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NASA’s Perseverance rover is about to start searching for life on Mars

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NASA officials have an expression for what it’s like to land a rover on Mars: seven minutes of terror. A million things could go wrong as the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere and attempts to make it to the surface safely. The drama is made all the more stressful by the 11-minute lag in communications between the planets. On February 18, when the Perseverance rover descends toward the Martian surface, mission control will have no clue whether it succeeded or failed until after the fact. 

“There are no guarantees in this business,” Jennifer Trosper, the deputy project manager for the Mars Perseverance mission, told reporters on Tuesday. “But I’m feeling great.” She is an old hand at this nerve-racking experience, having gone through it with Perseverance’s predecessors Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity. 

Should it succeed, Perseverance will explore Jezero crater, a former Martian lake bed that may be home to fossilized remains of ancient life. But it has to stick the landing first. 

The landing

The technical terms for the seven minutes of terror is “entry, descent, and landing,” or EDL. It starts when the spacecraft enters the Martian upper atmosphere at around 20,000 kilometers per hour (12,500 miles per hour) and faces rapidly increasing temperatures. Perseverance is protected by a heat shield and shell, as well as a suite of 28 sensors that monitor hot gases and winds. Temperatures peak at a punishing 13,00 °C (2,400 °F).

About four minutes into EDL—roughly 11 kilometers (seven miles) above the surface and still hurtling to the ground at about 1,500 km/h (940 mph)—the rover deploys a 21-meter parachute The spacecraft will get rid of its heat shield soon. Underneath are a slew of other radar instruments and cameras that will be used to set the spacecraft down in a safe spot. Software called Terrain-Relative Navigation processes images taken by the cameras and compares them with an onboard topographical map to figure out where the spacecraft is and which potential safe spots it should head for. 

At a little less than six minutes into EDL and around two kilometers in the air, the outer shell and parachute separate from the rover, and Perseverance heads directly for the ground. The descent stage (attached on top of the rover) uses its thrusters to find a safe spot within 10 to 100 meters of its current drop location, and slows down to around 2.7 km/h (1.7 mph). Nylon cords on the descent stage lower the rover to the ground from 20 meters (66 feet) in the air. Once the rover touches the ground, the cords are severed and the descent stage flies away to crash into the ground from a safe distance. Perseverance is now at its new home.

jezero crater
A view of Jezero crater. On the left is a spectral map of mineral deposits shaped by water activity in the past. On the right is a hazard map created to illustrate high rough terrain that Perservance will seek to avoid when landing.
NASA

The science

Spirit and Opportunity helped us better understand the history of water on Mars, and Curiosity found evidence of complex organics—carbon-rich molecules that are the raw ingredients for life. Combined, this evidence told us Mars may have been habitable in the past. Perseverance is going to take the next big step:looking for signs of ancient extraterrestrial life

Why Jezero crater? It’s a former lake bed that’s 3.8 billion years old. A river used to carry water into it, and it is at the river delta where sediments could have deposited preserved organic compounds and minerals associated with biological life. 

Twenty-three cameras on Perseverance will study Mars for evidence of life. The most important of these are the Mastcam-Z camera, which can take stereoscopic and panoramic images and has an extraordinarily high zoom capability to highlight targets (such as soil patterns and old sediment formations) that deserve closer study; SuperCam, which can investigate chemical and mineral composition in the rock and has a microphone that will be used to listen to the Martian weather; and the PIXL and SHERLOC spectrometers, which will look for complex molecules that indicate biology. SHERLOC’s Watson camera will also do some microscopic imaging down to a resolution of 100 microns (hardly bigger than the width of a human hair). 

Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University who’s part of the Mastcam-Z team, says scientists are most interested in finding organic matter that’s either heavily concentrated or could only be the result of biological activity, such as stromatolites (fossilized remains created by layers of bacteria). “If we find particular patterns, it could qualify as a biosignature that’s evidence of life,” she says. “Even if it’s not concentrated, if we see it in the right context, it could be a really powerful sign of a real biosignature.”

After Perseverance lands, engineers will spend several weeks testing and calibrating all instruments and functions before the science investigation begins in earnest. Once that’s over, Perseverance will spend a couple more months driving out to the first exploration sites at Jezero crater. We could find evidence of life on Mars as soon as this summer—if it was ever there. 

New world, new tech

Like any new NASA mission, Perseverance is also a platform for demonstrating some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the solar system. 

