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This amazing Google software can sketch scenes it’s never seen before

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge (credit: DeepMind)

New research from Google's UK-based DeepMind subsidiary demonstrates that deep neural networks have a remarkable capacity to understand a scene, represent it in a compact format, and then "imagine" what the same scene would look like from a perspective the network hasn't seen before.

Human beings are good at this. If shown a picture of a table with only the front three legs visible, most people know intuitively that the table probably has a fourth leg on the opposite side and that the wall behind the table is probably the same color as the parts they can see. With practice, we can learn to sketch the scene from another angle, taking into account perspective, shadow, and other visual effects.

A DeepMind team led by Ali Eslami and Danilo Rezende has developed software based on deep neural networks with these same capabilities—at least for simplified geometric scenes. Given a handful of "snapshots" of a virtual scene, the software—known as a generative query network (GQN)—uses a neural network to build a compact mathematical representation of that scene. It then uses that representation to render images of the room from new perspectives—perspectives the network hasn't seen before.

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Rocket Report: Small sat market surging, Proton dying, Falcon Heavy certified

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 06:45

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

Welcome to Edition 1.06 of the Rocket Report! We're coming to you this week from Kourou, French Guiana, where the European Space Agency has its spaceport. We're here at the agency's invitation to see the facilities, better understand its launch program, speak with key officials about the Ariane 6 booster, and more. Expect much coverage in the days and weeks to come on Ars Technica.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe in the box below. Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Small-satellite market may reach $62 billion by 2030. The demand for small-satellite launches for both new constellations and replacement missions is estimated to grow to 11,631 by 2030, Satellite Today (aka Via Satellite) reports, citing a Frost & Sullivan analysis. The report details the demand and supply for small-satellite launches, and it forecasts the number of smallsats, payload mass, and launch revenue based on defined scenarios.

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SpaceX likely to expend its last rocket for a while on Friday

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 18:00

Enlarge / SpaceX launches NASA's TESS mission in April 2018. That booster may fly again Friday. (credit: SpaceX)

When SpaceX launches its 15th resupply mission to the International Space Station, possibly as early as Friday morning at 5:42am ET (09:42 UTC), the company plans to fly the Block 4 version of its Falcon 9 rocket for the final time.

The company's next two launches in July were already known to be flying on the latest and presumably final revision to the Falcon 9 rocket—the Block 5 variant. But during a news conference Thursday, the company's manager for the Dragon spacecraft program, Jessica Jensen, confirmed that there will be no more Block 4 flights after the impending space station launch.

The Block 5 version of the rocket, which has been optimized for reusability, has flown one time when it made a successful flight in May. Since then, SpaceX has been working through its inventory of previously flown rockets. The booster scheduled to fly Friday first launched just a little more than two months ago, on April 18, sending NASA's planet-hunting TESS spacecraft into a lunar resonant orbit. This 10-week turnaround was remarkably fast for a Block 4 booster, but SpaceX says its Block 5 should be able to fly much more rapidly.

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Splitting water for fuel while removing CO₂ from the air

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 15:39

Enlarge (credit: Walmart)

The longer we wait to take serious action on climate change, the more necessary it becomes to remove some of the CO2 we've already put in the air. In fact, the scenarios in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in which warming was limited to 2°C relied heavily on CO2 removal.

Adoption of the necessary technology still seems too far off, given the current lack of market incentives and supporting policies. The technique seen as most likely to scale up involves growing biofuel crops and burning them in power plants that capture the CO2 so it can be injected into underground storage. Like any scheme, this has drawbacks—it could compete with food crops for farmland, for example.

A new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz's Greg Rau highlights another tool for our CO2 removal toolbox: splitting seawater to produce hydrogen gas for fuel while capturing CO2 with ocean chemistry.

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Amazon buying online pharmacy with nationwide reach; drug store stocks dive

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 15:26

Enlarge / Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is moving more and more into healthcare. (credit: Getty | Franziska Krug)

In a long-awaited move into the drug supply chain, Amazon is acquiring the online pharmacy PillPack, the two companies announced Thursday. The news rattled the drug-retail business, sending stocks of CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid plunging.

