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The Space Launch System: NASA’s Last Rocket

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Eleven years in the making, the most powerful NASA-built rocket since the Apollo program at last stands upright. Framed by the industrial test platform to which it is mounted, the Space Launch System’s core section is a gleaming, apricot-colored column cast into relief by twisting pipes and steel latticework. The rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty, pedestal and all, and is the cornerstone of NASA’s astronaut ambitions. The launch vehicle is central to the agency’s Artemis program to return humans to the lunar surface, and later, land them on Mars.

On Thursday, NASA will try for a second time to prove that the Space Launch System is ready to take flight, aiming for a continuous “hot fire” of its engines for as long as eight minutes. If the test goes well, the rocket’s next stop would be Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and as early as November, the launchpad. It is expected to lift a capsule called Orion on a path around the moon and back. Its first crewed mission is planned for 2023. That flight will be the first to lift astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. Indeed, it will send astronauts farther into space than any human has gone before.

And yet far from being a bold statement about the future of human spaceflight, the Space Launch System rocket represents something else: the past, and the end. This is the last class of rocket that NASA is ever likely to build.

Seeing it launch, though, will actually mean something. While NASA has long desired to return astronauts to deep space, it could not. The agency lacked a vehicle designed, tested and validated as safe to lift humans more than a couple of hundred miles from the ground. If this week’s test succeeds and the rocket later flies, the United States will be able to say that it does.

But the course has not run smooth. The Space Launch System was born not on the drafting tables of engineers, but on the desks of senators. In 2010, Congress legislated into existence a launch vehicle for firing heavy things to deep space. What things? TBD. And where, exactly? No one could say for sure.

Members of Congress had no particular design in mind, but they demanded that NASA rummage through crates of old space shuttle parts whenever possible to build this thing, and required that it launch by 2016.

Mandated to build the big rocket, NASA cobbled together exploration programs that would use it. First, it was an asteroid rocket. Then a Mars rocket. Now, it is an Artemis moon rocket. In any event, the Space Launch System is billions of dollars over budget and five years beyond its compulsory launch date.

A hot fire test in January disappointed NASA engineers hoping to prove it was worth the wait. Instead of simulating eight minutes of the stresses and events of an actual launch, however, the engines shut down after just 67.2 seconds. NASA blames “test parameters that were intentionally conservative” for the failure. Engineers have since repaired a valve and replaced a faulty electrical harness that had signaled a “major component failure” during the test.

The setbacks that have plagued the Space Launch System stand in stark contrast to what else has happened in rocketry in the past decade.

If you’ve logged on to the internet in the past five years, you’ve probably seen the spectacular launches of rockets built by SpaceX. Elon Musk’s private aerospace outfit has fired hundreds of satellites into space, and even a Tesla sports car. Its rocket boosters then return to Earth and land elegantly upright for reuse. On Sunday, one made the round trip for the ninth time.

This private space program was nurtured by NASA and accelerated after the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Last year, SpaceX began carrying the agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station. Now the company has set its sights on landing people on the moon and Mars. But SpaceX’s rockets aren’t ready to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, and few other companies have expressed interest in this truly long-distance travel market.

The Space Launch System is not NASA’s first post-Apollo attempt to build a deep space rocket for the astronaut corps. On July 20, 1989, 20 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, President George H.W. Bush committed humankind to becoming a multiplanetary species. Later he offered a timetable: that by 2019, the 50th anniversary of that “one giant leap,” astronauts would salute the stars and stripes from Mars.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

In 2004, George W. Bush made a commitment similar to his father’s. Much of the engineering that went into the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule can be traced to that now-canceled program, Constellation. In 2010, Barack Obama made his own declaration, asking NASA to use the rocket to journey to Mars. The hardware has since been absorbed by Artemis, the NASA program started by the Trump administration to land the next man and first woman on the moon before heading to the red planet.

Despite the lofty ambitions of so many presidents, humans have remained mired in orbit. The ability to reach the moon is not as simple as going a little farther. The space station operates about 250 miles above Earth’s surface. The moon is about 250,000 miles away. Accordingly, after 32 years of false starts and failed programs, a successful launch of the Space Launch System will at last reopen old frontiers of human spaceflight. NASA will again have the hardware to transport humankind to other worlds.

No other American rocket can send astronauts to the moon in a single launch. The Falcon Heavy, a large rocket built by SpaceX that has flown three times, is not certified to launch humans. SpaceX has instead focused its crewed deep space ambitions on Starship, a sleek, ambitious spacecraft that is under development and possibly years away from flying humans. Right now, if NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon, the Space Launch System is the only game in town, even if it costs $2 billion per launch and cannot be reused.

SpaceX and Blue Origin, another private rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, are solving very difficult problems: how to build versatile rockets and crew vehicles that land so gently that they are reusable even with astronauts aboard.

By contrast, the NASA rocket does not look like anyone’s vision of the future. That is part of what makes the Space Launch System a useful transitional product. It has no unusual engineering hurdles to leap. There is every reason to believe that once these rockets demonstrate their flight worthiness, they will work well and reliably. Until Starship or some other rocket is flying safely and regularly, NASA can continue its interplanetary endeavors knowing that in the interim, it has a working giant rocket.

There is great value in that. The big rocket won’t be needed forever. It might be needed only long enough to get the first woman on the lunar surface. The commercial launch sector may be ready to take it from there.