One is MOXIE, a small device that seeks to turn the carbon-dioxide-heavy Martian atmosphere into usable oxygen through electrolysis (using an electric current to separate elements). This has been done before on Earth, but it’s important to prove that it works on Mars if we hope humans can live there one day. Oxygen production could not only provide a Martian colony with breathable air; it could also be used to generate liquid oxygen for rocket fuel. MOXIE should have about 10 opportunities to make oxygen during Perseverance’s first two years, during different seasons and times of the day. It will run for about an hour each time, producing 6 to 10 grams of oxygen per session. 

There’s also Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram helicopter that could take the first powered controlled flight ever made on another planet. Deploying Ingenuity (which is stowed underneath the rover) will take about 10 days. Its first flight will be about three meters into the air, where it will hover for about 20 seconds. If it successfully flies in Mars’s ultra-thin atmosphere (1% as dense as Earth’s), Ingenuity will have many more chances to fly elsewhere. Two cameras on the helicopter will help us see exactly what it sees. On its own, Ingenuity won’t be critical for exploring Mars, but its success could pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets when a rover or lander will not suffice.

Neither of those demonstrations will be the marquee moment for Perseverance. The highlight of the mission, which may take 10 years to realize, will be the return of Martian soil samples to Earth. Perseverance will drill into the ground and collect more than 40 samples, most of which will be returned to Earth as part of a joint NASA-ESA mission. NASA officials suggest that this mission could come in either 2026 or 2028, which means the earliest they may be returned to Earth is 2031. 

Collecting such samples is no small feat. Robotics company Maxar built the sample handling arm (SHA) that controls the drilling mechanism to collect cores of Martian soil from the ground. The company had to build something that worked autonomously, with hardware and electronics that could withstand temperature swings from -73 °C (100 °F) at night to more than 20 °C (70 °F) during the day. And most important, it had to build something that could contend with the Martian dust. 

“When you’re talking about a moving mechanism that has to apply force and go exactly where you need it to go, you can’t have a tiny little dust particle stopping the whole show,” says Lucy Condakchian, the general manager of robotics at Maxar. SHA, located underneath the rover itself, is exposed to a ton of dust kicked up by the rover’s wheels or by drilling. Various innovations should help it withstand this problem, including new lubricants and a metallic accordion design for its lateral (front-to-back) movement.

Before any of those things are proved to work, however, the rover needs to make it to Mars in one piece. 

“It never gets old,” says Condakchian. “I’m just as nervous as I’ve been on the previous missions. But it’s a good nervous—an excitement to be doing this again.”

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

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Flextock is a YC-backed e-commerce fulfillment provider for Africa and the Middle East

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When merchants launch their e-commerce businesses, they can easily manage the end-to-end operations in the early stages. But as they begin to grow, managing their own operations, from warehousing and logistics to delivery and cash collection, can become difficult. This can prevent them from scaling effectively despite having a steady inflow of demand.

Now, there’s a need to offload some of this workload. This is where e-commerce fulfillment services come in handy.

Today, Flextock, one such company providing this service to businesses and consumers in Egypt, is announcing that it is part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 batch. Founded by Mohamed Mossaad and Enas Siam in September 2020, the Egyptian company launched in stealth this January.

According to COO Siam, the founders noticed that as e-commerce activities in the Middle East and North African regions accelerated due to the pandemic, merchants were left overwhelmed with the volume of orders they received.

“We saw it as an opportunity to build a tech-enabled platform to be able to help anyone that wanted to grow their own independent brand or store,” she told TechCrunch. “We wanted them to focus on their products and marketing while leaving the supply chain and logistics bit to us, which we do through our end-to-end proprietary software.”

Mossaad, the company’s CEO, describes Flextock as a tech-enabled fulfillment provider. When merchants sign up to the platform, they send their products to one of the company’s fulfillment centers. Flextock takes the whole catalog and tags the products for tracking purposes. Then, integration is made between Flextock and any online store they use, be it Shopify, WooCommerce, Wix and Odoo, among others

As orders are made, Flextock packages and ships the products from the fulfillment center to the customers. Flextock doesn’t own any delivery vehicles, so to achieve this, the company partners with existing logistics companies in Egypt. This model has helped the startup to create a marketplace for different last-mile delivery companies in the country.

Image Credits: Flextock

There’s also a dashboard for these merchants to track each order, get more visibility into their shipping process and know how well their products sell.

Flextock makes money on a per-order basis. That means the merchants on the platform pay a flat fee that changes with respect to the volume of products moved.

Mossaad says that since the company beta launched in January with more than 20 businesses, it has been growing 50% week on week. It has also completed over 300,000 orders across 28 cities in the country.

According to the CEO, Flextock is the first end-to-end fulfillment service in Egypt. And in a market that will likely see more competition in the next couple of years, Mossaad thinks Flextock has the opportunity to become the market leader.