The Boston-based startup PillPack primarily caters to customers who take multiple medications. PillPack streamlines delivery of prescription and over-the-counter medications by pre-sorting them into handy dose packets sent directly to customers’ doors nationwide in monthly supplies. The company boasts that it works with doctors and insurance companies to manage refills and cost coverage on customer's behalf. To do so, it holds pharmacy licenses in all 50 states, developed propriety pharmaceutical software, and is an in-network pharmacy with most pharmacy benefit managers, including Medicare Part D plans—features that were likely eye-catchers for Amazon.


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Visitor from another solar system accelerated away from the Sun

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 14:15

Enlarge / The object's unusual approach suggests it came from outside our Solar System. (credit: NASA/JPL)

Last year, the Solar System was treated to its first known tourist. 'Oumuamua, an odd, cigar-shaped body, shot through our neighborhood at high speed, following an orbit that indicates it arrived from somewhere else. Although bodies ejected from other solar systems are expected to make regular visits, this was the first one that we'd imaged sufficiently to determine that its origins were elsewhere.

The imaging, however, didn't resolve a somewhat different debate: what, exactly, is 'Oumuamua? Its odd orbit had initially had it categorized as a comet, as these tend to have more extreme orbits. But imaging didn't show any indication of gas and dust being released, as is typical when a comet approaches the Sun. That imaging also revealed that it had an elongated, cigar-like shape. Combined with its relatively rapid rotation, this would indicate that 'Oumuamua had to be fairly robust, leading to the conclusion that it was probably an asteroid.

But now, a large international team of researchers is weighing in with another vote for comet. The argument, says the team, is based on the odd behavior of 'Oumuamua, which appears to have been accelerating away from the Sun.

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Ars on your lunch break, week 3: Mary Lou Jepsen and peering into the brain

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 12:01

Enlarge / This is your brain. Well, not your brain. Presumably your brain isn't being photographed at this moment. (credit: Adeel Anwar / Flickr)

This week we’re serializing a third episode from the After On podcast here on Ars. The series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists, and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars via an embedded audio player, or by reading accompanying transcripts (both of which are below).

This week my guest is a holographer, a one-time academic, a former CTO of Oculus, and a present-day entrepreneur named Mary Lou Jepsen. Mary Lou’s latest startup is called Openwater. It’s doing some incredibly ambitious things in the field of medical technology—and it could one day do even more ambitious things in the realm of telepathy (and yes, you read that correctly). I first posted the full episode to my podcast’s feed on February 20th, and we’ll run it in two installments here on Ars.

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

We open today’s installment discussing the roots of Mary Lou’s new company. Like so many things, it all started with holography and a brain tumor. The former was Mary Lou’s academic focus in college, and the latter almost killed her (and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get that backward). This gave her a profound and personal appreciation for both the importance, and the overwhelming expense of medical imaging.

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Archaeologists armed with spears demonstrate how Neanderthals hunted

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge (credit: Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al. 2018)

A team of archaeologists analyzed injuries to the skeletons of two deer and then attacked dear pelvises with sensor-equipped wooden spears to replicate the wounds. The result is a rare insight into how Neanderthal hunters made a living: thrusting short wooden spears at their prey, probably in well-coordinated group ambushes.

How did Neanderthals hunt?

Animal bones at several Neanderthal sites bear the telltale marks of butchery, but there’s little evidence of how, exactly, Neanderthals brought down their prey.

“We have hardly any evidence for weaponry before 40,000 years ago. The only obvious evidence so far—and even here not all archaeologists agree—are wooden spears or lances known from three sites only. Considering that hominins probably started hunting as early as 1.8 Mio years ago, evidence is meager,” Johannes Gutenberg–University Mainz archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser told Ars Technica.

