Saturday, August 18, 2012

Apple stock hits new high after 4-month dip

NEW YORK (AP) â€" Apple's stock hit a new high Friday after a four-month swoon, as investors look ahead to the release of a new iPhone and possibly a smaller iPad.

Already the world's most valuable company, Apple Inc. saw its stock hit $645.48 in midday trading, before retreating to $645.02. That was up $8.68, or 1.4 percent, from Thursday's close.

The previous high for the stock was $644, hit on April 10.

Apple has a market value of about $605 billion, almost 50 percent higher than No. 2 Exxon Mobil Corp. at $408 billion.

Apple's stock fell last month after the company's earnings report for the April-June quarter showed the slowest growth in more than two years. It was only the second time in 10 years that Apple had missed analyst expectations.

Jefferies & Co. analyst Peter Misek raised his price target on the stock to $900 from $800 on Friday, saying an "iPad Mini" is in production in China. His belief is based on readings of reports from Apple's suppliers, contract manufacturers and contacts in the region. He now believes Apple will build 25 million iPads of all kinds in the current quarter, up from a previous estimate of 16 million, which did not include the "Mini."

The Cupertino, Calif., company hasn't said anything about a new iPhone or iPad.

Speculation about a smaller iPad has been rife this year. Analysts believe Apple wants to make a cheaper tablet computer to counter the threat of the Google Nexus and Amazon Kindle Fire, both of which sell for $199. The cheapest current iPad costs $399.

Analysts now believe the iPhone 5 will go on sale in late September, and it's widely believed that it will be the biggest phone launch ever. Rumored upgrades include the ability access the latest wireless data networks in the U.S. and a slightly bigger screen.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Facebook insiders can sell stock as 'lock-up' ends

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) â€" Facebook's early investors and a handful of directors will become eligible on Thursday to sell stock they own in the social networking company. It marks the beginning of a time-honored process for public companies, one that will give many Facebook employees the same right to sell their shares this fall.

It's conceivable none of them will sell. But if they do, up to 1.91 billion more shares could flood the stock market over the next several months â€" more than four times the 421 million shares that have been trading since Facebook's initial public offering in May.

So-called "lock-up" periods, which prevent insiders from unloading shares too close to an IPO, generally start to expire 90 days after a stock makes its public debut.

Lock-ups are designed to prevent a stock from experiencing the kind of volatility that might occur if too many shareholders decide to sell a newly traded stock all at once. The progressive phasing-in of various shareholders allows early owners to shed their stock and make way for new investors, says Peter Zaleski, a professor of economics at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania.

But there's risk involved, too. If too many people sell, Facebook Inc.'s stock price could decline.

That's a problem the company can't afford. On Tuesday, the stock closed at $20.38, down 46 percent from its initial public offering price of $38.

In all, 271 million shares will become eligible this week, according to Facebook's regulatory filings. Firms ranging from Accel Partners to Goldman Sachs, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and Facebook board members James Breyer, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman are among those free to sell stock they own. Microsoft Corp., another early Facebook investor, will be eligible to sell, too.

Facebook's 28-year-old chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, won't be able to sell his shares until mid-November. Facebook hasn't explained why Zuckerberg didn't become eligible this week. He controls about a third of the 1.22 billion shares and stock options that will become unlocked on Nov. 14.

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter believes it's unlikely that top executives will sell their shares as soon as they can. It would look bad for the company, Pachter says, if Facebook's No. 2 executive and operating chief Sheryl Sandberg or finance chief David Ebersman decide to sell.

Zynga Inc., the company behind "FarmVille" and other games played largely on Facebook, was sued last month for waiving lock-up restrictions for insiders, including Pincus, before the company's first-quarter results in April.

"The only people who would sell are people who need the money," Pachter says. "I would be very worried if Sheryl Sandberg or Ebersman sell, but they are not that dumb."

Following this week's expiration date, about 243 million more Facebook shares and stock options will enter the public stock market between Oct. 15 and Nov. 13. Then there's the Nov. 14 expiration, and another a month later. Next May, a year after Facebook's IPO, the Russian Internet company Group and DST Global â€" both of which made early investments in Facebook â€" will be able to sell their shares.

