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Elon Musk: SpaceX to launch a Starship spaceship prototype this spring

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elon musk pointing up spacex bfr big falcon rocket moon mission lunar event AP_18261099411389Elon Musk gestures with his finger while presenting an updated design of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket.Chris Carlson/AP

  • Elon Musk said SpaceX is building a “test hopper” vehicle in Texas that could launch by March or April.
  • The vehicle is a squat version of a full-scale Starship spaceship — one that’s being designed to reach Mars as part of the Big Falcon Rocket system.
  • Photos taken by locals in Boca Chica, Texas (where SpaceX is building a launch site) show the outline of a spaceship coming together.

Elon Musk logged on to Twitter this weekend to deliver a veritable sleigh full of gifts to fans of his rocket company, SpaceX, in time for Christmas.

Musk was waiting for SpaceX’s 21st (and record-breaking) rocket launch of the year on Saturday when he revealed that construction of a prototype for a Mars spaceship, called Starship, is now underway at the company’s Texas launch site.

What’s more, the first round of experimental launches of what Musk called the “test hopper” may be complete by early spring.

Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, have both said short, non-orbit-reaching launches or “hops” of such a spaceship prototype is a critical step toward building the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR: a colossal two-stage system designed to launch 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to the surface of Mars.

However, both SpaceX executives said recently that short hops wouldn’t commence until the end of 2019. So perhaps a little ingenuity — and an influx of half a billion dollars — has helped speed up that timeline.

big falcon rocket bfr spacex scale dimensions measurementsOlivia Reaney/Business Insider

Starship is designed to be about 30 feet wide and 180 feet tall, and sit atop a roughly 219-foot-tall rocket booster that Musk now calls Super Heavy.

“I will do a full technical presentation of Starship after the test vehicle we’re building in Texas flies, so hopefully March/April,” he tweeted on Saturday.

“This test hopper is at full body diameter of 9m / 30 ft, just not full height. Super Heavy will be full height & diameter,” Musk added, indicating that SpaceX won’t build a squat version of Super Heavy — and will skip straight to launching a full-scale booster.

Musk added that construction of test hopper segments was underway at SpaceX’s temporary new rocket factory at the Port of Los Angeles.

Read more: Elon Musk is expanding his SpaceX empire — here’s where the rocket company’s most important locations are and what they do

In Boca Chica, Texas, where the company is developing a launch site for BFR, locals have already photographed what look like parts of the test hopper arriving on site and being assembled.

The image below is an illustration that mocks up recent photos of what appear to be test hopper parts against illustrations of Starship.

New dates and details about the Starship test-hop launches weren’t the only things that Musk revealed on Saturday, though.

Toward the first Mars landings in 2025?

Musk began spilling information about SpaceX’s activities over a discussion of metallurgy, or properties and science of metals, for the BFR.

Materials are critical to the success or failure of space vehicles because they must withstand enormous temperature swings, pressure changes, and extreme vibration. This is especially true of Starship, which is supposed to launch into orbit around Earth, take a months-long voyage to Mars, land on the red planet’s surface, and launch back home.

Musk presented what he said was a “final iteration” of BFR in September. At the same time, he announced that his company would be launching Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon in 2023. The design Musk described was rich with carbon-fiber composite parts.

big falcon rocket bfr spaceship bfs booster bfb earth moon orbit spacex 30934146588_47ce17419b_oAn illustration of the SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, launching into space. Here, the spaceship is shown detaching from the booster.SpaceX

But by November, Musk had steamrolled that statement, saying radical design changes were coming; he even renamed the BFR system’s two main parts. (Starship used to be called “Big Falcon Spaceship” and Super Heavy the “Big Falcon Booster.”) In December, Teslarati reported that SpaceX was working with NASA to develop a new type of heat shield for Starship.

And on Saturday, Musk revealed that SpaceX developed a special stainless steel alloy for its BFR system.

It’s uncertain if SpaceX will now meet its ambitious Mars-launch timeline due to these changes. But as late as Oct. 31, Musk said he hopes to use the BFR system to launch the first humans toward the Martian surface in six years’ time.

“We’re still aiming for 2024,” Musk said of such a mission during an interview with journalist Kara Swisher for the podcast Recode Decode.

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A big test of reusable packaging for groceries comes to Canada

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An online store has launched in Ontario selling groceries and household items from Loblaws in containers it will take back and refill — a test of whether Canadian consumers are ready to change their habits. Industry-watchers say it is breaking ground for reusable packaging.

The store, called Loop, launched in Canada on Feb. 1, in partnership with supermarket giant Loblaws, and offers items like milk, oats, ice cream and toothpaste for delivery in most of Ontario. Loop is already operating in the continental U.S., the U.K and France. 

Included so far are some products from well-known brands such as PC sauces and oils, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Heinz ketchup, Chipits chocolate chips and Ocean Spray cranberries. 

“The goal is really validating that this is something the Canadian public is interested in,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Loop and its parent company TerraCycle.

Unlike existing small no-waste retailers, they want to offer “your favourite product at your favourite retailer in a reusable and convenient manner.”

The involvement of a huge retailer makes the launch notable in terms of scale and who it will reach, said Tima Bansal, Canada Research Chair in business sustainability at Western University in London, Ont. 

