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    Asteroid Mining Not an image from Planetary Resources, just a stock photo we happen to have of asteroid mining. Kevin Hand

    Planetary Resources, a mysterious organization whose investors include Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Microsoft alum and astronaut Charles Simonyi, director James Cameron, "space visionary" Peter Diamandis, and Ross Perot, Jr., is planning to announce more details of the project this coming Tuesday. We'll be covering it, so we thought we'd give you a heads-up. It has something to do with space resources and exploration--its LinkedIn page says it "develops technologies and systems to enable low-cost commercial robotic exploration of the solar system," and cofounder Peter Diamandis has hinted at asteroid mining--but we don't know much more than that at the moment. Check in here on Tuesday (and, I mean, on Monday too, for other things) for the reveal.


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    Food-science expert McGee and adventurous culinary technologist Dave Arnold invite PopSci to sample rotten fish When Popular Science was acquired by Sweden's Bonnier Corporation in 2007, some people thought we'd be eating surströmming, the legendary Scandinavian delicacy of fish left to ferment in cans till the cans almost burst, every day. But in fact, the famously putrid herring has been utterly absent from these shores -- until today, when Dave Arnold invited me to come crack open a (ominously bulging) can of it that he'd smuggled back from Sweden. Scientific curiosity demanded that I investigate.

    Joined by Harold McGee and several other Friends of Dave with assorted degrees of gameness, we cracked the can open in a well-ventilated park. It didn't squirt vile juices for meters, as I'd been told to expect; just fizzed and bubbled a little as the noxious gases vented from their confinement. The air filled with the odor of used diapers; perhaps used diapers at the seashore. The flavor molecules in surströmming include skatole -- named for the Greek word for dung -- as well as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and a couple named putrescine and cadaverine that are also found in decaying corpses.

    Dave and McGee were the first to tuck in. Dave, it is safe to say, survived the experience; but McGee -- the only one of us who'd eaten surströmming before -- thoroughly enjoyed it. "It doesn't have any of the vomit flavor that the last batch did," he mused.

    I enjoyed it too, after a moment's acclimation. The eye-watering sulfurous odor -- like rotten eggs and raw onions -- and the unchanged-baby odor predominated, but the salty deliciousness of cured herring came through. Especially on a piece of dark bread with some sliced red onion, the experience was more like eating cured fish while sitting next to a dumpster than eating actually rotten fish. The anaerobic fermentation (by Haloanaerobium bacteria that can survive in a brine salty enough to kill deadly Clostridium) gives it a slippery, disintegrating texture that's somewhat alarming, but on the whole I would do it again. Here's to you, Jonas Bonnier!


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    This Week in the Future, April 16-20, 2012 Baarbarian

    This week in news that definitely happened and is full of verifiable facts, a paper-swathed superman closed the lid on his CrabOS laptop to fight a gargantuan deformed flying shrimp and saved the world forever.

    Want to win this heroic Baarbarian illustration on a T-shirt? It's easy! The rules: Follow us on Twitter (we're @PopSci) and retweet our This Week in the Future tweet. One of those lucky retweeters will be chosen to receive a custom T-shirt with this week's Baarbarian illustration on it, thus making the winner the envy of their friends, coworkers and everyone else with eyes. (Those who would rather not leave things to chance and just pony up some cash for the t-shirt can do that here.) The stories pictured herein:

    And don't forget to check out our other favorite stories of the week:


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  • 04/23/12--06:50: The Human Element
  • Live Fighters Aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, pilots play a key role in shows of force and complex missions. Even as drones become integrated into the fleet, pilots will lead. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tommy Lamkin
    Why drones won't be taking over our wars anytime soon

    Early in 2008 on the Black Sea coast, a Georgian drone flying over the separatist enclave of Abkhazia transmitted an instantaneous artifact from the age of human flight-the video record of its own destruction by an attacking fighter jet. What happened that day was born of incendiary post-Soviet politics. The Kremlin backed Abkhazia and was furious that Georgia had bought surveillance drones to watch over the disputed ground. Georgia's young government flaunted its new fleet, bullhorning to diplomats and to journalists like me what the drones were documenting of Russia's buildup to war. I remember the Georgian bravado. We have drones. Ha! We have arrived. Tensions led to action. Action came to this: A Russian MiG-29 intercepted one of Georgia's unmanned aircraft, an Israeli-made Hermes 450, which streamed live video of the fighter swinging into position. The jet pilot fired a heat-seeking missile. Viewed on the drone operator's screen down below, the missile grew larger and its exhaust plume grew longer as it rushed near. Then the screen went fuzzy. Georgia's drone was dead.

    Decades from now, those few seconds of video might be cued for knowing laughs-remember when fighter jets ruled the skies, and drones were helpless before them? Cautious minds best not bet against that. But that day is long off. For now, the video delivers the opposite message. The Hermes 450's lopsided encounter with a MiG served to remind people that, for the foreseeable future, the roles of traditional military fighter and attack aircraft-flown by men and women buckled inside-remain secure. Drones are a complement, not a replacement, to the aircraft flown by the people within.

    There are many reasons for this. Stepping past the unsettled questions of morality and law, the restraints on drones are connected to a pair of stubbornly related facts: Technical limits restrict the missions that unmanned aircraft can perform, and drones, for all their abilities, are very vulnerable machines. Whatever futurists predict, in the arena of air-to-air warfare, drones can neither reliably defend themselves nor consistently elude a determined attack. The best models might excel at patient surveillance or electronic jamming, or be lethal to stationary targets on the ground. But when faced with another plane, they can't really fight. This is why American drones have been used most extensively and successfully in places, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq, that offer politically permissive airspace or where the presence of friendly pilots keeps potential foes away.

