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    Rogue Wave

    Rogue Wave

    A 60 foot rogue wave overtakes the tanker Overseas Chicago in 1993.

    It's bad enough to be on the sea during a storm, with the ship rocking in the high winds and rolling with the tempest-tossed waves. But it could always be worse.

    Rogue waves are twice as large as the surrounding waves, which in stormy seas can be absolutely massive. Seafarers have reported waves like this over 110 feet tall, large enough to swamp a ship.

    Rogue waves are unpredictable, coming seemingly out of nowhere. Until now, the only warnings that a ship's crew had of an approaching rogue wave were the few seconds between when they saw the wall of water towering over their ship and when it struck. Now researchers at MIT think they may have developed a method that would allow ships to have 2-3 minutes of warning before a rogue wave appears. This could give them enough time to prepare for the hit or possibly maneuver the ship so that it hits the wave at a better angle (although the latter would be hard to do).

    By analyzing patterns in the ocean, mechanical engineer Themis Sapsis noticed that rogue waves could be identified by looking for groups of waves interacting, as opposed to the more independent waves that normally roil the oceans.

    “These waves really talk to each other,” Sapsis said. “They interact and exchange energy. It’s not just bad luck. It’s the dynamics that create this phenomenon.”

    Sapsis and his team developed an algorithm that looks for these patterns and can alert seafarers to unusual activity using sensors already onboard.

    By using high-resolution radar or LIDAR sensors to watch the movement of waves around a ship, and applying the algorithm developed by Sapsis, crews should be able to detect rogue wave minutes before they form, giving them enough time to adjust course, or at least hang on.

    The method hasn't been used in the field yet, so the next step will be ships or offshore platforms putting the system to the test.


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    Basketball

    Luol Deng hopes to score three for the Chicago Bulls in this game versus the Knicks in 2007.

    In 1993, a 27-year-old basketball player named Reggie Lewis died on the court during a game of sudden cardiac failure. It was tragic, and while deaths like these aren’t common, they’re more prevalent among basketball players than among other types of athletes. Basketball players are taller than the average person, and they exercise a lot, which makes their hearts larger. For some people, a big heart is just proportional and works just fine, but in others it can be an indication of a larger health issue that could cause fainting or even sudden cardiac death. And it can be hard to tell which one a basketball player has; many of them often fall into a "gray area" where playing the sport can either be safe or dangerous. Now researchers from Columbia University Medical Center have gathered data from more than 500 professional NBA players to clarify the difference between normal and dangerously enlarged hearts. Their study was published yesterday in JAMA Cardiology and reported by Stat News.

    In the study, the researchers took stress echocardiograms of the players’ hearts to get an idea of how well their hearts were working. The scientists used the results of the tests and the players’ height and body surface area to extrapolate important measurements of their hearts: the sizes of the left ventricle and left atrium, the heart's overall mass, the thickness of the heart walls, and the diameter of the aortic root (the tube-like part that links the aorta to the rest of the heart). That aortic root measurement proved to be one of the most significant, the researchers found—athletes with that part of the heart measuring more than 1.7 inches in diameter should be monitored closely, the researchers write, as players with oversized aortic roots might need rest or even surgery, as was the case with one player in 2012.

    The researchers acknowledge that they didn’t compare the athletes’ hearts against those of non-athletes who didn’t have enlarged hearts. And echocardiograms shouldn’t be the sole basis for doctors to determine if an athlete is suitable to play ball. But the study is an important step at eliminating the gray area between healthy and potentially dangerous enlarged hearts in basketball players—and maybe even in athletes in other sports like football where sudden cardiac death has happened, too.


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    Pluto

    Pluto

    The north pole of Pluto, marked with canyons.

    The latest view from the far reaches of the solar system is a cold one. Today, NASA released a new image of Pluto, showing the white and cream colored icy surface of the former planet known as Pluto.

    The beautiful image shows a detailed view of the ice-covered landscape.

    Annotated Version

    Annotated Version

    The yellow color marks a canyon 45 miles wide, with a valley (in blue) heading across the bottom. The green marks are smaller canyons. The pink highlights a nearby valley, while the red marks irregular pockmarks 45 miles wide and two miles deep.

    The photograph was taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto last July, gathering a stupendous amount of information.

    This new image shows a strange difference in color between the yellowish high elevations and lighter cream-colored low elevations. Scientists are still trying to decipher the reason for the color gradient.

    “One possibility is that the yellow terrains may correspond to older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain,” said New Horizons researcher Will Grundy.


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    Tech companies aren't exactly known for playing nice with one another. Apple and Microsoft were once the fiercest rivals of personal computing. These days, Apple is up against Google in smartphones, while Google and Microsoft battle it out over business software. Amazon is fighting Apple when it comes to devices and media, and Microsoft when it comes to cloud hosting services (among other markets). Facebook is crushing Twitter in terms of social media users, and now Facebook and Google are vying for more mobile Internet eyeballs and ad dollars.

    It's a rare day when all six of these companies can agree on something, but that day seems to have arrived, thanks to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

    Last week, a judge ordered Apple to comply with an FBI request that Apple help circumvent security features on an iPhone used by a San Bernardino shooting suspect. Today, Apple filed a motion to dismiss the order to help unlock the iPhone for the FBI, and now Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter all appear to be uniting behind Apple's move.

    Google first showed tepid support for Apple in this fight last week, when CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted that "forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy."

    Then it seemed like Microsoft might be siding with the FBI, when co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates gave an interview to the The Financial Times earlier this week saying that the FBI was only looking for Apple's help in this specific case. Apple has repeatedly contended that what the FBI is asking for — a way to bypass the auto-deletion feature on an iPhone 5C when a password is guessed incorrectly too many times — could be used to compromise other iPhones, including the hundreds of millions used by Apple's customers around the world.

    But Gates, who is now just an "advisor" at Microsoft, later walked back those remarks, and today Microsoft's president and chief legal officer Brad Sims testified before Congress that his company "wholeheartedly" supports Apple and will be filing an amicus brief in the court case to that effect (amicus briefs are legal documents filed by parties who aren't directly involved in the case, but who have a strong interest in the outcome and may be effected by it.)

    As it turns out, Microsoft isn't the only one about to do this: now Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are all coming together to file a joint amicus brief in support of Apple, according to USA Today. Amazon is also said to be working on "amicus brief options," according to a spokesperson who spoke to Buzzfeed.

    Other smaller tech companies and digital advocacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation have also said they plan to support Apple by filing such amicus briefs as the case moves forward.