The early investors who sold their stock to the public as part of Facebook's IPO did so at $38 each. If they sell now, they will make far less money from each share than they did in the IPO. Facebook's stock has not hit its IPO price since its first day of trading. As a result, the company's market value has plummeted from $104 billion to $59.1 billion in roughly three months.

Goldman Sachs and a few other investors are in an unusual position to profit if they sell Facebook's stock at its current price. A January 2011 investment round from Goldman Sachs and others valued Facebook at $50 billion.

Even before Facebook's IPO, Silicon Valley merchants â€" those who sell real estate, cars and other luxury items â€" had been expecting a boost to the local economy from rank-and-file Facebook employees who received stock options as part of their compensation. Now, experts are cautioning those merchants to temper their expectations.

"In light of the company's market value being half of what was expected, and the fact that the big gainers are not in Silicon Valley year-round, I would not expect a new boom in Silicon Valley resulting from this," Zaleski says.

Jon Burgstone, professor at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that many of Facebook's shareholders had already been able to sell their stock through private stock markets before the company's IPO. In many ways, he added, "Facebook's IPO was really a secondary public offering. A number of large shareholders and early employees have already been cashing out."

As for flashy cars and fancy clothes?

"People here generally don't spend their money on expensive clothing, jewelry, etc.," Burgstone says. "The ethos of Silicon Valley remains â€" what have you done, and what can you do now? â€" not what label are you wearing."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What we've done on Mars, and what's next

(CNN) -- The much-celebrated Mars rover Curiosity is headed for Mount Sharp, where it will help scientists explore the question of life on Mars as it climbs up and up.

Meanwhile, however, NASA's budget for planetary exploration is slated to go down, down, down.

Scientists are basking in the success of Curiosity's stunning landing earlier this week, proving that a complicated system involving a parachute and a sky crane can safely deliver a 2,000-pound vehicle to Mars. The $2.6 billion Curiosity will spend years roaming the planet, snapping photos and gathering scientific data.

Given the budget constraints facing the space agency, however, there are limits on what the rover, and NASA, will be able to do on the surface of the Red Planet. Although astronauts brought back thousands of moon rocks during the Apollo Mission, there's never been a sample of Martian material returned to Earth. Such a mission is considered a priority, so scientists can do more detailed chemical analyses.

But it may not happen anytime soon.

"We're optimistic, given the success of our program, but we're anxious, too," said Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Like all of us, we're anxious about our country's ability to be able to support and do these kinds of things."

NASA's budget for Mars exploration is slated to take a huge hit in 2013, dropping from $587 million to $361 million. It will then further decline to $228 million in 2014 and $189 million in 2015, rising slightly in 2016 before sloping upward to $503 million in 2017.

Images of Mars' earth-like landscape

Researchers landed Curiosity on Gale Crater, which is 96 miles across and may have once hosted a lake. Mount Sharp, in the middle of the crater, is composed of hundreds of rock layers accumulated over time. The rover will climb a small portion of the 3-mile-high mountain, testing different layers to search for organic molecules that could indicate the presence of life on the barren planet.

Mars 'crime scene' photos

"We've demonstrated that we've got a landing system that worked. And it worked well," Zurek said, referring to Curiosity's dramatic touchdown. "The question now is: What will we use this for? Or will we have to step back from that because those kinds of missions -- of putting something that takes a metric ton down to the surface -- they're just too expensive for our future?"

The early days

Is the Mars rover vain?

Curiosity is the latest in a long trajectory of missions that have allowed humanity to study Mars more extensively than any other planet apart from our own. A series of visits from Earth-made spacecrafts has taught us that Mars used to be a warmer, wetter place, perhaps with liquid water and even life.

Meet the man behind the photos of Mars

Decades of research have led scientists to understand Martian history and pinpoint places on the planet where liquid water may have once flowed -- targets for future investigation, if money allows.

But getting to Mars didn't happen on the first try.

The USSR initiated a number of failed attempts to go to Mars in the early 1960s, including Sputnik 24, a lander that never left Earth's orbit. The United States also started out with bad luck: a failed flyby attempt by Mariner 3 in 1964.

Earthlings' first successful landing on Mars happened in May 1971 with the Soviet Union's Mars 3 lander. It failed after sending 20 seconds of video data to the orbiter, however.

NASA claimed a big success the same year: Mariner 9 marked the first time a U.S. spacecraft had orbited a planet other than our own. This orbiter discovered river and channel-like features on Mars, and took the first high-resolution images of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos.

