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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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Categories: News

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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Categories: News

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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Categories: News

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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Categories: News

China has launched a communications satellite to 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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Categories: News

Clean air, water on voters’ agenda, but not Congress‘

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 13:45

Enlarge / Congressman Mo Brooks wanted to know if scientists were including the influence of rocks falling into the ocean when they calculated sea level rise.

A poll came out this week indicating that huge majorities of the US public think that the federal government isn't doing enough to protect the environment. About 70 percent would like to see more action on clean water, and over two-thirds would like to see additional steps taken on climate change. While there are some partisan divides regarding the right actions to take, most members of both parties would like to see expanded use of solar and wind power.

All of which provides a backdrop to the truly bizarre spectacle that took place in a hearing held by the House Science Committee this week. In a hearing meant to focus on technological solutions to climate change (like the hugely popular wind and solar), Republican members of the committee decided to once again raise questions about whether humans were influencing the warming climate, with one Congressman suggesting that the warming-driven rise in our oceans might instead be caused by rocks falling into the seas.

Some numbers

The poll comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, which obtained the opinions of over 2,500 US adults. Despite a steady stream of rhetoric about the government overstepping its bounds, fewer than 10 percent felt that the US is doing too much to protect air, water, animals, and wilderness. Only 13 percent felt this way about climate change. In contrast, substantial majorities (from 57 to 69 percent, depending on the issue) thought that the government wasn't doing enough.

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Categories: News

NASA asks for Europa lander science experiments—and that’s a big deal

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 09:59

Plumes of water vapor on Europa? A lander could tell us much more. (credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

NASA is in various stages of planning two multi-billion dollar missions to Jupiter's intriguing, ice-covered moon of Europa. One, a flyby mission known as the Europa Clipper, will make dozens of passes of the moon down to an altitude of about 25km as it assesses the nature of the ice and the ocean below and looks for clues of habitability. A second, even more ambitious mission would seek to actually land on Europa, sample its ice, and look for signs of life.

Both missions, but especially the lander, would be among the most complex, daring, and costly planetary science missions that NASA has attempted. However, both the Clipper and lander are not equally likely to occur. The Clipper is more established. It has been progressing through NASA's multi-tiered review process and has a launch date of 2022. In the president's budget request for fiscal year 2019, it also received $265 million in funding.

The lander mission has always seemed more tenuous, partly because it represents such a breathtaking challenge to land on an icy moon so far away—a nightmare glacier that is irradiated by nearby Jupiter, and where the creaky surface rises and falls. In terms of complexity, the Europa Clipper spacecraft has a mass of about 6 tons, and the lander spacecraft will probably end up with a mass of about 16 tons.

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Categories: News

“Smart diaper” by Alphabet’s Verily would skip sniff test to answer: #1 or #2?

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 06:00

Enlarge / What's that kid packin'? (credit: Getty | ullstein bild)

Tech companies are always hoping to clear out the competition with their latest wearable. But Alphabet's life sciences division, Verily, is likely expecting a blow-out with this one.

The company, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, has a patent-pending plan for a wirelessly connected “smart diaper” that would not only alert a caregiver when there’s a new “event” but also analyze and identify the fresh download—i.e., is it a number one or number two? The connected, absorbent gadget will sound the alarm via a connected device and potentially an app, which can catalogue and keep a record of events.

Verily is not the first to try to plumb the potential of derrière devices for babies. Many companies have come before with simple to high-tech moisture sensors—from color-changing strips to wireless alarms. But, Verily argues in its patent application, the market is lacking a convenient, affordable, all-in-one design that can differentiate between a wee squirt and a code brown. While both require attention and a change, a festering or explosive diaper bomb often requires more urgency, particularly if a baby is dealing with diaper rash.

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Categories: News

You’ve heard of invasive ants, but what about kidnapper ants?