    The broad, seemingly unified coalition in tech against the FBI and the government order in this case is striking. I can only think of a few examples where U.S. tech companies and advocacy groups formed anything like this kind of unanimous front in recent years, namely the opposition to the International Telecommunications Union cyber agreement of 2012, the successful bid to kill the American SOPA and PIPA cybersecurity bills of that same year, and the criticism of another failed cybersecurity bill called CISPA.

    Yet none of these examples have had so many big tech companies on the same side against a government. Whether the words of some of America's most powerful and well-known companies makes a difference to the courts, we'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, Apple and the FBI are set to testify to their positions in a hearing before the U.S. Congress on March 1st. Congress itself may end up passing a law that resolves this case and creates a framework for future situations like this.

    At stake is the issue of security and privacy of our most personal devices: can and should they be compromised at the government's bidding in criminal and terror investigations? And to what extent? That's the question before the courts and Congress now, and it seems that the FBI has succeeded in uniting most of Silicon Valley's power players against it.

    Correction: this article originally misstated the name of Google's CEO as Satya Nadella, who is in fact, Microsoft's CEO. We have since corrected the error and apologize for it.


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    NASA

    Drogue Chute Deploy

    After falling for about 11 minutes, it was time for the smaller drogue parachutes to deploy, beginning to slow the spacecraft's fall for a smooth splashdown.

    Images of round-bottomed capsule hanging beneath huge orange and white parachutes miles above the ocean are iconic of the Apollo era. But in many ways, splashdowns were a flawed landing method, so much so that NASA sunk $165 million into a paraglider development program in the mid-1960s with the goal of making splashdowns obsolete. Called the Rogallo wing, it was a runway landing system for the Gemini spacecraft that has become little more than a footnote in the history of America's Moonshot.

    Splashdowns

    Mercury, NASA’s first manned spaceflight program, is what you might call a crash program. The largely automated capsule launched on a missile was the quick and dirty way to get a man in space before the Soviet Union, not a sophisticated spacecraft that could lend itself to more complicated long-term programs. Having the spacecraft splashdown was an equally simplistic solution. Rather than work out the details of piloting through the atmosphere from space, engineers opted to take advantage of the Mercury spacecraft’s blunt bottomed shape that, paired with a heat shield, would protected it from the searing heat of reentry before it splashed down in the wide expanse of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The US Navy was the final piece of the puzzle, deploying ships to recover the astronaut newly returned to Earth.

    But for all their engineering simplicity, splashdowns brought with them a massive logistical challenge. Though mission engineers worked out every detail of a flight including the precise splashdown point, the potential was there for some unforeseen problem to change the precise landing location point by hundreds of miles. And so NASA had to employ enough Navy ships to locate and recover the astronaut in his primary splashdown location as well as a number of secondary and contingency zones. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom both flew suborbital missions in 1961 and had 10 and 8 ships Navy ships involved in their recovery respectively. The number more than doubled when NASA started putting men into orbit. For John Glenn’s 1962 mission, there were 23 ships in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. Wally Schirra’s flight in 1963 employed the largest Naval fleet with 21 ships stationed in the Atlantic and another 6 in the Pacific.

    It was somewhat ironic that NASA’s first spaceflight program used splashdowns. The Mercury astronauts were among the nation's physically fittest and most competent pilots who had distinguished themselves by their incredible ability to land troubled aircraft in averse situations. Now as astronauts, they were falling from the sky, risking drowning while the US Navy recovered them like wet rats. It was clear to NASA that taking advantage of the astronauts’ piloting prowess would not only be safer for them, it would be cheaper by cutting down the cost of hiring a massive portion of the Navy. Not to mention, the fighter jocks wanted to fly their spacecraft, not ride inside them like passengers. With all this in mind, the Mercury Mark II-turned-Gemini program developed with runway landings as a main program goal.

    NASA

    A Gemini Model with Paraglider

    The Rogallo Wing

    Runway landings from space weren’t entirely unheard of when program management started planning for Gemini. One of the early landing system proposals for the Mercury program had come from a research group at the Langley Research Laboratory. It called for a deployable wing that could turn the blunt-bodied capsule into a controllable gliding vehicle. The system was known as the Rogallo wing for its inventor, Francis Rogallo.

    Rogallo was an amateur kite flyer who, after beginning working on flexible wings designs in 1948, had been given lab space to bring his ideas to fruition at Langley in 1958. Months after partnering with the aeronautics-turned-space agency, Rogallo had a viable system on his hands. The final design was a two-lobe, single-curvature, suspension-load wing that combined the slowing properties of a parachute with the rigid flexibility of an airplane wing. Deployed in the final phases of reentry, it could turn a capsule with limited control into a pilotable vehicle.

    Too complicated for the inaugural Mercury program, the Rogallo wing was brought back for consideration for the Gemini program, though it wasn't the only new landing system engineers looked at. One proposal called for a simple parachute controlled landing with retrorockets (much like the Soyuz uses today). Another used ejection, the crude but effective method of having the astronaut eject from the spacecraft moments before touchdown (which was the method the Soviets were using at the time with the Vostok spacecraft, though this wasn't well known in the West at the time). A third possible system was a parasail, a sort of cross between a parachute and a paraglider. There was also some discussion of turning the Gemini spacecraft into a lifting body, turning it into a vehicle with aerodynamic properties inherent in its design.

    Gradually the list of possible landing systems was pared down to the parasail and the paraglider. Both were roughly equivalent in terms of weight, landing area requirements, speeds, and rate of descent, but the paraglider had one big advantage: it was far more manoeuvrable. That cinched it, and the bonus lay in the potential public response. If NASA could do something the Soviets couldn't in an era where the American space program was being beaten at every turn, it would certainly raise national morale.

    And so the Gemini paraglider was incorporated into the Gemini program with the understanding that it would persist into later program, notably Apollo, as well as any military programs that might arise from NASA technology. Splashdowns would remain as a backup landing method in case of emergency.

    NASA

    The Gemini-Rogallo Landing Sequence

    How It Was Meant to Work

    The theory of how a Gemini spacecraft would land by a Rogallo wing is fairly simple. The spacecraft would reenter the atmosphere from orbit using retrorockets just like the Mercury spacecraft did, beginning its fall through the atmosphere. The ablative heat shield would protect the astronauts from the fiery reentry associated with atmospheric friction. Once the spacecraft reached thicker air, the paraglider would deploy from one side of the spacecraft, reorienting it from a blunt side down orientation to an “upright" one. From the astronauts' perspective, it would feel as though they were in an aircraft as they looked out their half-moon windows at the runway in front of them.

