Google

NASA, Google Spot Eighth Planet in Solar System Rivaling Ours (cnet.com) 38

An anonymous reader shares a report: Google isn't just good for finding cat videos on the internet. The search giant's machine learning technology is also helping search the universe for planets outside our solar system. NASA on Thursday revealed the discovery of blazing-hot exoplanet Kepler-90i thanks to the use of a Google neural network trained to identify planets from the NASA Kepler space telescope's data. It's the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, which ties it with our own solar system for the most known planets around a single star. Kepler-90 is a sun-like star located around 2,545 light-years from us.
NASA

President Trump Is Sending NASA Back To The Moon (npr.org) 306

President Trump has formally told NASA to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon. From a report: "The directive I'm signing today will refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery," he said. Standing at the president's side as he signed "Space Policy Directive 1" on Monday was Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last two humans to ever walk on the moon, in a mission that took place 45 years ago this week. Since that time, no human has ventured out beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA doesn't even have its own space vehicle, having retired the space shuttles in 2011. Americans currently ride up to the international space station in Russian capsules, though private space taxis are expected to start ferrying them up as soon as next year.
NASA

Google's Machine Learning Is Analyzing Data From NASA's Kepler Space Telescope (nasa.gov) 27

NASA writes: NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data... When Kepler launched in March 2009, scientists didn't know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Thanks to Kepler's treasure trove of discoveries, astronomers now believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.
Space.com adds: Kepler spots alien worlds by noticing the tiny brightness dips they cause when they cross the face of their host star from the spacecraft's perspective. Kepler is the most accomplished planet hunter in history. It has found more than 2,500 confirmed alien worlds -- about 70 percent of all known exoplanets -- along with a roughly equal number of "candidates" that await confirmation by follow-up observations or analyses. The vast majority of these discoveries have come via observations that Kepler made during its original mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013. Study of these data sets is ongoing; over the past few years, researchers have used improved analysis techniques to spot many exoplanets in data that Kepler gathered a half-decade ago or more.
Space.com describes Thursday's announcement as an exoplanet discovery. (Earlier they reported on the discovery of "a possibly habitable alien world" about 2.2 times the size of earth orbiting a dwarf star "within the range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface".)

Slashdot reader schwit1 points out that other less-credible sites speculate NASA's announcement will be "a major discovery about life beyond earth."
Mars

Boeing CEO Says Boeing Will Beat SpaceX To Mars (space.com) 128

Boeing's CEO says the megarocket his company is helping to build for NASA will deliver astronauts to the Red Planet before billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX. Space.com reports: According to Fortune, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was speaking on CNBC today when host Jim Cramer asked whether Boeing or SpaceX would "get a man on Mars first." "Eventually we're going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket," Muilenburg said, according to Fortune. Boeing is the main contractor for the first stage of NASA's giant Space Launch System , which is designed to launch astronauts on deep-space missions using the space agency's new Orion spacecraft. (United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne are also SLS contractors.) NASA hopes to build a "Deep Space Gateway" near the moon before using SLS and Orion vehicles to send explorers to Mars. The first test launch is scheduled for 2019. "Do it," Musk tweeted.
Earth

Silicon Valley Billionaires Award $22 Million in 'Breakthrough Prizes' (theguardian.com) 23

An anonymous reader quote The Guardian: The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22 million in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley. The winners this year include five researchers who won $3 million each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Google's Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness. The annual ceremony at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the world's leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kara McCullough...

Life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation. Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. "If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions," she said.

The Mercury News published a list of all the winners, pointing out they were chosen from more than 11,000 entries (from 178 countries). And Wired notes that the top prize winners get $2 million more than Nobel prize winners.
NASA

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years (nasa.gov) 127

If you tried to start a car that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. But a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft successfully fired up Wednesday after 37 years without use. NASA announces: Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. The spacecraft, which has been flying for 40 years, relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs," lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980. "With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Earth

Could Collapsing Antarctic Glaciers Raise Sea Levels Sooner Than Expected? (salon.com) 418

