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Updated: 31 min 41 sec ago

White House policy seeks fewer lawyers, more engineers at space companies

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 13:40

Enlarge / United Launch Alliance president and CEO Tory Bruno leads a tour in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen Pence, and then-NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on Feb. 20, 2018. (credit: NASA)

As the White House seeks to smooth the way for commercial spaceflight, President Trump will sign a new space policy directive on Thursday afternoon. The new policy directs US departments and agencies to implement several reforms to ease the regulatory system for launch licensing, remote sensing, and more.

"This builds on Space Policy Directive 1, to reorient the human spaceflight program back toward the Moon using commercial partners," Scott Pace said Thursday.

The new directive formalizes recommendations made in February at the second meeting of the National Space Council to reform the regulatory environment. In short, the White House wants to cut paperwork for commercial companies launching rockets and flying satellites in Earth orbit. As one official told Ars, the White House would like these companies to be able to hire more engineers and fewer lawyers.

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America, your offshore wind is coming: 1.2 GW in contracts awarded

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 13:27

European offshore wind farms have made big US projects possible.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island both awarded major offshore wind contracts on Wednesday, underscoring the increasing economic viability of a kind of renewable energy that has been long considered too expensive.

The Massachusetts installation will have a capacity of 800 MW. Situated 14 miles off Martha's Vineyard, the wind farm will be called "Vineyard Wind" and it has an accelerated timetable: it's due to start sending electricity back to the grid as soon as 2021. According to Greentech Media, the contract was won by Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, both companies with headquarters in Europe. The two share 50/50 ownership of the project and beat Deepwater Wind and Bay State Wind in the bidding.

Massachusetts recently approved an ambitious goal to build 1.6 GW of wind energy capacity off its coast by 2027. This new contract gets the state half of the way there. According to a press release from Vineyard Wind, the owners of the project will now begin negotiations for transmission services and power purchase agreements. The press release added that the project "will reduce Massachusetts’ carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year, the equivalent of removing 325,000 cars from state roads."

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Researchers identify a protein that viruses use as gateway into cells

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 12:57

Enlarge / An electron micrograph of multiple copies of the chikungunya virus. (credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)

The word “chikungunya” (chik-en-gun-ye) comes from Kimakonde, the language spoken by the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. It means “to become contorted,” because that’s what happens to people who get infected. The contortion is a result of severe and debilitating joint pain. Chikungunya was first identified in Tanzania in 1952, but by now cases have been reported around the globe. There is no cure; the CDC recommends that “travelers can protect themselves by preventing mosquito bites.”

Chikungunya is only one of a family of viruses transmitted through mosquitoes for which we have no targeted treatment. This may partially be due to the fact that we didn’t know how they get into our cells. But for chikungunya, we've just found one of the proteins responsible.

Identification via deletion

Researchers used the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA editing system to delete more than twenty-thousand mouse genes—a different one in each cell in a dish. Then they added chikungunya to the dish, isolated the cells that didn’t get infected, and looked to see which gene they lacked. This gene would encode a protein required for viral infection, since infection didn’t happen in its absence.

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Newest NOAA weather satellite suffers critical malfunction

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 15:30

Enlarge / GOES-17 is in space now, where fixing problems is... difficult. (credit: NASA)

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released some bad news today: the GOES-17 weather satellite that launched almost two months ago has a cooling problem that could endanger the majority of the satellite’s value.

GOES-17 is the second of a new generation of weather satellite to join NOAA’s orbital fleet. Its predecessor is covering the US East Coast, with GOES-17 meant to become “GOES-West.” While providing higher-resolution images of atmospheric conditions, it also tracks fires, lightning strikes, and solar behavior. It’s important that NOAA stays ahead of the loss of dying satellites by launching new satellites that ensure no gap in global coverage ever occurs.

The various instruments onboard the satellite have been put through their courses to make sure everything is working properly before it goes into official operation. Several weeks ago, it became clear that the most important instrument—the Advanced Baseline Imager—had a cooling problem. This instrument images the Earth at a number of different wavelengths, including the visible portion of the spectrum as well as infrared wavelengths that help detect clouds and water vapor content.