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 18:56

At Ars Live #22, Neil Tsutsui tells Annalee Newitz about the secret lives of ants. Videography by Chris Schodt, produced by Justin Wolfson. (video link)

At Ars Technica Live this month, we had the pleasure of talking to ecologist Neil Tsutsui, who runs the Tsutsui Lab at UC Berkeley, where researchers study the behavior and communications strategies of ants. In a sense, Neil is trying to figure out how to talk to ants. Of course it's a lot more complicated than that.

Ants are blind, so they "see" the world by using their antennae to smell and taste everything around them. To communicate with each other, ants use dozens of chemicals naturally secreted by their bodies. Sometimes they lay trails of pheromones to guide each other to food, and sometimes they'll put one drop of a chemical on a leg and wave it in the air that it evaporates and spreads to other ants on the wind.

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Categories: News

Bipartisan pair of senators blast plan to end space station in seven years

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 18:08

Enlarge / Sen. Ted Cruz, right, and Sen. Bill Nelson (background) both support extending ISS operations beyond 2025. (credit: NASA)

At one point on Wednesday afternoon, US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) turned to his counterpart from Florida, Democrat Bill Nelson, and spoke of their mutual preference for continuing federal funding for the International Space Station throughout the 2020s. "Senator Nelson and I are on exactly the same page," Cruz said.

"Why couldn't we agree on a lot of other pages?" Nelson quipped in reply.

The exchange came during a hearing of the Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which Cruz chairs, on the topic of "Examining the Future of the International Space Station: Administration Perspectives." More specifically, the Trump administration has said it will end NASA's direct support for the International Space Station in 2025. Wednesday's hearing delivered a bipartisan response from the Senate in which key members vigorously oppose this plan.

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Categories: News

An 800-year-old label may rewrite the history of a Java Sea shipwreck

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 15:52

Enlarge (credit: The Field Museum, Anthropology. Photographer Pacific Sea Resources)

In the 1980s, fishermen working off the coast of Indonesia made a surprising haul: a cargo of ceramic vessels, elephant tusks, sweet-smelling resin, and other artifacts from a ship that had lain on the bottom of the Java Sea for centuries. Most of the ship's hull was long since gone; wood decays quickly in warm waters, leaving behind only its former contents.

Now, a closer look at its cargo reveals that the ship may have gone to the bottom a century earlier than archaeologists first suspected, which puts it in the middle of a very interesting period in Chinese history.

May you live in interesting times

The Song dynasty (1127-1279) was the height of ceramic export production in China, when the imperial court encouraged overseas trade. Ships crossing the seas were beginning to form a more direct link between far-flung trading partners than the ancient Silk Road could allow. The Srivijaya empire, a formidable maritime power based on Sumatra, was in decline, and other coastal powers in the region were vying for its former supremacy.

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Categories: News

It seems someone is producing a banned ozone-depleting chemical again

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 15:24

Enlarge / The latest satellite measurements of ozone from May 14 show the "hole" that still exists over the South Pole. (credit: NASA Ozone Watch)

The Montreal Protocol—a 1987 international agreement to end production of ozone-destroying chemicals like freon—seems miraculous compared to the long struggle to achieve meaningful action on climate change. Even more astonishing is that the agreement has worked. Those chemicals (known as CFCs) take a long time to flush out of the atmosphere, but monitoring has shown that the flushing is proceeding largely according to plan.

That keeps the hole in the ozone layer on track to shrink over the coming decades. However, a new study shows that someone has been cheating in the last few years.

A group of researchers led by Stephen Montzka of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been tracking the progress of CFCs and noticed something off with CFC-11. This chemical has been used as a refrigerant, solvent, and propellant for aerosol spray cans, as well as in the production of styrofoam. As with the other CFCs, nations agreed to end production of CFC-11 entirely. While there may still be some older machines leaking CFC-11, these sources should gradually disappear over time, allowing the decline of its atmospheric concentration to accelerate.

