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MIT's Lunar Telescopes

NASA announced last week that it will fund MIT to build an array of hundreds of radio telescopes over a 2-kilometer stretch of the far side of the moon. The telescopes will probe the "earliest formation of the basic structures of the universe,â'' according to MIT. But many such ambitious projects have started off strong, only to end in a whimper. How likely is this one to get off the ground?

That depends on how important the research is perceived to be. The moon telescope, called the Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology (LARC) project, will pick up very-low-frequency radio emissions, with which scientists can measure cosmic background radiation and investigate to a period known as â''the Dark Agesâ'' of the universe, which extends from the Big Bang to a billion years out (12.6 billion years ago, according to current estimates of the age of the universe).

moonscope-small.jpg

Physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science, stands behind a prototype of a radio telescope array. A team she leads has been chosen by NASA to develop plans for such an array on the far side of the moon.

Photo credit: Donna Coveney/MIT.

"The more we learn about the microwave background, the better we understand cosmology," says Johns Hopkins University astronomy and astrophysics professor Richard Conn Henry. "Very important indeed." But Henry is not convinced that this project will be built in his lifetime. He has seen many such ambitious NASA projects fail.

Astronomers have long been eager to get to the dark side of the moonâ''because it is permanently turned away from earth, itâ''s the only place near us where nothing interferes with those very low frequency radio emissions.

Space telescopes can't do it because all our radio and television transmissions drown out the faint noise weâ''re looking for. â''Radio telescopes in orbit are terrible," says Henry. "They pick up noise from all over the earth." He says that the radio silence from the far side of the moon would give researchers better insight than even the WMAP Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation map. (The reason WMAP was so clean was that it was at L2 and pointed away from earth.)

For earth-based telescopes, the ionosphere also gets in the way. The far side of the moon is the only place anywhere near our orbit that is protected by its constant about-face. Henry was also a co-investigator on the Apollo 17 UV experiment in 1972, and he says,"the Radio experiment people said it was amazing how quiet it got on the other side of the moon."

But will it be built? Henry intimates that the plan is overly ambitious, and funding will be too scarce. He has seen many such expensive NASA projects peter out and die. The first step (laying out the blueprints for the mission) is being funded to the tune of $500,000 divided between MIT and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Team leader and MIT physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt (pictured) says this array of spider-like telescopes will be one of the easiest to build. (And because there are so many, the accidental failure of a few will not be devastating.)

If NASA eventually chooses MIT's LARC, construction is slated to begin after 2025 (cost estimates for the final project are at about $1 billion).

More Blu-Ray Blues?

Last week, the analysts at iSuppli, a market research firm in southern California, asked the question: "Toshiba's HD-DVD Exit: a Pyrrhic Victory for Blu-ray?" They went on to say this:

However, after years of a standards war, the major question for Sony Corp. and the Blu-ray camp is whether a physical format for high-definition still has any relevance to consumers in this era of Internet-delivered movies and video on demand.

"The demise of HD-DVD will reduce consumer confusion, since everyone will talk about a single next-generation DVD player and the benefits of owning such a player," said David Carnevale, vice president of multimedia content and services at iSuppli Corp. "But the biggest question of them all now is: Do consumers even care?"

Here at Spectrum, we try to control our fits of self-congratulation, but it's hard not to notice that we made the very same prediction a month ago, in a radio segment that aired on the public radio show, Here and Now. If you subscribe to Spectrum Radio, a copy is already on your iPod. If not, the podcast, "No More Disks?" is downloadable here. (If you'd like to subscribe, the RSS feed is here.)

Our reasoning was pretty much the same as iSuppli's. Theirs went like this:

During the years while the DVD war raged, online services - from iTunes, Amazon and others - have gained traction and now offer numerous movie titles, television programs and other content, all in a digital format downloaded directly to a consumerâ''s PC or portable device and now, on their television with products like Apple TV and Sonyâ''s Bravia Internet Link.

This begs the question: Do consumers even want or need a physical copy of their movies or TV programs anymore?

Our podcast concluded on a similar note:

So, do we really need to trudge out to Blockbuster, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart for a disk? Or wait for the now-familiar red envelope from Netflix? A lot of companies, including Apple and Netflix itself, are betting no. Sony and the studios hope they're wrong. But my bet is they're not.

iSuppli also looked at Blu-Ray's current high price, which isn't about to plummet now that it has the market to itself.