    What this means is that drones present a new variable in an old equation. This is an age in which different types and classes of aircraft work alongside one another. Just as helicopters and fighter jets coexist (along with transport aircraft, re-fuelers, electronic warfare platforms and strategic bombers), unmanned aircraft fill niches in a complex force. Early this year, I lived aboard an American aircraft carrier for roughly three weeks and flew backseat on an F/A-18 combat sortie over Afghanistan. Drones crowded much of the airspace over Afghanistan, watching over American units, searching for the Taliban and occasionally dropping ordnance. But fighter and ground-attack aircraft crowded the skies, too, and pilots were in constant radio contact with the troops below, ready to provide strafing runs or air strikes for any unit that needed help-missions that drones do not do well. The roles for drones expand with each new design cycle. But beyond close air support, there are missions that cannot yet be flown remotely, and will not be flown remotely anytime soon.

    Warfare drones can neither reliably defend themselves nor consistently elude a determined attack. Faced with another plane, they can't really fight. Imagine, for a moment, a dogfight. Now imagine trying to design and manufacture a machine that can do what the combination of a trained pilot and weapon-system officer and modern strike fighter do. To understand how aerial combat is different from the many missions that drones have performed successfully, like the slow loiter over a target to watch a suspected Taliban gathering spot, it is helpful to distill what is required of a pilot and aircraft as they close in on another fighter plane. A dogfight comes to this: Whoever is operating the first aircraft must perceive the second aircraft, assess its capabilities, anticipate where that other aircraft will be-both in the next few seconds and beyond-and then maneuver into a position to counter any threats from the opposing aircraft and to make, to use the language of war, a killing shot.

    Click here to view this article on a single page, or continue to page two below.
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    Other factors enter the scenario and give an aerial fight its context. These include weather, changes in terrain (such as the nearby presence of mountains), fuel levels, emotion, rules of engagement, the proximity and attitude of other aircraft (including commercial aircraft that could enter the battle area), the weapons and defensive packages on each combatant aircraft, and the ambient and background thermal conditions that influence some of them, especially heat-seeking missiles. Pilots and backseaters absorb all of these factors and make decisions at a snap, often as both aircraft fly through G-multiplying dives and turns at tremendous speeds. A ground-attack aircraft can rely on similar acrobatics. One pilot I saw being debriefed by an admiral after returning from an airstrike to help pinned-down American troops near the Pakistan border described rapidly planning an attack angle to release his bomb and then having to bank hard and almost vertically to prevent his F/A-18 from entering Pakistan's airspace. This was a case of precision, high-speed flying that could prove impossible in the near future for a remotely piloted aircraft.

    To be sure, fighter- and attack-aircraft crews praise drones, which they see as having carved out a vital place in modern air forces. They also see where drones might hit a set of design hurdles. The first would be to develop a full mix of sensors and a means to fuse all of the gathered data together, so that a remote pilot might have an idea of what is happening to, and around, an aircraft in a distant piece of sky. This technology does not exist. Even if a sensor suite were created to inhale this information instantly, detractors might say that no one could write the algorithms to handle the real-time permutations required for a remotely piloted aircraft to assess risk and make decisions as quickly as a human. Moreover, some of what happens in the mind of a pilot in a cockpit is guided by feel for his aircraft, something that comes from ability, training and experience. How do you capture that in an app?

    The second design hurdle has to do with the limits of compromise. To make a drone more maneuverable, it would need a larger engine. A larger engine drives up size and weight, which means the aircraft must carry more fuel and will most likely lose in-flight loiter time. More sensors would probably change the profile of a drone, increasing its radar reflection and reducing its stealth. Almost every time features are added, the drone changes, and those changes come with costs.

    "The biggest limitation that you're talking about with drones is connectivity." With remoteness, a pilot might lose the ability to control his craft.But the sensors and the software and the push-pull tension inherent in drone design are only part of it. Captain Dale Horan, a career Navy fighter pilot who recently served on a deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq as the commander of Carrier Air Wing 9, has an accommodating view about the technology and the programs that could be created. The real limit, he says, might not lie at the programmer's cubicle. If the right sensor suite existed so that a pilot flying an aircraft remotely could see what he needs to see, and "if you have a high enough data rate, an algorithm probably can be generated to put the airplane in the right piece of sky to counter that threat." (It is not lost on pilots, or anyone else, that skeptics of the computer age once said no machine could ever best the masters at chess.) But then came the catch. "If the net is jammed or the data link is bad, that drone is not going to be able to make that correction," Horan says.
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    And there is a limit not often discussed. Any sensor system that could seize and interpret all the data required for a pilot to fly a dogfight remotely would face a technical challenge: transmitting that much data, in two directions, in real time. To sketch a crude example, imagine using your smartphone to remotely pilot an unmanned aircraft 1,000 miles away, at night, in bad weather, in skies crowded with a mix of friendly and commercial aircraft in different aviation corridors and altitudes. Now imagine trying to fly that same aircraft remotely when it is under a complex attack, and your smartphone signal grew weak or spotty. The reasons for the frustrating signal could be many-deliberate jamming, environmental interference, a broken part on either end or anywhere in between, or all of the above. Lieutenant Commander Fran Catalina, of VFA-41, a Navy F/A-18 squadron, put it this way: "The biggest limitation that you are talking about with drones is connectivity." With remoteness, a pilot might easily lose the ability to continuously pilot a complex aircraft-yet another reason fighter pilots are not going to be phased out anytime soon.

    A dogfight is only one example of a combat situation in which neither the sensors nor the data links would be robust enough. Similar problems would apply to attack aircraft flying into hostile airspace to strike a target. Consider an oft-discussed option: the laboratories of a nation's nuclear program. For the sake of war-gaming, assume that the approach will be beyond what pilots call non-permissive. The crews expect to face anti-aircraft gunfire and missile attacks from ground defenses, along with communications jamming and the potential for fighter jets scrambling to meet the sortie en route.

