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Finding Earthlike Exoplanets

There are several hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and probably even more planets. And among those planets, a world named Kepler 62f may be really, really special. It just might have complex life, and the whole cockeyed caravan that goes with it: buildings, music, poetry, love, conflict, cuisine, games, engineering, science, taxes, and partisan politics. It may be decades or longer before we know for sure, but so far, astrophysicists can say that Kepler is a smallish rocky world like ours, and it is "right smack in the middle of the habitable zone," in the words of Natalie Batalha, the Kepler Mission Scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Discovered by researchers operating the Kepler Space Telescope, the planet is 1200 light years away. Without knowing whether the planet has water or any of the other factors necessary for life as we know it, Batalha and her colleagues don't now claim to have discovered a habitable planet. Nevertheless, finding Kepler 62f has reenergized planetary scientists. “This is a dream, finding evidence of life beyond Earth,” Batalha declared. “But it's not a pipe dream. It might not happen in our lifetime, but it could happen in the lives of our children or grandchildren, and that's an astounding thing.” NASA has a “roadmap” of three planned and proposed space telescopes out to the year 2022. These will bring greater technological resources to bear, for example enabling scientists to detect the composition of the atmosphere of planets in distant solar systems.

Batalha spoke at the South By Southwest conference as part of a panel session Sunday titled “First Signs: Finding Life On Other Planets.” She disclosed that the Kepler telescope, which was set into orbit in March 2009, has found more than 3800 planets orbiting fewer than 3000 stars. It has been studying a triangle-shaped patch of the sky between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, within which it can see about 150 000 stars.

Kepler's mission is to detect potentially habitable planets, so all of the 3800 planets it has detected are at least 85 percent smaller than Neptune. Planets much larger than Earth are considered unsuitable, because they would lack rocky surfaces and be shrouded in hydrogen and helium. Planets much smaller than Earth are also ruled out, because they would lack atmospheres.

Of the 3800 planets found, 25 to 30 are “potentially habitable worlds,” Batalha said. Of those, 62f seems the most promising, being just 40 percent larger than Earth. The closest of those potentially habitable planets is just 15 light years from Earth. It's a neighbor in galactic terms: if you shrank the galaxy to the size of the continental United States, 15 light years would be like the one-kilometer stroll across Golden Gate Park.

“Kepler has set the stage,” said Amber Straughn, another panelist, and an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. “We now know not only that other planets are out there, but that they are common.”

NASA plans to launch two more exoplanet hunters in the next several years. The second of those, the James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to usher in a new era in exoplanetary studies.  “We're going to move from detecting planets to characterizing planets,” Straughn explained. Kepler uses sophisticated detectors to sense the tiny dropoff in light as a small planet moves across the disc of a faraway star. By measuring that dropoff and its duration, scientists can estimate the planet's size and orbital speed. But they can't tell anything about the planet's atmosphere and composition.

The James Webb telescope, on the other hand, will be equipped with spectroscopic instruments that will make measurements of the atmospheres of the planets. The instruments will characterize the light of the star, and compare it with the light streaming through the atmosphere of the planet. Those comparisons will reveal what wavelengths were absorbed in the planet's atmosphere, thereby giving the researchers a good idea of the compounds in it. The difficulty is the thinness of the atmosphere—it can be thought of as a film clinging to the far-off world. “I think that we are at a unique point in history, to build the technologies to move forward,” Straughn said. “Building these awesome telescopes that will let us find that blue marble out there. And the James Webb Space Telescope is our next stop on that journey.”

The telescope project is a partnership among NASA and the European and Canadian Space Agencies. It is scheduled for launch in 2018, will have a 6.5-meter-diameter main mirror. It is to be put into an orbit around the second Lagrangian Point. This position, known as L2, is about 1.5 million kilometers “behind” the Earth, as seen from the Sun. In this position, the craft would orbit the Sun at about the same rate as the Earth. That means that the spacecraft will be able to use shielding to block the light from the Sun, Earth, and Moon, which will all be near each other continuously from the craft's vantage point. Such shielding is crucial because the telescope's hypersensitive instruments will need to be cooled to prevent spurious noise from overwhelming weak signals from distant worlds.

Said panel moderator Alberto Conti, of Northrop Grumman: “When I was in grad school, when we talked about exoplanets...we didn't know if they existed. Now, we know they're out there. You realize it's an incredibly beautiful universe out there.”

Print 3-D Fingerprints for Better Biometrics

To test the accuracy of a new fingerprint scanner, researchers typically run millions of known fingerprint images through the system's matching software. But this testing procedure can't quite mimic real operating conditions, as a 2-D image fed into a program is fundamentally different than a 3-D finger pressed to a sensor. 

