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Watch NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars in HD video

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Then, a whirlwind of dust, as the descent stage fires its engines and lowers the rover onto the surface with cables.

NASA also released a slip of sound recorded on the red planet, a small whoosh — a gust of wind traveling at five meters per second, or about 11 miles per hour, NASA estimated.

The sounds and the video “are the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate.

Documenting the landing, one of the most perilous parts of the mission, known as the “seven minutes of terror,” was not central to the spacecraft’s primary goal of searching for signs of ancient, microbial life on Mars.

But it was a way to inspire future generations of explorers, NASA said, as well as give engineers feedback on how the spacecraft operated.

“We have taken everyone along with us on our journeys across the solar system to the rings of Saturn, looking back at the pale blue dot and incredible panoramas on the surface of Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is the first time we’ve been able to actually capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars. And these are pretty cool videos. And we will learn something, by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos, but a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey.”

Because the atmospheric conditions are so different on Mars, NASA’s engineers can’t test the landing systems on Earth. “So this is the first time we’ve had a chance as engineers to actually see what we designed,” said Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager. “It’s hard for me to express just how emotional and how exciting it was for everybody.”

NASA had put together compelling animations of the landing that showed the spacecraft hurtling through the Martian atmosphere, then deploying its parachute and finally skycrane lowering the rover to the surface. In 2012, it stitched together 297 small images taken during the last 2½ minutes of the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. Curiosity also has sent back photos it has taken of itself on Mars’s barren landscape.

But those pale in comparison to what NASA released Monday.

Video coverage has long been part of space travel. But with today’s technology, NASA and the growing commercial space sector are giving space exploration a Hollywood-like feel that is a giant leap from the flickering grainy black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon five decades ago.

For its next human lunar exploration mission, called Artemis, NASA is looking for a vast improvement: footage that will bring people along for the ride inside the capsule as well as on the surface.

It has put out a solicitation to partners “who will use innovative technologies, imagery applications and approaches” so that the “public can experience different segments” of the missions, including “ ‘riding along’ with the crew in Orion on their journey to the area around the Moon; visual exploration of the lunar surface; and on the return to Earth.”

The space agency is looking to use everything from 360-degree cameras, virtual reality, 4K and ultra high-definition cameras, “robotic ‘third-person’ views” and other concepts that would deliver “a uniquely-engaging spaceflight experience.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been especially adept at using compelling video to tell the story of its journey — both the successes and failures. Videos posted to its YouTube channel have millions of views, helping it build an enormous fan base, which regularly tunes in to launches in a way not seen since the early days of the Space Age.

Its videos have showcased major milestones, such as NASA’s first human spaceflight from U.S. soil since the space shuttle fleet was retired, the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the landings of first-stage boosters, even how it catches the fairings, or nose cones, of its rockets on boats with giant nets like a center fielder nabbing a pop fly.

Its videos of the flights of its Starship prototypes are enormously popular. They showcase not only the short test flights of the Starship spacecraft that Musk says will ultimately take people to the moon and Mars, but its crash landings that end in fireballs as the company figures out how best to get them back to Earth safely.

It even put together a compilation video from the early days of its Falcon 9 rocket test landings, when they too often ended up exploding as they came crashing to the ground. That video, “How not to land an orbital rocket booster,” set to the marching band tune used in Monty Python’s “Flying Circus,” had 25 million views.

After a successful launch, SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded on impact during its attempted landing on Dec. 9. There was no one aboard the ship. (SpaceX)

NASA and SpaceX even won an Emmy in 2019 for their joint broadcast of a test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The cameras are commercially available and were purchased by NASA from FLIR Systems, which has its corporate headquarters in Arlington, Va. “Our cameras are designed for operation on Earth, and not built to operate in outer space,” said Sadiq Panjwani, a vice president at the company. They had never been subjected to the extreme temperatures on Mars, or the high gravity forces the spacecraft experiences or heat it is exposed to while landing.

“So we were quite thrilled that NASA put them to the test,” he said.

The video of the Perseverance landing gave engineers valuable feedback that showed, for the most part, the systems worked perfectly. But the footage showed there was a problem with one of the springs that helps jettison the heat shield.

“There’s no danger to the spacecraft here, but it’s something we didn’t expect and something we wouldn’t have seen if we didn’t have this camera system to show us what was going on,” said Al Chen, NASA’s lead engineer for the entry, descent and landing systems.

The footage will be studied by scientists and engineers for years, NASA officials said. The parachute deployment will help scientists understand the atmosphere, the way the dust and gravel scattered during the landing could hold clues to the Martian landscape.

“To watch that video today was super emotional,” said Ellen Stofan, the head of the National Air and Space Museum and a former NASA chief scientist. “To be able to watch a spacecraft land on another planet is stunning. It’s such an achievement.”

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Covid-19: How would an NHS vaccine passport app work?

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There is growing speculation that a certificate scheme could be built into the main NHS app.

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Facebook launches rap app

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Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.

This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.

The tech giants

Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn —  If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.

Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.

Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.

AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.