    From there, landing would demand a whole new way of flying. The paraglider couldn't turn the spacecraft into a traditional aircraft; it didn't suddenly give the capsule ailerons or rudders for control. It also didn't totally turn the spacecraft into a glider since the wing generated some life but not enough to work on its own.

    The astronaut would control the mated spacecraft and paraglider by manipulating the cables connecting the wing to the spacecraft. By changing the wing’s angle relative to the capsule it would change the mated vehicle's centre of gravity, which in turn would change the angle and direction of the spacecraft's descent. Continual changes to the wing's angle would build momentum, effecting a larger change as the descent continued, giving more control to the piloting astronaut. When it came time to touch down, two rear skids and a forward skid would deploy and facilitate a smooth transition from air to land.

    NASA

    The Paresev in Flight

    Building a Training Vehicle

    Around the time time NASA was adopting the paraglider into the Gemini program, test pilot Milt Thompson was working on the Dyna-Soar program at NASA’s Flight Research Centre at Edward’s Air Force Base. Dyna-Soar, a delta-wing glider designed to launch on a rocket then land on a runway after an orbital mission, was, to Thompson, the future of spaceflight. And when he heard about the Rogallo wing he saw it as a step to proving runway landings from space were viable. For Thompson, the paraglider was a perfect proof-of-concept vehicle, a hybrid between an airplane and a lifting body. He was fascinated.

    He asked the Flight Research Centre's director Paul Bikle if he could start a small research program to investigate the flight characteristics of the paraglider, but the request was denied. The FRC was overloaded with the ongoing X-15 and Dyna-Soar programs and couldn't take on something else, Bikle said. Undeterred, Thompson went behind his boss’ back and took his new pet project to fellow curious pilot, Neil Armstrong. The pair reasoned that at some point astronauts would have to learn to fly the Gemini paraglider, so why not build them a training vehicle themselves? Bikle eventually found out that Thompson and Armstrong were building something they intended to fly and relented. He sanctioned a small paraglider research program, likely to spare his pilots’ death by their own hand in a homemade machine. But even official, the paraglider research vehicle program remained small. There were no blue prints, just chalk lines on the floor to give builders a rough sense of what it should look like.

    The vehicle was eventually called the Paresev and it came together quickly; the first was built in seven weeks for less than $5,000 and it hardly looked like it could fly. The finished product, the Paresev 1, looked like a big tricycle made of steel tubing sitting under a fabric Rogallo mounted such that when the pilot turned an overhead control stick he controlled the wing. Pitching the paraglider wing forwards and backwards controlled lift and changing the angle of the sail gave directional control — like the mated Gemini-Rogallo, control came from manipulating the centre of gravity. It had no power source, no protection for the pilot from the elements, and a helmet offered the pilot the best defence against injury. And it was structurally sound enough; it didn't break when dropped from three and a half feet.

    NASA

    The Gemini TTV in Flight

    Learning to Fly a Homemade Trainer

    Thompson was the first to fly the Paresev. In January of 1962, he sat in the pilot’s as it was towed behind a truck, testing the flight controls without rising into the air. Subsequent tests saw the tow truck drive fast enough for the paraglider to generate just enough lift to pull the Paresev about 20 feet off the ground. Thompson practised control and landing on these low tow tests, and though he felt the Paresev handled as well as a wet noodle he was nevertheless confident enough to take it up in the air just two months later.

    The next round of tests had Thompson in the Paresev towed to 5,000 feet behind a small airplane at which point the he’d release the line and guide it down for a landing. Taking care to stay above the tow plane’s wake on the ascent to avoid being buffeted around, Thompson made two successful Paresev landing that first day but found the exercise gruelling. What had been noodley sluggishness on ground tow tests seemed worse in the air, so much so that he'd had to wrap his legs around the control stick to take the strain off his arms on the second test.

    From there the program had a mix of failures and successes. One ground tow test flown by Bruce Peterson (the real Six Million Dollar Man) ended in a crash hard enough to destroy the Paresev’s nose. A new vehicle had to be built, the Paresev 1A, and the upside was that it gave engineers a chance to change the control system from a centre stick to cables. But there were still problems. During one air tow test the needle fell off the airspeed indicator forcing Thompson to stay tethered to the plane to land lest he lose all sense of how fast he was going. Another test had Thompson deploy a smoke bomb in flight. Designed to make the small vehicle more visible in photographs, it just left the pilot struggling to see where he was landing.

    Problems aside, the Paresev was becoming reliable, and by September of 1962 other pilots started familiarizing themselves with trainer. Among them were Gus Grissom, the Mercury astronaut heavily involved in building the Gemini spacecraft, and Neil Armstrong, who joined NASA's astronaut corps that same month.

    The Paresev, for the moment, stood as proof that NASA's Gemini paraglider program might be the agency’s ticket away from splashdown landings. But things weren't going as smoothly with NASA's test program.

    NASA

    The Gemini TTV in Flight

    From Concept to Reality… Sort Of

    In 1961, around the same time Thompson got the idea to build the Paresev, the contract to build the Gemini spacecraft was awarded to McDonnell aircraft, the same company that built the Mercury spacecraft, and a separate contract for the paraglider was awarded to North American Aviation, the company behind the X-15.

    Tests of the Rogallo wing began in January 1962. Scale Gemini models with fixed paraglider wings were dropped from helicopters to test wing configurations and deployment methods. Models were also tested in wind tunnels to gather data on paraglider performance and lift. These initial tests yielded a mix of successes and failures, though the latter outweighed the former. The paraglider demonstrated a nasty tendency to disintegrate during particularly violent wind tunnel tests, calling into question its structural stability in flight during averse landing conditions. But engineers let that major failure slide, arguing that NASA would sooner change the landing point of a mission than force astronauts to land in inclement weather.

    The Rogallo program pressed on. According to the Gemini program schedule as it was in mid-1962, the first unmanned mission would land by parachute in September of 1963 with the second debuting the paraglider the following month. The manned missions would follow suit, the first landing by parachute and subsequent flights landing by paraglider.

    But this schedule seemed overly optimistic as continued testing brought more failures. Wings failed to deploy or failed after deploying, both situations destroying test vehicles and the mounting problems delayed the paraglider's inclusion in Gemini. In May of 1963, paraglider landings were pushed to the tenth flight meaning the novel system would have an extremely limited application. Setbacks also affected North American’s contract. It was revised around the same time to stipulate that the contractor give NASA a working system but made no mention of the paraglider's inclusion in an actual Gemini mission.