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This novel, one-and-done flu drug could be available soon in the US

Wed, 06/27/2018 - 16:02

Enlarge / We've all been there. (credit: Getty | Ute Grabowsky)

A fast-acting drug that shortens influenza infections with a single dose has earned a priority review from the US Food and Drug Administration and—if approved—has the chance of hitting the market in 2019 amid the upcoming flu season. That’s all according to Genentech, the Roche-based company that is developing the drug, baloxavir marboxil, for the US market.

Baloxavir marboxil is garnering attention in part because of its timing. It’s arriving in the wake of a “high-severity” flu season for the US and a sub-optimal seasonal vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged record-level rates of hospitalizations for the 2017-2018 flu season and a high tally of 171 pediatric deaths. But the new flu drug also has notable advantages over the small number of other medications currently on the market for the seasonal affliction.

First, baloxavir marboxil is effective as a single dose. Genetech’s other flu drug, Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate), needs to be taken twice a day for five days within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. Baloxavir marboxil, on the other hand, is taken in one bout in the same timeframe.

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Webb Space Telescope pushed back again, won’t launch until 2021

Wed, 06/27/2018 - 15:29

Enlarge / The mirror of the James Webb, with its individual segments unfolded into place. (credit: NASA)

Today, NASA announced that it had accepted the findings and recommendations of an independent review of progress toward the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, intended to be NASA's next great observatory. As a result of some changed procedures and reigning in some unjustified schedule optimism, the changes will mean that Webb won't be launched until March of 2021, a delay that will tack on $800 million to the telescope's $8 billion price tag.

Complexity and errors

The James Webb Space Telescope would be the most complex imaging hardware that NASA has attempted to put into space. It features a large mirror that will be formed by multiple individual segments moving into place and protected by a sunscreen that would also unfold after launch. Webb's instruments would be sensitive to a region of the infrared that should allow it to image everything from the Universe's first galaxies to the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets.

But so far, that complexity has driven extensive delays. Early this year, the Government Accountability Office released a report that suggested that further delays were inevitable. And shortly after its release, NASA disclosed that testing of the spacecraft's unfolding resulted in damage to some of the systems. That set the stage for an independent review board to give the entire project a new look.

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Spinning glass ball rejects light from one direction

Wed, 06/27/2018 - 13:35

Enlarge / Not a turbine-powered optical isolator (but James Murphy may like the term to use for a side project). (credit: Noam Galai / Getty Images)

Today I would like to present the turbine-powered optical isolator, a steampunk-sounding bit of hardware that only allows light to pass in one direction. That, I must admit, is a sentence I never imagined writing. 

It turns out that having components that only allow light to flow one way is really important. I’ve personally managed to destroy more than one laser because some of the light it emitted ended up returning to the hardware and wreaking havoc. Even if you don’t destroy anything, back reflections can still mess experiments up. So optical isolators, as they are called, are really important.

They are also big and expensive. To reduce the cost and size, researchers have demonstrated an optical oscillator that only requires an operating turbine to function. Despite being the least practical isolator ever, I still want one, maybe even two. In fact, give me three since I happen to be here anyway. 

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Judge rules that sea-level rise doesn’t fall under public nuisance laws

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 14:28

Enlarge / Infrastructure goes under water in San Francisco. (credit: NOAA)

In March, a federal district court case led to an unexpected spectacle: a “tutorial” on climate science requested by the judge. Oakland and San Francisco had filed suit against several oil companies, alleging that they should help pay for the impacts of sea-level rise because they had intentionally misled the public about global warming. Judge William Alsup apparently wanted to make sure he understood the physics and chemistry of the situation before he weighed legal standards.

On Monday, Alsup granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case—a blow for Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities eyeing the outcome. “The issue is not over science,” Alsup writes in his decision, “All parties agree that fossil fuels have led to global warming and ocean rise and will continue to do so.”

Instead, the decision turns on legal precedents and Alsup’s unwillingness to overstep what he views as the judicial branch’s role.

