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Last week, the CEO of Rocket Lab, a launch startup, said the company is already beginning to experience the effect of growing congestion in outer space.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said that the sheer number of objects in space right now — a number that is growing quickly thanks in part to SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation, Starlink — is making it more difficult to find a clear path for rockets to launch new satellites.

“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business. Rockets “have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations.”

Part of the problem is that outer space remains largely unregulated. The last widely agreed upon international treaty hasn’t been updated in five decades, and that’s mostly left the commercial space industry to police itself.

Rocket Lab set out to create lightweight rockets — far smaller than SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon rockets — that can deliver batches of small satellites to space on a monthly or even weekly basis. Since 2018, Rocket Lab has launched 12 successful missions and a total of 55 satellites to space for a variety of research and commercial purposes. Beck said the in-orbit traffic issues took a turn for the worst over the past 12 months.

It was over that time that SpaceX has rapidly built up its Starlink constellation, growing it to include more than 700 internet-beaming satellites. It’s already the largest satellite constellation by far, and the company plans to grow it to include between 12,000 and 40,000 total satellites. That’s five times the total number of satellites humans have launched since the dawn of spaceflight in the late 1950s.

It’s not clear if traffic from its own satellites has also caused frustrations for SpaceX. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Orbital junkyards

Researchers have warned for decades that congestion in outer space could have devastating consequences. Kessler’s warning said that if space traffic becomes too dense, a single collision between two objects could set off a disastrous chain reaction that effectively turns the space around Earth into an extraterrestrial wasteland. One piece of debris would hit a satellite, and that impact — much like a car crash, except at orbital speeds upwards of 17,000 miles an hour — could generate hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of debris in its own right. Those new pieces could hit other objects in orbit, which would hit other objects, and on and on, until low Earth orbit would be saturated with an increasing amount of uncontrollable projectiles.

And any one of them could knock out a satellite, a launching rocket, or even an orbiting space station with humans inside.

Kessler Syndrome was central to the plot of 2013’s “Gravity,” in which satellite shrapnel caused a cascade of disastrous satellite collisions.
The question is whether it will remain fiction. Some experts warn areas of low-Earth orbit have already reached a critical mass of congestion.

SpaceX has said that it is determined to be a responsible steward of outer space. The company says it has equipped its Starlink satellites with the ability to automatically maneuver out of the way of other objects in orbit.

SpaceX’s constellation also orbits at lower altitudes than the most crowded areas, which NASA and international partners estimate is about 400 to 650 miles high. That’s an ideal area for observation satellites that monitor the environment and is also home to swarms of debris.
But Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert in space traffic, said most of Earth’s orbit below about 750 miles is becoming a danger zone.
Jah created a database to help track potential collisions in space, and an online chart uses dots to show how many objects are expected to pass within six miles of each other every 20 minutes. Over the past year, the dots have grown too dense to count.

Jah hopes that more satellite operators and rocket companies, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, will share real-time location data of their rockets and satellites to make the predictions more precise.

Neither company has done so.

Though there haven’t been any collisions this year, Jah warns, it could be only a matter of time.

Even if SpaceX can manage to keep its area in space clean, there’s a line of other companies waiting to build their own giant constellations. Amazon and UK-based OneWeb plan to build their own telecom ventures also using hundreds of their own satellites. Adding to the problem are swarms of junk currently whizzing through space, including defunct rocket parts, dead satellites and debris from prior collisions and anti-satellite tests.

That junk is practically impossible to clean up on a large scale. And it will take years, if not centuries, for it to naturally fall out of orbit.

The odds of avoiding disaster only become slimmer with each new satellite launch, Jah added. He remains optimistic that we can avoid Kessler Syndrome, even with swarms of satellites in orbit — but only if the SpaceXs and Amazons of the world agree to abide by certain rules and norms of behavior.

“Absent that the answer is no,” he said.

Beck, the Rocket Lab CEO, said he is frustrated that so much of the conversation about space junk revolves around the risk of in-orbit collisions, and there’s not as much conversation about how space traffic is already impacting the launch business. Satellite constellations can be particularly problematic, he said, because the satellites can fly fairly close together, forming a sort of blockade that can prevent rockets from squeezing through.

In Rocket Lab’s early days, Beck said, the company could pick a 30-minute timeframe on a given day and expect to reach orbit safely.

Lately, the company has had to pick “half a dozen separate launch windows because we’ve got to shoot up in between a train of” satellites, Beck said.

