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Max Q: Huge week ahead for SpaceX and Virgin Orbit

This week could be the biggest week to date for private spaceflight, with landmark launch attempts coming from both Virgin Orbit and SpaceX .

Virgin Orbit is looking to join the elite club of private launch companies that have actually made it to space, with a full flight test of its combined Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne system. Meanwhile, SpaceX is looking to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft with people on board – achieving a number of milestones, including returning U.S. crew launch capabilities, and human-rating its Falcon 9 rocket.

Virgin Orbit 87Virgin Orbit was supposed to launch its first full demonstration flight on Sunday, but a sensor bug that showed up during pre-launch checkouts means that it’s now pushing things back to at least Monday to check that out.

Extra precaution is hardly surprising since this milestone mission could help the company become an operational satellite launch provider – one of only a small handful of private companies that can make that claim.

SpaceX passed its first crucial flight readiness review (FRR) on Friday for its first ever crewed astronaut launch, setting it up for a full rehearsal of the mission on Saturday leading up to the actual launch Now it’s set for another FRR with partner NASA on Monday, and then the launch should take place on Wednesday – weather and checkouts permitting. This will definitely be one to watch.

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Mitsubishi Heavy Industries flew its last mission with its H-II series rocket, and the space transfer vehicle it carries to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The company is readying a successor to this highly successful and consistent rocket, the H3, which is set to make its launch debut sometime in 2022 if all goes to plan.

While SpaceX is aiming to make history with NASA and two of its astronauts, the person in charge of the agency’s human spaceflight endeavors made a surprising and abrupt exit from the agency last week. Doug Loverro resigned from his position, reportedly over some kind of inappropriate activity he engaged in with a prospective agency business partner ahead of the contract awards for NASA’s commercial human lander program.

Xilinx specializes in building processors that are designed to withstand the rigors of use in space, which include heavy radiation exposure, extreme temperatures and plenty more. The company just debuted a new FPGA for space-based applications that is the first 20nm-based processor for space, and the first with dedicated machine-learning capabilities built in for edge computing that truly redefines the term.

Space has enjoyed a period of being relatively uncontested when it comes to international squabbles – mostly because it’s hard and expensive to reach, and the benefits of doing so weren’t exactly clear 30 to 40 years ago when most of those rules were set up. NASA’s new rules include a lot of the old ones, but also set up some modernizations that are sure to begin a lot of debate and discussion in the space policy community.

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In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

The United Launch Alliance launched the X-37B last week on behalf of the U.S. Space Force – marking the first time the mysterious experimental unscrewed space plane has launched for that newly-formed agency. The X-37B has flown plenty before, of course – but previously it was doing so under the authority of the U.S. Air Force, since the Space Force hadn’t been formed yet.

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App development shop V/One is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds to budding LA mobile businesses

The Los Angeles-based app development shop, V/One, is giving away 50,000 free mobile app builds through the rest of April as the company officially launches its platform for would-be, LA-based mobile app moguls.

Since its soft launch, December 20th of last year, the app development company has built over 100 new applications.

The company’s December launch featured an “app accelerator” and offered a guidebook for people who wanted to develop mobile applications to work with the development shop on early applications.

Under the terms of the development agreement, wannabe app creators get their application for free as long as they sign up for the monthly hosting service. “They can walk away at any time and cancel the hosting if they don’t want the app anymore. Builds of the apps will be delivered around 60 days upon signing up,” said V One founder, Jeremy Redman.

For founder Jeremy Redman, V/One was a business that solved a problem he had faced himself as an entrepreneur just starting out, but lacking the technical experience to build his own applications.

“I had an app idea but no real idea how to executive it. I’m non-technical, meaning I can’t code. I tried finding a technical co-founder but got abandoned when things got tough. Dev shops were too expensive and on the verge of predatory, and cookie cutter builders don’t address the designs I had in mind,” Redman said. “But, I wasn’t going to let someone tell me I couldn’t be a tech entrepreneur.”

Image Credits: Chris Ede / Getty Images

The app development toolkit that V One uses was built entirely in-house to automate the build process on the back end, says Redman.

For small businesses, the plan is to charge $297 per month for app development and customization along with any future builds, hosting, and product support and maintenance. The company’s more robust place is a $997 per month package. Both offer the option to cancel anytime with the ability to own the code for the app.

“So far the only limitations are one’s creativity. Essentially speaking, if you can design it it can be made a functional app in our builder,” Redman wrote in an email. “If I had to put a constraint on it I would say we are not good at AR/VR and machine learning and some obscure features 99% of people don’t need [or] want.”

Redman thinks that roughly 98% of an app can be built using the company’s toolkit and then the final bit of coding and development (specifically for augmented or virtual reality — or other components) can be added in a final customization.

“If customers can describe their idea in one, clear sentence then it can be made in our builder and it can be made quickly,” Redman wrote. “What we don’t do is take pages and pages of details and make an app out of it. They can fill in the details later.”

V One uses a cross-platform framework, serverless technology and modern development practices to generate apps using an easy to use app builder, the company said. Users can think of it like Wix or WordPress for mobile app development.

“Never before has someone been able to build an app from just typing their idea out, let alone for this low a cost,” says Redman.

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DARPA snags Intel to lead its machine learning security tech

Chip maker Intel has been chosen to lead a new initiative led by the U.S. military’s research wing, DARPA, aimed at improving cyber-defenses against deception attacks on machine learning models.

Machine learning is a kind of artificial intelligence that allows systems to improve over time with new data and experiences. One of its most common use cases today is object recognition, such as taking a photo and describing what’s in it. That can help those with impaired vision to know what’s in a photo if they can’t see it, for example, but it also can be used by other computers, such as autonomous vehicles, to identify what’s on the road.

But deception attacks, although rare, can meddle with machine learning algorithms. Subtle changes to real-world objects can, in the case of a self-driving vehicle, have disastrous consequences.

Just a few weeks ago, McAfee researchers tricked a Tesla into accelerating 50 miles per hour above its intended speed by adding a two-inch piece of tape on a speed limit sign. The research was one of the first examples of manipulating a device’s machine learning algorithms.

That’s where DARPA hopes to come into play. The research arm said earlier this year that it’s working on a program known as GARD, or the Guaranteeing AI Robustness against Deception. The existing mitigations against machine learning attacks are typically rule-based and pre-defined, but DARPA hopes it can develop GARD into a system that will have broader defenses to address a number of different kinds of attacks.

Intel said today it’ll serve as the prime contractor for the four-year program alongside Georgia Tech.

Jason Martin, principal engineer at Intel Labs who leads Intel’s GARD team, said the chip maker and Georgia Tech will work together to “enhance object detection and to improve the ability for AI and machine learning to respond to adversarial attacks.”

During the first phase of the program, Intel said its focus is on enhancing its object detection technologies using spatial, temporal and semantic coherence for both still images and video.

DARPA said GARD could be used in a number of settings — such as in biology.

“The kind of broad scenario-based defense we’re looking to generate can be seen, for example, in the immune system, which identifies attacks, wins and remembers the attack to create a more effective response during future engagements,” said Dr. Hava Siegelmann, a program manager in DARPA’s Information Innovation Office.

“We must ensure machine learning is safe and incapable of being deceived,” said Siegelmann.