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Barents Sea seems to have crossed a climate tipping point

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / A cloud-covered Barents Sea, showing sea ice encroaching from the Arctic Ocean to the north. (credit: NASA Aqua-MODIS)

Many of the threats we know are associated with climate change are slow moving. Gradually rising seas, a steady uptick in extreme weather events, and more all mean that change will come gradually to much of the globe. But we also recognize that there can be tipping points, where certain aspects of our climate system shift suddenly to new behaviors.

The challenge with tipping points is that they're often easiest to identify in retrospect. We have some indications that our climate has experienced them in the past, but reconstructing how quickly a system tipped over or the forces that drove the change can be difficult. Now, a team of Norwegian scientists is suggesting it's watched the climate reach a tipping point: the loss of Arctic sea ice has flipped the Barents Sea from acting as a buffer between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans to something closer to an arm of the Atlantic.

Decades of data

The Norwegian work doesn't rely on any new breakthrough in technology. Instead, it's built on the longterm collection of data. The Barents Sea has been monitored things like temperature, ice cover, and salinity, in some cases extending back over 50 years. This provides a good baseline to pick up longterm changes. And, in the case of the Barents Sea in particular, have we been watching as any major change took place?

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Marijuana drug wins FDA approval—a first that may change federal regulations

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 16:39

Enlarge / A marijuana leaf. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Marijuana now has an accepted medical use.

The US Food and Drug Administration announced today, Monday June 25, the approval of the country’s first marijuana-based prescription medication. The drug is called Epidiolex and is a plant-derived oral solution of cannabidiol (CBD)—a chemical component of marijuana that does not cause intoxication or a euphoric “high.” The FDA approved it for use in patients aged two and older who suffer from rare and severe forms of epilepsies known as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, which can develop early in childhood. Epidiolex’s approval also marks the first time the FDA has approved a drug to treat Dravet syndrome.

With the historic approval, the London-based company behind the drug, GW Pharmaceuticals plc, is expecting another consequential decision in the coming weeks: getting the US Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify CBD. The move could open the doors to other marijuana-derived medications as well as ease heavy restrictions on marijuana-related research.

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Russia’s Proton rocket, which predates Apollo, will finally stop flying

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 13:52

Enlarge / A Russian Proton rocket launches in 2016. (credit: NASA/ESA)

The Russian-manufactured Proton rocket has been flying into space since before humans landed on the Moon. First launched in 1965, the rocket was initially conceived of as a booster to fly two-person crews around the Moon, as the Soviet Union sought to beat NASA into deep space. Indeed, some of its earliest missions launched creatures, including two turtles, to the Moon and back.

But now, Russian officials confirm, the Proton rocket will finally reach its end. In an interview with a Russian publication, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said production of the Proton booster will cease as production shifts to the new Angara booster. (A translation of this article was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell, a former US Air Force Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst). No new Proton contracts are likely to be signed.

Presently, Proton rockets are built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center in Moscow, then they're transported to a launch site in Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The Angara rocket, which has made just two test flights back in 2014, will be produced in a new factory in Omsk, a city in Siberia.

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In China, coal rules cut sulfur emissions, but data manipulation is a concern

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 11:14

Enlarge / HUAINAN, CHINA - JUNE 16: A smokestack from a coal fired power plant is seen next to an abandoned former paper factory near the site of a large floating solar farm project under construction by the Sungrow Power Supply Company on a lake caused by a collapsed and flooded coal mine on June 16, 2017 in Huainan, Anhui province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

In 2007, China required some coal power plants to install Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems (CEMS) to track pollutants given off by those stations. In 2014, the Chinese government implemented tighter emissions standards for coal plants. Have those two regulations worked to reduce pollution?

The answer is yes, but with a few caveats.

In a paper published last week, researchers compared troves of CEMS readings to emissions readings from a NASA-owned satellite. They found that while Chinese regulations definitely lowered sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels, there's some evidence that CEMS data shows an overly rosy picture of how large the drop was. Coal plants in key regions were given tighter standards than those elsewhere, and those plants facing tighter standards appeared to miss their targets more often than not.