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Arizona state education standards see evolution deleted

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 15:10

Enlarge / A facepalm with ponies seems to be the most reasonable response to the proposed science education standards. (credit: Joachim S. Müller / Flickr)

In Arizona, the state's superintendent of public instruction has led a campaign to remove evolution from the state's science education standards. Diane Douglas has taken the standards, written by educators, and selectively replaced instances of the word "evolution" with euphemisms like "change over time." The alterations come less than a year after Douglas publicly advocated for introducing religious ideas into biology classrooms. Arizona residents still have roughly a week to submit comments on the changes.

Edited standards

Most states develop educational standards that define their expectations for what students should know at different stages of their time in school. These standards then govern things, from the mass purchase of textbooks to the design of instructional plans by individual teachers. For large states like California and Texas, the decisions involved in the formation of educational standards can dictate the structure of textbooks that are released nationwide, as publishers try to develop one book that they can sell everywhere.

Arizona doesn't have this level of influence, but it has more than a million students enrolled. The science standards would govern the textbooks that could be available to them, how they'll be instructed, and the content of any standardized testing they receive.

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Stellarator’s plasma results show a triumph of engineering and modeling

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 12:50

Enlarge / The plasma vessel has a shape that mimics that of the magnetic field. (credit: Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics)

Many moons ago, Ars was introduced to the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator (W7-X), an experimental fusion concept. At the time, W7-X—the world's largest stellarator—had just completed some warm-up tests and had been shut down to install more bits and pieces. That installation is not yet complete, but the results from some of those early runs are being analyzed, and they look good. The scientists may not be cracking champagne bottles, but they are certainly drinking boutique beer in celebration of the agreement between theory and experiment.

Banging rocks together to create bigger rocks

All of the elements heavier than hydrogen are the result of fusion. To create a heavier element through fusion, you first strip all the electrons away from two lighter atoms and then force the two nuclei together. That is difficult, because they are both positively charged and repel each other vigorously. But if you succeed in getting the nuclei to bang together, they may stick, creating a heavier nuclei.

In doing so they release energy. That energy powers the Sun, and we hope that local, slightly smaller versions might someday supply electricity.

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US gov’t employee in China left with brain injury after strange sounds, pressure

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 11:19

Enlarge / United States Consulate General Guangzhou, China, where an employee reported experiencing unexplained sounds and pressures that led to a brain injury. (credit: US Dept of State)

The US government issued an alert Wednesday following reports that a government employee stationed in southern China experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” and sustained a brain injury.

The case draws clear and eerie parallels to mysterious health problems that affected US diplomats in Cuba, who also experienced unexplained episodes of unusual sounds and pressure followed by diagnoses of traumatic brain injury.

Responding to an email from the New York Times, a spokesperson for the United States Embassy in Beijing said that the unnamed employee was working in the US consulate in the city of Guangzhou, just northwest of Hong Kong, and experienced a variety of symptoms from late 2017 until April of this year. In statements to the BBC, she noted that the employee had been sent back to the US. Last Friday, the 18th of May, “the embassy was told that the clinical findings of [an] evaluation matched mild traumatic brain injury,” she wrote.

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In absence of fog, the images from a SpaceX launch Tuesday are stunning

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 10:21

SpaceX

Most of us associate Southern California with Hollywood, beaches, and sunny weather. However, with relatively cold waters offshore and typically higher pressures over the Pacific Ocean, there is essentially a competition between air rising from the surface and sinking air further up in the atmosphere. The rising air and sinking air meet in the lower atmosphere to form a marine layer—typically low-altitude stratus clouds.

This marine layer often manifests as a thick, rolling fog at Vandenberg Air Force Base, a two- to three-hour drive northwest along the Pacific coast from Los Angeles. This means rocket launches from Vandenberg often end in disappointment for expectant viewers. This occurred most recently with the Atlas V rocket launch of NASA's Mars InSight lander a few weeks ago, which people could hear, but not see.