    Those who train for this kind of warfare know that no drone yet exists that could handle such a scenario. The drone would have to be alert to all of these factors, relay them to a remote pilot on the other side of the world, and make corrections in the time required to react. Missions like these will remain the work of the same classes of aircraft-and the pilots and weapon-systems officers who fly with them-who have been flying these missions for decades. With each design cycle, drones will no doubt be further integrated into the busy mix of a modern military air campaign and maybe, eventually, into missions over hostile airspace with anti-aircraft guns and enemy fighters. But humans will be up there with them, flying old-school pilot-on-the-ejection-seat flights and calling the shots. As that day perhaps draws near, the limits on where drones can fly will remain. The MiG that punched that Hermes 450 out of the sky laid out a fact unlikely to change soon. When the skies turned violent, all the Hermes could do, in the end, was watch-even its own fiery end.

    C.J. Chivers, a former marine, is a senior writer for the New York Times and the author of The Gun, a social history of the AK-47.


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    The Ring Nebula Composite Image Data - Subaru Telescope (NAOJ), Hubble Legacy Archive; Processing and additional imaging - Robert Gendler

    Gaze into the center of the Ring Nebula, which appears from Earth's vantage to be a "barrel-shaped cloud of glowing gas." Let it take your mind away from Earthly concerns, from taxes and homework and bosses and bills and hangnails. Let it relax you like a spa treatment in which you are plunged into a bath of exotic foreign muds in a container made of exotic foreign woods. Let it open your mind to the wonders of the universe, which dwarf your problems, even your roommate who opened a brand-new box of Triscuits without asking. It's one thing to eat a few crackers, but to open a new box, to unseal the inner bag? That's just--no. Look at the nebula. Relax. [APOD]


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    No Hands Cadillac "Super Cruise" is designed to ease a driver's workload, according to the luxury carmaker. General Motors
    Relax your hands and feet while this car drives for you

    Though driverless cars are making plenty of inroads, it may be awhile yet before people are willing to hand over the keys and let their cars take over entirely. But a few autonomous functions may make the transition smoother. Cadillac is testing lane-detection and automatic braking technology for use on highways, according to General Motors.

    This feature, called "Super Cruise," could be available within a couple years. Model year 2013 Cadillac ATS and XTS sedans already have a new package called Driver Assist, which uses an array of sensors to detect forward and rear obstacles and potentially avert crashes. The cars have lane departure warnings, a head-up display, blind zone alerts, automatic braking capability and more, Cadillac says.

    Much of this technology forms the basis for Super Cruise, which basically gives the car more responsibility. Moving from simple lane-drift warnings to self-adjusting lane centering tech is the next step, Cadillac says. Future models will have cameras to detect lane markings - which must be pretty bright and distinctive to work - and GPS data to detect and prepare for road curves and obstacles. It may not work when it's raining or when lane markers are unclear, however.

    Combined with the self-centering lane tech and automatic braking, highway commutes could be entirely car-operated. The technology would "lighten the driver's workload," as GM put it in a news release. Personally, I don't consider driving to be a lot of work - I kind of enjoy it - but maybe the typical luxury-car-buyer would find it a plebeian chore.

    As we've seen before, Cadillac is not the first luxury carmaker to adopt this technology - Mercedes is using cameras, radar and other sensors on some of its vehicles. GM says the highway-driving cars could be available by mid-decade.

    [GM via PhysOrg]


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    HTV-2 in Flight You can't imagine the shutter speed our photographer had to use to capture this shot (kidding). DARPA
    At 13,000 miles per hour, these things happen

    After roughly eight months of crunching the data, DARPA has released its official report on exactly what happened to its Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the Mach 20 test vehicle it launched into the atmosphere last summer only to lose contact with it nine minutes later. The conclusion: HTV-2 was moving so blisteringly fast that it tore right out of its own skin.

    HTV-2 was launched as a hypersonic experiment, the second of its kind launched by DARPA (the first one, launched in 2010, failed to complete its flight as well) aimed at probing the heretofore unexplored envelope of hypersonic flight--flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. But HTV-2 wasn't designed to explore the low end of the hypersonic realm. Notching speeds of 13,000 miles per hour, last summer's flight of HTV-2 demonstrated three minutes of continuously stable flight at Mach 20 before its handlers lost contact with the vehicle.

    At that point, DARPA gave us a few details regarding HTV-2's prematurely terminated flight. Some kind of flight anomaly was encountered, the agency said, and the vehicle's flight safety systems kicked in and put it into a controlled dive, just as they were designed to do. But the agency couldn't tell us exactly what kind of anomaly the vehicle encountered, because presumably DARPA engineers themselves didn't yet know.

    Now, after months of review, DARPA has issued a statement describing what happened and what the agency has learned. In short, HTV-2 was tearing through the atmosphere at such a tick that its skin peeled away from the airframe, exposing gaps on the vehicles surface. At 13,000 miles per hour, these breaches in the vehicle's carefully groomed aerodynamic exterior are highly problematic.

    "The resulting gaps created strong, impulsive shock waves around the vehicle as it travelled nearly 13,000 miles per hour, causing the vehicle to roll abruptly," DARPA said in a statement. "Based on knowledge gained from the first flight in 2010 and incorporated into the second flight, the vehicle's aerodynamic stability allowed it to right itself successfully after several shockwave-induced rolls. Eventually, however, the severity of the continued disturbances finally exceeded the vehicle's ability to recover."

    Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that HTV-2 was able to right itself initially and re-stabilize its flight--it did, after all, fly for nine minutes total and three minutes at Mach 20, demonstrating that DARPA's team is indeed honing its hypersonic skills. There are no more HTV flights currently on DARPA's schedule, but the data gathered from this most recent attempt and the report recently issued on it will be carried further in ground testing of thermal uncertainties, new heat-withstanding materials, etc.

