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Mars Comet Shames Earth Dithering

Comet siding Spring will make a spectacular fly-past of the planet Mars on 20 October. Among the observers will be seven robotic space probes sent from Earth.

Only discovered less than two years ago, the newborn comet, fresh from the Oort Cloud nursery far beyond Pluto, probably carries secrets of the origins of the solar system. Its arrival was so sudden and unexpected that no Earthborn probe could have been built and launched in time to intercept it. Instead, by the most freakish of improbabilities, it fell directly into range of a space fleet that had assembled for an entirely different reason.

On Sunday the comet is to flash through the Mars-and-moonlets system, travelling south-to-north nearly perpendicular to their orbital plane. It’ll miss Phobos and Deimos by 112,000 kilometers, and skate by Mars by about the same. When its potentially dangerous dust trail follows, four of the five orbiting probes will be snuggling safely behind the planet's bulk. The two surface rovers will be protected by the Martian atmosphere. The aged Opportunity will look for the comet in pre-dawn twilight, and the more-recently-arrived Curiosity, on the opposite side of the planet, will be in evening twilight.

Besides carrying cosmic secrets, the comet is also carrying a question. Why aren’t there people out there front-row-center for what might have been the greatest solar system spectacle of all human history? Where are the human eyeballs and human souls that should have been rising from the Martian surface at this marvel. The sight would likely have been a literally astronomical reward for the boldness and ingenuity that had placed humans there?

Fifty years ago, during the hey-day of the Apollo Program development, the issue of human flight to Mars wasn’t even open to doubt or debate – the only issue was the time frame. Could it be done within 20 years of a moon landing, as optimists hoped? Or would it take 30, or 40, as the realists expected?

True, these visions rested on the wispy foundations of imaginary engineering breakthroughs and in blissful ignorance of the real challenges of long-term space operations and human physiology. The maturity of the independently-developed technologies that when harnessed together in the 1960s enabled— barely enabled—brief lunar surface sorties by astronauts also misled futurists into thinking a new crop of advanced engineering capabilities could easily be mustered.

In hindsight, sophisticated reliability assessments, which properly assessed Apollo mission success at 80 percent and crew survival at 95 percent, when applied to even the best humans-to-Mars strategies, gave the likelihood of success at  less than5 percent and of crew survival as less than 50 percent. We didn’t even know how much we didn’t know.

But was that really an excuse for not even seriously trying? It’s not as if we couldn’t have afforded it. Did not trying to get humans to Mars really saved the world’s governments any serious money?

So instead of on-site living eyewitnesses to this spectacle, we’ve sent R2D2, and been lucky at that. The robots will perform just fine, and it will still be an amazing event. Yet it can also serve as a slap-in-the-face reminder that just as on Earth, “fortune favors the bold”. It would have vastly increased human culture if bold humans now on Mars— and the bold societies that might have existed to send them— would be justifiably exulting in this unexpected reward from the inanimate Universe, seen first-hand instead of through robot eyes.

There are more glorious surprises in the infinite “Out There”, waiting to be stumbled across and recognized. Let’s not be caught flat-footed like this again.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, not IEEE Spectrum, the IEEE, or its organizational units.

Google Funds New Brazil – U.S. Undersea Fiber Optic Cable

This week, Google announced its investment in a new undersea fiber optic cable connecting the United States and Brazil that will help ensure that its services continue to run smoothly in South America.

 The $60 million project, which will be capable of carrying up to 64 terabits of data per second, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016. It also marks Google’s second investment in continent-connecting cables this year.

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Will Humans Start Colonizing Mars in Ten Years?

Colonizing Mars has long represented one of the more ambitious dreams for space travel proponents ranging from NASA scientists to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The latter also envisions sending humans to Mars sometimes in the next several decades, and has mused about how to build a Mars colony population of 1 million people in an Aeon interview.

Mars One — a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands — shares some of the Musk’s goals and indeed, the Mars One vision relies on Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. But Mars One’s concept of seeding Mars with human colonies by launching one-way missions recently received some close scrutiny from a team of MIT researchers.

The MIT team’s critique identified potential challenges and estimated that settling the first batch of Mars colonists would require about 15 launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket being developed by Musk’s firm SpaceX at a cost of $4.5 billion. MIT also suggested that Mars One may want to dial back its aggressive schedule of sending four-person crews every 26 months starting in 2024.