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How you end up sleep-deprived matters

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 09:46

Enlarge (credit: Aaron Jacobs)

Anyone who has tried to pull a late-night study session and wound up rereading the same pages of their  textbook because  they can't focus has experienced it.  And countless studies confirm it: if you're sleep deprived, your brain starts functioning poorly. Reaction times slip, you're more prone to careless actions, and generally just get bad at things. But how is it your body registers "too little sleep"? It could be after you spend too much time awake. Or it could be the amount of sleep you get in a 24-hour period. Or it could be tracked in relationship to your body's internal 24-hour circadian clock.

A new study out this week suggests it's not just one of these things, and different aspects of our mental capacities are more or less sensitive to precisely how you end up short on sleep.

Deprived

The challenge with separating out different aspects of sleep deprivation in the real world is that anything you do will involve multiple aspects of sleep. Get too little sleep during a 24-hour cycle, and you'll necessarily be awake more—and awake at times your circadian clock says you shouldn't be. So, the researchers behind the new work messed with people's clocks. They got a small group of people (because it would be hard to recruit a large one) to live at a sleep center for 32 days, cut off from any indication of outside time.

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EPA boots reporters from meeting on chemicals called a PR disaster

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 18:30

Enlarge / US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Scott Pruitt's tenure as head of the US' Environmental Protection Agency has often been bogged down in scandals involving questionable spending and the unjustifiable rollback of regulations.

But the latest controversy is one the agency's own making. This morning, Pruitt was speaking at a workshop convened to discuss the handling of specific chemical contaminants that have been found in water supplies. The EPA was already under fire for what appeared to be an attempt to stall a report that suggests these chemicals were more toxic than previously thought, so the workshop provided an opportunity to show that the agency took the risks seriously. Instead, the EPA started a brand-new controversy by specifically excluding CNN and the AP from Pruitt's speech and by having security physically escort a reporter out of the building.

Contamination

The controversy focuses on a large class of chemicals that are variations of perfluorooctanoic acid. This is a chain of eight carbon atoms, seven of which have fluorine atoms attached to them; the eighth is linked to two oxygen atoms, typical of an organic acid. There are many variations of perfluorooctanoic acid that can be made by substituting for various fluorines, and many of these variants have found uses in the production of everything from non-stick cooking to fire-fighting foams.

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“Like slavery”: Rehab patients forced into unpaid labor to cover “treatment”

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 16:16

Enlarge / A heroin addict at a rehab house. (credit: Getty | AFP)

If you caught John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight this past Sunday, you saw a lengthy segment detailing the atrocities of the rehabilitation industry. As Oliver pointed out, it’s largely an unregulated, unstandardized market rife with bad actors, scams, and bunkum that offers little help to patients desperate to recover from deadly addictions. With some charging tens of thousands of dollars for a month of treatment, rehab facilities often rely on therapies with little evidence of efficacy—such as horse petting—and report largely made-up percentages for their success rates.

Even experts in the field find themselves at a loss for how to identify effective, quality facilities. The result is that many patients pay large sums only to go on to struggle with or die from their condition. And these devastating consequences are only heightened by the country’s current epidemic of opioid addiction.

While Oliver gave a skillful overview of some of the rampant problems, an ongoing investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting picked out a particularly egregious case this week—Recovery Connections Community, a rehabilitation program outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

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Waiting for cheaper renewables can cost more in the long run

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 15:32

Enlarge (credit: Paul / Flickr)

Waiting for the price to come down before switching to a new technology sounds like a frugal decision. But when it comes to a country’s electrical grid, what saves you money now could actually cost you much more in the long run. That’s the central conclusion of a new study led by Imperial College London’s Clara Heuberger.

Almost every nation in the world (depending on how you categorize the United States’ erratic behavior) has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of limiting global warming. A large component of that pledge is the conversion of electrical generation from fossil fuels to renewables. But there is a tension between the cheap and immediate availability of fossil fuels and the varied status of different renewable technologies.

Waiting for unicorns

It may make some economic sense to watch the price of solar continue its fall before installing. But there’s also the temptation to wait for what the researchers categorize as “unicorn technologies”—things like next-generation batteries for grid-scale storage, cheaper systems for capturing carbon dioxide from power plants, or even fusion. In other words, there’s a tendency to think that renewables aren’t worth pursuing too hard until some game-changing, cheap technology comes along that revolutionizes the grid.

