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SpaceX’s mysterious Zuma mission may finally take flight Sunday

Sun, 01/07/2018 - 13:40

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket and its Zuma payload are seen on the launch pad in November. (credit: SpaceX)

Originally planned for a November launch, the mysterious Zuma mission may finally go to space on Sunday evening. SpaceX has confirmed that its rocket, and the undisclosed national security payload, are ready for launch, and weather conditions appear to be generally favorable. The two-hour launch window opens at 8pm ET.

An undisclosed issue with the Falcon 9 rocket's fairing caused SpaceX to delay the launch for several weeks in November and eventually move the date forward to January 4. Earlier this week additional propellant loading tests contributed to further delays, as did "extreme weather" at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida—mostly gusty winds.

But now conditions for the mysterious mission are 80-percent go, weather-wise, in Florida. This is SpaceX's third classified mission, and arguably its most secretive flight for the US military. All that is publicly known about the Zuma payload is that it is a satellite manufactured for the US government by Northrop Grumman, and it is bound for low-Earth orbit.

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John Young, a pioneer who flew four different spacecraft, has died

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 14:28

Enlarge / John Young on the surface of the moon during Apollo 16. (credit: NASA)

John Young was an astronaut's astronaut—quiet, reticent, and utterly reliable in space. During his long and incomparable career as an astronaut, he flew three different vehicles into space: the Gemini capsule, the Apollo capsule, and the space shuttle. He died Friday night, at the age of 87, from complications of pneumonia.

With a tenure that spanned 42 years, Young had the longest career of any astronaut. He piloted the first fight of a Gemini spacecraft, alongside commander Gus Grissom, commanded another Gemini mission, then flew two Apollo missions to the Moon, and finally commanded the first and ninth flights of the space shuttle. During Apollo 16, he spent 71 hours on the surface of the Moon, and also flew the lunar module. With his passing, just five living human beings have walked on the Moon: Buzz Aldrin, 87; Alan Bean, 85; Dave Scott, 85; Charlie Duke, 82; and Harrison Schmitt, 82.

After earning a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, Young joined the US Navy. He was not eligible for the initial Mercury class of astronauts in 1959, but he was a member of the next nine selected in 1962, a legendary class that included Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and others who flew many of the Gemini and Apollo missions.

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Trump proposed a massive expansion of offshore drilling—what can states do?

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / Aerial view of an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico with a flare of the coast of Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port, where land loss due to coastal erosion is estimated to be more than the size of footaball field every hour. (Photo by Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a proposal to expand federal offshore drilling areas substantially, which could put more than 90 percent of the federal offshore land known to contain oil and gas up for auction in the five years between 2019 and 2024.

The offshore drilling areas include areas off the coast of Alaska, in the Pacific Region, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Atlantic Region. But states like California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as Virginia and Florida, are likely to push back on federal approval to drill off their coasts—even if the state itself doesn't have jurisdiction over the federally-owned ocean floor being sold.

This week's announcement comes just a week after the Trump Administration's DOI proposed a rollback of rules promulgated after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. The Deepwater explosion killed 11 oil rig workers and resulted in millions of gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by widespread environmental devastation. After the spill, the Obama Administration proposed rules requiring third-party certifications of certain equipment used on oil rigs, expanded failure reporting requirements, and new system design safety requirements among other things. The Trump Administration contends that these requirements are burdensome for oil drillers (PDF).

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In “triumph of ignorance,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop touts $135 coffee enema

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 07:30

Crappuccino, anyone? (credit: Nick Olejniczak)

Down the hatch, coffee can jump start a day. But, according to dubious advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s posh lifestyle and e-commerce site, Goop, the popular brew can also kick off a whole year—when taken up the bum.

Yes, Goop suggests that a coffee enema is a “clutch” way to “supercharge” your “annual goop detox” and start the year in tip-top health. In its latest guide for “deep detoxification,” the Goop team recommends a device called an “Implant O’Rama” for squirting coffee up your keister at home. The product, sold by Implant O’Rama LLC for a bargain $135, is merely a glass bottle with silicone tubing attached.