To get around that problem, researchers at Michigan State University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have come up with the first 3-D-printed fingerprint. A new technical paper describes their system for projecting 2-D images onto a generic 3-D finger surface, then fabricating the realistic 3-D fingerprint, with all its loops and swirls, in a commercial 3-D printer. 

This could be useful for end-to-end evaluations of fingerprint matching systems, which start with fingerprint image acquisition and then go on to feature extraction and matching. In the video below, MSU professor Anil Jain says the use of such 3-D fingerprints could help both sensor manufacturers and algorithm developers improve the hardware and software of fingerprint matching systems. The dummy fingers will also be helpful in the development of up-and-coming touchless fingerprint sensing technologies. 

Fingerprint biometrics are finding more and more applications in our speedy and security-conscious world; the uses go far beyond law enforcement. In India, the government is trying to enroll every citizen in a biometric ID system using fingerprints and iris scans. Fingerprints are recorded at many nations' border crossings. And the iPhone 5s can be unlocked with Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition system. So long as our fingerprints are going to be scanned everywhere, we can at least root for those scanners to be as accurate as possible.  

Newsweek Outting of Bitcoin's Satoshi Nakamoto Sparks Backlash

In an article published this morning by Newsweek, reporter Leah McGrath Goodman claims to have unmasked the elusive creator of the Bitcoin protocol. According to her story, the programmer, who for five years has been the subject of a high-stakes hacker manhunt, is a 64-year old, ailing Japanese American who loves model trains, deeply mistrusts the government and lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles. And his name really is Satoshi Nakamoto.

Goodman's story hinges on an exchange she had with Nakamoto outside his home in San Bernardino, California. Before being removed from the premises by police, Goodman recalls this exchange:

Tacitly acknowledging his role in the Bitcoin project, he looks down, staring at the pavement and categorically refuses to answer questions.

"I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it," he says, dismissing all further queries with a swat of his left hand. "It's been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection."

This bit of human detective work is stronger than any crypto-forensic work that has come before it. In the past, programmers have sought Satoshi by analyzing his coding style, clocking the times he was active online to get a time zone, and tracking the movement of Bitcoins around the blockchain. Relying on such methods (and often just a sprinkling of conspiracy theory) has produced a wide range of dubious candidates, among them: a graduate student in dublin, the Silk Road kingpin, and a nefarious decoy invented by the NSA.

The perennial "gotcha" stories about who created Bitcoin have fatigued the Bitcoin community and new theories normally send eyes rolling. But this one seems to be different. Listening to the way people are receiving the news, it has the feeling of something that might stick.

"Well, at the top of the story it says he admitted it. Either it's an outrageously out of context quote, or that's really him," says Mike Hearn, one of the core Bitcoin developers, in a Skype conversation.

According to Goodman's claim, Satoshi has been hiding in plain sight all this time. The man that she confronted, though born as Satoshi Nakamoto, changed his first name to "Dorian" in 1973. This comes as a very big surprise to many. It is quite odd, indeed, that a man who had demonstrated his desire for privacy so clearly to the people that he was working with, would chose to publish Bitcoin under a name that nearly matches the one he puts on legal documents (a pseudo-pseudonym, if you will).

For once, the debate raging in the community is less about whether they've got the right man and more about whether someone who is so central to a major news story should have any expectation of privacy. Since the story went live on the Newsweek website, the author and the publication have weathered a deluge of criticism about how they chose to report the story, including an open letter on reddit from Gavin Andresen, a core developer who was quoted extensively throughout.

His response to the article was as follows:

Hey Leah:

I meant exactly what I tweeted: I am disappointed you (or your publishers) chose to publish enough personal information that people can easily find Dorian and his family.

The pieces might all be public information, but you worked really hard to piece them all together, and the crazy people who might decide it is a good idea to go visit "Satoshi" are likely not as smart or hard-working as you.

And all of your evidence is circumstantial, EXCEPT for the "I'm not involved in that any more" quote, which might simply be an old man saying ANYTHING to get you to go away and leave him alone.

Anyway, I hope some good comes of all this; I hope it stimulates more debate on personal privacy and the role of journalists in our "pan-opticon" world.

But many have always expected his identity to be revealed. When I admitted to Hearn that I was feeling just the tiniest bit sad that the case had been closed and that someone who wanted to remain a recluse had been outed, he had this to say.

"The mystery was nice. But I'm not totally surprised this happened. I figured it would, eventually. Staying anonymous when lots of smart, dedicated people are trying really hard to find you is very tough."