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The SpaceX rocket used for the ill-fated Zuma mission to fly again today

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 08:45

Enlarge / A sooty Falcon 9 rocket is ready for launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (credit: NASA)

SpaceX will attempt its 10th launch of the year on Tuesday, a mission serving two different customers. The Falcon 9 rocket will carry five communications satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation, along with two gravity-measuring satellites for NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

This first-stage booster has flown once before, a little more than four months ago when it launched the Zuma mission for the US government—a satellite or spacecraft that was apparently lost in space after it failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX appears to have been absolved from blame for this mishap, and certainly the first stage booster performed nominally during that mission.

SpaceX will not attempt to recover this core, as it is a Block 4 variant of the booster. Each Block 4 core will fly just two times as the company seeks to move all of its launches onto the newer Block 5 version of the rocket, which has slightly increased performance and numerous upgrades to optimize the first stage for reusability.

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The Rocket Report newsletter launches on Thursday

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 17:40

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

Note: This post has been bumped to remind readers that this newsletter launches Thursday. We've had a tremendous response so far, and we really appreciate it.

I have covered the space beat at Ars Technica for 2.5 glorious years, and during that time, I have made a couple of observations about the community of readers here. One, you like rockets. And two, many readers here know as much, if not more, than I do about those rockets—both their history and what is happening today.

The volume and diversity of new launch vehicles under development with private and public money today is both inspiring and daunting. After a lull in innovation during the 1980s and 1990s, the launch industry has undergone a renaissance in new technology and concepts, such as rapid reusability, 3D printing of engines and even entire boosters, micro-rockets, and commercial heavy lift.

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Vaccination method that wiped out smallpox gets unleashed today on Ebola

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 16:01

Enlarge / Nurses working with the World Health Organization administer the Ebola vaccine to a local doctor at the town hall of Mbandaka on May 21, 2018 during the launch of the Ebola vaccination campaign. (credit: Getty | JUNIOR KANNAH)

With more than 7,500 doses of an experimental vaccine against Ebola, health officials today began a vaccination campaign to try to thwart the latest outbreak of the deadly virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to the World Health Organization, the campaign will start with healthcare workers operating in areas affected by the outbreak. Then officials will focus on a “ring vaccination” strategy, which targets people who have had contact with someone with a confirmed case of Ebola, as well as people who have had contact with those contacts. (This creates rings of vaccination around each case, hence the name). These defensive social circles ensure that those most vulnerable to contracting the virus are protected while also preventing the spread of the virus from the most likely sources. The same strategy was critical during the campaign in the 1960s and ‘70s to eradicate smallpox—the only human disease that has ever been successfully wiped out.

The Ebola-vaccination campaign will take place in the DRC’s northwestern Equator Province (Province de l’Équateur), where there have been 46 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases, including 26 deaths, as of May 18. Officials have already identified 600 contacts and contacts of contacts of cases. Nearly all cases and contacts have been in the remote town of Bikoro. But officials counted four confirmed cases in Mbandaka, a provincial capital with more than a million residents. This has raised concerns about the potential for the outbreak to explode.

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2,000 years ago in Denmark, a fierce battle left dozens dead

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 15:00

Enlarge / Femur, tibia, and fibula, and two small stones. (credit: PNAS)

Roman military accounts from the early centuries CE describe the tribes of north-central Europe as fierce fighters who took the field with large forces and treated vanquished foes with ritual brutality. Until recently, however, there hasn’t been much archaeological evidence to back up the Roman accounts. But some time in the first century CE, two of those tribes clashed in what is now the Alken Enge wetlands in the Illerup River Valley in Denmark. Archaeologists excavated the aftermath from 2009 to 2014, finding broken weapons and shields along with the bones of at least 82 men.

Many of the bones bore the marks of grievous wounds dealt just before death, which is no surprise on a battlefield, of course. But all of them were found in places that would have been under water 2,000 years ago—and they’d all been left exposed to weather and scavengers for six months to a year before they ended up in the water.