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Russia pushing to partner with NASA on lunar gateway

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 11:57

Enlarge / NASA's version of what a deep space gateway might look like. (credit: NASA)

Russia is assembling a new group of engineers who will be responsible for crafting the nation’s lunar exploration strategy. It’s another sign that a highly ambitious human space program is gaining steam in Moscow.

The new department was created inside RKK Energia space corporation, Russia’s premier developer of human spacecraft that is responsible for the venerable Soyuz.

Officially, Moscow has been on a path to put a human on the Moon since 2013, when President Putin approved a general direction for human space flight in the coming decade. The program had been stalling for several years due to falling prices for oil, the main source of revenue for the Russian budget. Last year, however, the Russian lunar exploration effort was given a new impetus when the Kremlin made a strategic decision to cooperate with NASA on the construction of a habitable outpost in the orbit around the Moon, known as Deep Space Gateway, DSG.

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NASA launches a mission to study Earth’s final frontier—the edge of space

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 10:13


The last time scientists got a good look at half the Earth in far ultraviolet light came in 1972, when astronaut John Young snapped some photos with a special camera during a spare moment of the Apollo 16 mission to the Moon. Since then, heliophysicists and other scientists interested in the complicated interplay between Earth’s upper atmosphere and outer space have suffered from a paucity of data.

That should finally change later this year, after two NASA-sponsored satellites begin to collect data about the composition and temperature of the ionosphere, ranging from an altitude of about 60km above Earth to more than 1,000km. Scientists used to think the Sun’s radiation dominated the Earth’s extremely tenuous atmosphere at this altitude, but in the last decade they have begun to understand that weather at the planet’s surface also can change conditions far above.

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Here’s the spaceflight stuff we’re most anticipating in 2018

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / For now, US astronauts must still travel to Kazakhstan and ride aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to reach space. (credit: NASA)

Last year offered a mixed bag for spaceflight aficionados. The highs were very high, with SpaceX flying, landing, and reflying rockets at an unprecedented rate while finally beginning to deliver on its considerable promise. But the lows were pronounced too, with the loss of the Cassini spacecraft in the outer Solar System and NASA's continued lack (for nearly a full year) of an administrator.

There were also delays upon delays. The ultra-expensive James Webb Space Telescope saw its launch date slip from 2018 into sometime in 2019. NASA's Space Launch System rocket saw its maiden launch slip from late 2018 into 2019 and then again into 2020. The Falcon Heavy also moved to the right on the calendar, from November, then December, and finally into early 2018.

But all of those delays mean that the last couple of years of the 2010s should feature a lot of spaceflight action, and a good chunk of that will occur in the next 12 months. Looking ahead at what is to come, here are the key spaceflight milestones we're most eager to see in 2018, grouped by the approximate quarter of the year in which they might happen.

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New measurement confirms: The ozone is coming back

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 18:10

Enlarge / Each year's ozone hole is a little bit different. (credit: NASA)

The Montreal Protocol, which went into effect in 1989, is a rare instance of a global agreement to solve a global problem: the release of vast quantities of ozone-destroying chemicals into the atmosphere. In the decades since, however, changes in ozone have been small and variable, making it hard to tell whether the protocol is making any difference.

But evidence has been building that the ozone layer is recovering, and a new paper claims to have directly measured the ozone hole gradually filling back in.

CFCs and ozone

During the 1970s and '80s, evidence had been building that a class of industrial chemicals, the chloro-flurocarbons (CFCs), were damaging the ozone layer, a region of the stratosphere rich in this reactive form of oxygen. Ozone is able to absorb UV light that would otherwise reach the Earth's surface, where it's capable of damaging DNA. But the levels of ozone had been dropping, and this ultimately resulted in a nearly ozone-free "hole" above the Antarctic.

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The Universe is producing more massive stars than we thought

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 15:01

Enlarge / 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula, is forming an unusually high number of massive stars. (credit: NASA)

For fans of drama, the Universe can be a bit of a disappointment. Most of the stars it currently produces are red M-dwarfs. With masses less than half that of the Sun, these will burn fuel contentedly for trillions of years and then gradually fade. Massive stars, with 10 or more times the material found in the Sun, will explode and possibly leave an exotic object like a black hole behind. But they're relative rarities in the present Universe.