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Categories: News

Researchers claim to have transferred a memory between two sea slugs

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 14:15

Enlarge / An Aplysia, also known as a sea hare. (credit: Jerry Kirkhart)

How does a brain hold on to a memory? There's evidence for a number of processes, from potentially transient changes in gene expression, through long-term changes in DNA packaging, and up to alterations of the connections among cells. Complicating matters further, none of these processes is mutually exclusive, so all of them might be involved in one context or another.

That complexity makes one of this week's headline stories—"Memory Transferred between Snails," to use one example—a bit surprising. If it were that easy, doesn't it imply memories have to be relatively simple?

The researchers behind the headlines did something impressive, but it certainly wasn't transferring a memory as we typically think of it. As we'll explain here, the work tells us something about one element of memory, but it probably won't end the debate about which processes let us recall familiar faces and places.

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Categories: News

FDA to start naming names of pharma companies blocking cheaper generics

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 09:11

Enlarge / Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, ready to name and shame. (credit: Getty | Drew Angerer)

The Food and Drug Administration plans this week to effectively begin publicly shaming brand-name drug companies that stand in the way of competitors trying to develop cheaper generic drugs.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told reporters on Monday and Tuesday that the agency will unveil a website on Thursday, May 17 that names names of such companies. More specifically, the website will publicly reveal the identity of 50 branded drugs and their makers that have blocked generic development. The website will also be updated “on a continuous basis” to list additional names.

In fielding questions from reporters, Gottlieb denied that the effort was a form of public shaming. “I don't think this is publicly shaming," Gottlieb said, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. "I think this is providing transparency in situations where we see certain obstacles to timely generic entry.”

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Categories: News

Greenland ice cores track Roman lead pollution in year-by-year detail

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 17:12

Enlarge (credit: Johny SYSEL via Wikimedia Commons)

Buried beneath the snow on Greenland’s surface, ancient layers of ice hold deposits of lead that originated at mines and foundries in ancient Rome. Fluctuations in the amount of ancient lead pollution that reached Greenland turn out to be a remarkably accurate way to trace the economic impact of wars, plagues, and imperial expansion in Classical Europe.

Lead might seem unexciting, but the classical world’s economy ran on it. “The Romans made extensive use of lead for water pipes and other elements of plumbing, weights, soldering clamps between ashlar blocks or columns in architectural construction, sheathing the hulls of some ships, etc.,” classical archaeologist Andrew Wilson of the University of Oxford told Ars.

The lead economy

In a much more direct way, the economy ran on silver: Roman currency was minted in silver coins called denarii. When smelting silver, adding lead to the crushed ore helps concentrate the silver. High-temperature smelting at around 1,200ºC, along with the process of separating lead from silver after the fact, released a lot of lead into the air over Southern Europe during Roman times.

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Categories: News

Here’s why people are eating an ingredient in face creams—and why they shouldn’t

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 15:13

Enlarge / With collagen-packed powders, anti-aging enthusiasts are adding the face cream ingredient to smoothies. (credit: Getty | The Washington Post)

For decades, consumers have lined up for injections and creams that promise to plump, refresh, and smooth aging skin. But now, that same anti-aging crowd is dumping the shots and salves and going for snacks and smoothies instead.

A staple of skin care products—collagen—has moved to the newly trendy “functional foods,” as The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out. Instead of the standard anti-wrinkle creams and injectable fillers, people can try everything from collagen-packed powders to pre-made energy bars, chocolates, teas, shakes, and coffee creamers. The edibles tout all the same benefits of old stand-by cosmetics containing collagen—which is an abundant structural protein in the body, found in connective tissue. As we age, our bodies naturally produce less of the elastic, thread-like molecule that keeps our skin from sagging. Boosting and restoring your collagen levels with supplements “enhances” or “promotes” supple, youthful-looking skin, according to product labels and makers.

So far, the cosmetic-inspired consumables have been a hit. There are nearly 300 collagen-containing snacks now available, and sales reached more than $60 million in the past year. But scientists have been less eager to spoon up the food fad.