    In other words, this isn't over. The DoD and DARPA eventually want a vehicle that can reach any place on the planet in less than one hour (and presumably deliver some kind of as-yet undefined payload there). With a thicker skin, HTV-2 might just get there.

    [DARPA]


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    Solving the Math Silenceofnight via Flickr

    Along with predicting our future behaviors, brain scans can guess when we're about to make a cognitive error, mis-processing a math problem because we're thinking too hard. Like a dashboard widget watching your computer's RAM, brain wave patterns can be used to detect when the brain is approaching its limits of processing power, according to new research.

    Federico Cirett at the University of Arizona was studying learning differences among non-native English speakers versus fluent English speakers, and noticed the non-fluent people had more difficulty answering various types of questions. He attached an EEG to volunteers' heads to monitor their brain activity as they solved math problems on the SAT exam, and tried to figure out why they were distracted.

    The measurements were correlated with questions about how engaged the students were, their perceived levels of difficulty, and their feelings of frustration, according to the U of A, where Cirett is completing a Ph.D. The subjects were all university students, according to a university news release.

    An EEG monitors waves of activity in the brain, and Cirett wrote an algorithm that classifies different types of waves. He examined the students' responses about frustration levels, and came up with a system that can predict how well they'll do on a given problem. Ultimately, within about 20 seconds of starting a problem, Cirett could deduce via students' brain activity whether or not they would get it right, he says. The system works with 80 percent accuracy, much better than chance.

    Surely everyone knows how it feels when your brain is overworked - that sense of fuzziness, distraction and slowness that can be the hallmark of an extremely busy Monday. So it makes sense that brain scans could pick up this feeling, noting when your brain is about to be overloaded.

    Cirett and his collaborators wrote a paper about their work and will present it at a User Modeling, Adaptation and Personalization conference in Montreal in July.

    [via IT World]


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    Inversion Flying Object Festo

    Flying objects can achieve forward thrust in a few ways, but here's a unique new one: Flipping inside out to move forward. Designed by the people who brought us the amazing robot seagull, the SmartInversion flying object can move through the air indefinitely.

    The object is based on a design envisioned by inventor Paul Schatz. It's a six-sided articulated ring of prisms that attaches to a cube, and when it's unleashed, it can start folding into new geometric shapes. As it turns itself inside out, it moves forward. This property of kinematics is called inversion.

    The object is filled with helium so it will float in the air. It's on display this week at the Hannover Messe technology trade show in Germany, where users will be able to control it with a smartphone, as seen in the video below. New Scientist reports that it's held together by a carbon-fiber framework, and three motors control its motion, governed by a pre-programmed onboard computer.

    Designers at Festo, also known for their nature-inspired robots, are now sponsoring a competition for students to figure out some practical uses for this thing.

    It looks like the folded-square paper fortune-cookie game thing I used to play with in grade school. I have no idea what it's really called, but some of you probably know what I'm talking about. Watch it fly here.

    [via New Scientist]

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    It gives the term skeleton key a whole new meaning: a prototype system from AT&T Labs that beams a unique vibration through a user's bones to be picked up by a receiver in a door handle, automatically unlocking the door at the touch of the handle. Using piezoelectric transducers, the system could someday be embedded in smartphones or wristwatches to create doors that automatically unlock when the right person touches them and stay firmly dead-bolted when anyone else tries to gain entry.

    In the future, in other words, you are your own set of keys. According to InnovationNewsDaily, the system works via frequencies that humans can't feel but could hear in a very quiet room. These acoustic signals travel from one piezoelectric transducer through human bones much the way sound waves vibrate through the skull and inner ear to enable our sense of hearing. The vibration travels straight through the body including through the hand, which can impart the signal to anything it touches. Put another piezoelectric transducer in the door handle, and the door can identify the person touching the handle and grant entry appropriately.

    But it's not just the raw acoustic signal that the door is analyzing. The brains behind this prototype key have found that different skeletons--different bone densities and lengths, etc.--degrade the acoustic signals in different ways. That means that in future iterations of their system, only the right combination of signal and skeleton would open the door. In other words, someone couldn't just steal your phone and use it to open your car door or your apartment--without your unique skeletal fingerprint added to the signal, the door would remain closed. And it might text or email you to let you know someone tried to gain entry without the right key.

    All that is pretty neat, especially considering that the applications for this wouldn't have to stop at door locks. Other individual-specific implements could be rigged to recognize different people, so a car shared by a family could automatically adjust the driver's seat and mirrors when a new person stepped into the car, or a computer could switch to the right parental settings depending on whether Dad or Junior is touching the keyboard. More about this over at InnovationNewsDaily.

    [InnovationNewsDaily]


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    The Devastation Following the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami U.S. Navy

    When the Tohoku earthquake struck Japan in March of last year, seismometer data allowed authorities to issue earthquake earnings within eight seconds of first realizing something was seismologically amiss. But their initial readings were not fully accurate, labeling the ‘quake a magnitude 7.1. It took authorities another 20 minutes to revise the magnitude to its real value of 9. Just ten minutes later, the tsunami hit.

    Researchers at NASA and a group of universities think they can issue more accurate readings faster using global positioning data, thus allowing officials to more accurately assess risks and issue better-informed warnings up to ten times faster. They are currently testing a system via hundreds of GPS receivers that dot the Pacific Northwest, providing realtime measurements of ground movement in the Cascadia subduction zone, the tectonic region there with the potential to produce magnitude-9 ‘quakes. When the ground literally moves within the zone covered by the GPS receivers, that location data reaches the lab in just a tenth of a second.

