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Updated: 56 min 57 sec ago

To make Curiosity (et al) more curious, NASA and ESA smarten up AI in space

3 hours 21 min ago

Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars and one of several identified by the Mars Exploration Rovers. (credit: NASA)

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has done many great things in its decade-plus of service—but initially, it rolled 600 feet past one of the initiative’s biggest discoveries: the Block Island meteorite. Measuring about 67 centimeters across, the meteorite was a telltale sign that Mars' atmosphere had once been much thicker, thick enough to slow down the rock flying at a staggering 2km/s so that it did not disintegrate on impact. A thicker atmosphere could mean a more gentle climate, possibly capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, maybe even life.

Yet, we only know about the Block Island meteorite because someone on the Opportunity science team manually spotted an unusual shape in low-resolution thumbnails of the images and decided it was worth backtracking for several days to examine it further. Instead of this machine purposefully heading toward the rock right from the get-go, the team barely saw perhaps its biggest triumph in the rear view mirror. "It was almost a miss," says Mark Woods, head of autonomy and robotics at SciSys, a company specializing in IT solutions for space exploration that works for the European Space Agency (ESA), among others.

Opportunity, of course, made this near-miss maneuver all the way back in July 2009. If NASA were to attempt a similar initiative in a far-flung corner of the galaxy today—as the space organization plans to in 2020 with the Mars 2020 rover (the ESA has similar ambitions with its ExoMars rover that year)—modern scientists have one particularly noteworthy advantage that has developed since.

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Categories: News

Britain joins the microlaunch space race with a new rocket and spaceport

4 hours 41 min ago

Orbex/Anders Bøggild

The United Kingdom has entered the race to develop low-cost, high-volume rockets for small satellites. Orbex, a British-based company with subsidiaries and production facilities in Denmark and Germany, announced Monday that it has raised $40 million from public and private sources to develop what it is calling the "Prime" launch vehicle.

The company intends to launch Prime from a new spaceport—also just announced—that will be located in northern Scotland. This facility would be the first commercial vertical launch site in the United Kingdom, and represents a significant investment in rocket infrastructure by the British government after decades of dormancy.

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The downfall of Theranos, from the journalist who made it happen

Sun, 07/15/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge (credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the last few years, the failed biomedical startup Theranos has become synonymous with some of the worst aspects of Silicon Valley. Through a combination of hubris, mendacity, and paranoid secrecy, the company fooled investors and the press into thinking it had created a nearly magical medical tricorder, earning a "unicorn" valuation of $9 billion before the whole endeavor was revealed to be smoke and mirrors.

Much ink has been spilled documenting Theranos' rise and then fall—but the most important work has arguably been that of Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou. And Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, his recent book on the subject, is as good a retelling of that tale as any we could hope for. So good, in fact, that I devoured it in a single sitting.

The man who made it happen

More than anyone else, Carreyrou deserves credit for pulling the wool from so many credulous eyes regarding Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Outlets like Fortune and Wired were writing hagiographic puff pieces about this precocious college dropout and her plan to save the world; Carreyrou was pointing out inconvenient facts, like the company's inability to accurately conduct most of the hundreds of blood tests it claimed to have revolutionized. He credits pathologist Adam Clapper—who wrote the now-defunct Pathology Blawg—for tipping him off that something wasn't entirely right.

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Open offices are as bad as they seem—they reduce face-to-face time by 70%

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 14:08

Enlarge / Looks like someone has a case of the Mondays. (credit: Getty | Ian Nicholson)

Tearing down walls and cubicles in offices may actually build up more barriers to productivity and collaboration, according to a new study.

Employees at two Fortune 500 multinational companies saw face-to-face interaction time drop by about 70 percent, the use of email increase between 22 percent and 56 percent, and productivity slip after their traditional office spaces were converted to open floor plans—that is, ones without walls or cubicles that ostensibly create barriers to interaction. The findings, published recently in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, suggest that removing physical dividers may, in fact, make it harder for employers to foster collaboration and collective intelligence among their employees.