How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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FCC authorizes $50 subsidies for Internet service for low-income families

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The FCC under its acting Democratic chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, raced to stand up the program after Congress authorized it as part of a sweeping $2 trillion coronavirus aid package lawmakers approved in December. It may take up to two months before Americans can take advantage of it; the government must still fine-tune its systems so that families can apply for, and providers can receive, the emergency benefits. That task is likely to be a tall one for Washington, which historically has struggled to deploy complicated technology under tight time constraints.

Once it is up and running, though, federal policymakers, Internet service providers, educators and consumer advocates anticipate it will provide an immense financial boost to Americans who need the help at a time of high unemployment and economic dislocation. The broad support for the measure has generated political momentum for crafting a more permanent replacement that would help Americans obtain and pay for broadband services once the $3.2 billion fund runs dry.

“This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,” Rosenworcel said in a statement, citing the fact some students have had to sit in parking lots just to obtain wireless Internet to do their homework. “In short, this program can make a meaningful difference in the lives of people across the country.”

The new broadband program highlights Washington’s new, urgent campaign to close the country’s gap between those who can access the Internet and those who cannot, laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic that forced families to work, learn and communicate primarily online. At least 18 million Americans still lack speedy, reliable Web connections, the FCC found in a report released last June. Government officials said the number probably is much higher.

The U.S. government spends about $9 billion annually to help fund the buildout of broadband infrastructure nationwide, subsidize low-income Americans’ phone bills and help schools equip their classrooms with speedy access to the Web. But the aid at times has been riddled by mismanagement and neglect, undermining Washington’s efforts to address long-standing digital inequalities that disproportionately affect low-income families, people of color and students.

The FCC’s new emergency broadband benefit is intended to provide at least a short-term boost for these Americans while expanding the number of families who are eligible for some federal support. More than 33 million may be able to obtain the monthly aid, according to Free Press, a public-interest advocacy group, which said the number probably will be higher. Those eligible include families whose income is no greater than 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and others who participate in programs such as reduced school lunches.

The discounts are limited to one per household. Some families also may be eligible for a one-time credit of $100 to help them purchase a device to access broadband service. They will have to apply to receive the aid, which will be paid directly to Internet providers that register with the U.S. government and obtain permission to participate. Companies are not required to accept the benefits under the program.

AT&T said Friday morning it intends to participate. CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Frontier, T-Mobile and Verizon did not immediately commit to accepting the emergency benefits, although many companies and their trade groups have said in recent days they support the FCC’s work and intend to review its new implementing rules. The FCC voted unanimously late Thursday to start the program.

“Closing the affordability gap is vital to ensuring everyone has a chance to get ahead and participate in society,” said Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Senate architect of the program. He said he hopes to either extend the benefit or revise other government programs to provide families with a more lasting digital safety net.

“Nearly every aspect of education, health care, work and communication require reliable broadband,” Wyden continued, “so it’s high time to stop treating it like a luxury.”

The entire benefit system may take weeks to set up, meaning families aren’t yet able to apply and may not start to see any aid until April, experts predict. But some public-interest groups — mindful of the federal government’s past missteps — have expressed fears in recent weeks that early hiccups could delay the emergency credits even further. They have aired particular concern with the technology the FCC plans to use to accept most applications and verify that Americans are eligible to receive the aid.

The technology in question is called the National Verifier, an online application tool that the government has used in the past to enroll people in another low-income subsidy program. The verification system is supposed to draw on state and federal data sources to help Americans determine easily whether they qualify to participate in Lifeline, which subsidizes millions of Americans’ monthly phone bills. But fewer than half of states as of last summer had actually integrated their data properly with the National Verifier, a government watchdog found in January. The digital deficiencies meant that people in these states are more likely to be declared ineligible for federal help even when they qualify for it, the report said.

The troubles with the National Verifier first surfaced during the Trump administration, when the Republican-led FCC under then-Chairman Ajit Pai sought to implement a series of massive cuts to the Lifeline program, a Washington Post investigation found. The shortcomings threaten to create fresh technological headaches in delivering new emergency broadband benefits, warned the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, which asked the commission this month to double down on technical upgrades before payments begin.

“The emergency nature of this program will likely demand less-than-perfect procedures in the interest of getting relief to people as quickly as possible,” the OTI said, “but the Commission must adopt sound verification procedures.”

The new broadband benefits are expected to be available for only a few months, until the total $3.2 billion authorized by Congress runs out. But the unprecedented size of the fund — and the expected early demand for the dollars — has left Democratic policymakers and telecom giants in rare accord over the need for a more permanent expansion of the government’s digital safety net.

Without congressional action, millions of Americans in a matter of months may see increases in their bills — or find themselves owing monthly sums they cannot pay. The sudden drop-off could send some families right back into the digital darkness.

“There’s no sense in wasting a crisis,” John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, said at a company event Wednesday.

Stankey praised Congress for committing to the subsidy, which will benefit telecom giants’ efforts to retain customers behind on their bills or attract new ones. But he also acknowledged the program’s limitations: “It was more of a Band-Aid,” he said. “As a result of that, by definition, it will probably be inadequate because it is not intended to be an appropriation in perpetuity.”

Speaking at a news conference last week, Rosenworcel similarly stressed the government needed to seize the “opportunity for helping those people stay in that service, even after the program might end.”

“When the funds run out,” she said, “we’ll have to turn to Congress again.”

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