    That allows researchers to fix the location of the epicenter within about half a second, and can give researchers dozens of seconds of notice before seismic waves make it to a populated area, depending on the location of the epicenter. Those handful of seconds aren't so helpful when it comes to issuing earthquake warnings. But in the case of a strong earthquake that could spawn a devastating tsunami like that triggered by the Tohoku event, this quick characterization of the earthquake could save lives.

    The reason: seismometers are great at accurately fixing a value to small earthquakes. But they have trouble distinguishing between, say, a magnitude-7 and a magnitude-8, and even more trouble the higher you go up the scale. This is partially because big quakes may shake the terrain for longer rather than harder. And its a problem that GPS doesn't really have to deal with.

    By measuring the actual movement of the ground during an earthquake event via GPS, scientists can quickly and accurately define the magnitude of the earthquake, and of any aftereffects it might cause, like tsunami. In the case of Tohoku, the seismologists had underestimated the magnitude of the quake by nearly two full points. That means the early tsunami warnings that went out didn't account for the full potential of the tsunami risk.

    Using the Tohoku earthquake data as a model, the NASA/university research team nailed the true magnitude in just two minutes--ten times faster than the seismometer data in Japan allowed back in March 2011. With faster and more accurate earthquake assessments, authorities can issue better warnings for associated threats like tsunamis--and hopefully that ten-fold savings in time can translate to lives saved. More on this over at Nature.

    [Nature]


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    Intel Ivy Bridge Processors Intel

    If you buy a cheapie laptop, you're going to get onboard graphics--historically underpowered, since they exist on the same die as the CPU, and thus historically crappy. To play serious games, or do any real video editing, you'd need to upgrade to a discrete graphics card. But that looks like a thing of the past: today, Intel unleashed its new generation of processors, which go by the name Ivy Bridge, and what had seemed like an incremental upgrade actually has a pretty interesting element: these processors have onboard graphics that basically outclass the entire market of entry-level graphics cards. That means your next computer will be able to run games you'd never be able to run now--with no necessary hardware upgrades.

    PCWorld has a good overview with a whole bunch of benchmarks, if you're interested in seeing the specifics, but the basic idea is that Intel has placed a much higher focus on the onboard graphics capabilities, a focus continued from the current-gen Sandy Bridge line--so much so that they actually surpass the current crop of entry-level aftermarket graphics cards. (Otherwise these chips are focused mostly on size and power consumption rather than major new features or power.) That's due to some careful internal restructuring of the GPU, according to PCWorld:

    Intel has made enhancements to the GPU engine to improve efficiency, but other factors help to mitigate the clock-rate differential, too. First, the new HD 4000 GPU contains 16 execution units, versus the 12 built into Sandy Bridge. Second, Ivy Bridge supports DDR3-1600 memory, as opposed to the Sandy Bridge memory controller, which officially supports only DDR3-1333. Ivy Bridge gains 25 percent more parallel compute power and higher potential throughput due to the added memory bandwidth.

    What we like here is that beyond all the wonkiness, the new chips have some big, obvious improvements for users. There are two levels of GPU, the HD 2500 and HD 4000. The latter will allow gamers to play graphics-intensive games like the new Metro 2033 and Just Cause 2 at playable framerates--definitely something that wasn't possible before with onboard graphics. Both the 2500 and 4000 support DirectX 11 and three independent displays, too. And these chips will be everywhere: Mac, Windows, laptops, desktops, big power hogs, svelte ultrabooks. Everywhere. Which is great! And it also probably means you should hold off for a month or two if you're shopping for a new computer.


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    Drill Dentists Kevin Hand

    Next year, workers will start digging a 1.7-mile tunnel underneath downtown Seattle using the world's largest tunnel-boring machine. The 57.5-foot-diameter, $80-million drill, which is currently under construction for the State Route 99 project, has about 600 cutting tools-steel bits and spinning disks on the borer's face that break up dirt and rock. The tools may need to be inspected as often as every 400 feet, or about 20 times over the course of construction.

    The Problem: Accessing the front of a boring machine that's already belowground is hard, particularly in deep tunnels, where the air pressure is dangerously high. Repairing cutting tools, therefore, is typically a task for workers who must spend time in hyperbaric chambers each time they visit the machine to acclimate to the pressure. (Two hundred feet belowground in an enclosed tunnel can get as high as 5 bars-the equivalent of being 165 feet deep in open water.) Crews retract the front of the machine to create a space ahead where a group of about five workers operates while wearing special helmets for breathing in those conditions. They use pneumatic wrenches and hammers to loosen the teeth, and pneumatic pulleys, hoists and chains to tug them out. After installing the new bits or disks, the team returns to the surface. Replacing a single tool could take up to four hours.

    The Solution: Engineers on the Seattle project have modified the design of the drill, manufactured by Hitachi Zosen, so that workers can replace the teeth from inside the safety of the machine itself. The new borer is large enough that people can work just behind the drill face at aboveground atmospheric pressure. An automated system retracts the cutting tools into the chamber, where a crew can make repairs. The chamber is also roomy enough to accommodate hydraulic pulleys and other hydraulic machines, which are more powerful than their pneumatic counterparts. The better equipment, combined with the safety and freedom from working at sea-level pressure, could make repairs about four times as fast.


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    Small Asteroids Could be Captured by Spacecraft and Mined for Water and Minerals Planetary Resources Inc.

    Since the announcement last week that a team of high-profile backers--Eric Schmidt and Larry Page from Google, filmmaker James Cameron, Ross Perot Jr. (son of the former presidential candidate), space tourism pioneer Eric Anderson, and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, among others--is launching a company that will "overlay two critical sectors-space exploration and natural resources-to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," media speculation has generally centered on one thing: asteroid mining. And this morning, hours before the official press conference launching Planetary Resources Inc., that speculation appears to be confirmed.