Hopes were high for NASA's Viking mission, launched in 1975, which included two landers equipped to search for tiny organisms. The orbiters mapped the surface of the planet, while the landers monitored the weather and sent back color panoramic views of Mars.

"It was extraordinary engineering achievement. A huge amount of science came out," said Scott Hubbard, former head of NASA's Mars program and author of the book "Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery."

But the expectation of evidence of life -- namely, that the lander's arm would be able to put material into its chemistry kit and see organic molecules -- fell through. These molecules wouldn't prove that life existed, but they would be a signal that life was once possible there. There just wasn't conclusive evidence that Mars had these molecules.

Then came almost two decades of inactivity. NASA didn't send any other spacecraft to Mars until 1993 with the failed Mars Observer, followed by the successful orbiter Mars Global Surveyor in 1996.

Why the break? The space-shuttle program was one reason, said Zurek. NASA's priority at the time was manned vehicles, and budgets were tight. The Challenger disaster of 1986 also set NASA back.

Zurek believes we may be in a phase like that today, with not enough money to go around for all the programs NASA wants to develop. Also, the priority is once again in a new project: The Space Launch System, which will be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built.

Exploring Mars' surface

A game-changer was the discovery of a meteorite that appears to have come from Mars, found in Allan Hills, Antarctica, in 1984. Some scientists said they thought they saw evidence of tiny fossils that looked like dried-out life from Mars embedded in the meteorite.

No one knew where the meteorite came from, but it ignited a huge amount of interest in returning to Mars, Hubbard said. It also stressed the need to return samples from Mars to Earth, so they could be fully analyzed by multiple scientists.

"Without the Mars rock, we might not have Curiosity today," said Hubbard, whose job as the "first Mars czar" was to plan the next decade of exploration.

The first wheeled vehicle to land on Mars was during NASA's 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, which consisted of a stationary lander and a surface rover called Sojourner. The rover was a mere 23 pounds and about the size of a large microwave oven. The mission demonstrated airbag technology in landing the rover without damage.

Japan got in on the Mars action in 1998 with the Nozomi orbiter, but the spacecraft failed to communicate.

At NASA, Hubbard's goals included understanding Mars as a system, looking for potentially habitable environments, examining whether the planet was habitable in the past and preparing to return samples from Mars to Earth.

"The sequence of landers was strategically planned to have ever-increasing capability to go forward and do more," he said.

NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey mission helped relay communications to Earth from the missions that would follow.

Europe entered the Mars race in 2003 with the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Mars Express is still operating, but the lander never communicated from the surface.

Before Curiosity, NASA's big rover project was the Mars Exploration Rover Mission: two golf-cart-sized rovers called Spirit and Opportunity. They arrived on Mars in January 2004. Each rover was only supposed to operate for 90 days, but both far exceeded that time frame.

Spirit lasted for several years before it lost one of its wheels. As it hobbled along, it broke through the crust of the surface and got stuck in an area called Troy.

During its escape, another of Spirit's wheels failed. But while stuck, Spirit had a breakthrough: it found soil rich in sulfates, which are a component of steam. This suggests there may have once been conditions on Mars able to support life.

Signs of water?

As long as Curiosity has healthy mobility, it shouldn't find itself stuck in this kind of situation, said John Callas, project manager of the mission. The newest rover also uses brushless motors, which don't have the wear mechanism of the motors in Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit stopped communicating in 2010. Opportunity, meanwhile, still chugs along and sent back its 100,000th picture in July. The rover also found a vein of the mineral gypsum, which indicates water may have once flowed on Mars.

His other car is on Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, conducted analyses that helped scientists determine where Curiosity should land. The orbiter also found in 2008 a new kind of mineral, called opaline silica, which suggested that liquid water had been on Mars as recently as 2 billion years ago. The theory is that volcanic activity or meteorite impact on Mars created materials that liquid water would have altered, and the result is opaline silica.

MRO camera imagery also suggested that briny water may flow near Mars' equator in its southern hemisphere. These surface features appear to fade in the winter and reutrn in the spring. The possible liquid flows are extremely small and narrow.

Further clues to water on Mars came from the Phoenix Mars Lander, which arrived on Mars in May 2008. The lander studied the thin Martian atmosphere, consisting of 95% carbon dioxide. Isotopes of carbon and oxygen can tell a lot about whether water existed on the planet.