Or so we thought. A new survey of a star-forming region adjacent to the Milky Way has found an excess of stars with 30 or more times the mass of the Sun—and an even larger excess above 60 times the mass of the Sun. The find suggests that we could see a lot more supernovae and black holes. And it also implies that there might be something fundamentally off about our models of star formation.

Limits on bigness

Stars form from a mix of gas and other material that are drawn together by gravity. But things like angular momentum and the heat of friction fight against the pull of gravity. Star formation ends up being a balancing act, with limits on the amount of material that can accumulate before the star ignites in fusion. Once that happens, the heat and light of the star will drive off any material it hasn't already ingested.

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In 2017, the US led the world in launches for the first time since 2003

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 15:16

Enlarge / SpaceX's 18th (and final) mission of 2017 put on a show in the skies above Los Angeles. (credit: SpaceX)

For the United States, last year was a watershed in the launch industry. With 29 orbital launches from US soil, America led the world in total launches in 2017 for the first time in more than a decade. And it wasn't really a close competition, as the United States was followed by Russia, with 20 launches, and China, with 19. More than one-third of successful orbital missions flew from US soil last year.

All of the 29 US launch attempts were successful, whereas Russia had one failure (a Soyuz 2.1b rocket in November), and China had one failure (a Long March 5 rocket in July) and one partial failure (ChinaSat 9A in June). In 2016, the United States tied China for 22 launch attempts. Prior to that, Russia had led the world in orbital launch attempts every year since 2003, when space shuttle Columbia burnt up during its return through Earth's atmosphere.

The surge in US launch attempts last year was led by SpaceX, which had a record year and completed 18 missions with its Falcon 9 rocket. United Launch Alliance contributed eight flights, with six Atlas V missions and two Delta launches. Overall, with 18 flights, SpaceX very nearly exceeded the number of successful missions flown by any other country, with 18 flights compared to Russia's 19.

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Hotly debated 3.5 billion-year-old microbe fossils get another look

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 14:50

Enlarge / Optical microscope image of one of the purported microfossils on the left, and a Scanning Electron Microscope image of the same spot after carbon isotopes were measured in three pits on the right. (credit: Schopf et al./PNAS)

The title of “oldest evidence of life” has been provisionally claimed by a growing and confusing crowd of discoveries recently. At least until the last few years, the crown rested comfortably on a 3.47 billion-year-old rock from Western Australia called the Apex Chert. First described in the early 1990s, this rock contained a variety of microscopic structures that looked for all the world like the fossilized remains of microbial life.

Like other finds in this category, the Apex Chert has seen its fair share of controversy as researchers skeptically poked and prodded. Just two years ago, we covered a study that concluded these microfossils were simply clever lookalikes created by minerals crystallizing near a hydrothermal vent. In that version of events, some carbon (which may or may not have come from living things) stuck to vaguely microbe-shaped mineral crystals.

A recent study led by William Schopf—who discovered the Apex Chert in the first place—brings newer tools to bear on the question. And the researchers believe the results show that these microfossils are not impostors.

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11,000-year-old child’s skeleton tells tale of Native American origins

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:12

Enlarge / Excavations at the Upward Sun River site. (credit: Ben Potter)

Where did Native Americans come from? Over the years, lots of ideas have been considered, but genetic data eventually came down decisively in favor of one of them. Native Americans are most closely related to East Asians and must have come across a land bridge that was present between Siberia and Alaska during the last glacial period.

But that big-picture answer has raised all sorts of additional questions about the details. There has been a long-running argument over their mode of travel, which only recently seems to have been decided in favor of boats. There are still arguments over how many waves of migration took place. And a weak genetic affinity for Eurasian populations, strengthened by an ancient Siberian genome, raises questions about how that DNA ended up in Native American genomes.

Now, a large team of researchers is saying they have data that clarifies a lot of these questions. It comes in the form of a genome obtained from a child's skeleton found in Alaska. The skeleton has been dated to 11,500 years ago, and the genome now suggests it represents a member of a now-lost population that occupied the Beringian land bridge at the peak of the last glacial period—and gave rise to Native Americans.