The MIT paper took a particularly close look at the Mars One idea that it could establish a sustainable colony on Mars using existing technology starting in the 2020s, according to Space Policy Online. MIT’s researchers concluded that Mars One was overreaching with its statement that “no new major developments or inventions are needed” to make such an effort possible. In a Reddit AMA, they also urged Mars One to take a slower-paced approach that field-tested all the necessary habitat equipment on the red planet before sending humans.

“We believe this is a time for boldness in space exploration, but there is also a necessary amount of caution,” said MIT’s team, a group overseen by Olivier de Weck, an aeronautics and astronautics engineer at MIT. “A catastrophe in the early days of Martian colonization may cripple the endeavor in today’s risk-averse society.”

In 2012, Mars One first proposed sending Mars settlers on a one-way trip to the red planet starting in 2024 — a project based on the idea of making such a Mars endeavor into a multimedia reality show. Mars One also envisions first sending robotic missions to set up the crew habitat between 2018 and 2023, before the first humans ever set foot on the red planet.

MIT’s simulation of the Mars One mission plan highlighted a few areas in particular.

First, the study found that the cost of the permanent colony would grow steadily over time because of the increasing requirement for spare partsspares would account for an estimated 62 percent of mass transported to Mars after almost 11 years of settlement.

Second, the study identified a potential problem of managing excessive oxygen levels if the Mars One effort grew all its food as crops on the red planet.

Third, it pointed out that carrying all food from Earth could be more efficient than growing Mars crops because of Martian agriculture’s equipment requirement.

The MIT paper presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto has sparked a firestorm of online debate between supports of the Mars One vision and the more skeptical side of the space enthusiast community. But the MIT team clarified during the Reddit AMA that it did not set out to “discredit” Mars One and simply wanted to clarify the technology road map required for such an effort. (MIT team leader Olivier de Weck talked Mars mission logistics in IEEE Spectrum’s 2009 special report on going to Mars.)

Suggestions from the MIT team during the Reddit AMA session included testing all life support and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies on Mars for at least 26 months before sending humans. The researchers also pointed out that slowing down the rate of sending settlers could reduce the impact of the increasing spares requirement on mission mass. They also raised the future possibility of 3-D printing and other ISRU technologies reducing the need for spares.

Anonabox Promises Total Online Anonymity That's Easy, Open Source, and Cheap

Nobody likes giving up their privacy. But as much as we complain about it, relatively few of us are willing to put time, money, or effort into consistently protecting our privacy online. And it’s not like it’s that hard, relatively speaking: the Tor Project offers excellent, free software that lets you browse the Internet in complete anonymity, if you use it properly. With Tor, data you send over the Internet are encrypted and stripped of any identifying information (namely, your IP address) before reaching their destination. It’s one of the most reliable methods that you can use to protect your identity online. However, it does take some amount of experience to use, along with a conscious decision to choose security over convenience. If that sounds like too much work (and it sure sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?), the Anonabox could be exactly what you need.

 

The Anonabox, now on Kickstarter, is a tiny little networking tool that will sit there and invisibly do all of the Tor-related stuff that you’d want it to do, without you ever having to think about it.

The appeal of Anonabox (relative to other, similar products) is threefold. First, it’s about as easy to use as you could possibly hope for: plug one end into a free port on your modem or router, add power (USB), and that’s it. The Anonabox will set up its own wireless access point (in tandem with any existing network) that you can connect to when you want to, and all the data that are sent through it will be anonymized through Tor. No wireless? No problem, it’s got an ethernet port, too.

Second, it’s completely open source, which means that people way smarter than you can make sure that there aren’t any security holes in the software.

And third, it’s cheap: the people behind this thing have spent years refining it for their own use, which has driven the price down to something equivalent to a cheap router. Add all of these things together, and your total investment (time, money, space, effort, frustration, embarrassment, emotional anguish, etc.) drops to the point where even those with a vague interest in the option for online privacy would have a hard time justifying not getting an Anonabox.

So, since Anonabox is entirely based on Tor, why not just use the Tor browser, which is free? The simple answer is that Anonabox anonymizes everything that your computer is sending out over the Internet, not just the websites that you visit through your browser. Email, instant messaging, filesharing, all of it. In that respect, using a piece of hardware that runs everything through Tor like this certainly makes things safer, but it can’t keep you perfectly safe.

