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NASA chief on Moon return: “This will not be Lucy and the football again”

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 15:38

Enlarge / Jim Bridenstine has been NASA's administrator for only two weeks, but he's making a mark already. (credit: NASA)

In his first public speech as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine had a short and clear message for the aerospace community: "We are going to the Moon."

Bridenstine's address to a lunar conference at NASA Headquarters was a mere five minutes long, but during that time he demonstrated a refreshing grasp of space-policy history. While acknowledging the space agency's lamentable efforts to return to the Moon after the Apollo program, Bridenstine also promised that this time would be different.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a long-range commitment toward the human exploration of deep space, beginning with a return to the Moon. "Major parts of that policy went forward, but establishing permanence on the Moon was abandoned," Bridenstine said Tuesday.

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New Ebola outbreak declared in Democratic Republic of Congo

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 14:05

Enlarge / This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of an Ebola virus virion. (Cynthia Goldsmith) (credit: CDC)

Two out of five samples from patients in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have tested positive for Ebola virus disease, sparking the DRC government to declare an outbreak, the World Health Organization confirmed Tuesday.

The five samples are all from the iIkoko Iponge health facility near Bikoro in Equateur Province, which is located in the northwestern part of the country along the shores of Lake Tumba. In the past five weeks, the area has reported 21 cases, including 17 deaths, suspected to be from a viral haemorrhagic fever. This is a generic term for illnesses involving fever and bleeding that are caused by a variety of viruses, including Ebola.

The WHO notes that Bikoro’s health facilities have “limited functionality” and largely rely on international aid and supplies. The DRC’s Ministry of Health tested the five patient samples at the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale (INRB) in Kinshasa, the country’s capital.

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The politics dominating views on climate change is made in the USA

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 12:42

Enlarge (credit: Mobilus In Mobili)

In the US, partisan political lines define a debate about climate change that does not exist among climate scientists. It has been this way long enough that you could be forgiven for thinking that rejecting the human cause of climate change is somehow inherently conservative. But few countries beyond the US are actually having this debate despite—and this is true—being home to their own politically conservative citizens.

To find out what's going on, Matthew Hornsey, Emily Harris, and Kelly Fielding of the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed 5,323 people in 25 countries. And the results confirmed that the US really is the weird one.

The survey asked respondents to answer questions that allowed them to be placed on four different political scales: left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, individualist vs. communitarian, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. They were also asked about a handful of conspiracy theories to test a separate connection between conspiratorial thinking and the idea that climate science is a vast hoax.

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft getting closer to finally flying again

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 10:21

Enlarge / NASA's Orion spacecraft and its launch abort system shown in this rendering of the Ascent Abort-2 test flight. (credit: NASA)

It's been a long three-and-a-half years since the Orion spacecraft first launched into space in December 2014, making a successful shake-out flight. But now, NASA’s program aimed at building a large, deep-space capsule capable of sending astronauts to and from lunar orbit is finally ramping back up toward a series of test flights.

In less than a year, a boilerplate model of the Orion spacecraft will be jettisoned from its rocket at 55 seconds after liftoff to test the vehicle’s launch abort system. Provided that goes well, about a year after that, the Orion spacecraft will be sent into lunar orbit for longer than a week for a shakedown cruise. Finally, as early as June 2022, two to four astronauts will fly aboard Orion into lunar orbit, sending humans into deep space for the first time since 1972.

This isn’t exactly a rapid cadence of flights, but three missions in four years would represent a remarkable increase from the vehicle’s flight rate to date—one in 13 years. “Our destiny is to explore, so you want to get your tests behind you and get humans on the spacecraft, and start that exploration,” Annette Hasbrook, an assistant manager for the Orion program in Houston, told Ars.

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Two spaces after period are better than one, except maybe they aren’t, study finds

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 17:50

Enlarge / Two spaces are better. Well, at least to me. (credit: Nora Karol Photography/Getty Images)

In what may be one of the most controversial studies of the year, researchers at Skidmore College—clearly triggered by a change in the American Psychological Association (APA) style book—sought to quantify the benefits of two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. After conducting an eye-tracking experiment with 60 Skidmore students, Rebecca L. Johnson, Becky Bui, and Lindsay L. Schmitt found that two spaces at the end of a period slightly improved the processing of text during reading. The research was trumpeted by some press outlets as a vindication of two-spacers' superiority.

