mission has been to spur a young generation of scientists and engineers to get into space systems development in order to help the UAE enter the space economy. Like many other countries, the UAE wants to capitalize on the rise of small-spacecraft development and “create new business ventures in space,” says Al Amiri. She says she has witnessed a swell of enthusiasm among science and engineering students, who are now taking the idea of entering the space industry seriously. 

Sharaf explains that some of the mission’s hardware was developed and manufactured by UAE companies. “It was a very good kind of test platform for us to understand the gaps that we have within our ecosystem and how we can design a program for our future missions which better integrates the private sector,” he says.

And it made sense to try for Mars rather than a high-tech demo in Earth’s orbit or even a mission to the moon. “It was a risky approach,” says Sharaf. “But as a young nation, we need to catch up. When it comes to technology and science, the learning curve is not really linear—it’s very exponential. It becomes much more difficult to catch up in the future. And this is why we’ve started to go with a Mars shot.”

When asked what a failed orbital insertion would mean for both the Hope mission and the UAE space program as a whole, Al Amiri’s answer was simple: “We will continue.” The “wild experiment,” as she calls it, has already set the ball rolling.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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EV rivals Tesla, Rivian unite to target direct sales legislation



Tesla, Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Lucid Motors — potential rivals in the burgeoning EV market — are working together to pass laws that would allow direct sales in at least eight states with another batch of proposed legislation likely being introduced this year.

Passage of such legislation would clear the way for EV giants like Tesla, along with newcomers Lucid and Rivian, which have yet to bring a vehicle to market, to sell directly to consumers. However, Tesla’s cooperation could also cost the company its monopoly on direct sales in some states.

Tesla and a growing number of new EV companies have a different business model than legacy automakers like GM, Ford and Stellantis. Tesla sells vehicles through their own branded stores — similar to how Apple sells its products — and do not have franchised dealerships. The direct sales model has attracted the ire of auto dealers, who benefit from long-established rules in all 50 states that prevent manufacturers with existing franchisees from opening their own dealerships to compete with them. Tesla and other allies argue that because they don’t have franchise dealers, they should be allowed to sell directly to consumers.

“We support our other EV-only manufacturers and their desires to sell direct-to-consumers, to invest, to create jobs and to do that unfettered as we are allowed,” Thad Kurowski, senior policy manager at Tesla, said while testifying in the state of Washington during the House’s Consumer Protection and Business Committee. Washington is one of many states where such legislation is being considered. Tesla has six retail locations in the state.

Similar legislation is being considered in Connecticut, Nebraska, Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Some of these states ban all EV manufacturers from directly selling to customers; some only permit Tesla, at the exclusion of other companies, but cap the number of retail stores it can open.

It’s a rare moment of cooperation for EV manufacturers, companies that must contend not only with each other but with legacy automakers for market share. Relations between the companies have not always been so copacetic: Tesla last July filed a lawsuit against Rivian alleging theft of trade secrets and talent poaching. Rivian responded that two of the three claims in the case were nothing more than an attempt to smear its reputation.

Tesla is a veteran of battles with state legislatures over direct sales. At least a dozen states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah have reversed bans that prevented Tesla from selling directly to consumers either through new legislation or via the courts.

Michigan, home to major automakers GM and Ford, has been a longtime battleground.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in 2014 that was initiated and backed by the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, banning Tesla from selling directly to consumers in the state. Two years later, Tesla sued the state of Michigan when it denied Tesla a dealership license. The Michigan Legislature last December considered a bill that would have banned all direct sales except for Tesla, an arrangement that allowed the automaker to deliver cars to customers, so long as the vehicle sale and title transfer didn’t occur in the state. That special exception for Tesla was removed from the proposed legislation, a move that would have threatened what little progress it had in the state. At the end, though, the legislation died, leaving Tesla’s arrangement intact.

Lucid is leading the charge in some states where direct sales legislation is being considered, according to Daniel Witt, who worked at Tesla before joining the new EV entrant as a public policy lead. Witt emphasized the bills are the result of efforts from the coalition of EV companies, grassroots lobbying from EV owners and EV enthusiasts and consumer groups. The legislation has also found support from environmental and clean energy groups, which argue that consumer choice and ease of access are key to helping people transition away from internal combustion engine cars.

“Any situation where the door got closed behind Tesla was not a matter of trying to gain a market advantage so much as it was just a product of the negotiations in a given legislature,” Witt said. “By and large, whether it’s New York, or Washington or Connecticut, we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said franchised dealers support the transition toward zero-emission vehicles and want to sell them at their locations. But it said the direct sale bill is a “battle of Main Street vs. Wall Street.”

“Electric vehicle manufacturers perpetuate [the] myth of the middleman when the reality is that they would bear the same costs if they built their own stores, but would ship their revenue to their billionaire investors out of state after the sale is made instead of reinvesting in the community,” the group said.

The organization pointed out that Rivian has garnered $500 million in funding from Ford.

“What would stop Ford from abandoning its dealer network, and shifting the profits dealers generate for the company out of Ford and into greater ownership of Rivian? Or GM from spinning off an EV subsidiary?” the group said in its statement.