    At 1:30 p.m. EDT today, Planetary Resources will officially unveil its plans to use robotic spacecraft to exploit the mineral riches of the thousands of known near-earth objects passing through Earth's neighborhood, as well as its intention to discover thousands more of them. The company reportedly hopes to establish not just a single mission but an entire framework for mining asteroids in space, including in-space "gas stations" that process water ice found on asteroids into hydrogen and oxygen for use in rocket fuels.

    All of that will come further down the road, but the company has more immediate plans to begin putting enabling infrastructure into space. Any mining expedition begins with a period of prospecting, and the first phase of Planetary Resources' project calls for the launch of inexpensive high-performance telescopes into low-earth orbit within the next two years to begin logging the locations and orbits of various asteroids hurtling through Earth's neighborhood. These same telescopes will serve as testbeds for future instruments that will fly closer to asteroids to study their compositions in further detail.

    After that, it's a matter of identifying the right asteroid and building the spacecraft capable of moving it and mining it for both water and platinum group metals like palladium, iridium, and platinum itself. It's a huge undertaking, but one that independent bodies like the Keck Institute for Space Studies have said is not unfeasible over the next decade or two, given the right blend of technology and financial backing.

    We'll be covering the press conference at 1:30 p.m. EDT and following it up with additional coverage here, so stay tuned.

    [SPACE]


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    Found Tucked into the December 1928 Issue Could it contain a password?
    Something is odd in the PopSci archives

    The complete back issues of this magazine-all 1,680 of them-are stored in a walk-in closet in our New York offices. We don't often visit the place. It's musty and locked, and only one person keeps a key. But to put together our May issue on the Future of Flight, which arrives the same month that Edward L. Youmans founded Popular Science Monthly in 1872, we spent many hours there. During our sojourn, things took a turn for the strange.

    We were tracing the history of aviation through the pages of PopSci when we found, in our December 1928 issue, a note. It appeared to be a list of other issues-all flight-related. It had a Web address, too. And it was written on modern PopSci stationery. We visited the URL and discovered an encrypted page within our online archives. We asked our IT department to access it. They couldn't. But while they were trying to hack in, they discovered that others had visited, and recently; there had been a spike in traffic.

    Was whomever was going there the same person-or people-who broke into our closet? What does the note mean? Who wrote it? And to what purpose? Could it help us get into the encrypted archive?

    Please help us piece this together. We've scanned and posted the note (above) and the covers of the issues it seems to list. Can you make any sense of it? Sure, it might just be some practical joke. But something tells us it isn't.


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    When proteins go rogue, polymers get busy

    Good news in the battle for the brain: Researchers in Sweden and Switzerland have found that toxic prions--diseased variants of naturally occurring neural proteins--can be both detected and treated with a novel kind of self-illuminating polymer. In tests, the researchers have shown that their molecules can render prions harmless, paving the way for treatments for degenerative and potentially fatal nervous system diseases, including Alzheimer's.

    Prions are a big problem when they get loose in the brain. They tend to clump together in groups, affecting surrounding nerve cells and usually leading to brain damage and eventually death--sometimes a very rapid death. Illnesses caused by prions can be inherited, but they can also be spontaneous or spread through infection, as is the case with mad cow disease, a fairly well-known prion condition. Once prions begin aggregating and replicating in the nervous tissue they can populate at an exponential rate, making treatment very difficult.

    The luminescent conjugated polymers, or LCPs, were tested at University Hospital in Zurich on brain tissue taken from mice infected with prions. Results from those tests showed that the number of prions present in the tissue decreased significantly after the introduction of LCPs, as did their overall toxicity--the first time such an effective treatment has been demonstrated. LCPs still need a rigorous scientific vetting of course, but the initial results are quite promising for the future treatment of diseases like mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jacobs.

    Moreover, the results could have implications for the treatment of that holy grail of neurological disorders, Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's isn't a prion disorder, strictly speaking. It is caused by amyloid plaque buildup, which has a similar degrading effect on the brain but one that is slower to take effect than those associated with prion diseases. The researchers want to take their LCPs further and test them on fruit flies imbued with an Alzheimer's analog disorder to see if they are effective at treating ailments similar to prion diseases as well.


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  • 04/24/12--10:55: Will You Use Google Drive?
  • Google Drive Google

    Google has been rumored to be working on a cloud storage service for about as long as we've known what cloud storage is, and today the company finally unveiled it: Google Drive. It has a couple of nice features that competitors like Dropbox, MobileMe, SkyDrive and all the others don't, but the main selling point seems to be the same selling point as most other new Google services: hell, you're already using Google. Why not add this? So we're curious: will you?

    Primer time! If you already know what I mean when I say "it's like Dropbox, but from Google," skip this paragraph and go on to the next one. (It's like a choose your own adventure game, without adventure, and with information!) Everyone else, here's what's going on: Cloud services give you a folder on your computer into which you drag whatever you'll want to access later, whether it's documents, photos, music, videos, or anything else. That's synced automatically to your cloud drive, out in a server somewhere, and you can access or share those files from any supported device (which includes computers, tablets, and smartphones). It's great! You don't have to worry about where your stuff is anymore, because you can always get to it, and you don't need to worry about emailing attachments that are too big, because you can just share files from your cloud drive, which has a whole bunch of space.

    Google Drive doesn't bring many crazy-new features to cloud storage, though there are a few new ideas. We're actually pretty excited about the search functions, which might turn out to be a major differentiating factor. There's this image recognition element, so Google Drive will look through even scanned images with text, or files like PDFs that aren't normally searchable, and index all of that as well, which is something no other service has. At the Drive demonstration, a Google rep took a picture of a typewritten paper document with a phone, then sent it to Google Drive, where it was scanned and recognized. Pretty cool stuff.