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First space, then auto—now Elon Musk quietly tinkers with education

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 10:00

Enlarge / A glimpse of a SpaceX worker in Hawthorne: young, wearing a hat, possibly listening to music! (credit: SpaceX)

In a corner of SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, a small, secretive group called Ad Astra is hard at work. These are not the company’s usual rocket scientists. At the direction of Elon Musk, they are tackling ambitious projects involving flamethrowers, robots, nuclear politics, and defeating evil AIs.

Those at Ad Astra still find time for a quick game of dodgeball at lunch, however, because the average age within this group is just 10 years old.

Ad Astra encompasses students, not employees. For the past four years, this experimental non-profit school school has been quietly educating Musk’s sons, the children of select SpaceX employees, and a few high-achievers from nearby Los Angeles. It started back in 2014, when Musk pulled his five young sons out of one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious private schools for gifted children. Hiring one of his sons’ teachers, the CEO founded Ad Astra to “exceed traditional school metrics on all relevant subject matter through unique project-based learning experiences,” according to a previously unreported document filed with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

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India eyeing a new monster 100GW solar-capacity goal

Sun, 06/24/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / Solar panels in Bangalore, India. (credit: Getty Images)

Earlier this week, India's energy minister R.K. Singh suggested that the country is considering issuing a tender for 100 gigawatts of solar energy. PV Tech confirmed the report, which added that the tender could be tied to solar panel-manufacturing buildout. In 2015, India set a goal to reach 100GW of solar capacity as part of its larger aim of 175GW of renewable energy in general by 2022. This latest 100GW tender would be for a 2030 or 2035 target.

The existing goal is ambitious, so a stretch goal further into the future is even more so. The country's current total solar capacity is just 24.4GW, according to The Economic Times. (For context, as of this month the US has about 55.9GW of installed solar capacity total.) But although the solar sector there is still small compared to the US, it's growing quickly. Utility-scale solar capacity grew by 72 percent in the previous year, The Economic Times noted.

Johannes Urpelainen, an India-based fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, said that the 100GW tender wouldn't be for one massive plant but would represent financing for small projects.

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Buzz Aldrin returns to Twitter, sues his son and former manager

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 21:25

Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, meets backstage with former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin, prior to giving the keynote speech at the Humans to Mars Summit in May, 2018, at George Washington University in Washington. (credit: NASA)

All is not well in the otherworldly world of the second human to walk on the Moon.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has sued his family, including his son Andy Aldrin, former business manager Christina Korp, and several foundations. The suit alleges that the family has taken advantage of the 88-year-old through a de facto guardianship.

Filed on June 7 in a Florida judicial circuit court, and obtained Friday evening by Ars, the lawsuit alleges that Andy Aldrin and Korp used the former astronaut’s personal credit cards, trust accounts, artifacts, and social media accounts for their own purposes. It additionally alleges the following: that the family prevented Aldrin, who has been married three times, from marrying for a fourth time; that the family has “bullied” his romantic interests; and that the family has slandered the astronaut by saying he has dementia or Alzheimer’s.

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Selfies show worm slithered through woman’s face for 2 weeks

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 17:19

Enlarge / Doctors were able to extract the worm, a D. repens. (credit: Kartashev and Simon)

A 32-year-old woman who visited a rural area outside of Moscow returned home with a surprising stowaway—in her face. And it was a restless one at that, according to a short report published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

After her trip, she noticed an unusual lump on her cheek, below her left eye. Five days later it was gone, but another had formed just above her left eye. Ten days after that, a lump resurfaced on her upper lip, causing massive swelling.

To track the progress of her roving blemish, she took selfies. In reports to doctors, she said that the nodules caused some burning and itchiness but no other symptoms or problems. She also noted her recent trip and recalled being frequently bitten by mosquitoes.

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