Behind this rationale is that the six-month-old startup is backed by Y Combinator and has also raised $850,000 which is just the first part of its million-dollar pre-seed round that will close sometime this year.

“We were able to very quickly get the acceptance of YC given the size of the opportunity we are focused on. We believe that commerce is expected to change in the Middle East and Africa, and Flextock is going to be at the forefront of powering this next generation of commerce,” he said.

The founders combine a wealth of corporate experience and a strong track record of scaling tech startups in the MENA region.

L-R: Mohamed Mossaad (CEO) and Enas Siam (COO)

Siam started her career managing supply operations at Nestle across the Middle East and North Africa. Later, she became the General Manager of Careem Bus, a mass-transit service and Uber subsidiary, where she helped build the product from scratch and grew it to 150,000 monthly rides in a year.

Mossaad, on the other hand, has worked on multiple turnarounds across different African countries during his time at Bain & Company. He joined Egyptian online food delivery platform, Elmenus, as Chief Strategy Officer. He helped scale the company’s revenues 5x in less than a year and was instrumental to its $8 million Series B round.

The CEO says Flextock has its sights on other African and Middle Eastern markets — specifically Saudi Arabia — and the plan is to provide its services to over 1 million businesses in these regions over the next decade.

“We are on a mission to enable more than 1 million merchants in Africa and the Middle East to sell online without carrying out the hassle of running their own operations. We are well-positioned to do that, and hopefully, we will be able to achieve that in a record time.”

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China’s cosmetics startup Yatsen to buy 35-year-old skincare brand Eve Lom

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In China’s cosmetics world, where foreign brands were historically revered, indigenous startups are increasingly winning over Gen-Z consumers with cheaper, more localized options. One of the rising stars is the direct-to-consumer brand Perfect Diary, which is owned by five-year-old startup Yatsen.

Yatsen impressed the capital market with a $617 million initial public offering on NYSE in November. Its flagship brand Perfect Diary consistently ranks among the top makeup brands by online sales next to giants like L’Oreal and Shiseido. Now the company is plotting another big move as it set out to buy Eve Lom, a 35-year-old skincare brand owned by British private equity firm, Manzanita Capital.

On Wednesday, Yatsen, named after the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, announced it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Eve Lom, which is known for its cleanser. The deal is expected to close within the next few weeks and Manzanita will retain a minority stake in the business and serve as a strategic partner.

The size of the deal wasn’t disclosed but Bloomberg reported in February that Manzanita was looking to sell Eve Lom for as much as $200 million.

Perfect Diary rose to prominence in China by partnering with influencers who reviewed the brand’s lipsticks, eyeshadow palettes, foundation and other products on Chinese social commerce platforms like Xiaohongshu. It took advantage of its vicinity to China’s abundant cosmetics and packaging suppliers, many of whom also work with top international brands. The strategies have allowed Perfect Diary to offer affordable prices without compromising quality, and earn it the moniker, “Xiaomi for cosmetics.”

Growth has skyrocketed at Yatsen since its founding. Its gross sales more than quadrupled to 3.5 billion yuan ($540 million) in 2019 from 2018, thanks to an effective e-commerce strategy. But losses also ballooned. The company recorded a net loss of 1.16 billion yuan ($170 million) in the nine months ended September 2020, compared to a net income of 29.1 million yuan in the year before.

Yatsen has been on the hunt for potential acquisitions to diversify its product portfolio, as it noted in its prospectus. Through the Eve Lom marriage, the company hopes to “enrich our global brand-building capabilities and product offerings,” said Jinfeng Huang, founder and CEO of Yatsen in the announcement.

Yatsen has already embarked on international expansion, landing in Southeast Asia first where it is selling on e-commerce sites like Shopee. It said in the prospectus that it plans on “selectively cooperating with local partners to accelerate our international expansion and localize our product offerings.” In the competitive and entrenched makeup world, Yatsen’s overseas expedition is definitely a curious one to watch.

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‘Flying taxi’ startup Volocopter picks up another $241M, says service is now two years out

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In a year where mass transit on airplanes, trains and buses has had lower traveler numbers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the startups hoping to pioneer a totally new approach to getting individuals from A to B — flying taxis — has raised some significant funding.

Volocopter, a startup out of southern Germany (Bruchsal, specifically) that has been building and testing electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, has picked up €200 million (about $241 million) in a Series D round of funding. Alongside its aircraft, Volocopter has also been building a business case in which its vessels will be used in a taxi-style fleet in urban areas. CEO Florian Reuter tells us that live services are now two years out for the two vehicle models it has been developing.