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Meet “raw” water—ludicrously priced unfiltered water with random bacteria

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 10:54

Enlarge (credit: Live Water)

Step aside, Juicero—and hold my “raw” water.

Last year, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Doug Evans brought us the Juicero machine, a $400 gadget designed solely to squeeze eight ounces of liquid from proprietary bags of fruits and vegetables, which went for $5 to $8 apiece. Though the cold-pressed juice company initially wrung millions from investors, its profits ran dry last fall after journalists at Bloomberg revealed that the pricy pouch-pressing machine was, in fact, unnecessary. The journalists simply squeezed juice out of the bags by hand.

But this didn’t crush Evans. He immediately plunged into a new—and yet somehow even more dubious—beverage trend: “raw” water.

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Climate change will make it feel even worse than it is

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 16:00

Enlarge (credit: NY State Senate)

If you're in the Continental US at the moment, you're probably giving lots of thought to how the wind chill makes things feel notably worse than the frigid temperatures might indicate. And, if you're not, your local weather forecaster will probably be happy to inform you of what it really feels like outside, regardless of what the temperature says.

This isn't something meteorologists made up to make cold snaps feel worse; the wind really does enhance the chilling effect of cold air. And it works on the other side of the comfort zone as well, as humidity combines with high temperatures to enhance heat stress.

The rising temperatures driven by climate change are expected to change human comfort levels in a way that mostly balances out—uncomfortable heat in the tropics is expected to be offset by fewer cold problems at higher latitudes. But rising temperatures will also affect wind patterns and humidity levels, so there's a chance that things will feel different from simply "it's a bit warmer." To find out, a Canadian-Chinese research team used a set of historical records and climate models to figure out how humans are perceiving their changing climate.

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Academic researchers fire latest shots in ad-blocking arms race

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 10:32

(credit: Shek's Aperture)

Advertising pays much of the budget for most online publishers, making the growth of ad blockers an existential threat. As such, ad blocking has set off a software-based arms race, with publishers finding software solutions that keep ads appearing, or entreat people using ad blocking software to white-list them. Ad blockers readily respond with modified software that targets these specific responses, triggering the publishers to try again.

Some academics have recently stepped into the middle of this arms race, performing an analysis that allows them to identify the specific methods used by publishers to avoid having ads blocked. And the team has gone on to try a couple of different approaches, both of which modify a web page's contents to keep the anti-ad-blocking software from having an affect.

Outside of the economics of it all, there's an interesting computer science problem here. The code on the web page is attempting to identify software present on a user's browser. How do you recognize when that's happening, and how can you possibly intervene?

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SpaceX will try to launch the mysterious Zuma satellite again Thursday

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 09:05

Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket and its Zuma payload are seen on the launch pad in November. (credit: SpaceX)

Fresh off a year with a record 18 orbital launches, SpaceX is set to try its first mission of the new year on Thursday. Less than two weeks since its last flight, the company returns to Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for the launch of the secretive "Zuma" mission for the US government.

Originally planned for November, an undisclosed issue with the Falcon 9 rocket's fairing caused SpaceX to delay the launch for several weeks and eventually move the date forward to January 4th. The fairing is the cap at the top of the rocket that protects its payload during the dynamic launch environment; it is then jettisoned once the spacecraft climbs above Earth's atmosphere.

All that is publicly known about the Zuma payload is that it was manufactured for the US government by Northrup Grumman and bound for low-Earth orbit. One source told Ars that SpaceX is launching the payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, but the NRO has denied that Zuma is its satellite. (But really, would you expect anything less from the spy satellite agency?)

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Do we need a tech boom for the elderly?

Sat, 12/30/2017 - 09:00

Enlarge / What’s he doing? (credit: Hugo Bernard / Flickr)

Joseph Coughlin has been director of the MIT AgeLab ever since he founded it in 1999. In his new book, The Longevity Economy, he contends that old age—much like childhood, adolescence, and gender—is a social construct, and a modern one at that.