Space junk poses terrifying threats. Here's what that means for SpaceX's megaconstellation
Still, Beck said that he’s not opposed to SpaceX’s plans or massive satellite constellations in general. Starlink, once operational, could provide huge benefits to life on Earth by making internet access available to the billions of people who still lack sufficient connectivity, he noted.

But Beck said he is concerned about how rapidly he’s seen traffic in space impact his own business. And he’s worried that new players in the space industry could be reckless.

“It’s just a race to orbit, and there’s just zero consideration for what environment we’ll leave behind,” he said. “Anyone flying a launch vehicle now needs to be really cognizant of their responsibilities.”

Policing outer space

Rocket Lab recently launched its own internal investigation into the traffic issue, hoping to determine how problematic it could be for the company as satellite constellations grow.

But for now, Beck said, Rocket Lab would benefit from more precise tracking of in-space objects. The US military serves as the world’s de-facto traffic cop because it operates an extensive databases of active satellites and space junk, but the military no longer wants that duty.

Managing traffic in space is difficult and dangerous. Here's how we could make it better

NASA and military officials are pressing for the US government to hand traffic management duties over to the Department of Commerce, which could work to establish a more comprehensive and internationally collaborative tracking and management system.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine pressed senators at a hearing last week to fund that effort, noting that even the International Space Station has had to dodge orbital debris three times so far this year, an unprecedented rate.

“We’re providing global space situational awareness and space traffic management to the world for free,” Bridenstine said at the hearing. “We need to take that data, combine it with commercial and international data to create a single integrated space picture that can be shared with the world. And and — by the way — the world needs to support us in that effort.”

Congress last year chose to commission a study of the issue rather than greenlight the reform.

Beck is also troubled by the fact that global regulation of space traffic has lagged far behind technology.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which remains the primary international document regulating activity in outer space, was agreed to at a time when only two governments were going to space. Now that more countries and commercial companies are also in the business of spaceflight, regulators are faced with a Catch-22: They don’t want to create a lawless environment, but they’re reticent to impose new rules for fear that other countries may become more dominant in space.

Recent attempts to update rules on the international stage have been “incredibly inspiring, but also incredibly depressing,” Beck said. Because even though countries were willing to come to the table, nothing has actually been agreed upon since the 1970s.

“We are very pro-democratizing space,” Beck said. “But it has to be done in a way that is responsible for each generation.”

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US election 2020: Fact-checking Trump and Biden’s final week

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By Reality Check team
BBC News

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After months of bitter campaigning – and plenty of spin and distortion of the facts – the US election is drawing to an end.

We’ve been fact-checking the candidates throughout, and here is our selection from the final week of the campaign.

Donald Trump has been far more active on the campaign trail over the past few days, with a punishing schedule of rallies in key states.

There’s been no let-up of his repetition of false claims about the pandemic, his record in office and the integrity of postal voting.

Mr Biden has appeared in public far less, but he’s also presented fact-checking challenges and often misrepresented the economy under President Trump.

Trump: You can change your vote in “most states”

Verdict: This is not correct. Only in a few states can you change your vote after you’ve submitted a postal ballot.

There are just a handful of states – including Michigan, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York and Wisconsin – where your postal vote can be cancelled after it has been submitted.

In these states, you can then either request a new postal ballot or vote in person.

Most states will allow you to vote in person if you’ve been sent a postal vote but haven’t returned it. Some of these ballots have to be counted last to make sure no-one votes twice.

Biden: “Donald Trump crashed the economy that Barack and I left him. Like everything else he’s left and inherited, he squandered it.”

Verdict: Only after the onset of the pandemic did economic growth take a nose-dive. It has subsequently experienced a strong recovery.

The latest numbers show economic output surged by an annualised 33% in the third quarter of 2020, following a record fall as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the economy has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Prior to the pandemic, during President Trump’s first three years in office,

he oversaw an annual average growth of 2.5%.

The last three years of the Obama administration saw a similar level of growth (2.3%).

Mr Trump has said the recent recovery in growth is “the biggest in the history of our country by almost triple… that’s bigger than any nation”.

This isn’t right. Over the third quarter period (July-September) this year, the economy grew by 7.4% in the US (33.1% is the annualised figure). This is less than Germany, Italy and the eurozone as a whole.

If you look at economic growth from the start of the pandemic to the present, the US has done better than Europe but “worse that China and some other Asian economies” such as South Korea, says Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics.

image copyrightReuters

Biden: “It’s estimated that if we wore masks the next few months, by his own experts in the CDC and other agencies… we’d save 100,000 lives.”

Verdict: The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not make this projection, nor do others.

Mr Biden may have been referring to a projection, not by the CDC, but from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

However, the 100,000 figure Mr Biden quotes is significantly above the IHME’s latest estimate that 62,000 lives would be saved by the end of January 2021, if mask-wearing was almost universal.