    NASA

    Gemini 9 Splashing Down

    Gemini Takes Flight Without a Paraglider

    On April 8, 1964, the unmanned Gemini 1 launched and landed by parachute, proving that this tried and true method was a viable one for NASA's second spaceflight program. And the agency was starting to feel a time crunch. Not only were manned Gemini missions close on the horizon, but the end of decade lunar landing goal was fast approaching. The paraglider was looking less and less likely to be part of America's path to the Moon. The final nail in its coffin, as far as Gemini is concerned, came on February 20, 1964, when NASA Associated Administrator George Mueller announced to the Gemini Program Office that all twelve Gemini flights – two unmanned and ten manned missions – would all end with splashdowns. As though holding onto some last hope, the program quarterly report ending in February 1964 still said the last three missions would land by paraglider.

    In May of 1964, NASA and North American agreed to continue the paraglider research program but for data gathering purposes only. Two months later, Gemini Program Manager Charles Matthews removed the paraglider as a program requirement entirely. The paraglider gets only a cursory mention in December of 1964 before it disappears from the official program history entirely.

    Manned Paraglider Flights

    There were vain attempts to retain the paraglider after it was removed fro the Gemini program. North American’s modified contract stipulated it prove the system’s pilotability, and this led to the Test Tow Vehicle or TTV, which began manned flights in 1964.

    The TTV flights were a series of full-scale piloted drop tests that had a North American test pilot towed to altitude by a helicopter and them dropped, forcing him to land as though returning form orbit. The first pilot to try his hand in the TTV was Charles Heizel, a pilot who had already cut his teeth with the system by training in the Paresev. The first captive test in July with the TTV still tethered to the helicopter was a success. The first free test in August was not. As soon as Hetzel severed the towline, the Gemini went into a violent spin. Hetzel was forced to eject, breaking a rib in the process.

    After five months of additional unmanned testing, Don McCusker found himself in the TTV in December for as the program resumed manned flights. On an early flight, he successfully guided the TTV for five minutes before hitting the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB hard, so hard that the landing could have been considered a controlled crash. North American responded by beefing up the vehicles shock absorbers.

    In all, North American test pilots, including McCusker and future Apollo 13 command module pilot Jack Swigert, made twelve successful landings during 1965, but it was far too late to reincorporate the Rogallo wing into the Gemini program.

    NASA

    W. C. Sleeman and a Wind Tunnel Gemini Rogallo Model

    The Paraglider’s Last Hurrah, and Demise

    Seeking some outlet for all the time and money it had sunk into the paraglider program, NASA looked at other possible applications. Langley engineer Mac C. Adams recommended the paraglider be incorporated into Apollo follow-up programs, the Apollo Applications Program and the Apollo Extension Series, two programs proposed in 1965 to use Apollo hardware in developing an Earth orbiting laboratory and a manned lunar outpost. Adams’ idea was that without the time crunch of a lunar landing, this program would have enough time to work out the kinks of the paraglider.

    This prompted NASA to reopen paraglider contracts, but it was short lived. NASA was fast losing its Apollo-era funding and any future applications of this lunar technology to other goals was called into question. As post-Apollo programs were constrained and finally cut towards the end of the 1960s, the paraglider was again dropped from any future NASA programs.

    The paraglider's last hope came from the Air Force, which was developing it's own Gemini-based program in the latter half of the 1960s with the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. MOL, a larger version of Gemini with an added module behind the heat shield to increase a crew's living and working space, replaced the Dyna-Soar program in 1963. And with NASA having done the preliminary work on the paraglider, the USAF was considering adopting it into this military space program. But it didn’t last. In 1966, two years after NASA removed the paraglider from the Gemini program, it was removed from MOL as well. The Air Force felt no need to duplicate the challenges and failures NASA had endured fighting to make the system work. MOL on the whole was cancelled in 1969 after just one unmanned test flight.

    In theory, the paraglider was a great way for NASA to move away from splashdowns — it was lightweight, pilotable, and could be fitted into a spacecraft without significant redesigns. But even a decade of research couldn’t iron out all the kinks. Gemini took huge steps forward in space for NASA, facilitating the first spacewalks, first rendezvous and docking in space, and testing the fuel cells that would power an Apollo spacecraft for the full two weeks needed to get to the Moon and back. But the paraglider remained just out of reach. Every Apollo-era mission ended with a splashdown, including the last vestiges with Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It wasn't until it radically changed spacecraft with the space shuttle that NASA finally managed to get away from splashdown landings, though it is making a return to ocean landings with the Apollo-inspired Orion spacecraft.

    Sources: This article was largely pulled together from old articles on Vintage Space with the goal of having a summary to go along with some videos I've posted and am planning to post on my You Tube channel. The original Vintage Space articles are: Rogallo after Gemini; Losing Rogallo From Gemini; Inventing Landings; The Paresev; Bringing Down a New Bird. -- check those out if you want way more details! Other sources: Hacker and Grimwood. On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini; Milton Thompson with Curtis Peebles. Flying without Wings; Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space.


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    Via patent

    Figure showing Boeing's process for magnetically levitating a 3D printed object

    Watching a 3D printer work can sometimes seem like magic--thin filaments slowly build up on top of a platform, turning into parts and figurines. Now, a patent published by aerospace company Boeing introduces an even more futuristic element: levitation.

    With this method, the object prints while floating in midair thanks to magnets or acoustic waves. A "nugget" or base gets printed first out into space, and then a cadre of 3D printers add more and more of the printing material.

    But why? Levitation is cool, yes, but it turns out there is also a practical purpose for a floating 3D printed object, at least according to Boeing's patent. The levitating object can be manipulated and turned more so than an object stuck to a platform can be, and using many printheads at the same time would ostensibly speed up the process.

    3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing is important to the aerospace industry and one estimate from 2015 suggests that Boeing itself is using 20,000 3D-printed parts. But that doesn't necessarily mean that all the future factories will be filled with floating in-progress plane parts. As TechCrunch warns, the real-life version of this method may not exactly match what the patent lays out.

    PatentYogi made a video to explain how it all works and you can watch it below:


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    Photo by Joel Jean and Anna Osherov, courtesy MIT

    MIT researchers create an ultra thin and lightweight solar cell

    Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an exciting proof of concept of the thinnest, lightest solar cell ever made. The key to developing such a thin and light cell, according to MIT is a unique fabrication method.