Coughlin argues that the invention of this construct is a matter of the changing impact of pathogens. Infectious diseases had been indiscriminately killing people of all ages since populations concentrated in cities during the Neolithic Revolution 10,000 years ago. But once the germ theory of disease took hold in the late 19th century, public health initiatives improved hygiene. When antibiotics were discovered and exploited, humans were able to conquer these killers for the first time.

As modern medicine continued to improve, it was able to combat more and more conditions that had historically killed people before their prime (like cuts and childbirth). The only thing medicine couldn’t cure was age. Now that pathogens' impact is limited, the only people who routinely die are the elderly.

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Does a lower “total cost of ownership” boost electric car sales?

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 15:05

Enlarge (credit: Toyota)

In 2015, battery-electric vehicles in Japan, the UK, California, and Texas were slightly cheaper than traditional gas or diesel vehicles—as long as you're comparing all these vehicles using their total cost of ownership (TCO).

Although low-emissions vehicles are often more expensive by sticker price than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, low-emission vehicles become more cost-effective over time if you're counting the fuel costs you've avoided along with any tax breaks and incentives. A group of researchers from the University of Leeds tracked the TCO of low-emissions vehicles between 1997 and 2015 in Japan, the UK, California, and Texas. In 2015 in particular, fuel costs and subsidies in all four regions were high enough that battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) were on the whole cheaper than internal combustion vehicles by a small margin.

The TCO for Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) was still higher than that of traditional vehicles in all regions, because those cars receive fewer subsidies and still require fuel, unlike fully electric vehicles. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) were more expensive than any kind of vehicle in all regions except Japan, where generous subsidies bring down the price significantly.

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Oh snap: How a shrimp closes its claws fast enough to vaporize water

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 09:56

Enlarge (credit: Christian Gloor)

The mantis shrimp, which isn't a shrimp, gets a lot of attention for its visual acuity and powerful punch. But there are actual shrimp that are equally impressive. There are various species of snapping shrimp that can close their claws fast enough that it produces a jet of water that undergoes cavitation, where the extreme turbulence creates pockets of low pressure where the water vaporizes. As these bubbles collapse, they reach temperatures above 5,000K and emit light along with a powerful snapping noise.

This, not surprisingly, can be valuable both on offense and defense, which is probably why there are more than 500 known species of snapping shrimp. But how did this ability evolve in the first place? To find out, an international team of researchers obtained the claws of nearly 70 different species of snapping shrimp and subjected them to CT scans to identify their structure and musculature. After 3D printing models of what they found, they conclude that a surprisingly minor set of changes led to a big mechanical difference.

A shrimp causes cavitation with its claws.

The study gets at a common conundrum in evolution. It's easy to see how generation after generation of small changes can refine a useful feature. It's harder to understand how a feature shows up in the first place, since any antecedents to the feature wouldn't be useful in the same way. So it is with snapping shrimp. Until the claws managed to produce powerful jets of water, it's not clear what could possibly be refined.

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Despite low electricity prices, natural gas plants still being built

Thu, 12/28/2017 - 13:45

Enlarge / SMITH TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 25: A view from private farmland shows a natural gas cryogenic processing plant under construction October 25, 2017 in Smith Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania. The cryogenic plant is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, ETP, one of the nation's largest natural gas and propane companies. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

Despite plummeting wholesale electricity prices in some areas of the US as well as essentially flat electricity demand in recent years, natural gas and renewable capacity is still being built.

In 2016, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) notes, natural gas-fired electric generation in the US increased by 3.4 percent; non-hydroelectric renewables like wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal increased by 15.7 percent; and conventional hydroelectric power grew by 7.5 percent. Coal electric generation, on the other hand, fell by 8.4 percent in 2016.

Those numbers only reflect the share of electricity generated by a certain type of fuel, not necessarily how many new power plants came online in 2016. But the natural gas expansion looks like it’s still gaining ground in certain areas of the country. According to The Wall Street Journal, at least two power plant companies—Invenergy and Calpine—are going all-out on building natural gas capacity in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Between those two states, Invenergy and Calpine are set to increase natural gas capacity by 8.6 gigawatts between 2018 and 2020.

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