"We may be headed for an ice apocalypse which could result in the flooding of coastal cities before the end of this century," writes long-time Slashdot reader whoever57. Grist reports on two of the largest and fastest-melting glaciers in Antarctica which "hold human civilization hostage." There's no doubt this ice will melt as the world warms. The vital question is when... Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world's oceans -- an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet... Each new iceberg that breaks away exposes taller and taller cliffs... In the past few years, scientists have identified marine ice-cliff instability as a feedback loop that could kickstart the disintegration of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet this century -- much more quickly than previously thought. Minute-by-minute, huge skyscraper-sized shards of ice cliffs would crumble into the sea, as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as deep underwater as the height of the Empire State Building. The result: a global catastrophe the likes of which we've never seen... When [land-based ice] falls into the ocean, it adds to the overall volume of liquid in the seas. Thus, sea-level rise.... All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years -- much too quickly for humanity to adapt...

A lot of this newfound concern is driven by the research of two climatologists: Rob DeConto at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and David Pollard at Penn State University. A study they published last year was the first to incorporate the latest understanding of marine ice-cliff instability into a continent-scale model of Antarctica... Instead of a three-foot increase in ocean levels by the end of the century, six feet was more likely, according to DeConto and Pollard's findings. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed.

If sea levels rise by six feet, "around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world's most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map."
Mars

Flowing Water On Mars' Surface May Just Be Rolling Sand Instead (theverge.com) 81

Two years ago, NASA made a big splash when it announced the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. Unfortunately, according to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey, the surface features that NASA thought were made up of liquid water may actually be flowing grains of sand instead. The Verge reports: The features in question are dark streaks that show up periodically on Martian hills, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSLs. When one of NASA's spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, studied these lines more closely, it found that the RSLs were made up of hydrated salts -- meaning they were mixed with water molecules. At the time, NASA thought that was significant evidence that flowing liquid water caused these bizarre streaks. But researchers at the USGS say these features look identical to certain types of slopes found on sand dunes here on Earth. Those slopes are caused by dry grains of sand flowing downhill, without the help of any water. It's possible the same thing is happening on Mars, too. Since liquid water is key for life here on Earth, many thought these strange lines of flowing water may help support life on the Martian surface. But now these RSLs may not be the best place to look for life anymore.
Earth

Night Being 'Lost' To Artificial Light (bbc.com) 119

An anonymous reader shares a report: A study of pictures of Earth by night has revealed that artificial light is growing brighter and more extensive every year. Between 2012 and 2016, the planet's artificially lit outdoor area grew by more than 2 percent per year. Scientists say a "loss of night" in many countries is having negative consequences for "flora, fauna, and human well-being." A team published the findings in the journal Science Advances. It showed that changes in brightness over time varied greatly by country. Some of the world's "brightest nations," such as the US and Spain, remained the same. Most nations in South America, Africa and Asia grew brighter. Only a few countries showed a decrease in brightness, such as Yemen and Syria -- both experiencing warfare. The nocturnal satellite images -- of glowing coastlines and spider-like city networks -- look quite beautiful but artificial lighting has unintended consequences for human health and the environment.
The Almighty Buck

Study Finds SpaceX Investment Saved NASA Hundreds of Millions (popularmechanics.com) 156

schwit1 shares a report from Popular Mechanics: When a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft connected with the International Space Station on May 25, 2012, it made history as the first privately-built spacecraft to reach the ISS. The Dragon was the result of a decision 6 years prior -- in 2006, NASA made an "unprecedented" investment in SpaceX technology. A new financial analysis shows that the investment has paid off, and the government found one of the true bargains of the 21st century when it invested in SpaceX. A new research paper by Edgar Zapata, who works at Kennedy Space Center, looks closely at the finances of SpaceX and NASA. "There were indications that commercial space transportation would be a viable option from as far back as the 1980s," Zapata writes. "When the first components of the ISS were sent into orbit 1998, NASA was focused on "ambitious, large single stage-to-orbit launchers with large price tags to match." For future commercial crew missions sending astronauts into space, Zapata estimates that it will cost $405 million for a SpaceX Dragon crew deployment of 4 and $654 million for a Boeing Starliner, which is scheduled for its first flight in 2019. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but Zapata estimates that its only 37 to 39 percent of what it would have cost the government.
Earth

