Category: technology

There’s a small chance an asteroid will smack into Earth in 2135. NASA is working on a plan.

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Here’s a tip for the planners among us: If you have dinner reservations or theater tickets for Sept. 22, 2135 (it’s a Thursday), now might be a good time to scuttle them.

Sometime the day before, scientists say, there is a small chance that an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building will smack into Earth, destroying a lot of living things on the planet.

But don’t worry. NASA has got you covered.

Forward-thinking astrophysicists and people who specialize in blowing things up with nuclear weapons have come up with a plan, which they swear was not drawn up by Bruce Willis.

If the asteroid — it is named Bennu — decides to go rogue, they could send a nearly nine-ton “bulk impactor” to push it out of Earth’s orbit. Or, more likely, they would gently nudge it out of its apocalyptic path using a nuclear device.

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AI researchers embrace Bitcoin technology to share medical data

By Amy Maxmen

Dexter Hadley thinks that artificial intelligence (AI) could do a far better job at detecting breast cancer than doctors do — if screening algorithms could be trained on millions of mammograms. The problem is getting access to such massive quantities of data. Because of privacy laws in many countries, sensitive medical information remains largely off-limits to researchers and technology companies.

So Hadley, a physician and computational biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is trying a radical solution. He and his colleagues are building a system that allows people to share their medical data with researchers easily and securely — and retain control over it. Their method, which is based on the blockchain technology that underlies the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, will soon be put to the test. By May, Hadley and his colleagues will launch a study to train their AI algorithm to detect cancer using mammograms that they hope to obtain from between three million and five million US women.

The team joins a growing number of academic scientists and start-ups who are using blockchain to make sharing medical scans, hospital records and genetic data more attractive — and more efficient. Some projects will even pay people to use their information. The ultimate goal of many teams is to train AI algorithms on the data they solicit using the blockchain systems.

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Spacecraft Could Nuke Dangerous Asteroid to Defend Earth

By Mike Wall

The next time a hazardous asteroid lines Earth up in its crosshairs, we may be ready for the threat.

Scientists and engineers with the U.S. government have drawn up plans for a spacecraft that could knock big, incoming space rocks off course via blunt-force impact or blow them to bits with a nuclear warhead, BuzzFeed News reported.

The researchers announced the concept vehicle, known as the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response (HAMMER), in a study in the February issue of the journal Acta Astronautica. And the team will discuss HAMMER at an asteroid-research conference in May, according to BuzzFeed News.

Each HAMMER spacecraft would weigh about 8.8 tons (8 metric tons). If an asteroid threat is detected early enough, a fleet of the vehicles could be dispatched to collide, nuke-free, with the space rock, changing its trajectory enough to spare Earth from an impact.

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China tests giant air cleaner to combat smog

By David Cyranoski

A 60-metre-high chimney stands among a sea of high-rise buildings in one of China’s most polluted cities. But instead of adding to Xian’s smog, this chimney is helping to clear the air. The outdoor air-purifying system, powered by the Sun, filters out noxious particles and billows clean air into the skies. Chinese scientists who designed the prototype say that the system could significantly cut pollution in urban areas in China and elsewhere.

The technology has excited and intrigued researchers — especially in China, where air pollution is a daily challenge. Early results, which are yet to be published, are promising, says the project’s leader Cao Junji, a chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Aerosol Chemistry and Physics in Xian in central China.

“This is certainly a very interesting idea,” says Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has heard about the system but not seen it in action. “I am not aware of anyone else doing a project like this one.”

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Latest US weather satellite highlights forecasting challenges

By Jeff Tollefson

The United States filled a crucial gap in its weather-forecasting arsenal when it launched its latest geostationary satellite on 1 March. The craft will enable meteorologists to track hurricanes, snow storms and other threats as they develop. It will also beam down data that researchers can use to measure air temperature and humidity — if they can work out how to incorporate them into their models.

Scientists currently can’t use much of the information collected by geostationary satellites, which sit above a particular location on Earth, and polar-orbiting satellites, which swing around the planet’s poles. It’s a long-standing problem caused by the kind of data collected and the large uncertainties that arise when forecasters try to integrate the measurements into their weather models. Now researchers are starting to overcome these technical challenges, with encouraging results for both short- and longer-term forecasts.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-17 (GOES-17) will assume a position above the equatorial Pacific Ocean. When its data are combined with those from the identical GOES-16, which is already parked over the Atlantic Ocean, they will monitor the Earth from Africa to New Zealand. Weather forecasters around the world use such geostationary satellites to monitor storms, and their models incorporate limited data on atmospheric moisture and wind speed and direction.

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Humans Will Hear from Intelligent Aliens This Century, Physicist Says

By Jeanna Bryner

Humans will make contact with aliens by the end of the century, theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku told Redditers last week. However, Kaku said he wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to communicate directly with this unknown extraterrestrial society — one that could run the gamut from hostile to pacifist, according to Kaku.

