Tokyo, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — The Japanese billionaire who Tesla chief Elon Musk says plans to blast off on the first-ever private commercial space trip aboard the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket often makes headlines in Japan. The SpaceX mission, set for takeoff in 2023, is just the latest exploit in tycoon Yusaku Maezawa's colorful and ambitious career:
Maezawa, 42, is the chief executive of Start Today Co., which he founded in 1998 as a CD sales business when he was still in his 20s. The company pioneered e-commerce in Japan and now runs the popular fashion mall Zozotown, selling various, relatively affordable clothing brands. Annual sales totaled more than 98 billion yen ($890 million) in the fiscal year that ended in March.
Forbes magazine estimates Maezawa's wealth at $2.9 billion. In a nation where billionaires are relatively rare, he gets attention for his celebrity friends and for zipping around in a private jet and fleet of sports cars. Such flamboyance is uncommon in a country where even very rich men often keep a low profile.
Maezawa's trademark defiant but disarming style may be rooted in his start as a musician, playing drums in indie rock bands. The punk band he was in, called Switch Style, signed with a major Japanese record label. He opted out of attending prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo to pursue music and then started his own business selling imported CDs. The name of his company was inspired by the title of an album by the American punk band Gorilla Biscuits.
Maezawa has invested lavishly in art, collecting works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, among others, and in designer-brand furniture from abroad. He paid $110.5 million for Basquiat's 1982 painting of a graffiti-like black and blue rendition of a human skull, a record price for an American artist, at a Sotheby's auction last year. "When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art," Maezawa said at the time. He had set the previous auction record for a Basquiat, in 2016, when he paid $57.3 million.
Maezawa recently has been dating Japanese actress Ayame Goriki. He previously had a widely publicized relationship with model and actress Saeko, the ex-wife of major league baseball player Yu Darvish. In a recent tweet, when someone asked whether he was going to get married soon, Maezawa replied, "No."
Maezawa has recently shown off a wearable technology called the Zozosuit, the centerpiece of his Zozo fashion brand. Customers first order a black, body-hugging outfit covered with white dots. They then take a smartphone photo wearing the outfit which is used to do a full body scan, determining shapes and sizes with a special app. Choices are still limited to basic pants and shirts for now, but that could change.
Maezawa says the planned trip to space is a way "to inspire the dreamer in all of us." He plans to take six or eight artists, architects and designers with him. He hasn't said who they might be or how much he is paying for the trip. The idea is for those creative minds to see the moon up close and planet Earth from afar. Maezawa says he has often wondered what Basquiat might have drawn if he had traveled into space. "I choose to go to the moon, with artists," Maezawa tweeted both in Japanese and English.
Tokyo, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air.
This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government's "flying car" project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map for the plan ready by the year's end.
"This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind," said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project.
For now, nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and of course safety concerns. But dozens such projects are popping up around the world.
A flying car is defined as aircraft that's electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically, according to Ebihara.
They are often called EVtol, which stands for "electric vertical takeoff and landing" aircraft. All the flying car concepts, which are like drones big enough to hold humans, promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say.
"You may think of 'Back to the Future,' 'Gundam,' or 'Doraemon,'" Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. "Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it's time for it to become real," he said.
Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology.
Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car.
The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it's unclear it will meet that goal: at a demonstration last year the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it's now flying more stably, though it's being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won't fly away.
There are plenty of skeptics.
Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be "1,000 times heavier" isn't practical.
"If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter," he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. "Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop."
Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber's efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the U.S. company's work on EVtol machines.
Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations for its services.
Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber's "Elevate" structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023.
Uber's vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate so many more EVtol aircraft, once the service takes off.
Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the U.S. and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars.
Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls and major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it's safe.
Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city's two international airports, among others. Savings in time would add up, it said.
"This is not a rich person's toy. This is a mass market solution," said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate.
Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers.
Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for "Blade Runner" style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation.
Japan's auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said. Such vehicles could be tested first in uncongested, remote areas or between islands, where public transport is less accessible and safety issues would be less of a problem.
Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below.
Flying also has the allure of a bird's eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism.
Atsushi Taguchi, a "drone grapher," as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won't become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras.
A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood.
The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered.
The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller.
