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Moon Rover Teams Gear Up for $6 Million X Prize Purse

Now might be the time to start keeping closer tabs on the Google Lunar X Prize. Today, five of the 18 registered teams in the competition have been named finalists for interim "Milestone Prizes". Over the coming months, they'll work to demonstrate how far they've progressed in three categories: landing systems, rover mobility, and imaging subsystems. All three technologies will be needed to make it to the moon and nab the top prize (set at $US 20 million, minus any money awarded in the interim).

An independent panel of judges selected the finalists, and two teams swept all three categories. One is the Silicon Valley-based team Moon Express. The other is Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh that was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. (We covered some of Astrobotic's early efforts in 2009 in our special report on Mars.)

The performance of these teams might lead you to conclude that there are really only two horses left in the running. But when I caught up today with Andrew Barton, director of technical operations at the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), he told me not to read too much into the rankings. Only a handful of slots were available in each category, he said, and the two teams just so happened to be quite mature in all three.

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5G Service On Your 4G Phone?

A new San Francisco-based start-up, Artemis Networks, announced today that it plans to commercialize its “pCell” technology, a novel wireless transmission scheme that could eliminate network congestion and provide faster, more reliable data connections. And the best part? It could work on your existing 4G LTE phone.

If it proves capable of scaling, pCell could radically change the way wireless networks operate, essentially replacing today’s congested cellular systems with an entirely new architecture that combines signals from multiple distributed antennas to create a tiny pocket of reception around every wireless device. Each pocket could use the full bandwidth of spectrum available to the network, making the capacity of the system “effectively unlimited,” says Steve Perlman, Artemis’s CEO.

First introduced in 2011 under the name DIDO (for distributed input, distributed output), pCell seems almost too fantastic to believe. And no doubt Artemis will have plenty of critics to pacify and kinks to smooth out before operators like Verizon or AT&T pay serious attention. But there are at least a couple reasons why the idea might have some real legs.

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Renewable Power Tops Climate Change Solutions in Expert Survey

How would you advise a $100-billion venture capital fund to spend its money on preventing dangerous levels of global warming over the next 100 years? Climate experts recently chose distributed renewable energy, energy efficiency, and next-generation nuclear power as the ones most likely to make a big impact on climate change.

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Philips Creates Shopping Assistant with LEDs and Smart Phone

If you're like me, fumbling around the supermarket looking for obscure items is a pretty common—and frustrating—occurrence. Lighting giant Philips has developed a solution: smart lights.

The company yesterday introduced a system that connects in-store LED lights with consumers' smart phones. Using a downloadable app, people will be able to locate items on their shopping lists or get coupons as they pass products on the aisles. Retailers can send targeted information such as recipes and coupons to consumers based on their precise location within stores, while gaining benefits of energy-efficient LED lighting, says Philips.

“The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning. The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store," said Philips Lighting's Gerben van der Lugt in a statement.

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A Visit to the Magnetic Monopole Lab

One year ago this month, a physics lab in Amherst, Mass. came the closest yet to something physicists have been chasing since it was proposed in 1931—a magnetic monopole, an entity containing pure magnetic "charge" like an electron contains pure electric charge. The researchers have made the first so-called “Dirac monopole.” (The name comes from the physicist Paul A.M. Dirac, who described monopoles interacting with a quantum field, which is what the Amherst experiment was the first to do.)

Despite some sensationalistic media coverage that might have suggested otherwise, no one saw an actual particle that carried its own magnetic “charge.” Natural magnetic monopoles, whose existence if confirmed would have the benefit of explaining why electric charge is quantized, have still never been observed.

Instead what Amherst College physics professor David Hall and his postdoctoral researcher Michael Ray, created was an analog of a magnetic monopole in a collection of ultracold cloud of rubidium atoms known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Consider their quasi-magnetic monopole, Hall says, as being a little like an electron “hole” in a semiconductor. In a lattice of atoms like doped silicon, the absence of an electron behaves much like a particle itself, propagating down the lattice as if it were the positively-charged twin of the electron. And of course holes aren’t actual particles. So, neither, are these quantum monopoles.