“We are actually expecting to certify our VoloCity in around two years and start commercial air taxi operations right after,” he said. “Paris and Singapore are in pole position [as the first cities], where Paris wants to get have electric air taxis established for the 2024 Olympics. With our VoloDrone we expect first commercial flights even earlier than with our VoloCity.”

To date, Volocopter has shown off its craft in flights in Helsinki, Stuttgart, Dubai, and over Singapore’s Marina Bay. In addition to Europe and Asia, it also wants to launch services in the U.S..

For some context, this is basically on track with what the company had previously projected: in 2019 — when Volocopter raised an initial $55 million in funding for its Series C (finally closed out at €87 million, around $94 million) — the company said it was three years away from service.

This latest (oversubscribed) Series D includes investments from a mix of financial and strategic backers. Funds managed by BlackRock; global infrastructure company Atlantia S.p.A.; Avala Capital; automotive parts behemoth Continental AG; Japan’s NTT via its venture capital arm; Tokyo Century, a Japanese leasing company; multiple family offices are all new investors, among others. Volocopter also said that all of its existing investors — that list includes Geely, Daimler, DB Schenker, Intel Capital, btov Partners, Team Europe, and Klocke Holding and more — also contributed to the round.

If that sounds like a big list, it’s somewhat intentional, as the task of what Volocopter is complex and requires a wide ecosystem of other players, said Rene Griemens, the company’s CFO.

“Getting urban air mobility off the ground requires a full ecosystem that we are developing right now. Many of our strategic partners will support us on different aspects of the supply chain, scaling components, entering markets, improving operations amongst others. Most of them know certain aspects of our business model really well (eg. Japan Airlines for aviation, Atlantia for infrastructure),” he said. “Their investment is a reflection of their excitement about Volocopter as a leader in building the entire ecosystem of UAM, thereby giving credibility and comfort for purely financial investors.”

He added that many of these companies have a very “hands-on partnership” with Volocopter. “DB Schenker, for example, is rolling out leading-edge heavily-load electric logistics drones together with us around the globe.”

The company has now raised nearly $390 million. We’re asking for an updated valuation, but for some context, PitchBook data estimates its valuation now at $624 million.

Moonshots and sunsets

Founded in 2011, Volocopter has now been working on its idea — distinctive for its very wide circular design that sits where the rotor on a helicopter would be — for a whole decade, and in many regards it’s the classic idea of a moonshot in action.

It has yet to make any money, and the product that it’s building to do so is very groundbreaking — flying into completely unchartered territory, so to speak — and therefore ultimately untested.

It’s not the only one working on “flying taxi” concepts — there are other very well-capitalised companies like Lilum, Joby Aviation, Kitty Hawk and eHang.

However, all of these have faced various hurdles ranging from investor lawsuits to bankruptcies, accidents, mothballed projects and divestments (perhaps most notably, Joby scooped up Elevate last year as Uber stepped away from costly moonshots).

And most importantly, none of them are flying commercially yet. With Volocopter (as with the others), investors have taken a long-term bet here on a concept and a team it believes can deliver.

For now, the company says that technology is no longer the barrier, and neither it seems are regulators, who are, in the pandemic, more focused on considering new approaches to old problems to improve efficiency and acknowledge that we might have to do things a little differently from now on, in the wake of new demands from public health, and the public.

In the case of VTOL craft, the promise has always been that they could bypass a lot of the issues with street congestion in urban areas, and provide a more environmental alternative to gas-guzzling, present-day transportation modes.

The challenge, on the other hand, has been determining the safety both of completely new devices, and also of the traffic and other systems that they would operate under. With the idea being that ultimately these craft would be autonomous, that adds another complex twist.

Interestingly, regulators in different markets that might have been more skeptical of new concepts seem to be more open to considering them differently now with the pandemic at hand. This has played out in other arenas, too, such as the electric scooter market in the UK, which saw a bump in activity after regulators long skeptical gave them a provisional nod last year, citing the need for more individualized transportation options in a pandemic-hit country.

Volocopter’s model is based around transporting one person or small parties, so in a sense might be attractive here too.

“There aren’t any major hurdles anymore in terms of the technology as such,” said Retuer. “It is now all about execution. EASA has defined what is necessary to get electric air taxis certified to the highest safety level in aviation. We have the best technology in the market to certify to EASA’s high safety standards and will keep our heads down to finalize the few remaining steps to certification.”

In contrast, he said the other challenges that remain are those of any highly technical startup: “Our largest challenge right now is talent acquisition,” he said. “We are looking for the best talents worldwide and growing our team quickly now, so that we can accelerate on the technical and market development sides. Especially in the markets where we will open early routes, such as Paris, Singapore, China and Japan, we are going full speed in preparing everything necessary from digital infrastructure to landing sites, city approvals and more.”

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