In his AMA on Reddit, Kaku responded to a question about alien civilizations, saying, “Let me stick my neck out. I personally feel that within this century, we will make contact with an alien civilization, by listening in on their radio communications. But talking to them will be difficult, since they could be tens of light years away. So, in the meantime, we must decipher their language to understand their level of technology. Are they Type I, II, or III??? [These represent three categories in the Kardashev scale, measuring technological achievement in civilizations based on their level of energy use for communication.] And what are their intentions. Are they expansive and aggressive, or peaceful.”

Kaku added, “Another possibility is that they land on the White House lawn and announce their existence. But I think that is unlikely, since we would be like forest animals to them, i.e. not worth communicating with.” 

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Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of birth of a supernova

By Davide Castelvecchi

Victor Buso was eager to use the new camera on his telescope. But the amateur astronomer didn’t want to disturb his neighbours with the loud noise of opening his rooftop observatory, so he pointed his telescope through a gap in the enclosure on the night of 20 September 2016.

He trained it on a spiral galaxy called NGC 613, which is around 26 million parsecs (85 million light years) away in the southern sky, and spotted a rapidly brightening blotch of light in the series of images he was taking. Buso and a team of professional astronomers now report in Nature what seems to be the first observation of the very early stages of a supernova1.

The detection was “amazing”, says Norbert Langer, an astrophysicist at the University of Bonn in Germany. The chance of catching this event is smaller than that of hitting the jackpot in a lottery, he says.

The type of supernova the team observed occurs when a massive star runs out of nuclear-fusion fuel in its core. The star then begins to collapse, which compresses protons and electrons together and converts them into neutrons. Astrophysicists theorize that this collapse triggers a shockwave that can take up to a day to reach the star’s surface.

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Secret to Great Pyramid’s Near Perfect Alignment Possibly Found

By Owen Jarus

Though slightly lopsided, the towering, Great Pyramid of Giza is an ancient feat of engineering, and now an archaeologist has figured out how the Egyptians may have aligned the monument almost perfectly along the cardinal points, north-south-east-west — they may have used the fall equinox.

The fall equinox occurs halfway between the summer and winter solstices, when Earth’s tilt is such that the length of the day and nightare almost the same.

About 4,500 years ago, Egyptian pharaoh Khufu had the Great Pyramid of Giza constructed; it is the largest of the three pyramids — now standing about 455 feet (138 meters) tall — on the Giza Plateau and was considered a “wonder of the world” by ancient writers.

Turns out, the pyramid builders somehow designed this ancient wonder with extreme precision.

“The builders of the Great Pyramid of Khufu aligned the great monument to the cardinal points with an accuracy of better than four minutes of arc, or one-fifteenth of one degree,” wrote Glen Dash, an engineer who studies the Giza pyramids, in a paper published recently in the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture.

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The Next Falcon Heavy Will Carry the Most Powerful Atomic Clock Ever Launched into Space

By Rafi Letzter

An ultra-precise atomic clock the size of a four-slice toaster is set to zip into outer space this summer, NASA said.

This isn’t your average timekeeper. The so-called Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) is far smaller than Earth-bound atomic clocks, far more precise than the handful of other space-bound atomic clocks, and more resilient against the stresses of space travel than any clock ever made. According to a NASA statement, it’s expected to lose no more than 2 nanoseconds (2 billionths of a second) over the course of a day. That comes to about 7 millionths of a second over the course of a decade.

In an email to Live Science, Andrew Good, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory representative, said the first DSAC will hitch a ride on the second Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled for June.

Atomic clocks are the most powerful time-measuring devices human beings have ever built. Broadly speaking, they work by observing atoms that are known to do certain things — like emit light — extremely regularly and quickly, then counting how many times those atoms do those things. The most powerful atomic clocks on Earth can go billions of years without losing a second of time.

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Elon Musk Does It Again

By Lee Billings

Earlier today, our sun gained a new satellite, courtesy of SpaceX’s first test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket: A cherry-red Tesla Roadster once driven by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, blasting tunes from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with a spacesuit-clad “Starman” dummy strapped in the driver’s seat. On the dashboard display as Starman hurtled into the darkness, waiting in the sky? “Don’t Panic,” the tagline from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Launched with an earth-shaking roar from Pad 39a at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida—the same launch site of the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969 and the first space shuttle flight in 1981—the Roadster was planned to embark on an interplanetary trajectory looping between the orbital vicinities of Earth and of Mars. Instead, the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage overperformed on its final burn, pushing the outer reaches of the Roadster’s heliocentric orbit beyond Mars and into the asteroid belt.* The Roadster is neither the first car nor even the first electric model ever launched into space (the Apollo-era lunar rovers take both of those prizes). But it is certainly the fastest, approaching a speed of 12 kilometers per second relative to Earth when it separated from the Falcon Heavy’s payload fairing en route to deep space.

The big news here, though, isn’t actually the Falcon Heavy’s eccentric payload, but rather the mere fact that this behemoth of a rocket exists and is on the verge of regular operations. Musk, for his part, had pegged the chances of success at only 50/50, where “success” was defined as the rocket merely flying high enough to clear the launch pad before exploding. In actuality, the rocket performed nearly flawlessly.

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