"I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety," said Taguchi. "And anything that flies will by definition crash."
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Sep 16 (AP/UNB) — A NASA satellite designed to precisely measure changes in Earth's ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and vegetation was launched into polar orbit from California early Saturday.
A Delta 2 rocket carrying ICESat-2 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:02 a.m. and headed over the Pacific Ocean.
NASA Earth Science Division director Michael Freilich says that the mission in particular will advance knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise.
The melt from those ice sheets alone has raised global sea level by more than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) a year recently, according to NASA.
The mission is a successor to the original Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite that operated from 2003 to 2009. Measurements continued since then with airborne instruments in NASA's Operation IceBridge.
Built by Northrop Grumman, ICESat-2 carries a single instrument, a laser altimeter that measures height by determining how long it takes photons to travel from the spacecraft to Earth and back. According to NASA, it will collect more than 250 times as many measurements as the first ICESat.
The laser is designed to fire 10,000 times per second, divided into six beams of hundreds of trillions of photons. The round trip is timed to a billionth of a second.
In addition to ice, the satellite's other measurements, such as the tops of trees, snow and river heights, may help with research into the amount of carbon stored in forests, flood and drought planning and wildfire behavior, among other uses.
The launch was the last for a Delta 2 rocket, United Launch Alliance said.
The first Delta 2 lifted off on Feb. 14, 1989, and since then it has been the launch vehicle for Global Positioning System orbiters, Earth observing and commercial satellites, and interplanetary missions including the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Salt Lake City, Sep 12 (AP/UNB) — A strange thing happened after Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew returned from the moon with lunar rocks: Many of the mementos given to every U.S. state vanished. Now, after years of sleuthing, a former NASA investigator is closing in on his goal of locating the whereabouts of all 50.
In recent weeks, two of the rocks that dropped off the radar after the 1969 mission were located in Louisiana and Utah, leaving only New York and Delaware with unaccounted-for souvenirs.
Attorney and moon rock hunter Joseph Gutheinz says it "blows his mind," that the rocks failed to be carefully chronicled and saved by some of the states that received them, but he is hopeful the last two can be located before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission next summer.
"It's a tangible piece of history," he said. "Neil Armstrong's first mission ... was to reach down and grab some rocks and dust in case they needed to make an emergency takeoff."
President Richard Nixon's administration presented the tiny lunar samples to all 50 states and 135 countries, but few were officially recorded and most disappeared, Gutheinz said.
Each state got a tiny sample encased in acrylic and mounted on a wooden plaque, along with the state flag. Some were placed in museums, while others went on display in state capitols. But almost no state entered them into an archival record, and many lost track of them, he said.
When Gutheinz started leading the effort to find them in 2002, he estimates that 40 states had lost track of the rocks.
"I think part of it was, we honestly believed that going back to the moon was going to be a regular occurrence," Gutheinz said. But there were only five more journeys before the last manned moon landing, Apollo 17, in 1972.
Of the Apollo 11 rocks given to other countries, about 70 percent remain unaccounted for, he said.
The U.S. government also sent out a second set of goodwill moon rocks to the states and other nations after the Apollo 17 mission, and many of those are missing too, he said.
NASA didn't track their whereabouts after giving them to the Nixon administration for distribution, said chief historian Bill Barry, but added the space agency would be happy to see them located.
Gutheinz began his career as an investigator for NASA, where he found illicit sellers asking millions for rocks on the black market. Authentic moon rocks are considered national treasures and can't legally be sold in the U.S., he said.
He became aware while at NASA that the gifts to the states were missing, but only began his hunt after leaving the agency.
Now a lawyer in the Houston area, he's also a college instructor who's enlisted the help of his students. The record their findings of the whereabouts of the discovered moon gems in a database.
Many of the Apollo 11 rocks have turned up in some unexpected places: with ex-governors in West Virginia and Colorado, in a military-artifact storage building in Minnesota; and with a former crab boat captain from TV's "Deadliest Catch" in Alaska.
In New York, officials that oversee the state museum have no record of that state's Apollo 11 rock. In Delaware, the sample was stolen from its state museum on Sept. 22, 1977. Police were contacted, but it was never found.