Archaeologist Mads Kähler Holst of Aarhus University in Denmark and his colleagues say it’s the earliest example so far of a practice common in northern Europe in the first few centuries CE. In lakes and peat bogs all over northern Europe, archaeologists have found sites where people deposited the broken weapons and shields of their defeated enemies in the water. Most of those so-called “weapons graves” date to the second through fifth centuries CE, while the bones at Alken Enge radiocarbon dated to between 2 BCE and 54 CE.

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NASA’s EM-drive is a magnetic WTF-thruster

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 12:34

Enlarge / The Earth's magnetic field is remarkably sneaky. (credit: NASA)

It was bound to happen eventually. A group of researchers that may actually be competent and well-funded is investigating alternative thrust concepts. This includes our favorite, the WTF-thruster EM-drive, as well as something called a Mach-Effect thruster. The results, presented at Space Propulsion 2018, are pretty much as expected: a big fat meh.

The key motivation behind all of this is that rocket technology largely sucks for getting people around the Solar System. And it sucks even worse as soon as you consider the problem of interstellar travel. The result is that good people spend a lot of time eliminating even the most far-fetched ideas. The EM-drive is a case in point. It's basically a truncated hollow copper cone that you feed electromagnetic radiation into. The radiation bounces around in the cone. And, by some physics-defying magic, unicorns materialize to push you through space.

Well, that explanation is at least as plausible as any of the others. There is no physics explaining how this could work, but some people at NASA have claimed that it does.

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Ariane chief seems frustrated with SpaceX for driving down launch costs

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 11:25

Enlarge / The Ariane 5 rocket launches in April, 2018. (credit: Ariane Group)

The France-based Ariane Group is the primary contractor for the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, and it has also begun developing the Ariane 6 rocket. The firm has a reliable record—indeed, NASA chose the Ariane 5 booster to fly its multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope—but it also faces an uncertain future in an increasingly competitive launch market.

Like Russia and the US-based United Launch Alliance, the Ariane Group faces pricing pressure from SpaceX, which offers launch prices as low as $62 million for its Falcon 9 rocket. It has specifically developed the Ariane 6 rocket to compete with the Falcon 9 booster.

But there are a couple of problems with this. Despite efforts to cut costs, the two variants of the Ariane 6 will still cost at least 25 percent more than SpaceX's present-day prices. Moreover, the Ariane 6 will not fly until 2020 at the earliest, by which time Falcon 9 could offer significantly cheaper prices on used Falcon 9 boosters if it needed to. (The Ariane 6 rocket is entirely expendable).

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Medicines were tainted with pesticides in sloppy drug facility, FDA warns

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 09:05

Enlarge / Pesticides in a store in Miami, Florida. (credit: Getty | Kerry Sheridan)

A drug manufacturer used the same, uncleaned equipment to make pesticides as it did several human drugs, according to a warning letter released by the Food and Drug Administration. The result was that at least two medicines were contaminated with pesticides, the agency noted.

The FDA’s sternly worded letter charged that drug manufacturer Product Quest MFG, LLC of Daytona Beach, Florida and its manufacturing facility, Ei LLC in Kannapolis, North Carolina, committed “significant violations.” It also noted that the firm’s response to the problems so far were “inadequate” and that its investigations into the extent of the problems were “not thorough and scientifically sound.” The agency levied legal threats if the issues weren’t fixed pronto.

“Failure to promptly correct these violations may result in legal action without further notice including, without limitation, seizure and injunction,” the letter stated. They agency also threatened to deny the manufacturer’s drug applications, contracts, and block its drug export certifications.

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China takes a critical first step toward landing on the far side of the Moon

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 20:40

Enlarge / The far side of the Moon. No robotic spacecraft has ever made a soft landing here. (credit: NASA)

China's space agency has taken a critical first step toward an unprecedented robotic landing on the far side of the Moon. On Monday, local time, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched a Long March 4C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Although it did not broadcast the launch, the Chinese space agency said it went smoothly, according to the state news service Xinhua.

"The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the Moon," Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, told Xinhua.

About 25 minutes after the launch after the launch, the Queqiao spacecraft separated from the rocket's upper stage, and began a trip toward a halo orbit of the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point L2. Over the next six months, the 425kg spacecraft will undergo tests to ensure it will function properly as a communications relay.

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