“We’ve created a magnetic monopole, but it’s just not in a magnetic field that a compass would respond to,” Hall says. “It’s a different field, a synthetic field or an emergent field, which we actually have a lot of control over.” An actual magnetic monopole particle would have two important properties—a quantum wavefunction describing the probability that it would be found in any point in space—and the magnetic field the particle generates. The Amherst monopole's "wavefunction" is just the density of the Bose-Einstein condensate. The probability density of a monopole particle's quantum state, in other words, is directly analogous in this system to the physical density of condensate. Following the experiment's analogy, then, the magnetic field of the "monopole" is represented by the orientation of atomic spins in the condensate. Thus both quantum and magnetic fields of the monopole analogue are found in this experiment, making it an attractive medium for further study and perhaps one day the capture and study of a real, honest-to-goodness magnetic monopole particle.

To create the condensate, Hall and Ray as well as the recently graduated Amherst student Saugat Kandel worked in collaboration with a team of Finnish researchers to laser-cool and magnetically-cool a cloud of rubidium atoms in their basement lab on the Amherst College campus.

They did it again for IEEE Spectrum last week [see video].

In one atomic trap they cooled the rubidium atoms down to microKelvins, millionths of degrees above absolute zero. Then shuttling the cooled cloud down a tube a meter or so away to a second trap, they further cooled the atoms by evaporation—shunting away all but the stillest of atoms in their increasingly frigid cloud. The overall effect, then, was to create a cloud that was 10 to 100 billionths of degrees above absolute zero—nanokelvins, in other words.

And at this temperature nature behaves quantum mechanically, even in the macroscopic realm. The Bose-Einstein Condensates, subject of the 2001 Physics Nobel Prize, can be manipulated and moved around with zero viscosity, a property called superfluidity.

Creating the “monopole,” from the condensate, involves a few extra steps they couldn’t show us. Hall says a powerful infrared laser is turned on to trap the condensate cloud. (The tool is a familiar one, called optical tweezers.) Then the magnetic field that once kept the cloud in place is free to manipulate the condensate.

And it is this magnetic field,  that can finally knead, twist and bend its extremely supple subject, the condensate, so that it can simulate the presence of a “particle” of magnetic charge in its midst. [See the other video.]

Jonathan Morris, visiting assistant professor of physics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, described in IEEE Spectrum in 2013 his own group’s work creating quasi-magnetic monopoles in atomic networks of linked spins called “spin ices.” Morris says the qualifier “quasi” is important to stress in both discoveries.

“I doubt that particle physicists will consider these as fundamental magnetic monopole particles and they will continue in their search for such objects,” Morris told IEEE Spectrum’s Rachel Courtland. “The authors of this new study distinguish between their emergent magnetic monopole and the magnetic monopole particle by calling the latter a ‘natural magnetic monopole’ just as we distinguished between the spin-ice monopoles by saying that we had entities that ‘resembled magnetic monopoles,’" he says.

[The spin-ice monopoles are explained in this video.]

To Hall, the Bose-Einstein condensate's quantum properties are the reason his group's experiment is a noteworthy complement to  previous groups' ersatz monopoles. "We have access to the analog of the electronic wavefunction," Hall says. "That’s something that no other system has. So we can study the analog of the electron-monopole interaction—how the system behaves once we’re done creating it." Moreover, he says, "If you think of our condensate/superfluid as a kind of 'monopole detector' then of course we might learn more about how to efficiently detect natural magnetic monopoles, or what their signatures might be."

This article was updated on 19 February 2014.

Smart Mortar Rounds Make Good Spies

CORRECTION: ST Kinetics informs us that the 40-mm munition is not technically a mortar round. It has a smaller caliber than a mortar. 

Long a staple of the infantry unit, the 40-millimeter round comes in many shapes and functions: low and high velocity, training, green, non lethal, and whatnot. The large volume of the round itself has prompted a manufacturer to think outside the box and consider this popular standard as a projectile with a payload. 