For anyone who learned their keyboarding skills on a typewriter rather than a computer—and for the many who developed their keyboard muscle memory using software packages such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing—the double-space after the period is a deeply ingrained truth. While modern style, based on the fallacy that computer typography makes such double-spaces redundant and Paleolithic, has demanded the deprecation of the second tap of the space bar after a punctuation full-stop, many have openly resisted this heresy, believing that the extra space is a courtesy to the reader and enhances the legibility of the text.

Previous cognitive science research has been divided on the issue. Some research has suggested closer spacing of the beginning of a new sentence may allow a reader to capture more characters in their parafoveal vision—the area of the retina just outside the area of focus, or fovea—and thus start processing the information sooner (though experimental evidence of that was not very strong). Other prior research has inferred that an extra space prevents lateral interference in processing text, making it easier for the reader to identify the word in focus. But no prior research found by Johnson, Bui, and Schmitt actually measured reader performance with each typographic scheme.

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The material science of building a light sail to take us to Alpha Centauri

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 16:15

Enlarge (credit: Breakthrough Initiative)

It has been about two years since Yuri Milner announced his most audacious piece of science-focused philanthropy: Breakthrough Starshot, an attempt to send hardware to Alpha Centauri by mid-century. Although the technology involved is a reasonable extrapolation of things we already know how to make, being able to create materials and technology that create that extrapolation is a serious challenge. So much of Breakthrough Starshot's early funding has gone to figuring out what improvements on current technology are needed.

Perhaps the least well-understood developments we need come in the form of the light sail that will be needed to accelerate the starshots to 20 percent of the speed of light. We've only put two examples of light-driven sails into space, and they aren't anything close to what is necessary for Breakthrough Starshot. So, in this week's edition of Nature Materials, a team of Caltech scientists looks at what we'd need to do to go from those examples to something capable of interstellar travel.

The size of the problem

One of our best examples of a light sail was put into space on the IKAROS craft, which was capable of accelerating up to speeds of 400 meters/second. Breakthrough Starshot's craft are expected to travel in the area of 60,000 kilometers/second and accelerate to that speed before leaving the Solar System. So the amount we can learn from the existing craft is fairly limited.

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For the first time, two CubeSats have gone interplanetary

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 11:03

Enlarge / Artist's illustration of two CubeSats at Mars. (credit: NASA)

The first CubeSats launched in 2003, and in less than a decade, more than 100 had reached orbit around Earth. The aerospace industry has debated whether the 2kg to 15kg microsatellites are a fad, a toy, or a disruptive technology that will change they way we ultimately observe and study Earth and the rest of the Solar System. However, what is now beyond doubt is that the first CubeSats have gone interplanetary.

On Saturday, after the launch of the InSight probe to Mars, NASA received signals from the Mars Cube One, or MarCO-A and -B satellites. The signals indicated that the twin spacecraft had retained enough charge in their batteries to deploy their own solar arrays, stabilize themselves, pivot toward the Sun, and turn on their radios.

The twin MarCO satellites are not critical to the success of the InSight lander—they instead have their own separate mission to test the feasibility of CubeSats in deep space. They will follow InSight on its interplanetary trajectory to Mars and attempt to track the larger spacecraft's descent and landing on Mars in November.

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I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research—here’s what I learned

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 13:00

Large inflatable globe getting hugged by a woman in a red skirt. (credit: Getty Images)

Speakers recently flew in from around (or perhaps, across?) the Earth for a three-day event held in Birmingham: the UK’s first ever public Flat Earth Convention. It was well attended, and it wasn’t just three days of speeches and YouTube clips (though, granted, there was a lot of this). There was also a lot of team-building, networking, debating, workshops—and scientific experiments.

Yes, flat-Earthers do seem to place a lot of emphasis and priority on scientific methods and, in particular, on observable facts. The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat-Earth experiments and models. Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat-Earthers try to “look for multiple, verifiable evidence” and advised attendees to “always do your own research and accept you might be wrong."

