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Updated: 16 min 24 sec ago

Risky Thailand cave rescue relied on talent, luck—and on sticking to the rules

13 hours 47 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Last week, the world was riveted by the successful rescue of a youth soccer team as they and their coach were pulled out of a flooded cave in Thailand. The team had been stranded on a narrow rock shelf in the dark for two weeks, the way out blocked by turbid stormwater. The rescue involved far more than a few divers putting on gear and heading into the cave—it required a tremendous amount of technical skill and posed extreme danger.

But why, exactly, was it so dangerous? And what would it feel like to dive in those kinds of conditions?

I’m a professional diver with 16 years of dive experience, including safety diving and cave diving, and I have trained numerous scuba instructors. I also work full-time in a safety diving role, so answering the first question from a technical perspective is easy enough. The short answer is that all cave diving is dangerous (we'll dig into why below).

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Saturday night live: SpaceX to attempt second launch of Block 5 rocket

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 18:10

Enlarge / The Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket, on the launch pad, with its Telstar 19V payload. (credit: SpaceX)

Having worked through its fleet of used Block 4 rockets, SpaceX will now transition into flying its more advanced Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket full time. As early as 1:50am ET (05:50 UTC) Sunday, SpaceX will attempt to launch the Telstar 19V satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission has a four-hour launch window.

This will be the second launch of the new version of its Block 5 rocket. The first one had a flawless debut on May 11, and the first stage made a safe return to a drone ship, as expected. Since then, SpaceX engineers have been assessing how that Block 5 core, optimized for reusability, actually performed during that flight.

“We are going to be very rigorous in taking this rocket apart and confirming our design assumptions to be confident that is indeed able to be reused without taking apart,” Musk said in May, at the time of the first Block 5 flight. “Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm it does not need to be taken apart.”

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Boeing may have suffered a setback with Starliner’s pad abort test

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 14:20

Enlarge / In January 2018, Boeing shared this photo of the Starliner Pad Abort Test and Orbital Flight Test vehicles under construction in Florida. (credit: Boeing)

A serious issue appears to have occurred during preparations for Boeing's test of the Starliner spacecraft and its launch abort system, three sources have told Ars. However, a company spokeswoman for the Starliner program did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the test, which was due to take place in White Sands, New Mexico, about three weeks ago.

The pad abort test is a necessary part of certifying spacecraft for flight, as it ensures the ability of the spacecraft to pull rapidly away from its rocket in the case of some emergency during liftoff or ascent into space. One person familiar with the incident in New Mexico said, "This is why you test these things now, rather than with people on board."

Despite the lack of information from Boeing, industry sources indicated that some kind of failure occurred prior to the test, damaging some of the infrastructure at the test site.

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Judge says climate issues the purview of federal government, tosses NYC lawsuit

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 13:52

Enlarge / A home at the corner of B 72nd Street and Bayfield Avenue is surrounded by marsh in Averne on the Rockaway peninsula in the Queens borough of New York, US, on Friday, October 10, 2014. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images (credit: Getty Images)

On Thursday, a US District judge dismissed a lawsuit from the City of New York against major oil companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell. New York City had alleged that the oil majors created a nuisance by actively promoting oil use for decades, even after they were presented with significant and reliable information showing that catastrophic effects from climate change would result. The judge didn't dispute the effects of climate change, but he did dispute (PDF) that courts exercising state law could remedy the situation.

In the January complaint, NYC demanded that the oil majors pay for the costs of adapting to climate change, like expanding wastewater storage areas, building new pumping facilities to prevent flooding, and installing new infrastructure to weather storms. The city stated that the oil companies named in the suit were responsible for more than 11 percent of carbon and methane emissions that had built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, more than all other individual industrial contributors.

The oil companies didn't dispute that, and neither did the judge. As early as the mid-1980s, the judge's opinion states, "Exxon and other major oil and gas companies, including Mobil and Shell, took actions to protect their own business assets from the impacts of climate change, including raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from coastal erosion, and designing helipads, pipelines, and roads in the warming Arctic."

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Star’s dimming and brightening may indicate it’s eating a planet

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 13:48

Enlarge / An artist's conception of the star bathed in debris, along with an image of the surge in X-rays (inset). (credit: NASA/Chandra)

Planets don't sit still. The seemingly stable orbits of our Solar System could easily give the impression that once a planet forms, it tends to stay in orbit where it started. But evidence has piled up that our Solar System probably isn't as stable as we'd like to think, and many of the exosolar systems we've now seen can't possibly have formed in their current state. In a few cases, we've spotted stars that contain elements that were probably delivered by a planet spiraling in.