ST Kinetics, a defense subsidiary of the Singapore Technologies conglomerate, has devised a couple of interesting tricks. The coolest gimmick ST Kinetics pulled is with a round called SPARCS, or Soldier Parachute Aerial Reconnaissance Camera System. The round will usually climb 150 meters and travel down range about that same distance, then deploy a small camera that gently falls from the sky via parachute while transmitting images to a ground unit. The photos are are then stitched into a bigger and higher resolution version that can be shared and zoomed. 

It's the kind of thing a drone is usually called in for, but a mortar round is smaller, more expendable, and does the job with an immediacy that's hard to match.

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Singapore’s $300-Million Air-Traffic Automation System Unveiled

As the plane carrying your correspondent from Hong Kong to Singapore started its descent to the Changi airport, the worlds fifth busiest, it started flying circles. Shortly afterwards, the captain explained that multiple aircrafts were on holding pattern and the queue was changing quickly. That, I was assured, had nothing to do with the official launch of the airports new US $300-million air traffic control system. Instead, the delay was due to the final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, and it probably would have been a lot worse without the new system.

Soft launched in October and jointly developed by French engineering firm Thales and Singapores aviation authorities, LORADS III is the latest iteration of a proven air traffic control system called TopSky-ATC. And its main strength is that it gives controllers better information, faster. 

To understand how, you have to remember that air traffic control actions in many places are still done by recording flight dataairplane call signs, speed, bearing, altitude, and other informationon strips of paper, and instructions. 

Like all modern ATC systems, LORADS III does without paper strips. Thats all been digitized, but Thales is looking at doing without strips altogether, paper or digital: the ideas is to move towards much richer labels and a management system that give at a glance a clearer, more complete picture of the congestion status of a given airspace.

Hovering the mouse over each track symbol allows the controller to see a plethora of data and issue commands that can get relayed to the aircraft via satellite. The new commands pop up in the on board navigation and communication instruments  and the pilot can decide whether to implement it or not. (They usually do, unless they have a good reason not to—they are too heavy to climb to a higher level or they are cruising already at their fastest, for example.)

Usually these commands are radioed in when in radio range and its fair to assume they still will be for some time but this sort of command-by-text-messaging would reduce controllers workload, according to Thales. This will also reduce the radio chatter, which at busy airports and on certain frequencies is up to capacity and represents a bottleneck for more efficient operations. For control of the skies over oceans its even more important. Long distance communications between ground controllers and aircrafts goes over HF radio, notoriously finicky and with a range that depends on weather conditions. Controllers can instead transfer small amounts of data via satellite or by HF or VHF radios, because, as anybody trying to make a call on a busy cell network has noticed, its much easier to slip a small text message through, than place a voice call. 

The commands and subsequent execution, together with key flight data are stored in a central system called the Flight Data Processor, which calculates in real time everything pertaining to the position and trajectory of each aircraft. Every work station is connected to it, so all controllers have an up-to-date view of whos going where and how fast. 

 “It a simple change, but its also very complicated, because there are more than a hundred positions in the Singaporean Traffic Center and training facilities, says Andrew Nabarro, business development manager for air operations at Thales. Now, each person can have access to customized information at different times.

The first step, though, is knowing where aircraft are. This involves both active and passive sensing. Airplanes beam out their name, location, route and whatnot through an ADS-B feed, or automatic dependent surveillance broadcast. ADS-B is a type of transponder that beams out the GPS position of the aircrafts about once per second. 

Theres radar too, of which there are two kinds: primary radar sends out a burst of energy and waits for a reflection from an aircraft. Secondary radar instead interrogates a receiver placed aboard the airplane, which in turns answers with its identifier and altitude. Secondary radar has a longer range, about 250 nautical mile (460 kilometers); primary reaches less than half that distance.  But primary works with any type of aircraft whether or not theyve been equipped with the transmitter needed for secondary radar.

