Month: June, 2018

US Space Startup Rocket Lab Sets New Date For First Commercial Launch

US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab has scheduled new dates for its first commercial rocket launch — a mission dubbed “It’s Business Time.”

The company plans to launch its small rocket, the Electron, sometime between June 23rd and July 6th.

The rocket will take off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launchpad and carry five small satellites to orbit for customers, kicking off a busy year of commercial operations for the launch provider.

Rocket Lab originally hoped to do this mission back in April, but the company had to postpone after it noticed some strange behavior with the rocket.

After propping up the Electron on the launchpad and filling it with fuel, the engineering team found that a critical motor responsible for controlling the pumps inside the engines was acting funny.

So Rocket Lab decided to stand down to figure out what was causing the issue. “It’s been a really tough one to determine the root cause,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tells The Verge. “It wasn’t particularly obvious.

After a few months, Beck says the company has it figured out and made a few changes to the vehicle to ensure that motor works properly.

During the stand down, Rocket Lab decided to add a couple more satellites to the manifest for It’s Business Time.

Originally this mission was only going to send up two small Lemur-2 satellites made by Spire Global, as well as another probe made by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

Now, it’ll also include a research satellite built by students and a special test satellite that will demonstrate a flat, reflective sail.

The tech will help the probe get dragged down to Earth faster, helping clear satellites from space when they’re done with their missions.

This will be the third launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle. The company pulled off two successful test launches — one in May of last year and one in January — before deciding to move to commercial flights.

During the first test launch, the rocket made it to space, but it didn’t reach orbit due to a glitch in communications equipment on the ground.

The second test, however, did achieve orbit and deposited three satellites as well as a disco-ball-like sphere made by Beck himself.

Originally, Rocket Lab had planned to do a third test flight, but it decided that it had gathered enough data with its two tests to start business operations.

Once this commercial flight gets off the ground, Beck maintains that Rocket Lab has a full couple of years ahead.

There’s no space available in 2018, and we’re putting more flights on in 2019 to allow for more space,” says Beck.

The next flight after It’s Business Time will be one for NASA, sending up 11 standardized small satellites called CubeSats.

Rocket Lab’s goal is to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites. That’s why its primary rocket isn’t very big.

The Electron stands at just 55 feet tall and is capable of putting between 330 and 500 pounds of cargo into low Earth orbit.

In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is 230 feet tall and can put 50,000 pounds into the same orbit.

Rocket Lab’s idea is to capitalize on the small satellite revolution, in which manufacturers are making spacecraft smaller and faster than ever before.

To that end, Rocket Lab also hopes to be able to get satellites into orbit as quickly as possible, eventually getting to a point where the company can launch every 72 hours.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How Do Aliens Solve Climate Change?

The universe does many things. It makes galaxies, comets, black holes, neutron stars, and a whole mess more.

We’ve lately discovered that it makes a great deal of planets, but it’s not clear whether it regularly makes energy-hungry civilizations, nor is it clear whether such civilizations inevitably drive their planets into climate change.

There’s lots of hope riding on our talk about building a sustainable civilization on Earth. But how do we know that’s even possible? Does anyone across the cosmos ever make it?

Remarkably, science has now advanced to point where we can take a first step at answering this question.

I know this because my colleagues and I have just published a first study mapping out possible histories of alien planets, the civilizations they grow, and the climate change that follows.

Our team was made up of astronomers, an earth scientist, and an urban ecologist.

It was only half-jokingly that we thought of our study as a “theoretical archaeology of exo-civilizations.” “Exo-civilizations” are what people really mean when they talk about aliens.

Astronomers refer to the new worlds they’ve discovered as “exoplanets.”

They’re now gearing up to use the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments to search for life by looking for signs of “exo-biospheres” on those exoplanets.

So if we have exoplanets and exo-biospheres, it’s time to switch out the snicker-inducing word “aliens” for the real focus of our concerns: exo-civilizations.

Of course, we have no direct evidence relating to any exo-civilizations or their histories. What we do have, however, are the laws of planets. Our robot emissaries have already visited most of the worlds in the solar system.

We’ve set up weather stations on Mars, watched the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and seen rain cascade across methane lakes on Titan.

From these worlds we learned the generic physics and chemistry that make up what’s called climate.

We can use these laws to predict the global response of any planet to something like an asteroid impact or perhaps the emergence of an energy-hungry industrial civilization.

Science fiction has given us enduring images of alien races. Not surprisingly, most of them look a lot like us but with different kinds of foreheads or ears, or a different number of fingers on their hands.

In developing our first cut at a science of exo-civilizations, my collaborators and I weren’t interested in what aliens might look like or what kind of sex they have.

To do our job we had to avoid the specifics of both their individual biology and their sociology because science provides us little to work with on those fronts. There was, however, one place where biology was up to the task.