Many companies have waged a so-called “war on walls” to try to create such vibrant workspaces, the authors Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard wrote. But, “what they often get—as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office—is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

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Ars on your lunch break, week 4: Our closing remarks on Fermi’s Paradox

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / "OMG I love this song." (credit: Warner Bros.)

Today, we present the third and final installment of my interview British astronomer Stephen Webb on the subject of Fermi’s paradox. Please check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

We open by talking about some of the amazing instruments and projects that are coming online in the coming decade—both to extend the search for extraterrestrial life and to advance the much broader field of astrophysics. There’s some profoundly exciting gear on the horizon, which will do business under such wild and whimsical names as “The Extremely Large Telescope.”

We then talk about some of the signals this new apparatus might detect, which could be highly suggestive of life. Either oxygen or methane in a distant planet’s atmosphere would be electrifying, but not entirely definitive proof. Both of them together put the matter beyond a reasonable doubt (although there would still be many doubters, to be sure).

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Ötzi the Iceman’s last meal shows how Copper Age people ate on the run

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 09:44

Enlarge (credit: (C)SouthtyrolarchaeologymuseumEuracM.Samadelli)

In his final days, the Iceman ate a hearty mountaineer’s diet of red deer, wild goat, and whole grain einkorn wheat—but he may also have accidentally eaten toxic ferns.

Even after being chewed up, swallowed, partially digested in Ötzi’s stomach, and then frozen in a glacier for 5,300 years, some bits of Ötzi’s last meal are still recognizable, at least under a microscope. Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies and his colleagues saw compact bits of fatty tissue and bundles of muscle fibers, mixed with pollen from a genus of wheat called einkorn, which grows wild in the region but also includes some of the earliest domesticated wheat species. Mixed in with the partly-digested food bits, however, were spores from a fern called bracken, which is toxic to humans and other animals if not properly prepared.

Red meat and healthy whole grains

Chemically, the remnants of Ötzi’s partially digested meal contained a compound called phytanic acid, which is a hallmark of fat or dairy products from ruminants like cattle, deer, and goats. There were also minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, and zinc, all of which are found in red meat and dairy products. And among the 167 different animal and plant proteins in the samples, Maixner and his colleagues found six that are specific to structures in the long contracting threads in ibex skeletal muscles—leg of wild goat, perhaps. Another protein in the mix is found only in deer muscles.

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Categories: News

Rocket Report: Virgin goes Italian, SpaceX’s giant net, a nuclear launcher

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry. (credit: Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to Edition 1.08 of the Rocket Report! This week there is no shortage of news about SpaceX, as well as the race to become the first nation (or company) to build the first super-booster since the Saturn V rocket. Also, a company plans to launch 300km north of the Arctic Circle.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below. Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin Galactic signs deal to launch from Italy. Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies have signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic's suborbital space tourism launcher to a future spaceport in Italy. The spaceplane would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport. The spaceport could become active as early as 2020, GeekWire reports.

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Supermassive black hole shot a neutrino straight at Earth

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 13:51

Enlarge / Strings of photodetectors under the ice at the South Pole light up when neutrinos interact with the ice. (credit: IceCube/NSF)

For most of astronomy's history, understanding the heavens was limited to what we could see: the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum that constitutes visible light. Only over the last century or so have we expanded beyond that, into the infrared and microwaves and up into the higher energies of X-rays and gamma-rays. The past few years have brought an even more fundamental change: we've started detecting astronomical events without photons at all. This was done most famously by LIGO, the hardware that detected gravitational waves. But LIGO was actually late to the game, as the South Pole's IceCube detector had started listening in on cosmic neutrinos a few years earlier.

But in one critical aspect, LIGO beat IceCube to the punch: it spotted an event where the gravitational wave signal was paired with an optical signal, a burst of gamma rays. This marked the first instance of what's being termed "multimessenger" astronomy, where a single event is observed using physically distinct signals.