New Study Suggests We Don't Understand Supervolcanoes (sciencealert.com) 105

Better microsampling (and analysis) are revealing "previously obscured" clues about how super-hot molten lava behaves, according to a Science Alert article shared by schwit1: "The older view is that there's a long period with a big tank of molten rock in the crust," says geoscientist Nathan Andersen from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "A new view is that magma is stored for a long period in a state that is locked, cool, crystalline, and unable to produce an eruption. That dormant system would need a huge infusion of heat to erupt." Such a huge infusion of heat is what's thought to have unleashed a violent supereruption in California some 765,000 years ago... [A]s awesomely destructive as the supereruption was, lingering evidence from the aftermath can tell us about the magma conditions deep underground before the top blew so spectacularly.

Specifically, an analysis of argon isotopes contained in crystals from the Bishop Tuff -- the large rocky outcrop produced when the Long Valley Caldera was created -- shows the magma from the supereruption was heated rapidly, not slowly simmered. Geologically speaking, that is -- meaning the heating forces that produced the supereruption occurred over decades, or perhaps a couple of centuries. (A long time for people, sure, but a blink of an eye in the life-time of a supervolcano.) The reasoning is that argon quickly escapes from hot crystals, so it wouldn't have a chance to accumulate in the rock if the rock were super-heated for a long time... Unfortunately, while scientists are doing everything they can to read the signs of volcanic supereruptions -- something NASA views as more dangerous than asteroid strikes -- the reality is, the new findings don't bring us any closer to seeing the future.

"This does not point to prediction in any concrete way," warns geologist Brad Singer, "but it does point to the fact that we don't understand what is going on in these systems, in the period of 10 to 1,000 years that precedes a large eruption."
Space

Asgardia Becomes the First Nation Deployed in Space (cnet.com) 176

An anonymous reader quotes CNET: An Orbital ATK Antares rocket carrying a cubesat named Asgardia-1 launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia early Sunday. The milk carton-sized satellite makes up the entirety of territory of the self-proclaimed "Space Kingdom" of Asgardia... Over 300,000 people signed up online to become "citizens" of the nation over the last year. The main privilege of citizenship so far involves the right to upload data to Asgardia-1 for safekeeping in orbit, seemingly far away from the pesky governments and laws of Earth-bound countries...

As of now, Asgardia's statehood isn't acknowledged by any other actual countries or the United Nations, and it doesn't really even fit the definition of a nation since it's not possible for a human to physically live in Asgardia. Not yet, at least. The long-term vision for Asgardia includes human settlements in space, on the moon and perhaps even more distant colonies.

On Tuesday Orbital ATK's spacecraft will dock with the International Space Station for a one-month re-supply mission -- then blast higher into orbit to deploy the space kingdom's satellite. "Asgardia space kingdom has now established its sovereign territory in space," read an online statement.

Next the space kingdom plans to hold elections for 150 Members of Parliament.
Space

NASA Funds Designs for a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Rocket (space.com) 172

"Dangerous radiation. Overstuffed pantries. Cabin fever. NASA could sidestep many of the impediments to a Mars mission if they could just get there faster," writes Space.com, which reports NASA is now exploring an alternative to chemical rockets. In August, NASA announced an $18.8-million-dollar contract with nuclear company BWXT to design fuel and a reactor suitable for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP), a rocket technology that could jumpstart a new era of space exploration. "The strengths with NTP are the ability to do the very fast round trip [to Mars], the ability to abort even if you're 2 to 3 months into the missions, the overall architectural robustness, and also the growth potential to even more advanced systems," Michael Houts, principal investigator for the NTP project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told Space.com. NTP rockets would pull all that off by offering about twice the bang for the buck that chemical rockets do... "Nuclear thermal propulsion can enable you to get to Mars faster, on the order of twice as fast," said Vishal Patel, a researcher involved in subcontract work for BWXT at the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. in Los Alamos, New Mexico. "We're looking at nice 3- to 4-month transit times."
Education