LORADS III has to make sense of all those signals to come up with a single set of information about the aircraft above Singapore. Thalesproprietary solution, called Multi Sensor Track Processing, takes all the different tracks from all the different radar, many ADS-B receivers, many wide area multilateration receivers, which is another type of surveillance, and turn it all up and says of all the sensors that we have, this is the actual position of the aircraft,says Nabarro.

Most air-traffic control systems are customized to manage a particular type of airspace; there are approach airspaces (think the area above and around a major airport) and en route ones (the skies of the North Atlantic, through which the bulk of Europe to U.S. traffic flies). Singapore, by virtue of its position in the middle of the Kangaroo routeconnecting the UK and Europe to Australia and several South East Asian countries, happens to need a system that can do both. The portion of sky under Singapores control covers an area of three quarters of a million square kilometers and its controllers preside over 220 000 annual movements. 

As the deluge of flights approaches for arrival at Singapore, the systems Arrival Manager kicks in. So instead of having a human being trying to sequence a whole bunch of airplane coming from all sorts of directions, at different speeds and altitude, the system will calculate the best sequence, says Nabarro. Here, bestmeans the sequence that gives the least amount of holding time for everybody.

Holding costs airlines thousands of dollars per flight in wasted fuel. Usually, airplanes begin their descents from cruise level when they are about a hundred nautical miles (185 kilometers) from the airport, but they only learn of congestion as they get closer and reach a much lower altitude. At low altitudes, jet engines are much less efficient. With the Arrival Manager, controllers are able to tell approaching but still cruising airplanes to slow down or speed up a bit in order to sequence them in a way that reduces low-altitude holding. The order can, of course, be changed manually and the system will then recalculate the best sequence, showing the relevant controller what commands must be sent to which aircraft, in order to minimize disruptions to the flow of approaches. 

But whats good software, without the ability to back all the data up? The main system has a dual, fully redundant set of servers that make the Changi control room fail safe; controllers can switch from one to the other simply pressing a button. While this has been implemented before, Singapore officials wanted another layer of safety: at a neighboring training facility, theres a replica of the control room with yet another set of dual servers. This second set runs simulations for training of new controllers, but with minimal software tweaking it could be transformed into a fully autonomous back up control room, if anything catastrophic were to happen to main one. The two locations are a few kilometers apart, providing an added layer of strategic safety, as well.

Laser Link to Moon Trumped NASA and MIT Engineers’ Expectations

In October of last year, a team from NASA and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory made space communications history by beaming data, via laser, at speeds reaching 622 megabits per second, to Earth from a spacecraft orbiting the moon. Radio-frequency systems used for space communications today are usually tens of times slower.

NASA and Lincoln Lab engineers tested this first-ever two-way laser link between the moon and the earth, dubbed the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), for about a month. And, as it turns out, the test was underwhelming: no jaw-clenching, fingernail-biting, arm-clutching moments. In other words, an engineer’s dream.

“It worked like gangbusters,” says Don Boroson, who led the LLCD design team at Lincoln Lab, and presented the demo’s results at the SPIE Photonics West conference on 3 February.

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China's "Jade Rabbit" Moon Rover Awakens With Same Problems

China's lunar rover is not ready to say "good night moon" just yet. The rover, called Jade Rabbit, has awakened from the long lunar night—but only after Chinese state media reported of its death. This gives Chinese mission controllers another chance to figure out the rover malfunction that first led to fears of its untimely demise.

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What You Need to Know About Mt. Gox and the Bitcoin Software Flaw

Here's what a terrible week looks like in the world of Bitcoin: Two of the most trafficked Bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox and Bitstamp, temporarily halt trading and suspend bitcoin withdrawals in the midst of a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS). On exchanges that are still open for business, the value of the currency takes a brutal, sudden hit and then continues to tumble. Bitcoin users notice strange errors in their wallet balances after making routine transactions. Rumor spreads that the Bitcoin protocol is critically flawed. And where rumor is lacking, conspiracy theories abound.

All this, and it's barely Thursday.

Some of it is true. Some of it is half true. Some of it is completely false. Here is what's really going on.

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