EV manufacturers have a long legislative road ahead of them. Bills generally must clear legislative committees and receive majority votes from both the House and Senate before being sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

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Netflix launches ‘Fast Laughs,’ a TikTok-like feed of funny videos



Late last year, Netflix began experimenting with a new TikTok-like feed of funny videos inside its mobile app, which it called “Fast Laughs.” Today, the company announced the new feature is now rolling out on iOS, allowing users to watch, react, or share the short clips as well as add the show or movie to your Netflix watchlist. You can also push a “Play” button to start watching the program immediately.

At launch, the feature will include short clips from Netflix’s comedy catalog, including films like “Murder Mystery,” series like “Big Mouth,” sitcoms like “The Crew,” as well as snippets from stand-up comedians like Kevin Hart and Ali Wong.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the feature will tap into its full catalog, not just its own original programs. However, the company couldn’t says how many total shows or movies would be featured in the new experience.

Image Credits: Netflix

The new feature has been given prominent placement in the Netflix app, where it’s accessible from the bottom navigation menu on its own tab, next to “Coming Soon.” This is no small experiment, then — but rather an indication of how successful the early tests of the “Fast Laughs” feature must have been in terms of engaging users and connecting them to Netflix content.

This is not the first time Netflix has borrowed concepts from social media to help users discover new shows or movies to watch in its app. A few years ago, Netflix introduced its own short-form video “Stories” feature, called Previews, for example. But times have changed. Now users are drawn to short-form vertical video feeds, like those popularized by TikTok.

Image Credits: Netflix

“Fast Laughs” heavily borrows from the TikTok format, as its feed also features full-screen videos that you can swipe through vertically, and places the engagement buttons on the right side of the screen. These buttons let you react with an “LOL” (crying/laughing) emoji to the clip or share it via iMessage or social media apps, like WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. You can also start watch the show immediately or save it for later viewing by adding it to “My List.”

During tests, “Fast Laughs” clips ranged in length anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds. Today, Netflix says there’s no exact clip length for these video snippets.

Image Credits: Netflix

The company is positioning the feature as a discovery tool.

“We wanted to give members a fun, fast, and intuitive way to discover our catalog by letting these comedic moments across genres speak for themselves in a mobile-native, full screen experience,” said Product Designer Kim Ho, previously worked on product design at both Facebook, Instacart, and Coin. “We worked hard to cut to just what was necessary in an intentional and minimalist UI design, from the transparent tab bar to ways to react in the moment (‘LOL’) and plan their next laugh by adding to their list,” she added.

But though “Fast Laughs” is focused on finding new things to watch, the feature could, in fact, help Netflix compete with TikTok in terms of time spent on mobile devices, as it caters to the growing demand for shorter, more “snackable” video content.

Netflix says the feature is rolling out now to iOS and will begin testing on Android in the months to come.



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First impressions of AppLovin’s IPO filing



AppLovin released its S-1 filing yesterday, bringing the Palo Alto-based mobile app-focused software company a step closer to joining the public markets.

The business results detailed in the document are generally impressive. While some companies going public in recent months have detailed pandemic-fueled growth to lean against or membership in a sector hotter than individual results, AppLovin’s filing tells the story of a rapidly growing company that has managed to scale adjusted profit as it has grown.

And now, with annual revenue north of $1 billion, AppLovin is also a very large company, meaning that its IPO will be widely watched.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

So this morning we’re rifling through its IPO filing and yanking out what matters as we add one more name to our IPO lists.

The Exchange has a lengthy list of non-IPO topics that we’d like to get to. If everyone could stop going public for a few days, we’d love to write about something else! OK, let’s get into it!

Most of the news is good

As a short introduction, the company’s products are designed to help developers find users and monetize their apps. And AppLovin has its own in-house suite of mobile apps, what its S-1 calls a “globally diversified portfolio of over 200 free-to-play mobile games run by 12 studios.” Those apps have 32 million global daily actives, the document added.

It’s a pretty neat company to dig into if you’re into mobile apps at all. Regardless, what we care about today are its numbers. So let’s talk growth, revenue quality, profits, cash consumption and capital structure. Most of the news is good, even if there are some downsides to AppLovin’s capital structure.

Recall that KKR bought a chunk of AppLovin back in mid-2018 at a valuation of around $2 billion. That number appears comically low, given that the company posted $483.4 million in revenue that year, a figure that it roughly doubled in 2019 to $994.1 million. Growth slowed in percentage terms in 2020, when AppLovin saw total revenues of $1.45 billion, though the company managed similar growth in gross-dollar terms.

In percentage terms, AppLovin grew 106% from 2018 to 2019, and 46% from 2019 to 2020. How KKR got to buy into the company at 4x revenues when it was growing at 100% is not clear.

The company is growing well, but is AppLovin accreting revenue of high quality? Yes, but we need to scrape some grime off the numbers to understand them. Turning to the company’s yearly results, AppLovin’s cost of revenue rose steadily as a percentage of revenue from 2018 to 2020. Indeed, the numbers went from 11% in 2018 to 24% in 2019 and 38% in 2020. That’s an awful progression, and if we lacked more information we’d posit that the company’s overall revenue quality was sharply declining.

It’s not that bad. There’s about $1 million in share-based compensation inside the 2020 cost of revenue figure and $228.3 million of “amortization expense related to acquired intangibles.” If we yank out those from the cost-of-revenue line item, AppLovin’s gross margin for 2020 grows from 62% to 77.5%. That’s much better.

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