While IceCube has spotted some phenomenally energetic neutrinos, we've not been able to match those with a specific photon source. As of today, that has changed with the announcement that an energetic neutrino was likely to have been sent our way by a blazar, a supermassive black hole with a jet pointed in Earth's direction.

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Ars on your lunch break, week 4: Some possible solutions to Fermi’s Paradox

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 12:00

I'm not saying the "I'm not saying it's aliens, but..." guy looks like Londo Mollari, but...

Today we present the second installment of my interview with British astronomer Stephen Webb on the subject of Fermi’s paradox. Part one ran yesterday—so if you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

This time, we open by talking about the second large category of possible solutions to the paradox: that intelligent aliens are out there, but we just haven’t detected them yet. Webb's book Where Is Everybody includes freestanding chapters on 25 such solutions, but of course we only tackle a subset here.

We then go on to the third major category—which is that we are quite alone in our galaxy, and perhaps in the entire universe. This idea tends to be a dismaying possibility to science-fiction authors like me (and is inimical to the entire premise of my first novel!). But it can also be seen as an optimistic—and indeed even relieving—interpretation. Stephen and I discuss why.

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Categories: News

Elon Musk says he will fund fixing Flint’s foul water

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 18:09

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

For around four years now, the water supply to the city of Flint, Michigan, has been contaminated with lead. Now, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has promised to help. Replying to a request on Twitter, Musk pledged to fund remediation work to houses with contaminated water supplies.

Please consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels. No kidding.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 11, 2018

For some time now, people on Twitter and elsewhere have been calling on Musk to turn his attention to this domestic scandal; those calls having escalated in response to his high-profile interest in the rescue of 12 children and their soccer coach from a cave network in Thailand.

As is usually the case with plans that are barely an hour old, the details are thin as of now. But Musk—tweeting from China—told people in Flint to reply to his tweet with test results showing contamination above the recommended limits, at which point he would arrange having a water filter fitted for them. (We should note that it's actually the EPA, not the FDA, that sets limits on environmental pollution exposure, and that the state of Michigan has already been supplying water filters to affected residents.)

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Hominins lived in China 2.1 million years ago

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 17:35

Enlarge / Early hominins lived here, near Shangchen in China's southern Loess Plateau, 2.1 million years ago. (credit: Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu)

Early hominins ventured out into the world beyond Africa even earlier than we've given them credit for, according to a new stone-tool find on the southern edge of China's Loess Plateau.

Hominins—the lineage of apes that eventually came to include humans—began making recognizeable stone tools about 3 million years ago. Before that date, we know that our early relatives inhabited a place only if we find their bones or, in rarer cases, their footprints. But stone tools offer a more durable, more abundant calling card. Pick up a stone flake or scraper—or a core of flint or chert with obvious scars from flintknapping—and you know that someone made this object. Someone was here.

And that's exactly what archaeologists led by Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found in a 2.1-million-year-old layer of ancient wind-blown sediment in China's southern Loess Plateau: a collection of stone cores, flakes, scrapers, borers, and points, as well as a couple of damaged hammerstones. The tools' style strongly resembles stone tools found at sites of about the same age in Africa, made by early human relatives like Homo erectus.

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Internally, NASA believes Boeing ahead of SpaceX in commercial crew

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 15:25

Enlarge / An artist's view of the Starliner spacecraft en route to the International Space Station. (credit: Boeing)

One of the biggest rivalries in the modern aerospace industry is between Boeing and SpaceX. Despite their radically different cultures, the aerospace giant and the smaller upstart compete for many different kinds of contracts, and perhaps nowhere has the competition been more keen than for NASA funds.

In 2014, both Boeing and SpaceX received multibillion awards (Boeing asked for, and got, 50 percent more funding for the same task) to finalize development of spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the commercial crew program. Since then, both companies have been locked in a race to the launchpad, not just to free NASA from its reliance on Russia to reach space but also for the considerable esteem that will accompany becoming the first private company in the world to fly humans into orbit.

