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ULA's New Vulcan Rocket Comes Back to Earth via Helicopter

Thanks to SpaceX, we know exactly how hard it is to reuse a rocket by landing it on a barge. Of course, there's an excellent reason why why SpaceX is investing so much effort in making a reusable launch system: an enormous percentage of the launch cost is the rocket engine, and if you can reuse that, you can slash costs dramatically.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing best known for their Delta and Atlas rockets, has just announced a next-generation rocket called Vulcan. Using Blue Origin's forthcoming BE-4 engines, and with a not entirely crazy airfoil and helicopter mid-air retrieval system, Vulcan is ULA's attempt field a commercial launch system that can compete with SpaceX on both capability and cost.

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Neurosurgeon Who Stimulates Brains in the Operating Room Coaches Neural Engineers

human os iconNeurosurgeons don’t always get respect from the engineers who build cutting-edge devices that are implanted in the brain. I’ve occasionally heard a lament that goes something like this: “My ingenious brain gadget would have worked perfectly, if only the surgeon had implanted it in precisely the right spot/handled it more carefully so all the bits didn’t break.”

This week at the IEEE Neural Engineering conference, however, the distinguished neurosurgeon Hugues Duffau argued that information that surgeons gain on the operating table should guide the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). “My conclusion is that neurosurgeons are underused,” said Duffau, chair of neurosurgery at Monpellier University in France. 

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Happy Birthday Hubble!

Launched 25 years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), or simply “the Hubble,”  became the world’s eye on the universe, delivering to astronomers and the general public an endless stream of images with unsurpassed clarity.

Many revolutions in astronomy have been tied to specific telescopes and their uers, from the tiny telescope with which Galileo proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun and discovered the moons of Jupiter, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, used to by the 3rd Earl of Rosse to discover the spiral structure of what are now known as galaxies, and the 2.5-meter Hooker Telescope used by Edwin Hubble during the 1920s to measure the expansion of the Universe itself. And over the last quarter century, the HST has kept up this noble tradition. 

Although the Hubble’s mirror, with a diameter of 2.4 meters, is smaller than the mirror of even the Hooker telescope, it’s location in orbit above the Earth’s distorting atmosphere and the use of state-of-the-art CCD image sensors has helped to pin down the age of the Universe, determine the existence and distribution of dark matter and dark energy, and probe the atmosphere of planets in distant star systems. 

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Documentary on eSports Shows Video Games in Transition

People have played American football, basketball and baseball in some form for more than a century. The online video game “League of Legends” represents the most popular game in the growing “eSports” scene after little more than five years of existence. But game tournament organizers and professional gamers face much uncertainty in their quest to make eSports a sustainable industry rather than just a flash in the pan.

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Proposal Would Put Laser Cannon on ISS to Blast Space Junk

The easiest (and probably best) way to deal with the space junk problem is to stop producing space junk in the first place. We’re trying to do that, which is great. But even if space agencies and commercial launch companies all commit, tomorrow, to rockets and satellites that will deorbit themselves after no more than 25 years, there’s still all kinds of debris flying around up there, threatening our orbital infrastructure.

Many ways of dealing with orbital debris have been proposed, and some are even being tried out. Researchers working at RIKEN, a research institution in Japan, are leading an international team that wants to put a laser cannon on the International Space Station to try to shoot down small pieces of junk on the fly.

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Baseball's Player-tracking Statcast System Debuts

If you’ve always thought the problem with baseball was that it didn’t have enough statistics, then here’s some good news: Major League Baseball has installed arrays of HD-video cameras and 3-D Doppler radar devices in every park in the league to track not only the ball, but also the movements of every player on the field. In Tuesday night’s relatively meaningless early-season game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals, Major League Baseball’s new Statcast system made its TV debut

Baseball has a long standing love affair with statistics—before more esoteric sabermetrics like WAR were developed (that would be wins above replacement” for the uninitiated), avid fans tracked their favorite players’ batting averages, RBIs, and ERAs. But certain aspects of the game like defense, positioning, and baserunning, seemed resistant to quantification. 

To measure the previously unmeasureable, data from TrackMan radar units are combined with stereoscopic images from two camera arrays, spaced 15 m apart. The radar measurements are useful for keeping track of the ball dynamics (including its spin), while video is useful for tracking player movements. Unlike the SportVU player tracking system used in the NBA, which has a top-down view on the action, Statcast’s camera location requires it to intelligently resolve player occlusions. 

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MIT Turns Thumbnail into Trackpad

A new wearable sensor can turns a person's thumbnail into a miniature wireless track pad, researchers at the MIT Media Lab say.

The device, called NailO, relies on capacitive sensors to register touch; they are the same kind used in the iPhone's touchscreen. It also carries a battery, a micro-controller, a sensor controller, and a Bluetooth radio chip, all in a space no larger than, well, a thumbnail. The MIT scientists will present their findings on 22 April at the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer-Human Interaction conference in Seoul, South Korea.

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All-photonic Quantum Repeaters: a Major Step Towards a Worldwide Quantum Internet

Researchers at the University of Toronto and the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) in Japan have suggested a new method for extending the distance over which current and future quantum networks can transmit photons encoded with encryption keys. They published their research in the 15 April issue of Nature Communications. The proposal was also the subject of an extended communiqué released by NTT the same day.

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Laser-printed polysilicon transistors on paper

Printed electronics have opened up applications—flexible circuits and rollable displays, to name two—that were impossible with conventional electronics. Usually, printed electronics are created using organic or metal-oxide inks whose electronic properties often pale in comparison to silicon. Now scientists have discovered a new way to print silicon, potentially ousting its erstwhile usurpers.

The ability to print silicon onto substrates has existed for some time, but producing solid silicon from liquid polysilane ink required exposing the silicon to temperatures upwards of 350 degrees Celsius—far too hot for many of the flexible surfaces onto which one might want to print. The new technique, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Ishikawa, completely bypasses this step. The collaborators detailed their findings in the 21 April online edition of the journal Applied Physics Letters.

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Disney Does Better Dubbing

Bad dubbing on foreign films could one day be replaced with better lip-synched audio with the aid of software from Disney Research.

Speech redubbing, used for the translation of movies, television shows and video games into another language, or the removal of offensive language for television networks, usually involves careful scripting to choose words that match lip motions and a subsequent re-recording by actors. The weakness of dubbing lies in how easy it is to detect even subtle discrepancies between spoken words and facial motions. 

To overcome this challenge, scientists at Disney Research Pittsburgh and the University of East Anglia in England are developing automated video redubbing strategies that find plausible word sequences to match actors' speech motions. They relied on the extreme level of ambiguity inherent in reading lips to increase the number of word possibilities that dubbing could place in people's mouths.

The scientists will present their findings on 23 April at the IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing in Brisbane, Australia.

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