Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Google Moon!

Today the X PRIZE Foundation and Google announced the first ten teams in the race for the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a race to put a robot on the moon.

X PRIZE and Google announced the competition last September. The goal: to land the first private robotic mission on the moon. The robot has to roam around the surface for at least 500 meters and send video, images and data back to Earth. Google will pay $20 million to the first team that can do all that. Second place is worth $5 million.

The first team, called Team Astrobotic, wins the Sally Adee X PRIZE for coolest name. The robot impresarios at Carnegie Mellon University needed a space exploration expert, so they drafted the University of Arizona, and they needed someone with rocket-power experience, and who better than Raytheon Missile Systems. The spacecraft will be assembled on UA's campus.

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute specializes in autonomous navigation that works with stereo vision, laser and radar, enabling robots like Crusher to autonomously avoid obstacles and map unfamiliar terrain on the fly.

Out of Africa: finally, a malaria vaccine?

New business models are helping large pharmaceutical companies tackle diseases of the poor around the world, especially of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the attention goes to the effort to build a vaccine for HIV, but since the recent scientific collapse of the most interesting vaccine candidate, hopes and attention have shifted to malaria.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a big pharma company, has the leading malaria vaccine candidate, called RTS,S, originally created in 1987 and coming to phase-3 trials (finally) in 2008. The candidate vaccine, while welcome, has only so far proved to be effective in protecting roughly 50% of people from malaria for at least 18 months. Because of the vaccine-candidates relatively weak protections, GSK plans to market RTS,S to children. Children tend to die more quickly and often from malaria than adults, who gain resistance over time and generally respond to existing treatments.

GSK is getting support from the Gates foundation (through both the Malaria Vaccine Initiative and Seattle-based PATH, a partnership to promote attacks on tropical diseases) to reduce the costs of gaining regulatory approval and finishing its scientific tests. The company hopes to negotiate "advance market committments," or contracts, with international donors who have pledged to foot the bill for rolling out a malaria vaccine in willing African countries.

GSK's field trials, likely to commence in about eight months, are expected to be done in Kenya, Tanzania (2 sites), Mozambique, Gabon, and Ghana (2 sites).

Aside from the health benefits that would come from an even a partially effective, the RTS,S vaccine, should it get market approval in the next 2-4 years, will mark a watershed in the pharmaceutical industry's approach to tropical diseases. The scientific benefits from field-testing the vaccine candidate in Africa -- at a cost running more than $100 million -- may result in improved capacity around the region to hold similarly-ambitious trials for other drugs.

Equally, the stakes are high. If GSK fails, radically-new scientific approaches may get attention, such as as the capsid-interruption approach to halting diseases promoted by Prosetta Corp. As many as 90 teams around the world are working on malaria vaccines.

Another notable trend is that of supplementing these development efforts with a renewed emphasis on behavioral adaptations to reduce malaria incidence, especially greater reliance on treated bed nets and on indoor spraying of DDT, an effective killer of mosquitoes that carry malaria. GSK itself supports these activities in different African countries in a recognition that science must be married to social changes in order to maximize outcomes in battles against disease.

Video Evidence Supports Belief Satellite Was Destroyed

The U.S. Defense Department today was circumspect in its description of the shoot-down of an ailing U.S. spy satellite yesterday. But a video from the Navy destroyer that took the shot shows the interceptor missile ascending and exploding, lending credence to the assumption that the strike was successful.

In a morning briefing at the Pentagon, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, reported the "breakup" of the de-orbiting satellite at 10:50 pm EST yesterday.

To illustrate the point, Gen. Cartwright ran the video above taken from the tracking system of the USS Lake Erie, which had fired the multi-stage SM-3 AEGIS missile at the crippled satellite, known as USA 193, over 150 statute miles above it.

He said the military is "very confident" that the missile hit the bus-size satellite and that it has a "a high degree of confidence" the exact target, the satellite's fuel tank containing a full complement of frozen hydrazine, was destroyed. He added that analysts are still studying the data and that the military was not yet ready to state that the dangerous rocket fuel was vaporized.