While flat-Earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between "power" and "knowledge." This relationship between power and knowledge has long been theorized by sociologists. By exploring this relationship, we can begin to understand why there is a swelling resurgence of flat-Earthers.

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Don’t charge your brain implant during thunderstorms, docs warn after incident

Sat, 05/05/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Barcroft Media)

Last year, futurist Elon Musk announced a new project: a medical research company called Neuralink set to develop a new generation of brain implant devices—which may, among other things, help us in the coming AI apocalypse. But evil robots aside, the devices first have to face a more nefarious foe: lightning.

Doctors in Slovenia report that a 66-year-old woman with an existing brain implant experienced a close call with the device after lightning struck her apartment building. The strike ruined the woman’s television and air conditioning unit and managed to switch off her brain implant. Luckily, the woman and her device were not otherwise armed.

But in a report published this week in the Journal of Neurosurgery, the doctors say the situation could have easily been much worse, possibly zapping her brain or destroying her implant. They call for more precautions, such as surge protectors, as well as better awareness of the risks of lightning strikes with such implants—or deep brain stimulation (DBS) devices.

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Alan Turing’s chemistry hypothesis turned into a desalination filter

Sat, 05/05/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge / A reverse osmosis facility. (credit: South Florida Water District)

Alan Turing is rightly famed for his contributions to computer science. But one of his key concepts—an autonomous system that can generate complex behavior from a few simple rules—also has applications in unexpected places, like animal behavior. One area where Turing himself applied the concept is in chemistry, and he published a paper describing how a single chemical reaction could create complex patterns like stripes if certain conditions are met.

It took us decades to figure out how to actually implement Turing's ideas about chemistry, but we've managed to create a number of reactions that display the behaviors he described. And now, a team of Chinese researchers has figured out how to use them to make something practical: a highly efficient desalination membrane.

From hypothesis to chemistry

Many chemical reactions end up going to completion, with all the possible reactants doing their thing and producing a product that's distributed uniformly within the reaction chamber. But under the right conditions, some chemical reactions don't reach equilibrium. These reactions are what interested Turing, since they could generate complex patterns.

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NASA makes flying to Mars look easy, but cross your fingers for InSight anyway

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 16:20

Enlarge / NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green discusses NASA's InSight mission during a prelaunch media briefing. (credit: NASA)

Weather permitting, NASA will send its first spacecraft to Mars since 2013 early on Saturday morning. The InSight mission, designed to study the interior of the Red Planet, is the agency's first Martian lander—a stationary vehicle as opposed to a rover—since the Phoenix spacecraft touched down on Mars in 2008.

We kind of take it for granted that everything on a mission like this will work. NASA really makes it look easy—the last eight rovers, landers, and orbiters it has sent to Mars have all pretty much met or exceeded expectations. But the road to Mars is littered with dozens of failures.

In fact, no other country has ever landed anything on the surface of Mars that survived for more than a few seconds. So with the world's mixed record of success, here's a look at a few potential pitfalls that InSight must avoid before it can burrow 5 meters into Mars and study the interior of the planet in-depth for the first time.

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Researchers find a gene that lets bacteria kill all male flies

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 13:24

Enlarge (credit: Katja Schulz)

A number of bacteria that infect insects have a simple and brutal way of increasing their transmission: they kill off all the male progeny of the females that they infect. There's actually some evolutionary logic to this. The bacteria can get transmitted to the eggs of the females they infect but can't get carried along on the sperm. That makes the male offspring a problem: they can't spread the bacteria further, and they'll compete with the females for food. Better to kill them off, then, just to ensure that never becomes a problem.

But it's one thing to have something that's a good idea conceptually and another entirely to evolve an implementation that gets the job done. How, exactly, do you go about killing one sex while leaving the other untouched?

Thanks to a lucky accident, two Swiss researchers (Toshiyuki Harumoto and Bruno Lemaitre) have identified the gene that allows one species of bacteria to kill off males. Although we don't have all the details, it's clear that the system leverages something that male flies need to do to cope with the fact that they only have a single copy of the X chromosome.

