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This is what a payload fairing looks like as it returns from space

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 09:10

Enlarge / One half of a Falcon 9 payload fairing deploys its parafoil. (credit: Elon Musk/Instagram)

SpaceX has been experimenting during recent launches with recovering the payload fairing at the top of its Falcon 9 rocket. The fairing is a $6 million shroud that protects the satellite during its turbulent ride through the atmosphere and into outer space. We haven't really seen what this kind of recovery looks like as it happens—until now.

On Tuesday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared a photo of one half of a payload fairing opening its parafoil after re-entering Earth's atmosphere. In his Instagram post, Musk did not specify which mission this photo is from.

After experimenting with how to control the fairing during its return through the atmosphere in 2017, SpaceX had enough confidence to hire a boat named Mr. Steven to try to catch the fairings as they fell into the Pacific Ocean. During the PAZ launch in February, the fairing narrowly missed the boat, but achieved a soft water landing. During a launch of Iridium satellites in March, the parafoil twisted, and the fairing again missed the boat.

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SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft may not become operational until 2020

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 15:41

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

A new report provides some insight into the challenges that SpaceX and Boeing are facing when it comes to flying commercial crew missions, and it also suggests both companies may be nearly two years away from reaching operational status for NASA.

The assessment of large projects at NASA, published on Tuesday by the US Government Accountability Office, found that certification of the private spacecraft for flying astronauts to the International Space Station may be delayed to December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.

"Both of the Commercial Crew Program's contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but delays persist as the contractors have had difficulty executing aggressive schedules," the report states.

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Quantum supremacy might be revealed by quantum chaos

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 14:50

Enlarge / The evolution of a chaotic quantum system. (credit: Joint Quantum Institute)

One of the near-term (but somewhat irrelevant) goals of quantum computing is something called quantum supremacy. Quantum supremacy is not, sadly, a cage fight between proponents of competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. It is a demonstration of a quantum computer performing a computation, no matter how trivial, that cannot be performed on a classical computer.

The key question: what computation should be performed? A team of researchers is suggesting that computing the state of a random quantum circuit that exhibits chaotic behavior would be perfect for the task. Let’s delve into why that might be.

Getting all superior

The idea of quantum supremacy goes a bit like this. Yes, we have all of these different versions of quantum computing. And yes, they all seem to behave how we expect a quantum computer to behave. But they are all remarkably slow and can easily be beaten by classical computers.

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Early Middle-Eastern culture had a thing for gazelle scapula

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 13:15

Enlarge (credit: Tejero et al. 2018)

In caves and rock shelters around the Levant, archaeologists keep finding gazelle scapulae (shoulder blades) marked with a series of regular notches. Scientists still aren't sure what kind of information the enigmatic marks once conveyed or how the bones themselves might have been used or displayed, but they may be able to tell us something about how early human cultures spread through Eurasia.

Put another notch in your... gazelle scapula?

Hayonim Cave in Western Galilee, Israel, overlooks the right bank of a large wadi a few miles from the Mediterranean shore. There, archaeologists found eight gazelle scapulae, mostly broken, along with hearths, tooth pendants, stone chips, and signs of ochre use within layers of sediment dating to the Upper Paleolithic. The bones are marked with rows of 0.5-2.5mm wide, 4-5mm long notches regularly spaced 0.5 to 7mm apart. They were put there by a stone blade; on the only unbroken scapula in the set, there are 32 notches, but some have as few as three.

The notches aren’t on the same parts of the bone where you'd expect to find cut marks from butchering an animal. Butchering cuts also tend to be shallower and shorter, and the surface of a hacking or cutting mark looks very different under a microscope than a notch made by sawing into a pre-scraped surface.