"But let me give you a sense of what we've got," Gen. Cartwright added. "We have a fireball, and given that there's no fuel, that would indicate that that's a hydrazine fire. We have a vapor cloud that formed. That, again, would be likely to be the hydrazine. We also have some spectral analysis from airborne platforms that indicate the presence of hydrazine after the intercept. So again, that would indicate to us that the hydrazine vented overboard in some quantity, and we're starting to see that in space."

He continued: "Any one of those as a stand-alone is not a smoking gun, so we're putting the pieces together. I would tell you that it's probably going to take us another 24 to 48 hours to get to a point where we are very comfortable with our analysis that we indeed breached the tank. The imagery that we have, the high-definition imagery that we have, indicates that we hit the spacecraft right in the area of the tank. So each of the pieces put together--we're pretty confident, but we're not standing there; I don't have a picture that shows you a tank."

Gen. Cartwright said the Pentagon will continue studying the debris field to come to a firm conclusion that the threat from the satellite has been completely eliminated.

Judging by what the images show, though, it looks as if this anti-satellite technology display by the U.S. was a complete success, at least militarily.

[See our Tech Talk entry from yesterday, After Shuttle Lands, U.S. Missile Knocks Out Spy Satellite, for more on the missile shoot-down.]

Footage of spy satellite blast

Wednesday's mission to shoot down the out-of-control spy satellite was successful, but it has left some diplomatic wounds. Chinese officials, concerned about harmful debris from the shootdown, asked the Pentagon to release all available data. (Never mind that China did the same thing last January, destroying one of its own obsolete weather satellites, and then taking two weeks to admit it. According to the New York Times, the Chinese anti-satellite shot left 1,600 pieces of debris floating around the Earth which will prevent other spacecraft from using orbits in their vicinity for years.)

But the Defense Department has obliged China's request for transparency. Check out Danger Room for footage of the satellite hit.

After Shuttle Lands, U.S. Missile Knocks Out Spy Satellite

On an auspicious day, the U.S. space program scored two knockouts on crucial missions. In one, the Atlantis space shuttle returned home after a five million mile flight that delivered a vital component to the International Space Station. Later the same day, the nation's military scored a direct hit to a damaged satellite that potentially threatened human life under a worst-case scenario.

NASA administrators called this morning's Florida landing of the STS-122 flight of Atlantis "an unbelievably super mission for us."

Later, as a lunar eclipse dimmed the early evening sky near Hawaii, a frontline Navy destroyer trained its state-of-the-art anti-satellite missile system at a glowing speck circling the planet. The speck, of course, was the well-publicized spy satellite falling out of orbit, known as USA 193.

At 5:26 pm local Hawaiian time, a weapons officer aboard the USS Lake Erie fired a single Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) multistage rocket at the de-orbiting satellite. About three minutes later, the payload of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System kill vehicle hit its target some 247 kilometers above.

With a full moon turning pale at dusk, the order was given from the Pentagon for the Lake Erie to fire its special SM-3 at the re-entering reconnaissance satellite, which U.S. officials had previously described as about the size of a small bus with an unused fuel supply of toxic hydrazine. Prior to the shoot-down, the decaying trajectory of the satellite, developed by the National Reconnaissance Office (and also referred to as NRO Launch 21), could be tracked by private online sites such as this one.

The Defense Department was preparing a press conference to offer more details on the shoot-down as of this writing, according to a report from the Associated Press tonight.

"Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours," the Pentagon said in a written statement. The Defense Department will conduct a briefing on the matter at 7:00 am EST tomorrow.

In its terse statement, the U.S. said: "Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earthâ''s atmosphere immediately. Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days."

We will continue to offer updates as more details become available.

[For recent entries on the NRO satellite, please visit: Why U.S. Satellite Shoot-down Won't Be Like China's and Where Will U.S. Spy Satellite Fall?.]