Most of the time, when a Tor user is compromised, it’s because that user (or the user’s computer) did something that shouldn’t have been done: security and privacy are as much about you using good browsing practices and exercising caution as they are about anonymizing hardware and software. For example, if you browse the Internet through Anonabox with the same Web browser that you’ve been using, it’s possible to identify you through the unique characteristics of the cookies that your browser has probably picked up. Instead, you should be using a different browser, or ideally the Tor browser itself, which is specifically designed to prevent things like that from happening. The point is this: no combination of hardware or software is capable enough to protect your privacy if you use it wrong.

Anonabox was looking for $7,500 for an initial production run on Kickstarter, and they’ve surpassed that by just a bit, clocking in at well over $150,000 in funding with 28 days to go. You’ve missed the early bird version of the Anonabox ($45), so instead you’ll have to pay $51, with delivery expected early next year.

[ Anonabox ] and [ Kickstarter ] via [ Wired ]

A Simple Plumbing Problem Sent Galileo Satellites Into Wrong Orbits

On 22 August, about 35 minutes after liftoff of a Soyuz rocket carrying the fifth and sixth satellites of Europe's ambitious 30-satellite navigation system Galileo, things went wrong. The upper stage, the Russian-built Fregat that carried the two spacecraft, injected them into the wrong orbits, making them unusable for their intended function as part of the navigation system.

At first blame fell on an error in the software controlling the Fregat's trajectory. But an inspection of the flight parameters clarified the situation: the two attitude control thrusters — small thrusters that keep the spacecraft and its propulsion engine pointed in the correct direction — failed to fire when they had to. "When a motor functions, and then stops functioning, it means that the fuel is no longer getting there," says Mario de Lépine, a spokesperson of Arianespace, who controlled the launch.

The fuel — hydrazine — didn’t reach the thrusters because it froze in its feed line, which was too close to another feed line carrying liquid helium. Both lines were mounted on a same support structure that, unfortunately, functioned as a thermal bridge cooling the hydrazine. The fault has also been discovered in other Fregat stages that are now under construction in Russia, and was apparently caused by ambiguities in the design documents of Fregat.

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The Blue LED Has Many Parents

The story of science and technology today is the story of many hands. But try as we might, it’s hard to get away from the hero narrative. It’s still easy for us to get swept up by the tales of lone inventors, who battle the powers-that-be and fight against all odds to prove themselves right.

The stories that we tell about the development of the blue LED are no exception. The hero has long been Shuji Nakamura, one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Nakamura, working “virtually alone” for a small, geographically remote company called Nichia Chemical Industries, was responsible for developing manufacturing processes that brought the first truly bright blue LEDs to market. He’s since become the face of the device.

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Private Space Habitat to Blow Up on ISS Next Year

Until someone manages to figure out how to get a space elevator up and running, sending stuff into space is going to remain enormously expensive. Payloads are also limited by size: if it doesn’t fit inside a rocket, it’s not going to make it into orbit. This places significant restrictions on large space structures like the International Space Station, which have to be made up of lots of tiny little modules stuck together, meaning that you don’t have access to a lot of open space.

Fifty years ago, NASA experimented with launching inflatable spacecraft that could be carried into space wadded up inside small rockets, and then pumped up to enormous sizes once they reached orbit. It was a fantastic idea that was in the running for a habitat on the ISS until funding for it was axed by the U.S. Congress. But Bigelow Aerospace has taken up the idea, and at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress last week, the private company reconfirmed its plan to test an inflatable module on the ISS in 2015.

 

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will fly up to the ISS inside the unpressurized butt trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule sometime next year. The station’s Canadarm2 will attach the BEAM to an airlock on the Tranquility module, where it will be slowly inflated:

The BEAM has an internal volume of about 16 cubic meters, which is just enough room for one astronaut to comfortably do a mostly stationary acrobatic routine, and it’s scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for two full years. However, since this is a new thing for both Bigelow and NASA, it’s not likely that astronauts will be able to take full advantage of the space. At the moment, the plan is to keep the BEAM mostly sealed off. Its role will be to house instruments, but astronauts will venture in once or twice a year to make sure that it’s not leaking, irradiated, full of aliens, or otherwise malfunctioning.