“I think it’s at the scale that’s needed to create the change in the community in Canada more generally,” she said.

How it works for customers

Szaky likens Loop to the reusable bottle system for beer in Canada “but expanding it to any product that wants to play in the [North American] ecosystem.”

The ultimate goal, he said, is to give people a greener way to consume that limits the amount of mining and farming needed to produce packaging.

“This allows us to greatly reduce the need to extract new materials, which is the biggest drain on our environment.

Loopstore.ca currently lists just 98 products, although many are sold out or “coming soon.” 

As with other online grocery stores, customers fill their virtual shopping cart, but in addition to the cost of the item itself, they pay a deposit for its container. That can range from 50 cents for glass President’s Choice salsa jars like the ones that are normally at the supermarket to $5 for a stainless steel Häagen-Dazs ice cream tub. 

The items are delivered to a customer’s home by courier FedEx for a $25 fee, although the fee is waived for orders over $50.

Once you’ve spooned out all the salsa or ice cream or squeezed out all the toothpaste, the container doesn’t go in the recycling bin. Instead, you toss them into the tote bag they came in — even if they’re dented or damaged — and they get picked up.

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This wearable device beeps when workers get too close to each other

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It’s a device that emits a high-pitched beep, buzzes and lights up if your coworker steps too close.

While some introverts would have bought this device before the pandemic to stave off chatty colleagues near the coffee machine, ZeroKey designed the product with a more important purpose — helping employees physically distance to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. 

The Calgary tech company’s “Safe Space” device looks like a small plastic badge that can be worn on a wrist or clipped to a shirt pocket or belt. 

“Our products, in a nutshell, localize or figure out where things are in 3D space and our big claim to fame is we do it very precisely, more precisely than anyone else in the world,” said Matt Lowe, co-founder and CEO of ZeroKey.

The company says its location-tracking technology passively monitors the distance between each device and is accurate down to 1.5 millimetres. The distance on devices can be set — so if, say, science determines three metres apart is actually safer that two, that can be tweaked. 

Lowe says the company came from humble beginnings — he and a co-founder, working out of a room in his house. The company has grown from two to 30 employees and has more openings it’s looking to fill.

Inspired by sci-fi

Their inspiration comes, as so many technological innovations have, from sci-fi. 

Lowe recalls watching Minority Report, and being transfixed with the gesture-based user interface Tom Cruise’s character operates. 

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had an interface that was more in tune with how humans operate naturally with their hands. So if you could just walk up to a new piece of technology … and just immediately be proficient,” he said. 

But applying that tech to the COVID-19 era wasn’t something the company had anticipated.

Lowe said some of the company’s clients in the manufacturing industry approached ZeroKey with a request.

“They came to us and said, ‘hey … we have the data where people are, can you build some sort of system so that we can do contact tracing and we can let people know if they’re closer than two metres?’ And we said, ‘absolutely … that’s easier than what we normally do,'” he said.

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Blistering rallies spur Canadian tech world to repeat equity sales

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Canadian technology companies have been making multiple trips to the equity market over the past year, capitalizing on a rally in tech shares that’s helping them raise cash at ever higher valuations.

Dye & Durham Ltd., which makes software used by law firms, took advantage of a more than sixfold rally in its shares since its July IPO to raise $500 million (US$394 million) in a bought deal of stock and convertible debentures, the company said Tuesday. Dye & Durham, which went public at $7.50 a share, received $50.50 per share in the private placement. Peers including Lightspeed POS Inc. and Docebo Inc. have made similar moves.

Shares of technology companies have gained since the onset of the pandemic as their corporate customers increasingly turned to cloud-based applications to support their remote workforces, said Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. The technology sector was one of the few places investors could look for growth during the crisis, with huge swaths of the economy including retailers, restaurants, airlines, hotels and casinos hammered by lockdowns, he said.

“Issuers and private-equity investors are not stupid, and they know somewhere down the road that valuations may come back,” Rana said. “So this is the time when they sell.”

Canada’s S&P/TSX Information Technology Index has risen 82 per cent in the past year, fuelled by rallies in Lightspeed and Shopify Inc. That compares with a 36 per cent advance for the U.S. S&P 500 Information Technology Index.

Those gains are giving early investors in tech companies an opportunity to take some profits. In conjunction with Dye & Durham’s private deal announced Tuesday, some investors agreed with the underwriters to sell 1.98 million shares at the $50.50 price as well.

Lightspeed, which provides cloud-based point-of-sale systems for retailers and restaurants, has also seized the moment. The company went public in Canada in February 2019 and last year followed that up with a U.S. IPO, selling shares for US$30.50 apiece. The deal raised US$332.3 million for the company and US$65.4 million for some shareholders.

After Lightspeed’s share price more than doubled, it went back to the market again last week with a public offering of shares for US$70 each, raising US$620.2 million for the company and US$56 million for other shareholders.

Docebo, which sells cloud-based learning software, has tapped the market multiple times over the past year. The firm, which went public in Canada in October 2019, completed a bought deal of shares atC$50 apiece in August. The move raised $25 million for the company and $50 million for investors including founder and Chief Executive Officer Claudio Erba, Chief Revenue Officer Alessio Artuffo and top outside investor Intercap Equity Inc.

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