NASA Holds on to ISS, Mars, Orion, and Europa in No-Growth $17.5B Budget

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled its portion of the US$3.9-trillion U.S. budget for the 2015 fiscal year. It’s a maintenance regime—keeping up most current programs, and reaching, however tentatively, for Mars and Europa, while cutting back a bit on some programs to watch the stars and monitor Earth’s climate.

The basic budget plan is flat: It keeps current programs (or most of them) going— but at $17.5 billion, the spending package is slightly lower than the $17.6-billion appropriation for the current year; the reduction keeps NASA’s budget in line with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (BBA), the compromise worked out in December to avoid the deeper cuts of sequestration.

There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though. The U.S. budget also includes a $56-billion Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI). The proposal lays out what the U.S. could do, if Congress allows the additional spending—off the BBA books, as it were—to be funded out of “tax loophole closers and spending reforms.”  The goals include restoring the country’s “global edge in basic research,” and NASA could, pols-willing, come in for an additional $886 million to support new and expanded missions.

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MIT Plan Envisions Orbital Fueling Stations for Future Moon Missions

When you travel from the earth to the moon, you usually assume it's a non-stop trip where you have to launch with everything you need for the journey. But an MIT team has thought up a way to create orbital fueling stations that don't require expensive, long-term servicing missions and could even survive NASA's budgetary ups and downs.

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Smartphone Voting Reduces User Errors in Mock Election

Downloading an election app on your smartphone could someday replace the need to join long lines of fellow voters, and it might make elections work better. Researchers have found that smartphone owners make fewer errors using a mobile voting system than when using traditional voting methods.

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Is It a Helicopter? Is It a Plane? Is It a Jeep? Yes.

A plane that laughs at short runways, a helicopter that sneers at slow airspeeds, a Jeep that jumps over IEDs, a robot that fears nothing as it ferries cargo and wounded soldiers in and out of battle zones—all these machines in one small, convenient package—that's what the military calls "Darpa hard."

As for Darpa itself—the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—it used to call the experimental vehicle the Transformer, in a nod to the television series about reconfigurable robots. Now, though, the agency has rechristened the vehicle Ares, after the Roman god of war and a tongue-twisting acronym (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems). 

A tip o' the hat goes to Graham Warwick, a British-trained aeronautical engineer who got the story last week for Ares, the defense blog of Aviation Week, where he's managing editor. Another hat tip goes to our own Evan Ackerman, who blogged about this back in August (without video but with plenty of great artist's impressions of the machine).

Here's that video:

Reason for the name-change: Darpa lost interest in the idea of jeep that could fly; instead it preferred to focus on an autonomous flyer that could carry a Jeep, or a medevac capsule, or a box of stuff--anything that can fit between the vehicle's splayed legs. After strapping on the load, the ducted, two-propeller, autonomous craft would hold its props in the horizontal plane for liftoff, then rotate them to or nearly to the horizontal plane for forward flight. The tricky part is in melding all elements of the craft into a single, seamless system of flight control, which involves manipulating the variable-pitch rotors and pointing the exhaust stream in the appropriate direction.

The contractors are Piasecki Aircraft, known for its helicopter expertise, and Lockheed Martin. The first test flight is due sometime next year. Possible customers include the U.S. Army, Marine Corps. and Special Forces.

 

Taiwan Engineers Around Export Restrictions and Winds Up with a Better Satellite

Since it launched its first satellite in 1999, Taiwan has been operating at a disadvantage. It’s had to maneuver through a thicket of export restrictions from European countries, such as France, Germany, and the United States to acquire a key component, without which its satellites would be lost. That component, a space-based GPS receiver helps fix the flying direction for a satellite and accurately calculate which way a spacecraft’s antenna should point. 

According to Chen-Tsung Lin, director of Flight Control Division of the National Space Organization (NSPO), dealing with those country’s export restrictions regarding space systems could take up to six months, and the lengthy process has seriously hampered Taiwan’s satellite projects.

Three years of hard work by Lin’s team resulted in the creation of Taiwan’s first home grown space-based GPS receiver. What’s more, the receiver is actually better than what Taiwan had been able to import in several ways.

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Tesla's $5 Billion Battery Factory: Spending Big to Save Big

Tesla Motors plans to build a huge U.S. battery factory capable of supplying 500 000 electric cars annually by 2020. The $5-billion "Gigafactory" is expected to produce more lithium ion batteries in 2020 than all the lithium-ion batteries produced worldwide in 2013—a huge step on the road to driving down the cost of battery packs and mass-market electric cars.

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The Future of Bitcoin Exchanges: Comments From a Mt. Gox Competitor

[UPDATE: According to news reports, Mt. Gox has filed for a form of bankruptcy in Japan.]