If everything goes well with BEAM, Bigelow has plans to launch an inflatable space station of its own sometime after 2016, built around a much larger inflatable module called the BA 330. With 330 cubic meters of usable space, the BA 330 is slightly larger than Skylab was. That makes it more than three times as spacious as the Destiny module, although it’s just 30 percent heavier. The BA 330 will be completely self-contained, flying with all of the infrastructure required to keep humans alive and happy. It should be at least as safe, if not safer, than the ISS modules, with respect to both radiation and impact protection.

Earlier this year, Bigelow announced how much it’ll cost you to spend some time inside the BA 330 when it launches. Expect to pay $25 million for a sixty day lease of one-third of the station—if you can get yourself there and back. Should you need a ride, round-trip taxi service between SpaceX and your local launching pad will run you an additional $26.5 million. 

As with most projects of this magnitude, Bigelow has had some ambitious goals that have been tempered by reality over the years. But actually launching and testing hardware in space is a major hurdle that they’re about to clear (again). SpaceX and Boeing (and perhaps even Sierra Nevada) are in the process of proving that private industry is the future of getting humans into space, and Bigelow is out to show that private industry can also be the future of humans staying there.

[ Bigelow Aerospace ] via [ Space.com ]

Make It So: Open Source, Arduino-Based Tricorder Nears Completion

A tricorder is a piece of fictional equipment* in Star Trek that’s only slightly less realistic than Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. A handheld device with a screen, lots of blinking LEDs, and some unspecified set of sensors, a tricorder allows you and your away team to detect alien lifesigns and subspace anomalies and whatever else is necessary to move the plot forward.

Considering how often tricorders are relied on in Star Trek, we can infer that they’re immensely useful. Peter Jansen has been developing tricorders for the last seven years, and his latest model is tiny, open source, and absolutely packed with useful (and entirely functional) sensors.

 

Here’s the full accounting of the suite of sensors in the current prototype:

Atmospheric Sensors

  • Ambient Temperature and Humidity: Measurement Specialties HTU21D
  • Ambient Pressure: Bosch Sensortec BMP180
  • Multi-gas sensor: SGX-Sensortech MICS-6814

Electromagnetic Sensors

  • 3-Axis Magnetometer: Honeywell HMC5883L
  • Lightning sensor: AMS AS3935
  • X-ray and Gamma Ray Detector: Radiation Watch Type 5
  • Low-resolution thermal camera: Melexis MLX90620 16×4
  • Home-built linear polarimeter: 2x TAOS TSL2561
  • Colorimeter: TAOS TCS3472
  • UV: Silicon Labs Si1145
  • Spectrometer: Hamamatsu C12666MA micro-spectrometer, with NeoPixel light source

Spatial Sensors

  • Inertial Measurement Unit: Invensense MPU-9150 9-axis (3-axis accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer)

Other Sensors

  • Microphone: Analog Devices ADMP401

The difference between the Arducorder Mini and the tricorders competing for Qualcomm’s Tricorder XPrize is sort of like the difference (in Star Trek) between a regular tricorder, and a medical tricorder. The Arducorder Mini is a pure sensing tool, and isn’t intended to perform any diagnostics. The winner of the Tricorder XPrize, on the other hand, will need to be able to diagnose diseases by itself.

Jansen is competing for a different sort of reward: a trip to space for himself, if he wins the Hackaday Prize. But really, we all win, because of the open-source nature of the Arducorder. All of the build details are available here.

[ Tricorder Project ]

*Gene Roddenberry, the creater of Star Trek, added a clause to his contract with Paramount specifying that if anyone actually made a functioning tricorder, they’d have automatically earned the right call it a tricorder if they wanted to.

Pediatricians Bring Tracking of Illnesses at Childcare Centers Online

Packed with small kids who may have yet to make habits of covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough or of washing their little germy hands, a daycare can serve as ground zero for infectious diseases like influenza. Now, a team of pediatricians is trying to improve reporting of illnesses in childcare centers by replacing pen and paper reporting with a more nimble online illness tracker. By more quickly collecting and disseminating information about what’s making kids sick, the researchers hope to help childcare providers identify diseases and stem their spread.