A narrow margin

Although both Boeing and SpaceX have established various launch dates—first in 2017, and now slipped to 2018 and 2019—NASA hasn't publicly tipped its hand on which company is actually ahead in the race. Now, however, a new report from the US Government Accountability Office has provided a window into NASA's internal thinking on commercial crew launch dates.

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Elusive trigger for cooling 13,000 years ago might have been found

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 14:26

Enlarge / The Mackenzie River empties into the Beaufort Sea along Canada's northwest coast. (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Sometimes the plucky investigator in a mystery story isn’t baffled by a “whodunnit.” Sometimes they are pretty sure about the who, but the evidence ain’t where it ought to be. Studying past climate events can be like that, with likely explanations waiting in limbo for years until good evidence turns up—or points to another explanation.

About 13,000 years ago, the warming out of the last ice age temporarily reversed course around the North Atlantic. This cold “Younger Dryas” period lasted almost 2,000 years. Like most climate events that primarily affect the North Atlantic region, ocean circulation is the prime suspect.

Jamming the conveyor

Global ocean circulation is a bit like a branching conveyor belt, with currents pushing water one way at the surface and allowing it to return along the bottom. In the Atlantic, surface currents move north until they grow salty and cold, at which point they stop being less dense than the underlying deep water. In several areas around Greenland, surface and deep waters can mix while a deepwater current heads off to the south.

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US energy agency: Sorry coal, natural gas is having another record summer

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 13:30

Enlarge / FORT WORTH, Texas: The Barnett Shale Gas field at dusk, February 27, 2006. XTO Energy Inc. is extracting natural gas at this facility. (credit: J.G. Domke/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Between 2018 and 2020, natural gas is expected to continue to eat away steadily at coal's share of the US energy mix, barring any regulatory intervention from the federal government.

The competition between natural gas and coal is especially fierce this summer: the former could set a record in terms of its contribution to overall US energy generation.

Another interesting prediction about fossil fuels: in 2018, the average price of a gallon of gasoline has been significantly higher than the year before, but that may not be great news for the oil industry, because drivers are already responding to higher prices. The amount of gas drivers will purchase in 2018 is expected to fall year over year for the first time since 2012. The contraction amounts to 10,000 barrels of oil per day not sold—a small change for the US economy but potentially a harbinger of things to come.

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Creative types all go through hot streaks of superior production

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 13:16

Enlarge / Was Monet on a hot streak when he painted this? (credit: G. Starke)

Poker players are familiar with hot streaks—times where it just seems the cards consistently fall their way. But we also talk about hot streaks when it comes to athletic skill, for things like hitting in baseball and shooting in basketball. Now, a group of researchers would like to add a few more activities where hot streaks take place: science, art, and movie making.

The researchers analyzed the production of high-impact work in those fields, and they find that it tends to cluster in a single time period. And, for most people, getting hot once is all they can hope for—getting hot twice is not common, and multiple hot streaks are extremely rare.

Random or streaky?

The work was an attempt to make sense of two seemingly contradictory results from past studies. Some had suggested peak productivity in creative fields tended to occur in a cluster around the middle of people's careers. Other studies had indicated that people's best work seemed to occur randomly throughout their careers.

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Pfizer pauses drug prices amid pressure from Trump—but just until January

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 11:50

Enlarge / Prescription Drugs behind the counter at Boots the chemist in London, England, United Kingdom. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images) (credit: Getty | Mike Kemp)

Pfizer has agreed to roll back a round of price increases from July 1 that affected more than 100 medicines after President Donald Trump called the company’s CEO and had an “extensive discussion,” the company announced Tuesday.

Now, Pfizer says it will return the drugs to their pre-July 1 list prices “as soon as technically possible,” and it will leave them there until either the President puts in place new healthcare policy or until the end of the year—whichever comes first.

The idea is to “give the president an opportunity to work on his blueprint to strengthen the healthcare system and provide more access for patients,” Pfizer said in its announcement.