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Earth’s magnetic field may not be flipping

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 11:05

Enlarge / It doesn't look like anything to me. (credit: Tom Bridgman/NASA)

Going back millions of years into Earth's history, our planet's magnetic field has frequently gone its own way. The magnetic north pole has not only wandered through the north, but it has changed places with the south magnetic pole, taking up residence in the Antarctic. Going back millions of years, there's a regular pattern of pole exchange, with flips sometimes occurring in relatively rapid succession.

In those terms, our current period of pole positioning is unusually long, with the last flip occurring nearly 800,000 years ago. But the magnetic field has grown noticeably weaker since we started measuring it more than a hundred years ago. The poles have wandered a bit, and there's an area of even more dramatic weakening over the South Atlantic. Could these be signs that we're due for another flip?

Probably not, according to new research published with the refreshingly clear title, "Earth’s magnetic field is probably not reversing." In it, an international team of researchers reconstructs the history of some past flips and argues that what's going on now doesn't much look like previous events.

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Boeing slams the Falcon Heavy rocket as “too small”

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 18:42

Enlarge / Image from Boeing's Watch US Fly website. (credit: Boeing)

Recently, Boeing created a website called "Watch US Fly" to promote its aerospace industry—a grab bag of everything from Chinese tariffs to President Trump's visit to the company's facilities in St. Louis. Among the most intriguing sections is one that promotes the company's Space Launch System rocket and argues that SpaceX's Falcon Heavy booster is "too small" for NASA's deep exploration program.

"The Falcon Heavy launch turned heads in February, but SpaceX's rocket is a smaller type of rocket that can't meet NASA's deep-space needs," the website states. "Once the Boeing-built SLS is operational, it will be the most powerful rocket ever built."

The Boeing site backs up this claim by quoting NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier, who talked about the differences between the SLS rocket and Falcon Heavy at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council meeting in March. Gerstenmaier, the chief of NASA's human spaceflight program, said the SLS had "unique capabilities" that the Falcon Heavy rocket does not have. However, as Ars reported at the time, Gerstenmaier actually struggled to explain why NASA needed the SLS rocket because the space agency has not yet built anything that will take advantage of those capabilities.

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Russia’s floating nuclear power plant is not the first of its kind

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 17:31

US National Archives and Records Administration

Try as I might, I'm not perfect. My goal is to get every detail in every story right, but sometimes a post gets through with a factual error. Such was the case last night, in a story about Russia's new floating nuclear power plant. Some background research led me to believe that it was the first of its kind.

A couple of Ars readers, thankfully, disabused me of that notion quickly (one cool thing about writing for Ars is you always know that you're writing for a bunch of people who are dramatically smarter than yourself). Though such a power system is quite rare, there has been another floating nuclear plant that we can point to as an example: a US Army barge called the Sturgis, which was installed in Panama during the Vietnam War.

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Invasive, toxic caterpillars that can kill are about to invade parts of London

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 13:45

Enlarge / Thaumetopoea processionea in procession around an oak tree. (credit: Kleuske)

An invasive, toxic species of caterpillar has officials in the UK on edge. Authorities are now warning residents to avoid the caterpillars and their prickly, poisonous hairs that can irritate and kill.

It's time to be vigilant! Oak Processionary Moth spotted in parks across Bexley,” the Royal Forestry Society tweeted last week. (Bexley is a south-east London borough.)

So far, officials have only seen nests and emerging larvae of the toxic oak processionary moth, or OPM (Thaumetopoea processionea). The larvae, aka caterpillars, aren’t expected to fully hatch and begin moving around and eating oak foliage until around mid-May, at which point they pose a danger to humans as well as the trees.

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A few Wi-Fi transmitters and your house becomes a coprocessor

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 12:06

(credit: University of Washington)

In computing, we have pretty much come to accept the idea that smaller is better. The smaller the features on a chip, the more transistors we can place, the more computation can be done.

I’m pretty excited to present the opposite. Researchers are proposing an idea to make your computer bigger. They are suggesting an extreme and awesome form of co-processing. They want to turn your entire house into a co-processor… using the local Wi-Fi signal

Don’t laugh, because the whole idea is awesome, innovative, fun, and has some interesting science in it. Overly excited Chris says it may even turn out to be practical (sensible Chris says it won’t).