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Massive E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce turns deadly

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 11:59

Enlarge / Romaine lettuce stalks (credit: Getty | Justin Sullivan)

A savage strain of E. coli spread on romaine lettuce has killed its first victim in an outbreak that now grips 25 states, sickening a total of 121 people.

The California Department of Public Health confirmed to Ars that a resident had died from an illness linked to contaminated romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma region. “Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot provide further details,” the department said in a statement. But it added that the death was among 24 cases of illnesses in the state linked to the salad staple.

The Yuma region produces the lion’s share of romaine lettuce and other leafy greens for the whole of the US during the winter months. Production shifts northward to California’s Central and Salinas Valleys in March to early April. Therefore, the lettuce you see on grocery store shelves now is likely not from Yuma, and new reports of cases are likely due to reporting lags.

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Block 5 rocket launch marks the end of the beginning for SpaceX

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 09:10

Enlarge / SpaceX has tinkered with its Falcon 9 rocket for a decade. Now, it says it's done. (credit: SpaceX)

Less than eight years after its maiden launch, the Falcon 9 booster has become the most dominant rocket in the world. Modern and efficient, no rocket launched more than the 70m Falcon 9 booster launched last year. Barring catastrophe, no rocket seems likely to launch more this year.

In part, SpaceX has achieved this level of efficiency by bringing a Silicon Valley mindset to the aerospace industry. The company seeks to disrupt, take chances, and, like so many relentless start-up companies, drive employees to work long hours to meet demanding engineering goals.

While founder Elon Musk’s ambitions to settle Mars get most of the public’s attention, the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which never leaves Earth orbit, is the reason SpaceX has soared to date. And on this vehicle, Musk’s company has imprinted its ethos of disruption and innovation by seeking every opportunity to improve the rocket.

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Electric vehicles to clean up Beijing? Depends on how they’re charged

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 07:45

Enlarge (credit: Michael Davis-Burchat / Flickr)

Although an electric bus smells a heck of a lot better than a diesel bus, it’s obviously important to remember that electric doesn’t really mean zero emissions unless your electric grid is fossil-fuel-free. You may have seen calculations showing that the equivalent miles per gallon of an electric vehicle varies in different parts of the US depending on the local mix of power plants. But a new study focused on Beijing shows that the devil is in even smaller details.

To help improve its incredible air pollution problem, China is pushing electric vehicles at the same time it increases the share of its electricity produced by renewables rather than coal, which has dominated. To see what effect this change would have, a group of researchers led by Harvard’s Xinyu Chen modeled Beijing’s transportation and electrical systems in a variety of scenarios for the year 2020.

When do you charge?

The base scenario proposed by the researchers included no electric vehicles, but they also examined cases in which the percentage of Beijing’s electricity produced by wind ranged from zero to 40 percent. That equates to as much as a 29-percent cut in CO2 emissions and a 14-percent reduction in nitrogen oxide air pollution. The interesting thing is how the various electric vehicle scenarios change those numbers.

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Woman recieves $5,751 ER bill—for an ice pack and a bandage

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 07:30

Enlarge / Wait, how much does that cost? (credit: Getty | BSIP)

A woman seeking treatment for an ear injury from a New Jersey hospital in October 2016 was charged $5,751 for her treatment—even though that treatment only consisted of an ice pack and a bandage, according to an ongoing investigation by Vox into hospital emergency room billing.

The woman, Jessica Pell, had fainted and hit her head on a table, slicing her ear in the process. She initially went to the emergency department at Hoboken University Medical Center to patch up the injury. But she decided to leave and get treatment elsewhere after she learned that the doctor that would see her there was out-of-network for her insurance plan and would therefore cost more than an in-network doctor.

“I decided to decline treatment because I can’t really afford any surprise bills right now,” she said. “The bill I’d probably incur would not be worth saving my ear, which was sad but a choice I had to make.”

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Neanderthals etched a message on this 36,000-year-old stone tool

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge (credit: Majkic et al. 2018)

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: a few uneven lines etched into the soft, chalky outer layer of a small, thin flint flake. But a group of archaeologists claims those uneven lines are a deliberate marking, making the 3.5cm-long flake the latest piece of evidence for symbolic thought among Neanderthals.