    Solar cells are typically made up of layers of photovoltaic materials and a substrate, such as glass or plastic. Instead of the usual method of fabricating each layer separately, and then depositing the layers onto the substrate, the MIT researchers made all three parts of their solar cell (the cell, the supportive substrate, and the protective coating) at the same time, a method that cuts down on performance-harming contaminants. In the demonstration, the substrate and coating are made from parylene, which is a flexible polymer, and the component that absorbs light was made from dibutyl phthalate (DBP). The researchers note that the solar cell could be made from a number of material combinations, including perovskite, and it could be added to a variety of surfaces such as fabric or paper.

    And so, how thin is the thinnest solar cell, really? Well, it's about 1/50th the thickness of a strand of hair. To demonstrate this extreme, the researchers placed the cell on a soap bubble (which you can see in the image above). But, thin and lightweight might not always be the best, as the one of the study authors, Joel Jean, said in an MIT news release, "if you breathe too hard, you might blow it away."

    This slight weight also means that its power-to-weight ratio is particularly high. The high ratio translates to getting more power without adding a lot of weight--useful for high-altitude balloons, for example. The solar cell demonstrated an efficiency output of about 6 watts per gram, which MIT says is about 400 times higher than silicon-based solar cells.

    Now, the challenge is moving the experimental lab demonstration into the real world. As Vladimir Bulović said in a MIT news release, “how many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”


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    “Wait...wait...ok, power on!” commanded the instructor. “Power, power power!” My foot hesitated for a split second before coming down hard on the accelerator. The back end of the car had already spun out, and the vehicle lurched sideways up the track, spraying ice into the air. My deer-in-headlights reaction time, however, had already done me in. As we careened toward a snowbank, my responsible driver instincts took over and lurched the wheel in the opposite direction of our drift and send us into a neat tailspin. After burrowing the luxury car’s grill into the wet snow and feeling the embarrassment ride the wave of blood into my usually pale face, I could hear the Portuguese instructor say in a calm voice, “Your reaction time is slow. You need to anticipate what the car is going to do.”

    My instructor, professional driver Tiago Rodrigues, started racing more than 30 years ago. I, on the other hand, have been driving an unremarkable spread of family cars since I was a clueless 16—my most exciting moments behind the wheel centered on inching through the perennial snowstorms of Upstate New York. Yet here we were together in the North of Finland, riding around on a frozen lake. Bentley flew me out to test some of the most luxurious high-performance cars in the world.

    Thousands Of Pounds Of Metal On A Frozen Lake

    Since 2006, luxury automotive manufacturer Bentley has hosted a driving event in Northern Finland known as the Power On Ice. It's part demonstration and part marketing event for the select few with large wallets, but it's also tremendous fun. Just south of the Arctic Circle, in an otherworldly and brilliantly white landscape, guests are invited to push the limits of Bentley’s fleet in some of the harshest natural conditions cars can be tested in. Under the tutelage of professional drivers, guests careen around an ice course that’s cut into the snow resting atop a lake in Kuusamo. And this year, they also got to commandeer a pre-production model of Bentley's sparkling new SUV, the Bentayga.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Kuusamo, Finland

    The wintry expanse of Lapland in February.

    The course itself is designed by Finland’s own Juha Kankkunen, a four-time world rally car champion who treats visiting drivers with a white knuckle “hot lap” around one of the tracks. At the completion of my own “hot lap” I fumbled over an awkward “thank you,” to which he replied “Eh, simple” with a relaxed smile and a banking gesture of his hand simulating a car’s movement. There wasn’t a single moment throughout the entire adrenaline-soaked lap that the car was ever facing straight ahead.

    The Drift

    Perhaps one of the best ways to show off a high-performance car’s prowess on ice is to drift in it. For those not versed in the automotive lingo, drifting is when a driver oversteers and causes the back wheels of the car to lose traction, flinging the back end out. What better way to flex automotive muscle than to sling thousands of pounds of growling engine around an icy corner? It also happens to be just plain exciting for passengers and spectators alike. The sight of it instantly gets the blood pumping. It is an art, however, which requires particular skill and lots of practice.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    The ice track.

    Drivers get a briefing about the track before heading out to the lake.

    I did a heavy amount of drifting behind the wheel of two cars: the Continental GT Speed, a powerful two-door coupe, and the Flying Spur, a boat of a sedan with a supreme luxury interior.

    My first experience drifting was in a bright green GT Speed. I struggled a bit on a figure eight track swinging wildly back and forth with no real semblance of flow. I did a fair bit of plowing snow on that go around but thankfully Rodrigues, my instructor, didn’t have to call the “traktori”—the eight-ton tractors that come rumbling over to drag out the more spirited drivers that find themselves spinning tires in the snow. The goal in these exercises was not to crash in the snow, but it inevitably happens, and in a way, it means you were really giving it a go if you did. The guest with the most traktori pull outs usually gets an award, and this year's lucky winner got a pair of green tractor-shaped cufflinks.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Drifting in the Continental GT Speed

    We moved on to the circle track next, where I began to settle into a groove. On the circle, you could pretty well drift non-stop around the entire track if you could hold it. It was good for getting the feel of the technique, and with the 626-hp twin turbocharged W12 engine snarling in front of me and the leather steering wheel in my hands, the rest of my surroundings washed away—with a giddy version of myself in control. A quick swipe of a snowbank quickly brought me back to Earth, however, when the icy surface I was traveling on decided to put my cockiness in check. Out on the ice, “I feel like I’m twenty something,” remarked guest Judy Hannan during a break at the lodge.

    Drifting in the Flying Spur felt something like how I would imagine a limousine barreling across a frozen lake would feel. Watching this sedan sliding sideways in a wall of snow across the ice was a bit comical. I even felt a little silly driving it as such, but that was trumped by the fact that it made this yacht on wheels exceptionally fun to drive. (But don’t be fooled; its appearance belies Bentley’s robust W12 engine.) It drifted much more easily than the GT Speed but required a bit more patience. “Wait until the back goes, then power on,” advised Rodrigues as I floated around a corner at 50 mph. “As soon as you feel the back go around, gently increase the power so you can control the drift.”

    It was easy to get a little overzealous inside the bright orange Spur, and even though I was driving English style on the right hand side, I started to cut left turns as though I were still steering from the left, provoking a yell from Rodrigues—“Watch the passenger!”—as I excavated some snow with the left side of the car.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Drifting in the Spur

    Journalist Jeffrey Jablansky from the New York Daily News takes a turn at the wheel of the Spur.