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Ars on your lunch break, week 4: Fermi’s Paradox and the empty universe

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 13:17

Hello, universe? It's us, Earth. (credit: Digitized Sky Survey (DSS), STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO)

This week we’re serializing yet another episode from the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists, and it tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars via an embedded audio player, or by reading accompanying transcripts (both of which are below).

This week, my guest is British astronomer Stephen Webb. Webb has probably spent more time than anyone on this planet—with the possible exception of Frank Drake—pondering a fascinating subject known as Fermi’s Paradox.

This is the question of why can’t we detect any signs of intelligent alien life when we look to the skies. No signs of astro-engineering projects. No signatures of relativistic space travel. No obviously artificial electromagnetic waves, and so forth. And when you think of it, this is rather surprising. Or at least it was surprising to the ingenious physicist Enrico Fermi, who first drew attention to the matter.

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Drugs that kill off old cells may limit a body’s aging

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 11:28

Enlarge (credit: California Social Services)

We have a good idea of what makes individual cells old. Things like DNA damage, shortened chromosome ends, and a lack of proliferative ability can all cause cells to basically shut down—they don't die, but they stop dividing and become quiescent. But we don't have a strong sense of what makes an organism old. It could be the cumulative effect of lots of their cells getting old, or there may be additional means of registering an organism's age.

Now, a new study suggests at least part of the answer may be a mix of the two. The study, done using mice, indicates that having a small population of cells that have hit the wall due to aging can induce symptoms of age-related decline in otherwise young mice. And a drug combination that targets these cells can block these problems from taking root. The same drugs, when given to elderly mice, also reduce mortality and limit some of the symptoms of age.


Cells pick up damage all the time, either through environmental exposures or simply as a byproduct of their normal metabolism. If the damage is sufficiently critical, the cell will respond by committing an orderly sort of suicide called apoptosis, which keeps it from causing any further problems. For lesser damage, there's a less drastic alternative called senescence, in which the cell remains active and contributes its normal functions to the organism's health, but it commits to no longer dividing. Over time, as animals age, more and more cells enter senescence, a process that's thought to contribute to aging.

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With further delays, Webb telescope at risk of seeing its rocket retired

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 08:45

Enlarge / An Ariane 5 rocket launches in December, 2017. (credit: Arianespace)

The most recent slippage of the James Webb Space Telescope, which now will launch no earlier than March, 2021, has raised some questions about how it will get into space. This is because NASA's chosen rocket for the mission, the proven Ariane 5 launcher, is likely to fly for only a few more years before it is phased out in favor of a newer, less expensive booster.

Back in 2015, when NASA formally reached an agreement with Arianespace to launch on the Ariane 5 rocket, the projected launch date was 2018. NASA partnered with the European Space Agency and its affiliated rocket company for the launch to keep costs down. Essentially, Europe provided a rocket in exchange for some of the observing time. The telescope's massive heat shield was then designed to fold 12 times to fit within the Ariane 5's payload fairing.

Last year, when the telescope's launch date was delayed into 2019, this was still no problem. But the telescope's launch has since been delayed twice more: first into 2020 and then into 2021. The Ariane 5 can still launch during these years. Further delays, however, may prove problematic.

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Thai official: Elon Musk’s submarine “not practical for this mission”

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 08:36

Enlarge / Elon Musk posted this photo of the cave to his Twitter feed. (credit: Elon Musk)

On Tuesday, divers in Thailand completed the rescue of all 12 boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave. And they did it without the aid of a tiny "submarine" that Elon Musk developed for possible use in the rescue mission.

Musk had a team of SpaceX engineers working feverishly over the weekend to construct the device. Thai officials began the rescue operation before Musk's team had completed his work. But Musk decided to complete the device anyway and personally flew to Thailand to deliver it to the rescue site.

According to The Guardian, when Musk arrived with his device, Thai officials made it clear that it wasn't needed. "Although his technology is good and sophisticated it’s not practical for this mission," said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command center coordinating the rescue effort. At that point, Thai officials had already finished rescuing at least eight of the 12 boys, and were already planning the third and final rescue mission.

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