    And it promises to be nicely integrated with all of the Google services you love, like Gmail and YouTube and Google Docs, and also with those other services you're aware of, like Google Plus. You can open and view, says Google, over 30 kinds of files, including Photoshop and video files, even if you don't have Photoshop or video editing software on whatever device you're accessing those files with. And you can share and comment on those files directly from Gmail and Google Plus (though it's worth mentioning that many Gmail clients support other cloud services, like the Sparrow client with Dropbox).

    Google Drive is apparently available now, though I see a button that says "Your Google Drive is not ready yet" on the Drive page, for Mac, PC, and Android. iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad are soon to come--they were used at the demo, so they're probably not far off. Drive starts off with 5GB for free, though you can upgrade--$2.50 a month gets you 25GB, and pricing goes all the way up to 16 terabytes of storage. (This is basically the average price, though Microsoft's SkyDrive offers a ridiculous 100GB for free.)

    So here's what we're wondering: will you guys use this? Will Dropbox users drop Dropbox (eek) and switch? Will the fact that Drive is thoroughly integrated into the Google ecosystem be enough to tempt those who were never tempted by cloud storage before?


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    Asteroid Eros This spud-shaped rock is asteroid 433 Eros. Gregory W. Nemitz claimed to own it and aims to develop it. In 2003, he sued NASA in search of parking fees after the NEAR spacecraft alighted on it. NEAR Project/NLR/JHUAPL/NASA
    Who has the rights to property in space?

    Presuming Planetary Resources builds a fleet of prospecting space telescopes, locates mineral-bearing space rocks, gets to them and successfully mines them, then what? Can a corporation lay claim to these protoplanetary leftovers, and can they really sell them? Or are they part of our common celestial heritage, priceless pieces of early creation that should be protected?

    For a lot of reasons, the legal ramifications of today's asteroid mining announcement are almost as complex as the technological ones.

    "As far as law is concerned, there's nothing inherently in the space treaties that prohibits this [mining]," said Henry Hertzfeld, a research professor at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and an associate professor of space law. "But there are a heck of a lot of unanswered questions."

    First of all, there's an important distinction between ownership of land or property and ownership of resources. It's the difference between owning the oceans, which you can't, and owning the fish that you take out of them, which you can. For now, it sounds like Planetary Resources is operating under the latter scenario, and is not laying claim to real estate or seeking property rights on the asteroids it seeks to mine.

    "The United States went to the moon, took hundreds of kilograms of moon rocks, and the U.S. owns those moon rocks," noted Art Dula, an attorney in Texas who teaches a space law course at the University of Houston law school. "The taking of minerals does not require a claim of sovereignty."

    At the heart of the space asset ownership debate is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a Cold War relic that prohibits establishment of colonies or sovereign rights on the moon or other celestial bodies. Private companies are not necessarily prohibited from establishing settlements, but the treaty also holds that states oversee and regulate these putative companies and their activities, and assume liability for any bad scenarios. (Speaking of which: We're still waiting to hear more about the safety aspects of this new plan, because slurping up or mining an asteroid would conceivably affect its orbital trajectory.... and that could be bad.)

    This liability factor, as well as Federal Aviation Administration licensing requirements and safety concerns, will be at issue as Planetary Resources develops its plans, Dula and Hertzfeld said. To Hertzfeld, the company's potential public partnerships - with NASA or other agencies - could be key. Space visionary and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman as well as founder of the X Prize competition, said Tuesday the company will serve the public as well as private enterprise, which Hertzfeld noted with interest.

    "If you can convince the government that there is a public mission, a public purpose, in doing a project of this sort, and be your partner, this is business as usual," Hertzfeld said. "If the government is going up, it doesn't need a license. It supervises itself, and assumes certain liabilities and risks."

    Some space colonization advocates argue that guaranteeing ownership of celestial real estate is a necessary precursor to developing that real estate. Just last month, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, proposed that the U.S. recognize off-planet property rights to spur space development. But Hertzfeld calls this a red herring.

    "How many companies own the land their buildings are on? A lot of them lease it, and behind that is a government guarantee that says this lease is valid," Hertzfeld said. "We can do something like that in space. ... Whether it's a UN system, a bilateral or multilateral agreement, that doesn't matter as long as the investors know they can maintain their return on investment. That's all that counts. The ownership of land is secondary."

    Dula, who spoke with PopSci before giving a lecture on asteroid mining at the law school, also said resource ownership is clearly allowed. "If you risked your life and treasure to go into space and obtain rocks or minerals, there's no reason they wouldn't belong to you, just like the Apollo samples belong to the United States," he said.

    As of now, the U.S. is the only entity to bring space objects home that would be of any value. The Japanese last year retrieved some space dust from the Hayabusa asteroid lander, but its value was purely scientific, not commercial. Bringing home loads of platinum, water or any other resource would be a different story, and there's no jurisprudence on that yet.

    Regarding property rights, the case of Gregory W. Nemitz and the Eros Project offers some perspective. Nemitz claimed ownership of asteroid 433 Eros, one of the largest asteroids in a near-Earth orbit and one with abundant supplies of aluminum, iron, potassium and magnesium, among other metals. The Eros Project seeks to establish a mining colony on the asteroid and develop these materials, according to its website. In 2000-2001, NASA's NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft orbited the asteroid and eventually landed on its surface. Nemitz sued NASA for parking fees. His case was dismissed, but NASA's arguments and reference to the Outer Space Treaty notes that space and space objects are "not subject to national appropriation."

    As long as Planetary Resources doesn't try to claim ownership of the asteroids it mines, this argument may not arise. But it's not a far leap to imagine what the company will do if competitors try to jump its mining claims.

    Both legal experts said the law is still immature, and would continue to develop as Planetary Resources moves forward and forms more specific plans.

    "We need to know what the ‘it' is first, and we don't," Hertzfeld said. "Their near-term plans are sort of standard space exploration stuff, science stuff. It's what happens after that, and what they actually want to do."