Blu-ray DVD players now sell for about $400. In contrast, a decent standard-definition player is priced at about $60Ë'a huge difference for Blu-ray to overcome. Furthermore, upconverter DVD players, which translate standard-definition DVD content to 720p resolution, are becoming commonplace. With these players priced at about $100, cost is likely to be an area where Blu-ray will continue to struggle.

It's not as if, however, no Blu-Ray drives are going to be sold, and iSuppli had some interesting numbers along those lines.

iSuppli's present forecast, developed before the news from Toshiba, calls for worldwide blue-laser DVD player shipments, i.e. Blu-Ray and HD DVD, to rise to 45.4 million units in 2011, up from 6.6 million in 2008. This figure excludes PCs and game consoles.

Shipments of blue-laser recorders will rise to 6.6 million units in 2011, up from 500,000 in 2008. However, the total of both players and recorders in 2011 will fall far short of the peak shipments of the older-generation red-laser players and recorders, which amounted to 156 million units in 2006.

My own prediction is that while the transitions from analog to digital television and from standard- to high-definition are logically distinct, the first is going to inspire a lot of the second. So I think we'll see a lot more Blu-Ray players sold in calendar 2009. They'll never be as cheap, or ubiquitous, as standard DVD players are today. But that's okay. DVD was arguably the fastest-selling consumer electronics category of all time.

By the way, it can't keep up, relying as it does on early adopters, but according to Displaysearch, another market research firm, the high-def DVD market has, to date, grown even faster.

To paraphrase Margo Channing in All About Eve - which, by the way, is already available in high-definition - fasten your couch's seatbelt, the high-definition video market is going to be a bumpy ride.

Spectrum editor is motion captured and turned into a guy at Game Developers Conference

I thought I was in my office yesterday, working on articles for upcoming Spectrum issues. Instead, I apparently was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where I was being featured at the Mova booth.

â''Lots of journalists recognized you,â'' Mova founder Steve Perlman told me later.

I guess thatâ''s a good thing. Except apparently instead of being my normal short, female self, I was a big, bald guy.

Let me explain.

Last year, around this time, I was editing an article by Eric Pavey of Electronic Arts on advances in computer graphics that are leading to realistic digital humans. In particular, Pavey talked about techniques for translating facial movements into digital images that could then be manipulated. I decided to get myself â''capturedâ'' by a new system still under development, Contour, from Mova, a company incubated by Perlmanâ''s Rearden Companies. It was a fascinating process, involving banks of cameras, phosphorescent paint, and a director with a clapboard. I felt like a star, and wrote about it.

And then promptly forgot about it. Mova, however, saved the digital me, and used it to show off its new â''retargetingâ'' tool at the Game Developerâ''s Conference.

Retargeting allows one actorâ''s performance to drive another actorâ''s. In this demo (above), Contour took my original performance (left), made it into a digital mesh (right), and then took a few images of an actor named David. The technicians aligned Davidâ''s face with mine, and then the Contour system used the sequence of motions in my digital mesh to move the image of Davidâ''s face. The movements of my gaze, recorded by an eye tracking tool, directed Davidâ''s eye motion. The results are distinctly odd, as you can see. Thatâ''s my voice, those are my expressions, but that sure isnâ''t me.

What's the point? Well, suppose a movie director wanted to add a new scene long after shooting stopped and the lead actor had moved on to other projects and was not available. The director could use another actor's motion, and the lead actor's image. Or, more commonly, in translating a movie to a videogame, game developers would be able to use realistic digital facsimiles of the original actors, but would not need those actors to record entire motion sequences.

Perlman still canâ''t say exactly when Contour-generated faces will hit the big screen; heâ''s at the mercy of movie company nondisclosures. But he says heâ''s working with a number of major studios and A-list actors, and the results will likely premiere this year, in both movies and videogames.

IBM Measures Force Needed to Move Individual Atoms

IBM, in its long research history of both developing the Atomic Force Microscope, and Don Eigler using an AFM to move atoms around to form "IBM", has used the AFM again to measure the precise force needed to move individual atoms.

The IBM researchers collaborated with the University of Regensburg in Germany on this work, and its results are expected to help inform the future designing of atomic-scale devices, such as computer chips and storage devices.

If the elapsing of twenty years from the time Eigler first moved the atoms around with an AFM to now determining exactly how much force it required is any indication of when we will see further breakthroughs, it would probably be better to count on seeing CMOS chips for the foreseeable future.

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.

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