    After a pause in the driving, Rodrigues leaned over and suggested we grab some coffee or tea. “I always tell my guests that every once in awhile, you must take a break, because you start to lose concentration.” Which was certainly true. I hadn’t realized until I was slumped in a reindeer hide-covered chair gazing into a wood fire that I was mentally exhausted. Out on the ice, twisting and turning in a homogenous white landscape with your surroundings racing past you, the neurons in your brain wind up working overtime, firing off like it’s the O.K. Corral.

    From The Track To The Road To The Ice

    When Bentley rolled out the Continental GT3 for the 2014 racing season, it was the first new Bentley car to hit the racetrack in over a decade. With it came its cousin, the GT3-R, a remarkably unchanged road-going version designed to bring a harder edged, sporty option for Bentley customers. The technical carryover from the GT3 to the GT3-R is such that the specifications for each car are nearly identical. The most notable being the 4-liter twin turbocharged V8 engine (they gave the W12 the heave-ho to reduce weight) that growls awake when you gradually accelerate, like a bear grunting out of its winter slumber.

    I was aware before I got behind the wheel of the GT3-R that Bentley let go of certain luxury amenities to shave weight in the never-ending pursuit of speed—there is no wood in the interior, for example, and light carbon fiber makes up the difference. But even with that weight loss, the car still weighs a hefty 4900 pounds. I was a tad skeptical.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Continental GT3-R

    The GT3-R takes the form and principles of the GT3 race car to the road.

    As I hurtled around the frozen lake in the GT3-R with but a modicum of control, however, I could still nevertheless feel the supreme control of the low riding vehicle and the overarching sense that serious power begged to be let loose from the hungry engine—if only I was bold enough to open up the gates and let it run free. This 4900-pound beast ran around the ice like a much lighter animal. And if the GT3-R grunts and growls like a bear, then it sprints like a cheetah, exploding from zero to sixty mph in an eye-bulging 3.6 seconds. Kevin Baker, the event’s medic who also works Formula One races, remarked to me one white morning as we headed out to the lake, that the cars “bring out everyone’s 12-year-old self.” For me and the GT3-R, that was an understatement.

    Off-Roading Like A Roman—In Supreme Luxury

    One of Bentley’s main attractions at this particular rendition of Power On Ice was their still-in-the-womb Bentayga—the company's first foray into the world of sport utility vehicles. They’ve thus far billed it heavily as the most technologically advanced, highest performing luxury SUV out there, and although that is a heaping spoonful of marketing speak, the pre-production model I was able to take for not a small number of spins out on the lake did not disappoint.

    Not that Bentley ever goes for a bunt, but with the Bentayga, it’s evident they are really swinging for the fences. They’ve subjected it to a wide array of extreme environments all around the globe, from super dry to super wet conditions, and thermometer-busting hot and cold temperatures, so it seemed as though they brought it to Finland to test its mettle on the ice and not just for public relations reasons.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Bentayga

    Before taking it onto the lake for go arounds on a dynamic track, Rodrigues took a fellow journalist and me down an off-road path to let the vehicle flex for us a bit. “You basically just let it go,” he said, as he jostled back and forth in his seat and inched the SUV along in the deep snow. Rodrigues explained further that the intelligent computer system in the car does all the work, constantly adjusting wheel heights and placements, and weight distribution of the car.

    Cruising around on the ice track in the Bentayga was both incredible and numbing. I took my coveted swing in this vehicle in the early afternoon when the sun was already starting to wane. Wet snow and a cloud-covered sky started to hinder visibility, and the chopped up slop on the surface of the ice that had accumulated during the unseasonably warm day brewed into some unsavory conditions.

    Driving a pre-production model with a $229,100 price tag in this environment doesn’t sound like a relaxing situation, but riding inside the Bentayga is like sitting in the eye of the storm—pure tranquility.

    Channeling the aura of the standalone rock pillar on the Canary Islands of the same name, the Bentayga packs a 600-horsepower W12 engine that catapults the SUV to a top speed of 187 mph. A bit much? Perhaps. But it does all this with a level of silence and ease noticeably absent in many other high-performance vehicles.

    Riding inside the Bentayga is like sitting in the eye of the storm—pure tranquility.

    As I cruised around the track, I could feel the car gauging the ice surface and adjusting appropriately. There is a sense of autonomy with this vehicle—which would be bizarre if the comfort and luxury of the stitched leather, hand-polished veneer and massaged seats didn’t make it one of the most comfortable rides I’ve ever experienced.

    In the sublime cabin interior, Rodrigues didn’t have to give much direction but just relaxed and chatted about the specs of the car. After he had gone over the blind spot control, traffic sign recognition and the array of cameras and sensor-based driver assistance technology that helps control the car, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the engineers and designers were looking into the future of driving when autonomous cars will rule the roads.

    Grennan J. Milliken

    Driving session

    Professional driver and instructor Tiago Rodrigues looks out on the ice from the GT Speed.

    One night after a long day of driving on the ice, while sitting in the warm, candlelit environs of the main lodge, guest Judy Hannan remarked to me that, as a writer herself, she pays close attention to how certain surroundings stimulate her senses. “For me it’s all about the senses, and here, all the senses are engaged. With the driving, it’s all about the feel of it. About knowing when the back end is swinging out—I think it really fine-tunes all your senses.”

    I dwelled on that a bit and was reminded of a moment that occurred earlier that day. I was standing out on the lake in knee-deep snow with my camera. I had just taken a rotation in the GT3-R and was still coming down from the adrenaline. It struck me, in that moment, that I was the only person out on the ice. Snow started to silently fall, blanketing the great white expanse even further. Four or five growling high-performance cars motored around the lake in varying degrees of acceleration, yet despite this, a great quietude filled the air. Each car cut through the void like individual voices calling out to one another, but did not contribute to a larger automotive din that can often happen at these events. I stared off into the white horizon listening to this back and forth, my face shrouded in each breath I let out. As I slipped into slumber that night, I could still feel the movements of the cars swaying back and forth.


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  • 02/26/16--12:12: Behold, A BB-8 Made Of Legos
  • LEGO BB-8 Concept

    LEGO Ideas

    LEGO BB-8 Concept

    Fans have created a Lego version of BB-8, and set it off on its first step to becoming a real kit people can buy. Using Lego Ideas, a tool for fans to submit designs for their favorite brand of interlocking plastic bricks, designers Mark Smiley and the mysterious Artbot 138 submitted their scheme for an all-brick version of the rolling droid, plus a stand it can roll on.