It is highly unlikely that NASA will ever again rely on rockets it has built on its own. The Space Launch System is the end of the line. If the only purpose it serves is giving the nation the time and confidence to get a private, reusable vessel spaceborne, it will have been a success.

Whether the Space Launch System program ends next year or next decade, unlike the end of the space shuttle or Saturn 5, it will not be the end of a chapter, but the end of a book. NASA will be out of the rocket business. When the next generation goes to Kennedy Space Center and sees a giant old Space Launch System booster on display, the tour guide will say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and that will be true — literally.

David W. Brown is a journalist who writes about spaceflight. He is the author of “The Mission,” an examination of NASA’s long bid to build a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa.

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries with palm scan

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries using its parent company’s palm-scanning technology.

Amazon said Wednesday its palm-scanning system — currently used in about a dozen of its brick and mortar stores — will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the first of many planned rollouts at other locations.

The system uses Amazon One technology, which employs high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a “unique palm signature” based on the ridges, lines and veins in each person’s hand.

Its high-tech sensors don’t require users to touch the scanning surface, like Apple’s fingerprint technology does.

Instead, palm-reading tech uses computer vision and depth geometry to process and identify the shape and size of each hand they scan before charging a credit card on file.

Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The company said that the palm-scanning tech will be offered as just one of many payment options at participating Whole Foods Stores and that it won’t impact store employees’ job responsibilities.

“At Whole Foods Market, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers,” said Arun Rajan, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer at Whole Foods Market.

Palm images used by Amazon One are encrypted and stored in a “highly secure” cloud, and customers can request to have their palm data deleted.

The company claims palm-scanning tech is more private than other biometric alternatives, such as facial recognition.

Amazon One builds on the “Just Walk Out” technology that Amazon uses in its Go stores, which detects the items shoppers pick up and charges them once they leave — without the need for a checkout line

Amazon is also planning to expand the cashier-less technology to Whole Foods, as reported by The Post.

Meanwhile, the tech could be good for its bottom line. The online behemoth aims to sell its palm-scanning tech to other companies like retailers, stadiums and office buildings.

Amazon One scanner
The scanner uses high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a unique palm signature which is then encrypted and stored in a secured cloud.
Amazon

Last September, it said it was in “active discussions with several potential customers.” But it is unclear if it has progressed on any of those fronts.

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Apple’s new iPad Pros and TV remote don’t have U1 locators to help find them in your couch

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Apple has been quietly sticking special locator beacon chips into some of its new iPhones that’ll let you unlock your car and find lost items through walls — the latter thanks to the $29 AirTags announced today — but sadly, you won’t find that chip in the new M1-based iPad Pros or the long-awaited new Siri remote for the Apple TV.

Apple confirmed to us that the U1 locator chip, which uses pulses of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio to broadcast its precise location, won’t appear in the Siri remote. We’re waiting on final bulletproof confirmation about the iPad Pros, but it also doesn’t appear in their product page, spec sheet, or press release. Last year’s iP ad Pros didn’t include a U1 chip, either.

Is Apple expecting us to stick AirTags to our iPads and TV remotes to escape the jaws of the ever-ravenous couch? Unlikely, but the company has been pretty choosey about which devices get the chip so far. You can find it in the iPhone 11 and newer (but not the iPhone SE) and the Apple Watch Series 6 (but not the Apple Watch SE), but we’re pretty sure it hasn’t made its way to any iPads or MacBooks that have been announced since the chip’s introduction in September 2019.

Theoretically, Apple could build an ecosystem where any Apple device can easily find any other Apple device (not to mention UWB devices from Samsung, which is also deeply invested in the tech and has its own AirTag-like device as well). But for now, you’ll primarily just be using your phone to find AirTags, not other gadgets, except perhaps your future car.

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Your iPhone has a completely hidden app. Here’s how to find and use it

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Apple’s iPhone is full of hidden features and tricks we’re constantly discovering. For instance, did you know the Notes app has a hidden document scanner? Yeah, pretty cool. The latest hidden feature that’s been popping up on Twitter and blogs is another type of scanner, dedicated to QR codes, and it’s better than the one built into the camera app.

Indeed, you would already be able to filter QR codes utilizing the easy route in Control Center, or simply open the camera application and it will check a QR code. Also, you’re correct. Both of those strategies turn out great. However, the committed Code Scanner application accepts the position above and beyond by introducing a greater amount of the data I need to see about an examined code.

For instance, the camera application utilizes a little notice at the highest point of the screen to open a connection or show you data, though the devoted Code Scanner application makes it exceptionally clear what’s inside the QR code you just checked. Yet, here’s the rub: The Code Scanner application isn’t found on your home screen, nor is it found in iOS 14’s new App Library.

As should be obvious, the best way to discover the Code Scanner application is to utilize the iPhone’s Spotlight search include. Go to your iPhone’s home screen and swipe down in the center of the screen. An inquiry bar will show up at the highest point of your screen, alongside application and alternate route ideas underneath. Type either code or scanner. As you type, you’ll see the Code Scanner application symbol appear as an application idea. Tap to open it.

The flashlight icon at the bottom of the screen acts as a flash to illuminate a code if your phone is struggling to read it.

If you don’t have the QR scanner shortcut added to Control Center yet, here’s a post showing you how to customize Control Center to your liking. For more hidden features, check out our list for iOS 14. We also cover more general, but useful features in iOS 14.

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