Mt. Gox, the Japan-based exchange which until recently handled the majority of trades between Bitcoin and fiat currencies, went offline this Tuesday, hours after the media got its hands on a document (supposedly leaked from within Mt. Gox) that described the company as insolvent and preparing for bankruptcy. Panic quickly spread among traders many of whom are still waiting for reimbursement from the exchange.

While some questioned the document's authenticity, there's little doubt now about its provenance. Shortly after shutting down his website, Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox, agreed to an IRC chat with an "industry specialist," named Jon Fisher. Fisher asked him point blank, "Is that Crisis Strategy Draft even legit?" To which Karpeles (writing under his well-known pseudonym, "MagicalTux") replied, "More or less. As the name suggests it's a draft, and it's a bunch of proposals to deal with the issue at hand, not things that are planned and/or done [sic]."

With Mt. Gox teetering on the brink of collapse, one of the biggest questions Bitcoiners will have to ask themselves is: How did we arrive at a situation where a currency, which was explicitly designed to be decentralized and transparent, is so intimately tied to the fate of an opaque, centralized institution such as Mt. Gox? And what, if anything, can be done to put trust back into the system?

I threw this question out to Michael Gronager, the chief operating officer at Kraken, an up-and-coming Bitcoin exchange.

Gronager shared some damning insights about the state of affairs at Mt. Gox. While stressing that he has no internal knowledge of their finances, and that his comments do not reflect an official statement from Kraken, he wrote in an email:

I rather believe that they ran the exchange in two to three years as a complete fractional reserve business. According to the leaked documents, Gox are also short in USD. They probably started buying up bitcoin on their exchange to ensure the bitcoin prices stayed higher there. That would ensure more sellers than buyers of bitcoin on their exchange. They might even have purposely delayed their USD withdrawals to further secure the trend of a high bitcoin price.... Don't subscribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity. But the levels of stupidity involved here are just overwhelming.

When these things happened in the past (although Mt. Gox's transgressions are the biggest yet, they were by no means the first), they unfolded before a select audience of early adopters. That audience has now grown to include law makers, regulators, and potential investors. 

And already, they are responding. The Manhattan U.S. attorney has served subpoenas to Mt. Gox and other competing exchanges. Joe Manchin, a U.S. senator for West Virginia also made news today when he sent a letter to regulators requesting a complete ban on Bitcoin. 

This situation puts people like Gonager in an interesting position. The downfall of Mt. Gox opens the market for a new wave of Bitcoin exchanges—for Kraken, and for its competitors, BitStamp and BTC China. But Mt. Gox's unnerving death spasms have managed to erode the trust necessary to operate a functioning exchange. Regardless of who fills the hole that Mt. Gox has left, they will once again be responsible for securing client funds. 

One alternative would be a decentralized exchange, where buyers and sellers can trade with each other directly by negotiating over a peer-to-peer network, thus eliminating the trusted third-party from the equation. This idea gains traction whenever Bitcoiners find themselves betrayed by an exchange. So far, however, no one has found a way to do it. There is still some hope that Ripple (a very different digital currency system detailed here) or MasterCoin (which enhances the functionality of Bitcoin by building layers on top it), will introduce a functioning P2P currency exchange.

But, according to Gronager, any time you have fiat money trading hands, trust will be part of the equation.

He writes:

If you want to exchange fiat for crypto you need to impose trust—you need to trust either an escrow to store the cash safely or the receiver to hand them to you as part of the deal. It is intrinsic to the nature of normal money. Hence, building a decentralized exchange will no matter how you twist it involve trusting someone, which to a large extent voids the whole purpose of a decentralized exchange.... What you need is to be able to ensure trust on your escrow, that is the exchange, for a bitcoin to fiat deal. You need to ensure that he is not spending your fiat but actually keeps them safe, and also that he is not spending your crypto.

 

Because Bitcoin exists as a public ledger, there are ways for exchanges to prove that they are holding the amount of cryptocurrency that they claim. But the same is not possible with government issued currencies. 

And this is why, according to Gronager, exchanges will have to reinforce the trust of their customers by resorting to old fashioned measures.  

"My take on this entire distrust in exchanges issue is actually plain old normal audits! You ask Deloitte to audit your customers funds, that they are there and that they are kept reasonably secure. They will then weigh in on this in their audit report which you can make public and do so four times a year or even more often."

At the moment, he says, professional auditors such as Deloitte, probably don't know enough about Bitcoin and how it works to handle the job. As they are catching up, the community would have to find some other trusted party. Gronager suggests pulling from Bitcoin's group of core developers. "I see this only as a temporary solution until one of the Big Four learn enough about bitcoin to be able to provide such reviews," he says.

Image: iStockphoto

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