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    Planetary Resources wants to start mining asteroids, and there's no good reason why they cannot

    Billionaire-backed space startup Planetary Resources has officially unveiled its business plan to much fanfare and with few surprises. The company's principals--which include X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis, Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson, and former NASA Flight Director Chris Lewicki--today pledged that Planetary Resources would make the abundant resources of space available here on Earth, and introduced a couple of the company's own spacecraft that will make such space prospecting possible. The rush for space resources is officially on.

    Planetary Resources envisions a future in which the value of resources extracted from near earth asteroids (NEAs) totals tens of billions of dollars annually as robotic spacecraft deliver precious metals to Earth and water ice to orbiting space stations, outbound spacecraft, or space depots that will serve as orbital "gas stations" by processing water into hydrogen and oxygen, two key ingredients for chemical propulsion (oxygen could also be siphoned off for breathable air supplies).

    How will Planetary Resources pull it off? Details are a bit scarce at this point, as admittedly Planetary Resources itself hasn't exactly figured out the entire process. (We speculated a few months back about possible approaches to space mining.) But the company is somewhat far along when it comes to laying the groundwork for the commercial space sector's eventual push into deep space.

    The company unveiled designs for two new spacecraft it intends to deploy in the relatively near term--the Arkyd Series 100 Leo Space Telescope and the Arkyd Series 200 Interceptor--the former being slated for launch within the next two years. Further robotic spacecraft will be developed to evaluate asteroids for their water and mineral content and to eventually mine and perhaps relocate them to orbits more amenable to mining.

    Most importantly, Planetary Resources plans to do all this on the cheap. The first Arkyd Series 100 telescopes are expected to be relatively inexpensive, on the order of $10 million dollars each, and will hitch rides to low earth orbit aboard existing satellite launches. And the company's philosophy is centered on opening up deep space and the asteroids that live there to exploration while keeping the company's value proposition intact.

    Doing so is not going to be easy, but it does have its economic allure. There are roughly 9,000 NEAs currently on record, and that's estimated to be just one percent of the total NEAs out there larger than about 165 feet. A 1,600-foot diameter asteroid rich in platinum group metals--things like rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum itself--could yield the equivalent of all the platinum group metals ever mined on Earth, the company says.

    A single asteroid could offer up billions or even tens of billions of dollars (depending on size and composition) in mineral wealth even if it cost a billion or two to mine. That's not even factoring the water, which itself becomes a precious commodity in the decidedly dry climate of space. As such, initial exploration will focus on water-rich asteroids, as Planetary Resources appears to view its goal of establishing a means to harvest and supply water in space to be of equal importance to extracting precious metals. The H2O these NEAs provide will serve as a crucial enabler to further deep space exploration, and a linchpin in the in-space infrastructure Planetary Resources hopes to install at points beyond low earth orbit.

    While Planetary Resources hasn't thrown back the curtain on exactly how their mining operation will unfold, it's important to note at this point that while some of this may sound like it's on the fringe of what's possible--and it certainly is--there's no great reason to doubt the company's ability to deliver on this goal. Planetary Resources has financial backing in spades, including the likes of Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate and billionaire. And with funds in place, practical aspects become less daunting. Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) released a report (PDF) just this month on the feasibility of retrieving an asteroid from its orbit in deep space and placing it somewhere more accessible and convenient--perhaps at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points where the gravity between the two larger bodies would hold it more or less stationary (relative to the moon, anyhow).

    The KISS analysis concluded that not only would something like this be safe--any orbital instability would send the asteroid toward the moon rather than Earth--but that given the current pace of technology, we could reel in a 500-ton asteroid by 2025 at a cost of roughly $2.6 billion. Given the value of the extractable resources, that might not be such a high price to pay.

    Then there's the value that can't really be quantified with dollars. Planetary Resources is talking about cheaply and efficiently bringing vast supplies of platinum from space down to Earth. But the company is also talking about creating the technological and practical infrastructures needed to both establish a permanent presence at points far beyond low Earth orbit as well as to open up deep space for regular exploration via its in-space refueling stations. The company will also presumably hone humanity's capabilities when it comes to charting, characterizing, and eventually moving NEAs--skills that might come in quite handy should Earth find itself in the path of a so-called killer asteroid.

    But perhaps most intriguingly, should Planetary Resources succeed it will mark a true turning point for commercial space as an industry. Under President Obama's mandate, NASA is scheduled to land a human on an asteroid sometime around 2025. But that mandate is somewhat nebulous, and looking in from the outside it's difficult to tell if NASA is actively pursuing that milestone given its already full plate.

    NASA has a storied track record and Planetary Resources merely has some interesting Powerpoint slides, some big-money backers, and a press conference under its belt. But the fact remains that a successful Planetary Resources could at some point out-NASA NASA by doing things with (and on) asteroids that even the world's premier government-backed space agency hasn't yet accomplished. If Planetary Resources manages to do half of what it aims to do over the next decade or so, it will truly be venturing where no one has gone before.


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    Four Particles Jon Heras, Equinox Graphics Ltd.

    A real-world demonstration of a thought experiment conducted at the University of Vienna, has produced a result that is somewhat befuddling to people with what the lead researcher calls a "naïve classical world view." Two pairs of particles are either quantum-entangled or not. One person makes the decision as to whether to entangle them or not, and another pair of people measure the particles to see whether they're entangled or not.

    The head-scratcher is: the measurement is made before the decision is made, and it is accurate. "Classical correlations can be decided after they are measured," says Xiao-song Ma, the writer of the study. Entanglement can be created "after the entangled particles have been measured and may no longer exist."

    The finding can be integrated into potential quantum computers, one hopes. Causality, clearly, is a quaint, irrelevant concept.

    [Nature]


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