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Russia launched a floating nuclear power plant this weekend

Sun, 04/29/2018 - 21:00

Getty Images

On Saturday the world's first floating power plant left St. Petersburg, Russia, towed by two boats. The two-reactor, 70MW floating power plant is headed through the Baltic Sea and north around Norway, to a Russian town called Murmansk, where the boat will receive its fuel.

After a period of time in Murmansk, the power plant will be towed to a small Arctic town called Pevek, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The floating nuclear power plant, called the Akademik Lomonsov, doesn't have any of its own propulsion hardware, so being slowly towed to its destination is a necessity. The company that built the plant, state-owned Rosatom Corporation, said in a press release that the second stage of the journey, from Murmansk to Pevek, will commence in 2019, with fuel and crew aboard the boat/power plant.

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New Shepard flies again, bringing suborbital space tourism closer

Sun, 04/29/2018 - 14:30

Enlarge / Blue Origin's New Shepard booster lands after the system's eighth flight. (credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Blue Origin flew its New Shepard system for the eighth time on Sunday, launching from West Texas at about noon local time. During the 10-minute flight, the capsule reached a record height of 107 kilometers, and both the booster and capsule landed safely.

Although it has yet to make a formal announcement, the company seems to be getting closer to flying people on the suborbital tourism launch system—and perhaps beginning ticket sales.

Not only was this the second flight of a new version of the capsule with large windows, but the webcast's host, Ariane Cornell, repeatedly discussed the customer experience. Cornell, who oversees business development for Blue Origin, spoke about how customers will fly into West Texas on a Friday (complete with panoramic views of the region), spend a day of "fun" flight training on Saturday, and then the launch into space itself on Sunday.

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Lost in Math: Beauty != truth

Sun, 04/29/2018 - 11:00

Enlarge / Algorithms, a complicated work in progress. (credit: Getty Images)

A review of Sabine Hossenfelder’s book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray begs for a Hamlet introduction. Phrases like “something is rotten at the heart of theoretical physics” fly about like vampire clichés, ready to suck the joy out of any passing writer.

Nevertheless, Hossenfelder is sounding that alarm by suggesting that perhaps theoretical physicists need to spend a little more time on introspection and examining some of their working assumptions. Theoretical physics has been starved of new data for more than an entire generation. How can a theoretician choose a good model in the absence of data? And how do you choose which experimental options to pursue based on competing theoretical models?

Hossenfelder, who’s a theoretical physicist herself, argues that physicists’ solution to this problem is an aesthetic one, not a scientific one—and the generation-long failure means aesthetics aren’t the right choice here.

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Clouds of atoms, vibrating mirrors show their quantum side

Sat, 04/28/2018 - 11:30

Enlarge / A Bose-Einstein condensate of rubidium atoms forms. Similar clouds of atoms were used to study entanglement. (credit: NIST/JILA/CU-Boulder)

To say the quantum world is unintuitive is a staggering understatement. Particles end up in more than one place at a time, and the instances interact with each other. Decisions made after a photon has traversed an obstacle course determine the path it took through it. Entangled quantum objects can be in separate galaxies, yet measuring one will instantly set the fate of the second. Obviously, things like this don't take place in the world of our common experience.

So where's the boundary that separates the quantum world from ours? While the experiments above were first demonstrated with individual particles, researchers have revisited some of them with ever-larger objects, showing that entire molecules will act just like an electron does. Now, the limit's been pushed back even further, as a collection of papers describes the entanglement of objects that consist of thousands of atoms.

