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Astronauts land safely after Soyuz launch fails at 20 miles up

A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft.

The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system.

Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred.

The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a “ballistic descent” (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now that’s about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that they’ll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else.

Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, there’s a chance they’ll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time.

The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so there’s a bit of leeway. That’s not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so.

The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August.

This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name.

SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process can’t be rushed.

That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if we’re not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, we’re not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable.

You can watch the launch as it played out here:

Grado takes the wraps off their first pair of wireless headphones

Legacy open-backed headphone maker Grado is taking their classic design into the future with the small Brooklyn company’s first pair of wireless headphones.

The GW100s have a familiar look, but integrate Bluetooth tech and volume controls. They go for $249.

Grado headphones are a favorite of mine; they have a very unique open sound that really resonates and are perfect for home listening. Previous iterations haven’t really thrived as much on the road or in noisy offices because they tend to let in a lot of outside noise and leak a lot of your tunes. The company says that they’ve redesigned the housings and internals of the GW100s to reduce noise leakage by 60 percent — no famed wooden enclosures on this design either.

Part of what’s great about Grado headphones is their history; we toured the company’s tiny Brooklyn HQ a few years back and took a look at their operations… really cool stuff.

It’s tough for a company to make do on just brand legacy alone, and even though audio tech generally has a much longer shelf life than other products, there’s always a time to adapt, especially now as more hardware makers purge headphone jacks from their devices.

In the past few years, the company branched out into some more mobile-friendly products, but the magic wasn’t all there. The wireless GW100s keep the company’s same drivers, though it’ll be interesting to hear what they sound like as the company tunes them to be more amenable to “on-the-go” listening. Speaking of which, they also look like they have a sturdier design than some of the company’s more spartan headbands, which were strangely kind of part of the appeal, but are definitely welcome for something more likely to be chucked in a backpack.

The headphones charge via micro-USB and offer a 15-hour battery life, the company says. They also pack an included 3.5mm cable if you want to use them with your old gear. More details on precise audio tuning are listed on its product page.

Copyright compromise: Music Modernization Act signed into law

Musicians are celebrating as the Music Modernization Act, an attempt to drag copyright and royalty rules into the 21st century, is signed into law after unanimous passage through Congress. The act aims to centralize and simplify the process by which artists are tracked and paid on digital services like Spotify and Pandora, and also extends the royalty treatment to songs recorded before 1972.

The problems in this space have affected pretty much every party. Copyright law and music industry practices were, as you might remember, totally unprepared for the music piracy wave at the turn of the century, and also for the shift to streaming over the last few years. Predictably, it isn’t the labels, distributors or new services that got hosed — it’s artists, who often saw comically small royalty payments from streams if they saw anything at all.

Even so, the MMA has enjoyed rather across-the-board support from all parties, because existing law is so obscure and inadequate. And it will remain that way to a certain extent — this isn’t layman territory and things will remain obscure. But the act will address some of the glaring issues current in the media landscape.

The biggest change is probably the creation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. This new organization centralizes the bookkeeping and royalty payment process, replacing a patchwork of agreements that required lots of paperwork from all sides (and as usual, artists were often the ones left out in the cold as a result). The MLC will be funded by companies like Pandora or Google that want to enter into digital licensing agreements, meaning there will be no additional commission or fee for the MLC, but the entity will actually be run by music creators and publishers.

Previously digital services and music publishers would enter into separately negotiated agreements, a complex and costly process if you want to offer a comprehensive library of music — one that stifled new entrants to the market. Nothing in the new law prevents companies from making these agreements now, as some companies will surely prefer to do, but the MLC offers a simple, straightforward solution and also a blanket license option where you can just pay for all the music in its registry. This could in theory nurture new services that can’t spare the cash for the hundred lawyers required for other methods.

There’s one other benefit to using the MLC: you’re shielded from liability for statutory damages. Assuming a company uses it correctly and pays their dues, they’re no longer vulnerable to lawsuits that allege underpayment or other shenanigans — the kind of thing streaming providers have been weathering in the courts for years, with potentially massive settlements.

The law also improves payouts for producers and engineers, who have historically been under-recognized and certainly under-compensated for their roles in music creation. Writers and performers are critical, of course, but they’re not the only components to a great song or album, and it’s important to recognize this formally.

The last component of the MMA, the CLASSICS Act, is its most controversial, though even its critics seem to admit that it’s better than what we had before. CLASSICS essentially extends standard copyright rules to works created before 1972, during which year copyright law changed considerably and left pre-1972 works largely out of the bargain.

What’s the problem? Well, it turns out that many works that would otherwise enter the public domain would be copyright-protected (or something like it — there are some technical differences) until 2067, giving them an abnormally long term of protection. And what’s more, these works would be put under this new protection automatically, with no need for the artists to register them. That may sound convenient, but it also means that thousands of old works would be essentially copyrighted even though their creators, if they’re even alive, have asserted no intention of seeking that status.

A simple registry for those works was proposed by a group of data freedom advocates, but their cries were not heard by those crafting and re-crafting the law. Admittedly it’s something of an idealistic objection, and the harm to users is largely theoretical. The bill proceeded more or less as written.

At all events the Music Modernization Act is now law; its unanimous passage is something of an achievement these days, though God knows both sides need as many wins as they can get.

Improbable brings its massive multiplayer platform to Unity game engine

As battle royale games like Fortnite pit more players against each other, studios are starting to realize the potential of bringing a massive online audience together at one time. This ambition has always existed, but Improbable, a well-funded startup aiming to enable these vast online worlds, is looking to bring these experiences to more game developers.

Improbable has announced that it is bringing a game development kit for its SpatialOS multiplayer platform to Unity, a popular game development platform used to create about half of new video games.

Improbable has some pretty grand ambitions for multi-player gaming and they’ve raised some grand venture capital to make that happen. The London startup has raised just over $600 million for their vision to enable digital worlds with vast expanses of concurrent users. The company’s SpatialOS platform allows single instances of an online game to run across multiple servers, essentially stitching a world together with each server keeping an eye on the other, allowing for hundreds of users to see each other and their in-game actions translated in a persistent way on systems across the globe.

The company’s tech opens the door for a lot of game developers to become more ambitious. There are several developers who have released titles on the platform.

Today’s news is a major step for the company, leveraging the popularity of Unity with a lot of younger studios to enable easier MMO development on an engine that is very popular with a wide range of developers. SpatialOS was previously available in a more limited, experimental scope on Unity. It also supports some development on Unreal Engine and CryEngine.

With today’s release, developers building with SpatialOS can craft games that allow for up to 200 players. The game development kit gives developers multiplayer networking and some other related features to expand the playing field, or at least further populate it. Improbable’s involvement goes far beyond just facilitating a download; a game built for SpatialOS will be hosted on Improbable’s servers, where it can be maintained via its host of web tools.

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