Kiik-Koba Cave overlooks the Zuya River in the Crimean Mountains. First excavated in the 1920s, the sediment layers that filled the cave contained evidence of a long history of Neanderthal occupation. The engraved flake came from a layer dating to between 35,486 and 37,026 years old. Archaeologists found the skeleton of a Neanderthal infant in the same layer, leaving no doubt about who lived at Kiik-Koba when the stone tools were made and used.

Several recent discoveries, including cave art and shell jewelry at sites in Spain, leave little doubt that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thinking. Archaeologists want to understand more about the origins and development of symbolism in both modern humans and our hominin relatives. But interpreting the evidence is sometimes a challenge, because early symbolic objects are, by their nature, relatively simplistic. That makes it easy to dismiss a real symbolic marking as an accident or to make a fuss over the symbolic meaning of an accidental mark.

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Bay Area: Join us 5/9 to talk about getting those ants out of your house

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 17:11

Enlarge / Neil Tsutsui out in the field with all the insects. (credit: Neil Tsutsui)

Ants are among the most hated insects on Earth, and bees are among the most beloved. But they have a lot in common. Most are social animals who live in vast hives of workers who must constantly communicate with each other to gather food, care for young, and build their nests. But how do they communicate? That's where Neil Tsutsui's work comes in.

Neil is the Michelbacher Chair of Systematic Entomology at UC Berkeley. He runs a lab that researches ants and bees—their ecology, their evolution, how they communicate, and why they behave the way they do. He works in both the field and the lab, studying chemical communication, behaviors, and the genetics of individuals, populations, and species. Neil has experimented with affecting ant behavior using the insects' own chemical signals. He just completed a study showing that California honey bees have recently undergone profound genetic transformations.

Join Ars Technica's editor-at-large Annalee Newitz in conversation with Tsutsui at the next Ars Technica Live on May 9 at Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland. There will be plenty of time for audience questions, too.

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Installation costs so much that it’s better to use expensive solar panels

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 17:02

Enlarge / Row of new Dutch houses with solar panels attached on the roofs. (credit: Lawrence Berkeley Lab)

As the price of solar panels has plunged, a strange thing has happened. The panels have gone from being a large fraction of installation costs to a relatively minor component. That means all the other things—permits, labor, supporting hardware, and so on—make up the bulk of the cost of putting panels on your roof. While these costs are going down as well, they're not falling at nearly the same rate as the panels themselves.

All of which raises an intriguing question: if there's a large fixed cost involved in getting panels on your roof, does it make sense to install more efficient panels, despite their higher costs? A collaboration between MIT researchers and people at solar power companies have answered this question with a very qualified "yes." Critically, one of the qualifications is that they assume availability of a technology we haven't developed yet.

Efficiency limits

Currently, thin-film solar panels have efficiency percentages in the teens, while silicon has reached the low 20s. While there's some room for improvements in both of these technologies, progress is probably going to be incremental. There also exist some alternative technologies that have high material costs that aren't likely to drop substantially any time soon. Beyond those, physics sets a hard cap on the maximum efficiency possible at 33 percent.

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Why you shouldn’t freak out about CDC’s insect-spread disease counts tripling

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 12:55

Female Aedes aegypti mosquito as she was in the process of obtaining a "blood meal." (credit: US Department of Health and Human Services)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an alarming report yesterday, declaring that cases of diseases spread by ticks, mosquitos, and fleas more than tripled in the US between 2004 and 2016. Unnerving headlines followed, emphasizing the tripling (e.g. The Washington Post) or some making claims that tick and mosquito infections are “spreading rapidly” (e.g. The New York Times).

But a look at the data tells a more nuanced, less alarming story.

The CDC’s data, published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, clumps together cases of 16 different types of diseases spread by insects (called "vector-borne diseases"), which are each reported to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System (NNDSS). This system covers all US states as well as US territories. The agency noted in its press materials that this is the first time they’ve ever aggregated disease counts together like this for one analysis. (Why they chose to start this year is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because it allowed them to say things like “diseases tripled.” Who knows?)

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