The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings, events and gatherings, to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

image copyrightGetty Images

Trump: Joe Biden ending cash bail would free “400,000 dangerous criminals”

Verdict: This needs context. Joe Biden does want to end the cash bail system, but Mr Trump is wrong about its impact.

Joe Biden has pledged to end cash bail – the deposit a defendant pays to avoid being kept in detention while awaiting trial.

His website says: “The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent.”

There are about 450,000 individuals currently detained before trial. However, a significant proportion of these are not given the option of bail – in particular those charged with serious crimes.

So Mr Trump’s figure of 400,000 is too high, say experts. And it’s also not correct to call all the people who can’t afford to pay bail “dangerous criminals”.

“Cash bail results in detention based on inability to pay. As a result, a low-risk indigent person may be detained and a high-risk wealthy person may be released,” says Prof Crystal Yang at Harvard University.

Biden: “91 of the top corporate companies in America paid zero federal income tax.”

Verdict: This is true, according to a study.

The context for this claim is that Mr Biden has criticised big cuts in taxes under the Trump administration that have led to companies and wealthy individuals paying substantially less.

In 2018, 91 of the top 500 companies in the US effectively paid no tax, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Despite making almost $80bn in pre-tax income, some companies paid no taxes, as the US corporate tax code “lowers the bar for the amount of tax avoidance it takes to get you down to zero”, according to the Institute.

The companies paying zero tax included Amazon and Starbucks.

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Why Amazon and Reliance are fighting for Future Retail in India

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Amazon (AMZN), the Seattle-based e-commerce firm owned by Jeff Bezos, is fighting a $3.3 billion deal struck between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and the Indian retail conglomerate Future Group.

What’s at stake is strategic access to a network of popular grocery stores and retail shops in India — something both Amazon and Reliance want to either have for themselves, or to prevent the other from acquiring.

“If someone backs down, it will give the impression that one has lost and the other has won, when the fight has just started,” said Counterpoint Research analyst Tarun Pathak.

Amazon has 31.2% market share in India’s e-commerce industry, just behind Walmart-owned Flipkart’s 31.9%, according to a recent report from market research firm Forrester. But Ambani has made no secret of his ambitions to upend the market with JioMart, which is part of his sprawling conglomerate.

At the heart of the current battle is Future Retail, the cash cow of Future Group. The retail unit includes brands like Big Bazaar, a well-known, popular hypermarket chain in India. In August 2019, Amazon invested in a Future Group entity that gave it a roughly 4.8% stake in Future Retail as of September 30 this year, according to stock exchange filings. The deal gave Amazon the right of first refusal to acquire more shares in Future Retail, according to one of the filings.

Then Covid-19 hit. India enforced one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns, ordering shops to shutter and millions of people to stay indoors for months.

The pandemic has had a “significant adverse impact” on Future Retail’s business operations, the company said in its most recent earnings report. In July, Future Retail’s credit rating took a hit after it missed a bond payment. Fitch Ratings downgraded Future Retail’s rating two notches to C, signaling that the company was “near default.”
The following month, Reliance and Future Group announced that Reliance was buying Future Retail and several other assets. The deal allowed Future Group to “achieve a holistic solution to the challenges that have been caused by Covid and the macro economic environment,” Kishore Biyani, Future Group CEO, said in a statement at the time.

A legal dispute

The announcement took industry watchers by surprise.

“Everyone knew Amazon had a stake in Future Retail, and the deal didn’t mention what would happen to Amazon’s stake,” said Satish Meena, analyst at research firm Forrester.

Amazon responded by filing a complaint to the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC).

Indian companies and foreign companies operating in India often agree to settle disputes in Singapore because “it’s a neutral jurisdiction with high integrity and international standards,” according to Ashish Kabra, a lawyer who heads the International Dispute Resolution & Investigations Practice for Nishith Desai Associates in Singapore.

The arbitration process is confidential and none of the submissions are public.

Amazon argued that the 2019 deal struck between it and the Future Group entity included a non-compete clause, a person familiar with Amazon’s perspective told CNN Business. The clause listed 30 restricted parties with which Future Retail and Future Group could not do business, and Reliance was on that list, the person said.

“The key question really is what’s the validity of contracts if you just ignore them,” said the person familiar with Amazon’s side.

“Are companies just going to ignore contracts and do what they please?”

A SIAC emergency arbitrator gave Amazon a small victory this week when it ordered a temporary halt on Future Group’s deal with Reliance, according to the legal order seen by Reuters, which has not been made public.