FPGA David throws another rock at Goliaths

First it was the fight between ASICs and FPGAS. The current market for FPGAs showcases who won that war. These days, as Actel CEO John East told me, it's FPGA vs FPGA. The market for high-end FPGAs (of the sort produced by the industry's traditional goliaths) has suffered, much the same way it made the ASIC market suffer in the late 1990s. Low-cost, feature-rich FPGAs of the sort made by Actel are chipping away at the market and tightening what the big companies can charge for a certain type of FPGA.

In this case, it's the low-cost, feature-rich chips Actel offers that are upsetting the apple cart. Today Actel, an industry David among Goliaths Xilinx and Altera, announced another generation (PDF) of its popular IGLOO and ProASIC3 FPGA families. Both cost 99 cents.

But East says he's not looking at market domination in the low-cost market; he's going after low-power.

Why is that important? East said once in an interview that you have to be able to see around corners, and already be there when history catches up. Right now that corner involves global climate change and the increasing volatility of the energy supply most people still rely on.

The solution starts with the architecture itself. The reason Actel's IGLOO AGL015 drains about 200x less power from a device when it is off, is that they are flash-based instead of SRAM-based. SRAM-based chip designs are prone to subject leakage current issues, so the new flash-based chips explicitly conserve static current leakage.

In Actel's power-saving mode, the chip conserves power while maintaining FPGA content. Why would you care? Say you're fedex and you put a tracking device on your shipping containers that has to self- power up and power down every so often to beam its location to a satellite. There's no one to turn it on and off, but also no extra battery so it can't just be on all the time. Actel's chips are in the mars rovers for the same reason.

Also, powering such a chip could theoretically be done with renewable energy. If a chip gets low enough in power consumption (like Actel's 5 microwatt chip) , it might be powered to run your chips on solar power. The most obvious and immediate beneficiaries of such chips are portable emergency devices like defibrillators, which have to be reliable all the time.

Crusher smash Delta Airlines, pls

Yesterday I attended Crusher's "graduation" from DARPA. It's going to be leaving its creators at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Engineering Center, and going into the army: specifically, to the Army's Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. The ceremonies took place at Fort Bliss, a base outside El Paso, TX, that is essentially 1.12 million acres of desert.

 

But feast your eyes on some video of the "urban" part of the field trials.

 

 

 

I'm sitting on one of those corrugated steel containers you see in the background, and hoping the thing's batting eyelashes--lidar, in layman's terms-- understand the container and me as an obstacle.

 

I will write much more eloquently on the topic later, but I was and continued to be sleep deprived, thanks to a sequence of events in which Delta unplugged the airplane that was supposed to get me to my connecting flight in Atlanta; I missed said flight and couldn't take another until the following morning; Delta refused to give me my luggage but a cranky customer service lady gave me a voucher to spend the night at a serial killer's hideaway called the Comfort Inn Camp Creek.

 

More on Crusher later, and certainly more on the astonishing "first domino" in this chain of events. Could someone maybe post a comment explaining how an airplane can lose all power from being unplugged? Even my cell phone is more sophisticated than that.

 

HD-DVD Is Dead. Long Live Blu-Ray

We all knew that HD-DVD was a goner at the January Consumer Electronics Show, but it took until today to pronounce the body dead on arrival. As Reuters and many other are reporting, Toshiba, the principal backer of HD-DVD, announced today that it was no longer going to manufacture the players. A question remains, however. There certainly wasn't room in the world for two high-definition disk formats. But how much do we really need one at all?

Toshiba to quit HD DVDs, ends format war

Tue Feb 19, 2008 10:45am EST

Toshiba, which had hoped HD DVD would drive growth in its consumer electronics business, said it would aim to end its HD DVD business by the end of next month.