Data from Phoenix suggested that the Martian surface has interacted with liquid water, and even in modern times. The data also indicated that the planet had volcanic activity as recently as several million years ago. The chemical signature seen in the carbon dioxide points toward liquid water that was primarily at temperatures near freezing.

Also, the lander's robotic arm camera discovered possible evidence of ice at its landing site.

What do you think about the Mars mission?

MAVEN and beyond

The next Mars mission is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, which is scheduled to launch late next year. The instruments for it are already built, Zurek said.

Evidence gained through previous missions suggests that early in its history -- perhaps as much as 4 billion years ago -- Mars was a wetter place. Where did that water go?

It could be that water is frozen into the planet's surface, as observations from Phoenix suggested. But the water could have also been lost to space. Mars doesn't have a global magnetic field like the Earth does, so charged particles emitted from the sun -- the solar wind -- affect Mars in a much bigger way. The current theory is that the solar wind "stole" most of Mars' atmosphere, so radiation from the sun quickly boils any remaining liquid water.

MAVEN will measure the interaction of solar wind with current atmosphere, Zurek said. Using models of the sun's history, scientists may be able to estimate how much water the planet could have lost.

"MAVEN is the next mission. We don't want it to be the last mission in Mars exploration for a similar period, like in the '80s where there were no Mars missions, and everything was sort of on hold," Zurek said.

Meanwhile, Europe plans to launch the ExoMars Orbiter and a ground-based probe in 2016. The probe, called the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, isn't expected to last long, and is meant to be a demonstration of landing technologies. It will perform limited scientific experiments during its brief life.

European space officials and NASA were going to work together on a trace gas orbiter, but NASA pulled out because of budgetary reasons. Instead, the European Space Agency is working with Russia's Roscosmos. The plan is to launch the ExoMars rover in 2018, carrying European and Russian instruments.

Future questions

Exploration of the moon has been more extensive than Mars in many respects. In addition to fly-bys and orbiters, six Apollo missions sent humans to the moon and brought them back between 1963 and 1972.

The moon is closer to Earth than Mars, but also has a less diverse terrain. The interior of the moon is still mysterious, which is why NASA sent twin lunar orbiters called Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, to investigate. But consider that while sending an SUV-sized rover to Mars is a celebrated achievement, astronauts drove a "moon buggy" 40 years ago.

We haven't figured out how to send people to Mars yet. The planet is cold and dry, with dust storms that can circle the entire planet and an atmosphere that would be toxic to humans.

"Mars is the most Earth-like planet we have found, for certain," says James Wray, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and member of the Curiosity science team. "That's not saying as much as you would like it to be saying."

NASA still has a lot of questions about Mars. Has the planet hosted life? Does it host life now, in a place we have yet to discover? Has the climate on Mars changed in a way we can understand? And could Mars be a near-term destination for astronauts?

To send a mission to Mars that would bring back samples, there are a few fundamental engineering questions that need to be answered, says Hubbard: Can scientists pinpoint where they want to go and have a spacecraft land there? Can we collect a soil sample? Can we re-enter the Earth's atmosphere?

Science has proven the answers to the first three questions are "yes." But a fourth question -- can we safely load the Mars sample onto a spacecraft that's returning to Earth? -- is trickier. A rocket would have to be carried to Mars, sit there for a year, blast off and then rendezvous with another spacecraft.

Such an endeavor would require millions of dollars of research and development work. But NASA's projected budget for Mars exploration has "now gotten to the point that it's so low that you could not contemplate doing what I just described," Hubbard said.

The next step after MAVEN remains unclear. There are three other sites that had been considered for Curiosity that could be worth exploring with a surface-based spacecraft. Budget permitting, Hubbard also would eventually like to land another rover on Mars, because a stationary device with a six-foot arm isn't nearly as good as exploring the varied terrains of the planet.

"Mars is far more diverse than anybody thought," he said. "Roving is the way to go. Even though it's more difficult, that's what you need."

NASA officials are hopeful the current dire budgetary situation won't last too long.

Congress has signaled that money will be put back into planetary sciences, said Hubbard, who believes scientists will continue to be vocal about the value of Mars exploration.

"I think this [space science] community is going to make some noise," he said.

Complete coverage of Mars