The U.S. Virgin Islands territory, meanwhile, can't confirm that they ever received a goodwill rock, though the University of the Virgin Islands later received Apollo 11 rocks for scientific research, said chief conservator Julio Encarnacion III.
In other states, though Gutheinz has recently hit paydirt. The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge located Louisiana's Apollo 11 moon rock in early August after a call from Gutheinz.
In Utah, the division of state history had no record of the sample, but The Associated Press confirmed it was in storage at Salt Lake City's Clark Planetarium.
Officials there may bring it out as part of celebrations recognizing the Apollo 11 anniversary next year, something Gutheinz hopes to see everywhere.
"The people of the world deserve this," he said. "They deserve to see something that our astronauts accomplished and be a part it."
San Francisco, Sep 9 (AP/UNB) — Engineers set to sea Saturday to deploy a trash collection device to corral plastic litter floating between California and Hawaii in an attempt to clean up the world's largest garbage patch in the heart of the Pacific Ocean.
The 2,000-foot (600-meter) long floating boom was being towed from San Francisco to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an island of trash twice the size of Texas.
The system was created by The Ocean Cleanup, an organization founded by Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old innovator from the Netherlands who first became passionate about cleaning the oceans when he went scuba diving at age 16 in the Mediterranean Sea and saw more plastic bags than fish.
"The plastic is really persistent and it doesn't go away by itself and the time to act is now," Slat said, adding that researchers with his organization found plastic going back to the 1960s and 1970s bobbing in the patch.
The buoyant, U-shaped barrier made of plastic and with a tapered 10-foot (3-meter) deep screen, is intended to act like a coastline, trapping some of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that scientists estimate are swirling in that gyre but allowing marine life to safely swim beneath it.
Fitted with solar power lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas, the cleanup system will communicate its position at all times, allowing a support vessel to fish out the collected plastic every few months and transport it to dry land where it will be recycled, said Slat.
Shipping containers filled with the fishing nets, plastic bottles, laundry baskets and other plastic refuse scooped up by the system being deployed Saturday are expected to be back on land within a year, he said.
Slat said he and his team will pay close attention to whether the system works efficiently and withstands harsh ocean conditions, including huge waves. He said he's most looking forward to a ship loaded with plastic coming back to port.
"We still have to prove the technology... which will then allow us to scale up a fleet of systems," he said.
The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million in donations to fund the project, including from Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, will deploy 60 free-floating barriers in the Pacific Ocean by 2020.
"One of our goals is to remove 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years," Slat said.
The free-floating barriers are made to withstand harsh weather conditions and constant wear and tear. They will stay in the water for two decades and in that time collect 90 percent of the trash in the patch, he added.
George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said he's skeptical Slat can achieve that goal because even if plastic trash can be taken out of the ocean, a lot more is pouring in each year.
"We at the Ocean Conservancy are highly skeptical but we hope it works," he said. "The ocean needs all the help it can get."
Leonard said 9 million tons (8 million metric tons) of plastic waste enter the ocean annually and that a solution must include a multi-pronged approach, including stopping plastic from reaching the ocean and more education so people reduce consumption of single use plastic containers and bottles.
"If you don't stop plastics from flowing into the ocean, it will be a Sisyphean task," Leonard said, citing the Greek myth of a task never completed. He added that on September 15 about 1 million volunteers around the world will collect trash from beaches and waterways as part of the Ocean Conservancy's annual International Coastal Cleanup. Volunteers last year collected about 10,000 tons of plastics worldwide over two hours, he said.
Leonard also raised concerns that marine and wildlife could be entangled by the net that will hang below the surface. He said he hopes Slat's group is transparent with its data and shares information with the public about what happens with the first deployment.
"He has set a very large and lofty goal and we certainly hope it works but we really are not going to know until it is deployed," Leonard said. "We have to wait and see."
The system will act as a "big boat that stands still in the water" and will have a screen and not a net so that there is nothing for marine life to get entangled with. As an extra precautionary measure, a boat carrying experienced marine biologists will be deployed to make sure the device is not harming wildlife, Slat said.
"I'm the first to acknowledge this has never done before and that it is important to collect plastic on land and close the taps on plastic entering into the ocean, but I also think humanity can do more than one thing at a time to tackle this problem," Slat said.