Magazine For Museums Publishes Its 2040 Issue -- 23 Years Early (aam-us.org) 40

A nonprofit founded in 1906 is now offering a glimpse at 2040, according to an anonymous reader: The Alliance of American Museums has just published an ambitious Nov/Dec 2040 issue of Museum, the Alliance's magazine. The columns, reviews, articles, awards, and even the ads describe activities from a 2040 perspective, based on a multi-faceted consensus scenario.
Besides virtual reality centers (and carbon-neutral cities), it envisions de-extinction biologists who resurrect lost species. It also predicts a 2040 with orbiting storehouses to preserve historic artifacts (as well as genetic materials) as part of a collaboration with both NASA and a new American military branch called the US Space Corps. And of course, by 2040 musuems have transformed into hybrid institutions like "museum schools" and "well-being and cognitive health centers" that are both run by museums.

It also predicts for-profit museums that have partnered with corporations.
NASA

NASA Discovers Mantle Plume That's Melting Antarctica From Below (newsweek.com) 244

schwit1 shares a report from Newsweek: Researchers at NASA have discovered a huge upwelling of hot rock under Marie Byrd Land, which lies between the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea, is creating vast lakes and rivers under the ice sheet. The presence of a huge mantle plume could explain why the region is so unstable today, and why it collapsed so quickly at the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. Mantle plumes are thought to be part of the plumbing systems that brings hot material up from Earth's interior. Once it gets through the mantle, it spreads out under the crust, providing magma for volcanic eruptions. The area above a plume is known as a hotspot.

[I]n a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, Seroussi and colleagues looked at one of the most well studied magma plumes on Earth -- the Yellowstone hotspot. The team developed a mantle plume model to look at how much geothermal heat would be needed to explain what is seen at Marie Byrd Land. They then used the Ice Sheet System Model (ISSM), which shows the physics of ice sheets, to look at the natural sources of heating and heat transport. This model enabled researchers to place "powerful constraint" on how much melt rate was allowable, meaning they could test out different scenarios of how much heat was being produced deep beneath the ice. Their findings showed that generally, the energy being generated by the mantle plume is no more than 150 milliwatts per square meter -- any more would result in too much melting. The heat generated under Yellowstone National Park, on average, is 200 milliwatts per square meter.

Space

Exit Interview: Scott Kelly (atlasobscura.com) 62

An excerpt from a new interview of Scott Kelly, now a retired astronaut, who spent 11 months and three days at the International Space Station in one stretch: Q: What does space smell like?
It smells different to different people. Some people say it smells sweet. To me it smells like burnt metal, like if you took a blowtorch to some steel or something.

Q: When you're up there on the ISS, arguably you're the most expensive human being on the planet except the president. The amount of resources being spent to keep you alive are enormous. Did that weigh on you at all?
Never even thought about that. No. Never considered it. I appreciated the effort that people went through to make sure you're safe, and are taken care of and supported while you're there, but I never considered the cost of it.

Question: Did it feel like, 'Man, I gotta work all the time'?
I think some people feel that way. I kind of felt that way on my [first, six-month ISS mission]. But having flown for six months, and then a few years later flying for a year, I realized I couldn't do that. So I definitely had to pace myself throughout the course of the year.

Q: Did you lose anything in the station?
All kinds of stuff! One of the last things I remember losing was this fancy, 3-D printed cover for some experiment. It was for the camera and I turn around and the thing's gone, and they didn't have a spare. I've got to see if they've found that thing yet. Oh, yeah. We lost a bag of screws and washers one time.

Question: When you're on the U.S. side of the ISS and the Russians are on their side, how much interaction is there, day-to-day?
They work predominantly in the Russian segment and have their meals there, so during waking hours, they're generally on their side, we're generally on our side. You interact, you go down there, you chat with them, you come back, you might perform some kind of experiments, they might do a little thing in our space station, but it's what we refer to as "segmented ops."

Question: Does it feel like you're all in it together?
Yes! Absolutely. We actually do some things to help each other that we don't even share with the ground because then it creates like bureaucratic ... issues for them to deal with. I've been asked to help fix some of their hardware, their treadmill one time. We help each other getting trash off the space station without telling the folks in Houston.