"This was a very difficult decision to make ... but when we thought about the trouble we would cause to consumers and our partners, we decided it was not right for us to keep going with such a small presence," Toshiba Chief Executive Atsutoshi Nishida told a news conference.

The company said it would continue to service existing HD DVD products, and added it expected bigger profits over the next year as it will cut spending earmarked to promote HD DVD.

As Spectrum and many others

reported at the time, Time-Warner's decision to no longer back HD-DVD was the beginning of the end.

The following week, Blu-ray took 93 percent of next-generation DVD hardware sales in North America, according to the NPD group.

Big U.S. retailers took their cue, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N: Quote, Profile, Research), Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and online video rental company Netflix Inc (NFLX.O: Quote, Profile, Research), and pundits began writing obituaries for HD DVD.

Blu-ray made up 81 percent of all high-definition disc sales in the week ending February 10, according to Nielsen VideoScan First Alert.

Then, late last week, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, left the sinking ship ("Wal-Mart picks Blu-ray in HD DVD disaster").

Interestingly, today's Reuters story also had this to say:

But the Blu-ray win comes just as digital movie downloads appear on the market, rolling out movies and TV shows on high-speed Internet connections and bypassing the disc altogether. That could limit growth for Blu-ray, analysts said.

As it happens, that's a prediction that wasn't widespread, but was one we made last month in a radio story, "No More Disks?"

In it, we said,

There's every reason to think that Sony's Blu-ray victory will be a Pyhrric one. We won't rebuild our video collections yet again, or if we do, it won't be with thin little platters.

US's Current Penchant for Theocracy Does Not Bode Well for Nanotechnology

I suppose it should come as no surprise that in a country where three of the initial 10 Republican candidates for President (Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for those keeping tabs) announced last Spring at an early Presidential debate that they did not believe in evolution, that most Americans reject the morality of nanotechnology on religious grounds.

Dietram Scheufele, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a poll of 1,015 adult Americans in which only 29.5% of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.

When this poll is contrasted against the poll conducted by the Project on Emerging Technologies, which indicated just how ignorant Americans are about nanotechnology, it becomes clear that when one doesnâ''t understand something it becomes a source of fear, and what better foundation to rationalize your fears upon than religion.

But the US seems to have really cornered the market on translating fear of the unknown into religious dogma. In the United Kingdom, 54.1%, in Germany, 62.7%, and in France, 72.1% considered nanotechnology to be morally acceptable.

To be honest, even the European results are a bit strange: morality?! Okay, you might have ethical qualms about nanotechnology being used without its environmental, health and safety issues being clearly determined, but moral?

But Scheufele offers an explanation. The moral question seems to stem from nanotechnology being lumped together with biotechnology and stem cell research in that to the respondentsâ'' minds they are all engaged in enhancing human qualities.

I wonder if these same people have any qualms over vaccinations, say like the polio vaccine.

Nanotech IPOs Get Another Blow as Nanodynamics IPO Fails

The imminent future of nanotechnology companies going public in greater numbers, as predicted by the New York Times (login required) and examined on this blog, has gotten off to a bad start as Nanodynamics has abandoned their most recent IPO attempt on the Dubai exchange.

Nanodynamicsâ'' IPO on the Dubai exchange follows the companyâ''s attempted IPO closer to home on the Nasdaq exchange last November. In that failed attempt they were trying to raise $90 million as compared to the $100 million sought in this most recent effort.

In either case, you might imagine that there was some incredulity on the part of investors to hand over that kind of money for a company with 2006 revenues of just $4 million and losing $1.5 million a month.

It would seem that nanotechnology companies contemplating going public should try having some revenues to support the level of public investment being sought. A quarterly burn rate higher than your yearly sales does not exactly inspire confidence, no matter how much you may need the money to change the world.

Anyone who perceives this recent announcement as a death knell for the commercialization of nanotechnology, or that elusive specter â''the nanotechnology industryâ'', should instead see it as a serious shot across the bow of any company that believes money can be raised merely on a promise and not actual revenues.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More