    It's manually powered, but the design uses Lego magnets to hold the head on the body, and even includes attachments for BB-8’s electric zapper and thumbs-up torch. From here, the project has almost a full year to get 10,000 people signed on to support it, at which point the design is sent to LEGO designers for them to review. It has more than 1,000 supporters already. If they get enough votes, and if Lego likes the design, it could go from hobbyist creation to actual purchasable kit. Not bad for a lost little robot rolling around Jakku.

    Watch a video of it below:


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    Photo courtesy Cleveland Clinic

    Surgeons performing the first uterus transplant in the United States

    On Wednesday, transplant and gynecological surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic performed the United States' first uterus transplant. The patient, who is 26 years old, is in stable condition according to the Cleveland Clinic.

    The purpose of the nine-hour surgery is to restore the ability to become pregnant to women who have either been born without a uterus or have had it removed. The New York Timesreports that the patient will have to wait a year while she heals, and then can use in vitro fertilization to try to conceive. After one or two babies, doctors will remove the uterus again.

    Doctors in Sweden have previously performed nine uterus transplants. And the first baby from a mother with a transplanted uterus was born in October 2014.

    For more on uterus transplants, check out this handy explainer.


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    On Saturday, February 27, the Pokemon franchise will turn 20 years old.

    While that might make you feel old, The Pokemon Company is giving fans a few ways to indulge in childlike wonder once again.

    To celebrate two decades of Rattatas, Tail Whips, and comfy shorts, the company is streaming a 24-hour live event, which you can watch here. The stream will start at 10 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, February 27, and include developers talking about the game, as well as gameplay footage.

    And while you're watching, you can finally play the original Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow games on your Nintendo 3DS, because they're being released on the Nintendo Store on February 27 as well. The games will cost $9.99 each.

    And while you're watching a Pokemon livestream and playing Pokemon Red or Blue or Yellow, you can think about the next generation of Pokemon games, Pokemon Sun and Moon. The games were officially announced today, and The Pokemon Company says you'll be able to bring all your old Pokemon into Sun and Moon, if your game was on a DS.


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    Photo by DQmountaingirl via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

    A pregnant woman

    The Centers for Disease Control confirmed nine Zika virus cases in pregnant women in the U.S. today, and are "investigating 10 more suspected cases." Of the nine pregnancies, there were two miscarriages, two abortions, three births (two "apparently healthy infants" and one with severe microcephaly), and two pregnancies are still continuing.

    The CDC noted that it's unclear how Zika has affected these outcomes. For example, 9 to 20 percent of all pregnancies result in first trimester pregnancy loss, making it relatively common. All nine women showed symptoms of Zika--all experienced a rash, and a number of them reported fevers.

    Between August 2015 and January 2016, the CDC tested 257 pregnant women, and 97 percent tested negative for the virus.


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    SilencerCo

    Johnny Dronehunter

    A still from "Johnny Dronehunter," an ad for shotgun silencer maker SilencerCo. In the ad, the protagonist shoots down a bunch of drones with a shotgun like so many clay pigeons.

    Are guns the answer to drones? This is both a technical and a legal question. It is possible, with great effort (and machine guns) to shoot down small drones, but it’s not something people can legally do. In 2013, the Colorado town of Deer Trail debated the sale of drone hunting permits, before deciding against it. In Utah, state representative David E. Lifferth has now proposed a bill that would let law enforcement shoot down drones if they interfere with emergency response.

    Lifferth’s HB 420 is titled Unmanned Vehicle Amendments, and it wants to give public safety officials the authority to disable or destroy drones that get in the way of emergency response. As written, the authority is pretty narrow, with “acute emergency" defined as “a fire, a flood, extreme weather, a missing person situation, or a natural or man-made disaster that is expected to present an imminent threat to life or property, or to public health, safety, or welfare for more than 24 hours,” and “neutralize” spelled out as forcing termination by disabling or destroying the drone, interfering with it, or taking it over. This is broadly written, so counter-drones with nets, net guns, jamming tools, and maybe even eagles would count. As well as guns.

    I feel that “this applies to guns” is a pretty big point. Guns will, more times than not, be the means on hand for police to knock a drone out of the sky. If guns become the standard anti-drone tool, then it'll be less likely for police to invest in non-gun anti-drone options. Like these net guns.

    Lifferth’s bill specifies though, that drones have to be neutralized “in the most safe and practicable manner available; and (b) in a manner that causes as little damage or destruction as possible, in light of the circumstances, to the unmanned vehicle and other property.” So shooting them with actual bullets is an avenue of last resort. This is also, despite headlines, the case in a similar drone regulating bill from Utah State Senator Wayne A. Harper.


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    The 25th annual International UFO Congress, held last week in Scottsdale, Arizona, brings together a myriad of individuals from doctors to scientists to alien hunters to abductees to crop circle researchers. Open Minds, a media group dedicated to tracking reported UFO sightings, runs the event. It's comprised of lectures, vendor areas, workshops and plenty of time to get mingle with other attendees and get a selfie on the epic alien step and repeat.

    The prominent alien figurines speak to the fact that the community has a sense of humor at times, but on the flip side, also takes the topics at hand seriously. Individuals with long history in this field both young and old bring credibility to the table. (Although their claims can't be verified by science, many people continue to report UFO sightings.)

    Former FBI agent Ben Hansen who hosts SyFy’s "Fact or Faked," and has worked as a producer on “UFO’s Declassified” on the History Channel, is all about gathering and analyzing the data. He works closely with Night Vision Optics, military night vision and thermal technologies that are now available for Android and iOS devices. His perspective is about brining scientific credibility to alien research.

    Ben hosted a workshop on night vision tech at the event, which aimed to teach investigators how to better look for evidence in a low light night sky. He explained, “What we typically look for are objects that are a obviously a craft of some sort that are doing unconventional maneuvering… so starting and stopping, no sound.” Hansen said.

    For the full interview from UFO Congress with Ben Hansen you can check out Katie’s Tech Podcast Katie dot Show.


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    Sodium Guidestar Laser Near Albuquerque

    Sodium Guidestar Laser Near Albuquerque

    Maintained by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Starfire Optical Range, this isn't a weapon. Instead, it's a tool to aid astronomers.

    The Pentagon kills language. Housing the brain and central coordinating organs of the most advanced military the world has ever known, the Depart of Defense headquarters can take an announcement as exciting as “the U.S. Army is working on laser guns” and distill it to, in the words of Mary J. Miller, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, “aligned to transition into a program of record in the fiscal 2023 timeframe.” Make no mistake: bland phrasing aside, the Army is going to fund laser weapon development in the next decade.