A quantum cloud

Three of the papers grace the pages of Science, and all rely on a similar material: clouds of ultra-cold atoms, up to 20,000 of them. These rely on yet another quantum quirk: if two particles become physically indistinguishable, they start to behave like a single system of entangled particles. (As one of the more lucid teams of researchers write, "The entanglement generation relies on the fundamental particle-exchange symmetry in ensembles of identical particles.") Conveniently, if you pick the right atoms to make a cloud, they'll naturally form a Bose-Einstein condensate, in which all of them adopt the same state.

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Human brain cells can make complex structures in a dish—is this a problem?

Sat, 04/28/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / Brains are gross. (credit: Adeel Anwar / Flickr)

The premiere of the second season of Westworld is a perfect time to ponder what makes us human. This is not new territory; such questions have long been dealt with in works of fiction, and they have appeared in science in the form of studies of creatures that have human-like characteristics—like consciousness—yet are not Homo sapiens.

These studies raise ethical questions whether the subject is an animal or an AI. Last May, a consortium of bioethicists, lawyers, neuroscientists, geneticists, philosophers, and psychiatrists convened at Duke to discuss how this question may apply to relatively new entities: brain “organoids” grown in a lab. These organoids can be either chimaera of human or animal cells or slices of human brain tissue. Will these lab-grown constructs achieve any sort of consciousness deserving of protection?

Why organoids?

If we ever want to understand, let alone cure, the very complex brain disorders that plague people—like schizophrenia, ASD, and depression—we need research models. And in order to be informative, these models must be accurate representations of the human brain. Yet as our models become more and more like the real thing (and for now, they are still quite a long way off), the problems with using them become so pronounced as to negate their utility—like Borges’ map.

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In first, doctors treat rare genetic disorder with an injection in utero

Fri, 04/27/2018 - 11:59

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Andrew Matthews)

Three babies with a rare genetic disorder have been spared the worst effects of their condition thanks to an experimental injection they received in utero, researchers report this week in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The success marks the first time a genetic disorder has been partially reversed by such a treatment prior to birth. The results are “remarkable and encouraging,” development biologist Marja Mikkola at the University of Helsinki, Finland wrote in an accompanying editorial. “This study paves the way for a larger trial of this novel approach.”

The in utero injections treated a rare, recessive genetic condition called X-linked hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (XLHED), which affects the development of skin, hair, nails, and teeth. People with the disorder have sparse body and head hair, dry eyes, mouths, and airways, and few teeth, which are usually pointy. But most dangerously, the condition also disrupts development of sweat glands throughout the body. People with XLHED have fewer sweat glands and/or poorly functioning ones. This leaves individuals vulnerable to high fevers and over-heating (hyperthermia), which can be life-threatening and lead to medical complications.

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New NASA leader faces an early test on his commitment to Moon landings

Fri, 04/27/2018 - 10:37

Enlarge / A lightweight simulator version of NASA's Resource Prospector undergoes a mobility test in a regolith bin at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (credit: NASA)

There can be little question that new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wants humans to return to the Moon and to open Earth's celestial neighbor to commercial activity. Just check the lunar background of his new Twitter account or some of his writings on the subject. Soon, however, his commitment to the Moon will be tested.

On Thursday—just his third full day on the job—a group of lunar scientists, engineers, and mission planners sent Bridenstine a letter to complain about the cancellation of the Resource Prospector program. This mission would send a rover to the polar region of the Moon to look for, and study, ice deposits that scientists hypothesize are there. Advocates of lunar exploration say this source of water could provide propellant for exploration missions deeper into the Solar System.

In recent years, the existence of this water has become a key reason that NASA (and other national space agencies) have begun to formulate plans for the development of lunar resources. Indeed, when President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 last December, he redirected NASA back toward the Moon, including for the purposes of "long-term exploration and utilization" of that sphere.

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NASA to pay more for less cargo delivery to the space station

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 20:22

Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station in 2016. (credit: SpaceX)

A new analysis finds that NASA will pay significantly more for commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station in the 2020s rather than enjoying cost savings from maturing systems. According to a report by the space agency’s inspector general, Paul Martin, NASA will likely pay $400 million more for its second round of delivery contracts from 2020 to 2024 even though the agency will be moving six fewer tons of cargo. On a cost per kilogram basis, this represents a 14-percent increase.

