It was a week in which two space-faring billionaires tussled again in their futuristic game of cosmic oneupmanship. And this time, for once, Elon Musk was not at the party.
The declaration that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest man, was heading into space next month on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket was followed quickly by an apparent leak from within Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic empire that the British tycoon might look to upstage him with a Fourth of July Independence Day spectacular of his own.
Branson’s team was quick to downplay the possibility, insisting a date for his first spaceflight had yet to be determined. But beyond what some might see as vain billionaires using real-life rockets as playthings, the episode underscores how close the lucrative yet still fledgling commercial space industry has come to routinely launching paying passengers into outer space and achieving a goal two decades in the making.
On Saturday, the winner of an auction for a seat to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on next month’s big space adventure will be announced on the Blue Origin website. On Thursday, the bidding reached $4.2m for the 11-minute round trip.
“Many congratulations to Jeff Bezos & his brother Mark on announcing spaceflight plans,” Branson said in a tweet directed at his rival. “Jeff started building @blueorigin in 2000, we started building @virgingalactic in 2004 & now both are opening up access to Space – how extraordinary! Watch this space … ”
Absent from Branson’s tweet was any mention of Musk, whose nonconformist Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as SpaceX – has grown from a shaky start in 2002 to become the dominant player in the commercial space sector, and a key partner of the US space agency, Nasa. The company is already regularly flying astronauts to the international space station, and is renting out its Dragon space capsule this fall for its first private spaceflight, taking a crew of four on a three-day orbital odyssey.
With differing longer-term ambitions and goals, the three billionaires have collectively upended the traditional government-funded and directed model for human spaceflight and are shaping a thriving new commercial space era, according to Matthew Weinzierl, a Harvard Business School professor and an expert in the economics of space.
“SpaceX’s recent achievements, as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms,” he said.
“They have both the intention and capability to bring private citizens to space as passengers, tourists and eventually settlers, opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades.”
Weinzierl expects there to be a gradual shift from money spent in space to benefit Earth, such as investments in telecommunications and internet satellites and infrastructure, to the so-called space-for-space economy, including mining asteroids or the moon for materials that will be necessary to support human habitat and fuel deeper-space missions to Mars or beyond.
Bezos and Musk always had loftier goals in mind, even as they were taking their first tentative steps in the space industry, experts say. But their visions diverge beyond flying humans in low Earth orbit, or even suborbital flight, as Bezos’s brief July venture will be.
“Musk is totally about Mars. His passion is to get people to Mars as a backup plan to Earth, and to make humanity a multi-planet species,” said Marcia Smith, founder and senior analyst of spacepolicyonline.com.
“Bezos is interested in the moon, and in the space between Earth and the moon. He wants to move all of the heavy industry off Earth and into cislunar space. He talks about rezoning Earth for light industry and habitation.
“So they both are interested in trying to save Earth because of all the problems Earth is having, but they have very different visions as to how that’s going to happen.”
Nasa has embraced both billionaires as it pursues its own exploration programs. In April, the agency chose SpaceX to build the spacecraft to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, a decision Blue Origin has challenged. The enigmatic Musk reacted in typically bellicose fashion, tweeting: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol” in reference to Bezos’s so far unsuccessful efforts to launch a crew into space.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, is developing a separate, reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle, New Glenn, under a Nasa contract to supply satellite delivery capability, although the project has stalled.
The operations of both companies have the potential to attract billions of dollars of investment to the US through commercial clients, and Weinzierl sees space as the “ultimate industry of the future”, though he says it may take longer than this century to reach its potential.
“The sector has changed a great deal over the last two decades, largely in that there are new competitors seeking to serve private customers in addition to governments,” he said.
“At the same time, Nasa and other public agencies are still the dominant sources of funding and specific plans for space beyond low Earth orbit, where the private satellite market has long been active. Even SpaceX, for all its success, wouldn’t be where it is without Nasa’s partnership.”
Smith argues that Musk has created his own luck to position SpaceX as the leading pioneer in the new private space market.
“Musk has really transformed the business, and brought commercial business back to the United States, by lower prices and reusability. He has really made a change,” she said.
“Bezos is trying to build this New Glenn rocket and is having setbacks with the engine.”
John Logsdon, the respected professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, phrased the differences between the two tycoons another way, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.
“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them. Bezos’s style is to do things and then brag about them,” he said.
“I’d call it competition, and competition is the American way of life.”
As for Branson, the Virgin founder scored a major success last month when his SpaceShipTwo rocketplane reached an altitude of 55.4 miles, either in space or at the edge of it, depending on which calculation of the Karman Line, the perceived boundary of outer space, is being used. It brings his long-awaited but much-delayed aspiration of a profitable space tourism business a significant step closer to realization.
How relevant the Bezos brothers’ flight aboard New Shepard, his rocket named as a tribute to Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will be to Blue Origin’s wider ambitions is open to question, although Weinzierl, the Harvard professor, sees it as more than a publicity stunt.
“It’s about demonstrating in the most powerful way he can that he trusts in the technology,” he said.
Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.
Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.
Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.
The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.
Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.
Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.
“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.
Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.
Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.
“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.
Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.
When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.
The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.
Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.
Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.
He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.
The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.
“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”
To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”
Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.
“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”
Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”
Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.
YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.
Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®
A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.
Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”
Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.
The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.
“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.
He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.
The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.
“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.