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Facebook Researchers Use AI To Fix Blinking In Photos

Facebook seems to be going all in on building a strong AI-footprint for its platform and now the social media giant has published a new study which focuses on some AI-based tools that fix selfies ruined by blinking.

There are times when we try to take the perfect selfie and while the whole frame turns out exactly as we wanted, our eyes blink in between and ruin the picture.

This is where the new Facebook tool based on AI comes in as it can literally replace your closed eyes with an open pair just by studying as well as analysing your previous pictures.

The idea of opening closed eyes isn’t a new one in a portrait, however, the process involves pulling the source material from another photo directly and then transplanting it onto the blinking face.

Adobe has a similar but way more simplified software called Photoshop Elements that has a mode built for this purpose.

When you use Photoshop Elements, the program prompts you to pick another photo from the same session, since it assumes that you took more than one, in which the same person’s eyes are open.

It then uses Adobe’s AI tech, Sensei, in order to try and blend the open eyes from the previous image directly into the shot with the blink.

The Facebook AI tool is somewhat similar to this and there are also some small details which the Adobe’s software can’t always get right such as specific lighting conditions or directions of shadows.

On the other hand, the Facebook Research methodology, the same process of replacing closed eyes with open ones is dependent on a deep neural network that will supply the missing data while using the context of the area present around the closed eyes.

The Facebook AI tool is somewhat similar to this and there are also some small details which the Adobe’s software can’t always get right such as specific lighting conditions or directions of shadows.

On the other hand, the Facebook Research methodology, the same process of replacing closed eyes with open ones is dependent on a deep neural network that will supply the missing data while using the context of the area present around the closed eyes.

This is done by the general adversarial network (GAN) which is a similar technology that used in deep fake videos in which a person’s face is swapped to another person’s body.

GAN then uses the data points present on other images of the same person for reference in order to fill the data needed.

The Facebook AI tool will also use identifying marks in order to help in generating the substitute data.

After that, a process called in-painting will start in order to come up with all the necessary data which will be used for eyelids with actual eyes and this exactly where the hard work of GAN system comes into play as it will now need more than one image of the person in order to use them as a reference, and try to not miss out on any detail.

When will Facebook introduce this tool to the masses? Will it be launched as a new feature for its social media platforms?

Questions like these are in many, however, the Facebook AI tool is still in development stages and only time will tell us what kind of revolution will the GAN system being to the world of selfies.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Trump’s Space Force Push Reopens Arguments About Military in Space

President Donald Trump’s call this week that to create a sixth branch of the U.S. military — which he called the “Space Force” — has reopened a wider debate about whether such a move is necessary to better manage military space activities.

While the idea of a separate, space-focused military branch is not new, Trump’s surprise announcement caused a buzz on social media and news outlets.

When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” Trump said in a speech before a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House Monday (June 18).

“I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.” That’s a big statement.

Trump’s remarks follow decades of discussion on a separate space branch, including a recent 2017 attempt to create a new U.S. Space Corps.

At the time, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee drafted legislation for the new corps in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

While the U.S. secretary of the Air Force was supposed to oversee this new branch, the U.S. Space Corps would have had its own seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Senior military officials did not universally approve the proposal, and it was ultimately withdrawn.

But some space experts say Trump’s announcement may at least spur more discussion about how to best manage space activities.

The United States has worried for many years about the security of its satellites and how to best protect them, said Barry Strauss, a military and naval historian who is a humanistic studies professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

But it’s hard to say how a Space Force would change things, because the U.S. Air Force already oversees the military’s space asset procurement budget with participation from the other military branches, pointed out Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Also, there are concerns about how to protect satellites without breaking international treaties and, more pressingly, generating more space debris by firing offensive weapons at satellites.

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This Is The Psychological Reason You Can’t Stop Checking Your Phone

Whether you’re waiting for a train, a friend or the kettle to boil, the likelihood is that you’ll kill those brief moments by mindlessly scrolling or swiping across your phone screen.

And as soon as your phone pings or buzzes, do you immediately check it to see what exciting form of attention you’ve just been paid?

Does it annoy you when you’re in a meeting, feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but know you can’t check it?

It’s a compulsive urge that many of us find hard to resist.

But according to Sharon Begley, author of Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions, there’s a psychological reason behind this.

Research from the 50s seemed to suggest that because dopamine is pleasurable, it’s pleasure to which people become addicted. But now we know better.

What’s emerged in the last few years is that the dopamine circuitry actually predicts how much you will like something and how much pleasure it will give you. Then it calculates how much reality corresponds to the prediction or falls short.

The emerging idea seems to be that when reality falls short, we feel a dopamine plunge. That feels bad, so we keep trying to do something that will make reality live up to expectations.

“That, to me, fits in with compulsions because these things we’re doing really aren’t that pleasurable. Rather, it’s the dopamine fuel, pleasure, and reward circuit that’s making us feel bad.