NASA

NASA: We're Not Building Flying Taxi Software For Uber (theregister.co.uk) 24

News outlets reported on Wednesday that Uber had signed a contract with NASA to develop software for the ride-hailing company's autonomous "flying taxis." A day later, the space agency has clarified its involvement in the project and the specifics of the contract. From the report: Uber's chief product officer Jeff Holden spoke at the Web Summit in Lisbon yesterday where he was promoting the fledgling autonomous taxi project, revealed last year, Uber Elevate. And of course he never claimed that NASA was working on software for his firm, merely explaining that it had inked an agreement to work with the public body on the latter's air traffic control project. Uber told us that while NASA was not "committing funding or anything like that", it said "having their decades of aeronautic experience actively collaborating with our engineers is a huge help for tackling the aviation traffic management hurdles." A NASA spokesperson, meanwhile, told us Uber had indeed signed what it described as a "generic Space Act Agreement" for participation in the programme back in January, joining a "multitude" of others. The project and its members are "researching prototype technologies for a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system that could develop airspace integration requirements for enabling safe, efficient low-altitude operations," according to NASA's website. So no new news on the software front.
NASA

NASA Is Working With Uber on Its Flying Taxi Project 51

Ride-hailing service Uber on Wednesday took a step forward in its plan to make autonomous "flying taxis" a reality, signing a contract with NASA to develop the software to manage them. From a report: Uber said at the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon that it signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA for the development of "unmanned traffic management." This is NASA's push to figure out how unmanned aerial systems (UAS), such as drones that fly at a low altitude, can operate safely. Uber wants to make vertical take-off and landing vehicles. That will allow their flying cars to take off and land vertically. They will fly at a low altitude. This is the start-up's first partnership with a U.S. federal government agency. NASA is also working with other companies to develop traffic management for these low altitude vehicles. "UberAir will be performing far more flights on a daily basis than it has ever been done before. Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies," Jeff Holden, chief product officer at Uber, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Combining Uber's software engineering expertise with NASA's decades of airspace experience to tackle this is a crucial step forward for Uber Elevate."
NASA

NASA Astronaut Dick Gordon, Pilot of Gemini and Apollo 12, Dies At 88 (astronautscholarship.org) 58

sconeu writes: Dick Gordon, pilot of Gemini 11 and command module pilot of Apollo 12, has died at the age of 88. Gordon was also slated to command the cancelled Apollo 18 mission. "Dick Gordon is an American hero, and a true renaissance man by any measure. He was an American naval officer and aviator, chemist, test pilot, NASA astronaut, professional football executive, oil and gas executive and generous contributor to worthy causes," said Curt Brown, board chairman of the Orlando-based Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and an astronaut and veteran of six space flights. "He was in a category all his own." The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation has a touching write-up that details Gordon's childhood and career successes. You can read the full article here.
Earth

The US Has Destroyed A Critical Sea Ice-Measuring Satellite (scientificamerican.com) 283

"A key polar satellite used to measure the Arctic ice cap failed a few days ago, leaving the U.S. with only three others, and those have lived well beyond their shelf lives," writes long-time Slashdot reader edibobb. The Guardian reports that all three of the remaining satellites "are all beginning to drift out of their orbits over the poles" and will no longer be operational by 2023. This could put an end to nearly 40 years of uninterrupted data on polar ice, notes the original submission, adding "It seems like there would be a backup satellite, right?

"In fact, there was a backup satellite ready to go." The $58 million satellite was dismantled in 2016 when the Republican-controlled Congress cut its funding. (The Guardian reports that many scientists "say this decision was made for purely ideological reasons.") Now Nature reports: The U.S. military is developing another set of weather satellites...but the one carrying a microwave sensor will not launch before 2022. That means that when the current three aging satellites die, the United States will be without a reliable, long-term source of sea-ice data... For now, the the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center is preparing for those scenarios by incorporating data from Japan's AMSR2 microwave sensor into its sea-ice record. Another, more politically fraught option is to pull in data from the China Meteorological Administration's Fengyun satellite series... Since 2011 Congress has banned NASA scientists from working with Chinese scientists -- but not necessarily from using Chinese data. One final possibility is finding a way to launch the passive-microwave sensor that scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory salvaged from the dismantled DMSP satellite. The sensor currently sits at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, where researchers are trying to find a way to get it into orbit.

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