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Categories: News

Amid the hype and vaporware, we’re bringing clarity to the launch industry

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 14:48

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

I have covered the space beat at Ars Technica for 2.5 glorious years, and during that time, I have made a couple 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 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.

There's a lot of hype amid this excitement. Some (many?) of these vehicles will end up being vaporware. Projects invariably slip to the right side of their timelines. But as we've seen lately with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket and Rocket Lab's Electron booster, truly innovative and potentially disruptive launchers are coming to the market. And these vehicles are just the leading edge of a wave.

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Categories: News

Forget carbon fiber—we can now make carbon nanotube fibers

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 13:54

Enlarge / A multi-walled carbon nanotube. (credit: NASA)

A carbon nanotube is tough—by some measures, more than 30 times tougher than Kevlar. As they're only a few atoms thick, however, that toughness isn't especially useful. Attempts have been made to bundle them together, but nothing has worked out especially well; the individual nanotubes are typically short, and it's difficult to get them to all line up in the same direction. As a result, these attempts have resulted in bundles that are filled with structural defects, often perform worse than Kevlar, and are only a few micrometers long.

Now, a group at Beijing's Tsinghua University seems to have found a way around many of these problems. It was able to synthesize nanotubes that are centimeters long and bundle them together to make a fiber that's nearly as strong as an individual nanotube. It's not quite time to start booking rides on a space elevator, but this work at least hints that nanotubes might eventually break out of the realm of the microscopic.

Go long

The biggest problem with assembling nanotubes into a useful fiber is the length of the individual nanotubes. It's what keeps the fibers short, and the loose ends probably contribute to the defects that weaken the end product. So the first step in building better ones was finding a way to make longer carbon nanotubes in the first place. This was accomplished through a variant of a standard technique called chemical vapor deposition, in which the reactants that generate the nanotube are present in the atmosphere of the reaction chamber. In this case, the researchers flow the reactants through the chamber in a single direction, and the nanotubes grow along the same direction as that flow.

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Categories: News

Hurricane season begins in two weeks, but hype season is in full swing

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 09:29

Enlarge / Hurricane Maria closes in on Puerto Rico in 2017. (credit: NOAA)

After the hyperactive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season—certainly the busiest and most destructive since at least 2005, and among the top five in the historical record—coastal residents in the United States, Caribbean Islands, and Mexico are understandably wary of what lies ahead. The Atlantic season officially begins this year on June 1.

Unfortunately, there's been a lot of hype. Back in March, forecasts of severe doom-and-gloom went viral on Facebook (but had absolutely no credibility). More recently, some news publications have assessed the seasonal outlooks from various organizations and have sounded the alarm. For example, the widely read Guardian web site predicted that this, "Hurricane season may be even worse in 2018 after a harrowing 2017."

That's unlikely. Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University, who produces the oldest, and most widely recognized seasonal hurricane forecast, expressed dismay at this kind of reporting. "Yeah, that's way too much hype," he told Ars. "Even if our forecast is perfect, we predicted seven hurricanes versus climatology, which is six. So, nothing like what was predicted last year."

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Categories: News

Homo naledi’s brain: Like ours, but smaller

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 15:00

Enlarge (credit: Hawks et al. 2017)

Homo naledi’s brain may have been small, but it looked surprisingly similar to ours, according to a new study that suggests that structure may have come before size in the evolution of hominin brains.

Measurements of skull fragments indicate that Homo naledi’s brain was about the same size as that of an Australopithecine—the genus of primates that lived in Africa 2 to 4 million years ago and may be among our early ancestors. Yet the diminutive species was present in Africa long after the Homo lineage appeared and may have overlapped with modern humans. So how it fits into our family tree is not clear.

A new study reveals that, despite the size, Homo naledi’s brain looked quite different from Australopithecus’ and much more like ours, at least in some very important areas.

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