Future Group had argued that if the deal with Reliance falls through, its retail unit will be forced into liquidation and 29,000 people will lose their jobs, according to Reuters, which cited the Singapore order. The order is not public, but the person familiar with Amazon’s perspective confirmed that Future presented this argument.

But the arbitrator ruled that “economic hardship alone is not a legal ground for disregarding legal obligations,” according to the order, Reuters reported.

“We welcome the award of the Emergency Arbitrator. We are grateful for the order which grants all the reliefs that were sought,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

CNN Business contacted Future Group for comment, and received a statement from Future Retail.

Future Retail said it “is examining the communication and the order” from SIAC.

Reliance (RRVL) said in a statement that its deal with Future Retail is “fully enforceable” under Indian law.

“RRVL intends to enforce its rights and complete the transaction in terms of the scheme and agreement with Future group without any delay,” said the statement.

But in the past, Indian courts have usually followed the lead of orders passed by emergency arbitrators outside of India, according to Kabra, the lawyer.

“What parties have previously done, is they approach Indian Courts and ask for similar reliefs in India, while relying on the order of the Emergency Arbitrator. Indian Courts usually grant the same relief,” said Kabra.

A ‘clash of the titans’

For Reliance, which operates 11,000 stores throughout India, and Amazon, the No. 2 e-commerce player in the country, Future Retail’s 1,500 stores are not a must have, says one analyst.

“It’s not like without it you can’t have your ambitions, if you don’t have Future [Retail],” said Pathak, of Counterpoint Research.

This is “less about Future and more about the clash of the titans,” as well as “protecting your turf,” he added.

To compete with Amazon and Flipkart, Ambani’s JioMart has been growing its presence in India. It expanded to hundreds of cities across India earlier this year and plans to branch into electronics, fashion, pharmaceutical and healthcare soon. The company will also likely tap into Reliance Retail’s network of physical stores across the country to fulfill online orders, according to analysts.

The industry had expected Amazon and Reliance to forge some kind of deal in the future, because they need each other’s expertise, according to Meena, of Forrester. Amazon needs more shops to expand inventory and use retail spaces as storage and delivery hubs. And Reliance doesn’t have a lot of experience in e-commerce, according to Meena.

But any kind of partnership between Amazon and Reliance in the future “depends upon how much bad blood is between them now,” said Meena.

“It might end up becoming an ego battle between the CEOs of both the companies,” he said.

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Ivory Coast elections: Voters go to the polls amid opposition boycott

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image captionVoting cards have been distributed ahead of the presidential election

Polls are set to open in Ivory Coast’s controversial presidential election.

At least 14 people have been killed since riots broke out in August after President Alassane Ouattara said he would run again following the sudden death of his preferred successor.

The main opposition candidates, Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Henri Konan Bédié, say it is illegal for Mr Ouattara to stand for a third term.

They are boycotting the vote and have called for civil disobedience.

  • Old men, chocolate and Ivory Coast’s bitter election

  • The politics of human rights in Ivory Coast
  • A quick guide to Ivory Coast

What is it so controversial?

According to the constitution, Ivory Coast has a two-term presidential limit. Mr Ouattara – who has been elected twice – initially said he would stand down.

But, in July, the ruling party’s previous presidential nominee, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died of a heart attack.

Mr Ouattara subsequently announced that he would run for president after all.

His supporters argued that a constitutional change in 2016 reset the clock and that his first term did not count.

His opponents do not share that view, arguing instead that it is illegal for Mr Ouattara to run for a third term.

What’s the background to the tension?

There has been a decades-long quarrel between some of the country’s leading political figures.

In 2010, Laurent Gbagbo, who was president at the time, refused to concede to Mr Ouattara following the election in that year and this sparked a bitter civil war.

More than 3,000 people were killed in the five months of violence.

Mr Gbagbo also put himself forward to stand in this year’s election but the electoral commission blocked him because he had been convicted in the Ivorian courts.

He was one of nearly 40 potential candidates who were turned down by the commission.

Who are the four presidential candidates?

  • Alassane Ouattara, 78, an economist. Became president in 2011, serving his second term after years in opposition.

    Party: Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP)

  • Henri Konan Bédié, 86, career politician. Served as president between 1993 and 1999, deposed in coup. Party: Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PCDI)
  • Pascal Affi N’Guessan, 67, career politician. Served as prime minister between 2000 and 2003 under then-President Laurent Gbagbo. Party: Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) faction
  • Kouadio Konan Bertin, 51, career politician, known as KKB, was once youth leader in the former ruling Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, is now an MP. Independent candidate

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