 

Researchers from Kalamazoo College and the Medical College of Wisconsin, led by Dr. Andrew Hashikawa, a physician at the University of Michigan, enrolled four childcare centers in Washtenaw County, Michigan, in a four-month pilot study examining the effectiveness of an online system for reporting and tracking illnesses in about 600 preschool-aged children. When kids were kept home sick or needed to be picked up by an adult due to an illness, staffers reported the illness using an onilne form at sickchildcare.org, a site set up by Hashikawa and his colleagues with the aim of more efficiently capturing data about symptoms reported in young children and making that data easier to analyze. 

While similar reporting systems have been tested in schools to little effect, Hashikawa thinks that a group of preschool age kids makes a great petri dish for testing this kind of tracking. That’s thanks in no small part to how closely the kids themselves can resemble petri dishes.

“They’re in close contact, they have immature immune systems, they’re slobbering over each other,” Hashikawa told IEEE Spectrum prior to his presentation at the American Academy of Pediatricans conference in San Diego.

Young children in childcare, Hashikawa says, could also make more reliable indicators of disease spread than older kids because their sick days are more likely than others to be days when they’re actually sick, something that’s not always the case with middle school and high school students. And since childcare centers don’t take summer breaks, the reporting can also run year round without gaps in information gathering. 

According to Hashikawa, Washtenaw County made a good testing ground for the pilot programs because childcare workers are already required to turn over data on sick kids to public health agencies. The process for doing so, though, is pretty antiquated. 

“Flu-like [symptoms] and stomach flu cases are reported on a weekly basis on paper,” Hashikawa says. “Those are faxed to the public health department of the community, and then someone puts it into a spreadsheet.” The result is a well-intentioned reporting system that lags well behind the actual spread of illness in a community.

During the pilot program, sickchildcare.org gathered 188 instances of illnesses in children. Included in that data was a small outbreak of stomach flu that the online system identified in near real-time. Public health officials also noticed the outbreak in the faxed records—nearly three weeks after the fact.

U.S. Military Puts Up $110 Million to Fund Photonic Integrated Circuits Competition

Today’s Internet relies upon a backbone of photonics technology that uses light to transmit, store, process, and display all the digital information that ends up in front of your eyes. A new generation of photonic integrated circuits—which would be used in everything from smartphones to medical devices—could boost the speed of data transmission among and within these devices. And it’s predicted that these photonic circuits will shrink considerably, allowing the gadgets that contain them to get progressively smaller. That’s why the U.S. government has launched a new initiative that will award more than $100 million to spur the ramping up of domestic manufacturing of photonic integrated circuits.

The U.S. Department of Defense is heading the effort, which will disburse up to $110 million in federal funding via an Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute. The five-year commitment also requires matching funding of $110 million from private sources to cover its operational costs. Last Friday, President Obama announced that the new initiative would be the latest Institute for Manufacturing Innovation launched by his administration. The aim is to enable the creation of an end-to-end photonics “ecosystem” in the United States that covers every part of the manufacturing process.

Today’s integrated photonics are packaged from individual components made separately. But the photonic integrated circuits researchers envision (built entirely in a single package) hold the promise of simplifying design and manufacturing in a way yields smaller dimensions and lower power consumption.

The Department of Defense expects photonic integrated circuits to eventually help lower the costs of high-speed Internet access and boost the efficiency of telecommunications networks within cities and across long distances, says DoD News. For instance, future data centers would use less power per bit for speeds of 100 gigabits per second than today’s technologies use in transmitting 10 gigabits per secondleading to a potential energy savings of millions of dollars per year.

The average consumer would enjoy more benefits than just improved Internet speeds and access. Reductions in size, weight, and power for photonics technology in electronics could also enable new generations of embedded computing in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Such technology could also lead to a “several-fold increase” in the dynamic range of biomedical detectors, DOD News reported. That would enable such detectors to peer through human tissue and boost detection of certain diseases.

Finally, light-manipulating circuits may boost the ability to see through dust clouds kicked up by the rotors of helicopters during landingsa problem that has led to crashes and deaths in the past.

Officials expect to announce the recipient(s) of the $110 million award sometime early next summer. The Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute would then have five years to reach a self-sustaining point where it no longer requires federal funding.

Past examples of winners for U.S. Institute for Manufacturing Innovation competitions include broad consortia of universities and companies focused on areas such as 3-D printing and modern metals manufacturing.

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