So what we get addicted to is not the actual rush of, say the comment you just received on your latest Instagram, but rather the anticipation of it – most of the time, actually reading that comment doesn’t live up to our expectations.

According to Begley, this means “we feel driven and compelled to keep trying, like one of these days it’s going to feel great. If it never does, then you’re in this essentially infinite dopamine loop.

Gaming is one of the prime examples of how such an addiction works, and there’s an ethical debate in the industry about whether it’s right to consciously get people hooked.

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Ground-Cuckoos Have Learned How To Mimic The Sound Of Their Predators


Acoustic communication is particularly important in environments such as dense tropical forests, where the dim light constrains the efficacy of visual signals.

In these environments, complex species interactions could promote the evolution of acoustic signals and result in intriguing patterns of mimicry and convergence.

In the Neotropical region, Neomorphus ground-cuckoos frequently associate with herds of collared peccaries and white-lipped peccaries.

Bill clacking behavior in ground-cuckoos closely resembles the sound of teeth clacking in peccaries and these acoustic signals are used in agonistic and foraging contexts in both species.

Here we demonstrate that the acoustic characteristics of bill clacking in ground-cuckoos are more similar to teeth clacking of peccaries than to bill clacking of the more closely related Geococcyx roadrunner.

We propose that two hypotheses may explain the evolution of the clacking behavior in these taxa.


First, because peccaries are known to successfully ward off attacks from large predators to defend their herds, mimicking their clacking can deceive predators, either by triggering clacking from nearby peccaries, or making it appear to the predators that peccaries are present when they are not.

Second, ground-cuckoos and peccaries could mutually benefit from the use of similar signals to alert each other of the presence of predators. In this context, ground-cuckoos could serve as sentinels while peccaries could confer protection.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Oldest Fossils Of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco


Fossils discovered in Morocco are the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens, scientists reported, a finding that rewrites the story of mankind’s origins and suggests that our species evolved in multiple locations across the African continent.

Until now, the oldest known fossils of our species dated back just 195,000 years. The Moroccan fossils, by contrast, are roughly 300,000 years old.

Remarkably, they indicate that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.

Today, the closest living relatives to Homo sapiens are chimpanzees and bonobos, with whom we share a common ancestor that lived over six million years ago.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Gecko-Inspired Robot Has Grippers That Help Could Clean Up Space Debris


In space, grabbing onto things is hard. A new robot that uses grippers inspired by gecko feet could solve that problem, helping clear up the mess of debris that orbits Earth.

The toaster-sized device can grip, hold onto and move around even large, smooth surfaces in microgravity, on both flat and curved objects.

To do this, it uses a “dry adhesive” material created by Hao Jiang at Stanford University in California and his colleagues.

In an environment where an accidental nudge can send something flying and space debris can be travelling faster than the speed of sound, agility is key.

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These Gourmet Snakes Prefer To Eat Snails

Showin’ off those baby blues.

There’s something strange about the five newly discovered snakes in Ecuador: Unlike most snakes that dine on rats, lizards and other small animals, these slithery reptiles eat snails.

And that’s pretty much all these snakes can eat. There are now 75 known species of snail-eaters, according to a new study on the reptiles.

The jaws of these snakes are modified so much that they cannot eat anything that isn’t a snail or a slug,” said lead study author Alejandro Arteaga, a doctoral student with the American Museum of National History in New York.

Sometimes, you can see [one] hanging from vegetation with a snail in its mouth,” he said.

Indeed, snail-eating snakes have a jawline that has evolved to slurp the snail right out of its shell — but the snakes do this without suction (in other words, it’s not the way we slurp oysters from a shell).

To extract their escargot, the snakes push their lower jaws into the shell and grasp the flesh of the slimy critter with their curved teeth.

Once the snakes have a firm grasp, they pull the prey out without crushing the shell — a process that usually takes a few minutes.

This snail-slurping “is an interesting adaptation,” Arteaga told Live Science. Because not many snakes feed on these snails, the predators don’t have much competition for food, he added.

But the snakes have other things to worry about.

Arteaga and his team are proposing that three of the five species should be listed as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and that one should be listed as endangered.

Four of them are facing the possibility of extinction. Only one is safe,” Arteaga said.

The reason? A lack of cover for the snakes to hide in.

In western Ecuador, “only 2 percent of the original vegetation cover remains,” Arteaga said. The rest of the forest cover and vegetation was destroyed by activities like logging and clearing land for cattle farming and human settlement.

Ultimately, there’s “not really much forest left,” Arteaga said, and that’s not good for the snakes, who need forest cover, vegetation, moisture and nearby streams to survive. “They cannot survive in open cattle ranch [or] grassland.”

Arteaga and his team recently held an auction for the “naming rights” to the snakes.

With the money from that auction, the researchers will purchase a 178-acre (72 hectares) plot of currently unprotected land where some of these snakes live and thereby expand the Buenaventura Reserve in Ecuador.

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Pass it on: Popular Science