One of the main reasons for this increase, the report says, is a 50-percent increase in prices from SpaceX, which has thus far flown the bulk of missions for NASA’s commercial cargo program with its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

This is somewhat surprising because, during the first round of supply missions, which began in 2012, SpaceX had substantially lower costs than NASA’s other partner, Orbital ATK. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are expected to fly 31 supply missions between 2012 and 2020, the first phase of the supply contract. Of those, the new report states, SpaceX is scheduled to complete 20 flights at an average cost of $152.1 million per mission. Orbital ATK is scheduled to complete 11 missions at an average cost of $262.6 million per mission.

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The value of offshore wind energy: What the US is missing out on

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 11:31

Enlarge / BLOCK ISLAND, RI - AUGUST 11: Offshore turbines are constructed three miles off Block Island, RI. The nation's first off-shore wind farm is nearing completion, a milestone that clean energy advocates hope will usher in a new era of wind power. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

The US is a latecomer to the world of offshore wind. The first commercial offshore wind farm in the US, a small, five-turbine, 30MW installation off the coast of Rhode Island, only just switched on in December 2016. Since then there have been no new offshore farms, although a few preliminary plans for new farms have been announced for coastal waters off New York and Massachusetts.

Compare that to Europe. The continent now has 15,780MW of offshore wind, according to Wind Europe, 526 times the capacity that the US has. European projects added 560 new offshore wind turbines across 17 different offshore wind farms in 2017 alone.

A group of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is now asking: what is the value of the offshore wind that the US didn't build over the last decade? Although many analyses have studied the falling cost of installing offshore wind, assigning a value to offshore wind is ground that is less well-tread. Though it's much more expensive to construct turbines in the ocean, offshore wind can also generate more value because sea breezes tend to be stronger and more reliable, and wind turbines can be built bigger.

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NASA budgeting reveals dim hopes for humans going to Mars

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:22

Enlarge / The Sun sets on Mars in 2015, as seen by NASA's Curiosity rover. When might humans see this view with their own eyes? (credit: NASA)

When it comes to spaceflight, there are crazy optimistic schedules like those Elon Musk sometimes tosses about, and there is just plain crazy. Some recent comments from the chief executive of Boeing, an aerospace company that simultaneously holds the most lucrative contracts in NASA’s exploration, International Space Station, and commercial crew programs, seem to fall into the latter category.

Speaking about NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars at a recent forum, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg offered his own opinion. "I anticipate that we will put the first person on Mars in my lifetime,” he said. “I think in this decade, and the first person that gets there is going to be on a Boeing rocket."

This is a preposterous statement. NASA may one day send humans to Mars on a “Boeing rocket”—the Space Launch System—but it will not happen in this decade or the next. In fact, on the present schedule, and because the staggering development costs of Boeing’s rocket will measure in the tens of billions of dollars, NASA seems unlikely to land humans even on the Moon in the 2020s. Mars remains a distant, evanescent dream.

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Camels in Africa may have been quietly spreading prion disease for decades

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:08

Enlarge / The silhouette of three camels at sunset. (credit: Getty | AFP)

A newly identified form of prion disease may have been quietly spreading in the brains of African camels for decades, according to a report published in the June issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The spread of the new, fatal neurodegenerative disease—similar to the well-known “mad cow disease” caused by misfolded proteins in the brain—is a major concern for communities and public health. There are tens of millions of camels in Africa in a rapidly evolving camel farming system. The animals are crucial sources of meat, milk, and transportation for millions of people there. But perhaps most concerning is that prion diseases are known to be able to spread across species, potentially posing a disease risk to consumers.

This "makes it necessary to assess the risk for humans and develop evidence-based policies to control and limit the spread of the disease in animals and minimize human exposure,” the authors of the new report conclude.

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