    The remarks came last week as part of testimony before House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, and the laser program mention isn’t really an offensive weapon. The laser program will supplement “Indirect Fire Protection Capability,” an awkward way to say “tools that shoot down drones, mortars, artillery, rockets, and missiles.” The current program wants to do that with missiles. Israel’s Iron Dome is a good example of a similar system, built to intercept cheap unguided rockets fired at cities. It’s effective, at a price: a pair of interceptor missiles costs about $50,000, which is between 50 and 100 times the price of the simple rockets they’re made to protect against.

    Lasers could change the economics of shooting down missiles. While laser systems are expensive to develop, the cost of an individual laser blast is very low, potentially just $1 a shot, which makes lasers the great hope for all technologically advanced militaries looking to protect expensive vehicles and weapons from cheap attacks. Israel is investing in a laser component to supplement Iron Dome. This fiscal year, the U.S. Marine Corps wants to test an anti-drone laser on a truck. The U.S. Navy already tested a laser weapon on a ship deployed to the Persian Gulf, and wants more lasers by 2020. The U.S. Air Force wants to try lasers on planes by 2022. The Army demonstrated weak lasers on a truck in 2013, and now, they want a program of record on the books by 2023 to make a working laser weapon.

    By land, sea, or air, laser weapons are coming, and they’re aiming right for the 2020s.


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    Usually, we don't think that much about calendars. Sure, we think about our calendars, filled with our dentist appointments and meetings and birthdays, but we don't give a lot of thought into how and why our days our divided up the way they are. The one glaring exception is leap year, the annual ritual every four years where we shove an extra day into February, giving most of us an extra, yet completely normal day of the year.

    Why do we have the leap day? It all comes down to our rotation around the sun, a journey that takes approximately 365 and a quarter days. As Neil deGrasse Tyson explained on Twitter and in a new video today (above), normally, "We just ignore that quarter day. We sweep it under the rug. For three years." Then, every four years, we add on an extra day.

    But then it gets weird. As Tyson explains, adding in an extra day every 4 years is kind of overkill. So, to get us back on the right track, we skip leap year once every 100 years, at the turn of the century. But then, that's an over-overcorrection. So to correct the correction, in century years evenly divisible by 400, we add the leap year back in, which is why the year 2000 had a leap day, even though it was a turn of the century year.

    We've been doing this weird dance since Pope Gregory XIII started using the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Some people have proposed alternatives but it's doubtful they'll catch on anytime soon.

    For most of us, Leap Day is just a weird quirk of the calendar, but people born on February 29 might view it slightly differently, especially if they're indentured to pirates:

    Enjoy your leap day!


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    Photograph by Marco Grob

    Mark and Scott Kelly are the subjects of the first twin study about space exploration.

    After a record-breaking stint in space, astronaut Scott Kelly is finally coming home tomorrow.

    Kelly and his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kornienko, have spent nearly a year living in the International Space Station. Scott now holds the U.S. record for longest time in space (he's logged over 500 days in total), and NASA's hoping his long-term stay could shed light on what will happen when they send astronauts to Mars--a journey that could take 2 or 3 years, round-trip. Specifically, they're hoping to learn how space affects a person's eyesight, immune system, stomach bacteria, bone and muscle loss, mental health, and more.

    Although other astronauts and cosmonauts have spent a full year in space before now, Kelly's case is unique in that he has an identical twin brother remaining on the ground, making it easier for scientists to look for changes induced by the space environment.

    The experiment isn't over yet--doctors and scientists plan to do a lot more testing on the twins--but Scott Kelly's trip is. On Tuesday evening he'll return to Earth from the International Space Station, and you can watch it here:

    Here's the tentative schedule of livestream events, according to NASA:

    • 4:15 PM Eastern: Kelly and Kornienko say goodbye to the space station and settle into the Soyuz capsule that will carry them home. The hatch closes at 4:40PM.

    • 7:45 PM: The astronauts prepare to undock from the space station.

    • 8:05 PM: The Soyuz capsule undocks.

    • 10:15 PM: The spacecraft begins to leave orbit, entering the Earth's atmosphere and landing at 11:27 PM.


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    A large virus, called a mimivirus, under an electron microscope.

    Mimivirus

    A large virus, called a mimivirus, under an electron microscope.

    Just like bacteria, giant viruses need to protect themselves from invasive microbes, and they do so with the help of an immune system that works quite similar to the CRISPR system found in bacteria (and now borrowed by human geneticists) according to a study published today in Nature.

    In 2003, researchers Didier Raoult and Bernard La Scola of Aix-Marseille University in France discovered something strange lurking in amoebas: giant viruses, visible under a typical microscope, and about four times larger than the ones we often see infecting human cells. Collectively they’re called mimiviruses because they appear to mimic bacteria.

    In the intervening years, these researchers have discovered 150 different types of these large viruses, according to Stat News, such as megaviruses and pandoraviruses. Many of these challenge the traditional definition of a virus; Raoult has controversially claimed that mimiviruses make up a new branch of the tree of life, according to Nature News.

    One way these mimiviruses have proven different is that they themselves can be attacked by smaller viruses. But in 2014, the researchers realized that viruses can invade only certain types of mimiviruses. They hypothesized that these large viruses had immune systems much like bacteria's, in which they would incorporate little bits of their attackers’ DNA into their own genetic code. That way, if the same virus tried to invade again, the host would be able to identify the unwanted attacker and kill it. Those bits of invaders’ genetic code in an organism’s DNA are called CRISPR; by taking advantage of this unique pattern and of its accompanying gene-snipping enzyme, Cas9, researchers have been working to create more robust crops and eliminatediseases in humans.

    The researchers wanted to test these large viruses to see if they did in fact have a CRISPR-like immune system. So they analyzed the genomes of 60 strains of mimiviruses looking for the telltale snips of DNA from a much smaller virus (or virophage) called Zamilon, known to attack many of them. As they expected, the researchers found that mimiviruses immune to Zamilon had bits of its genetic code lodged in their own. The researchers also found that the mimiviruses contain enzymes capable of degrading foreign DNA, just as CRISPR does. The researchers named this viral immune system the MIMIVIRE, which stands for “mimivirus virophage resistance element.”

    As The Atlantic points out, the MIMIVIRE isn’t the same as CRISPR—it’s just a good example of convergent evolution. But it does provide more evidence that mimiviruses are different from other, simpler viruses, possibly shifting the discussion about their evolutionary origins or whether they’re alive. In the future, the researchers hope to better understand the mechanisms that drive the MIMIVIRE.


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