Now, scientists may have caught the process while it was happening. A star that dimmed for a couple years has somehow ended up with 15 times the iron it had in earlier observations, suggesting it ran into a planet or a few smaller planet-forming bodies.

Not so stable

If you were to take the current configuration of the Solar System and run it forward a million years, nothing much would change—all the planets would be in the same orbits they started in. But run it forward a few billion years and strange things can happen. The orbital setup is chaotic, and future changes are very sensitive to the starting conditions. In addition, many of the features of the Solar System are hard to explain using planetary formation models, leading to the proposal of the Grand Tack, in which a much younger Jupiter migrated inward toward the Sun before being dragged out to its current position by Saturn.

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Fossil fuel lobbyists grossly outspend “Big Green”

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 12:50

Enlarge (credit: Stephen Melkisethian)

One of the stranger conspiracy theories against climate science is that corporate interests are pulling all the strings so that “Big Green” can get rich from action against climate change. Of course, it’s no secret that industries related to fossil fuels have lobbied for the exact opposite, pushing to avoid any significant climate policy.

So what do American industries spend to lobby Congress on this issue?

Drexel University’s Robert Brulle used lobbying reporting laws to find out. Not every penny spent on persuading congresspeople has to be reported—and a lot of political activities, like think tank funding, don’t count as lobbying. But spending on lobbying itself has been tracked in the US since a 1995 law mandated it. Brulle was able to sift through climate-related expenditures between 2000 and 2016, sorting the entities into groups.

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As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 08:15

Enlarge / First hot firing of the P120C solid rocket motor that will be used by Europe's new Vega-C and Ariane 6 rockets. (credit: ESA/CNES)

KOUROU, French Guiana—White light flooded in through large windows behind Alain Charmeau as he mused about the new age of rocketry. The brilliant sunrise promised another idyllic day in this beach town, but outside the sands remained untroubled by the feet of tourists.

Lamentably, the nearshore waters of this former French colony are chocolate rather than azure, muddied by outflow from the Amazon River. French Guiana has other compensating assets, however. It lies just 5.3 degrees north of the equator. Neither tropical cyclones nor earthquakes threaten the area. And its coast offers untrammeled access to both the east and north. These natural gifts have helped this remote region become one of the world’s busiest spaceports.

From here, Europe has established a long but largely unheralded history in the global rocket industry. Nearly three decades ago, it became the first provider of commercial launch services. If your company or country had a satellite and enough money, Europe would fly it into space for you. Remarkably, more than half of all telecom satellites in service today were launched from this sprawling spaceport.

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Rocket Report: Small sat space race goes global, SpaceX nearing demo flight

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/SpaceX)

Welcome to Edition 1.09 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have several stories about the small-satellite launch race going global. There is also coverage of Blue Origin's daring launch and success for Europe in French Guiana with the test of a critical new solid rocket booster.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Blue Origin continues to stringently test New Shepard. During its ninth flight test, Blue Origin engineers subjected New Shepard to a high-altitude escape motor test. Both the rocket, which had already separated from the capsule, and the spacecraft itself passed the test with flying colors. The escape motor firing pushed the spacecraft to a record high altitude of 119km.

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The 5,000% price hike that made Martin Shkreli infamous is no longer paying off

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 19:00

Enlarge / NEW YORK - AUGUST 4: Shkreli was found guilty on three of the eight counts involving securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud. (credit: Getty | Drew Angerer)

Martin Shkreli’s former pharmaceutical company lost more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2018 amid waning sales of the drug made famous by Shkreli’s more than 5,000-percent price increase. That’s according to financial documents recently reviewed by Stat.

Vyera Pharmaceuticals, formerly known as Turing Pharmaceuticals, had brazenly maintained Shkreli’s despised price hike of the drug Daraprim, which treats relatively rare parasitic infections that often strike babies and HIV/AIDS patients. As founder and CEO of Turing, Shkreli bought the rights to the cheap, off-patent drug and—without any generic competitors—abruptly raised its price from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill in the fall of 2015.

The move was wildly unpopular (to say the least) and attracted intense public scrutiny to the country’s quickly escalating drug costs. But it was a lucrative decision for Turing and later Vyera—at least until recently.

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“Fingerprint” of humanity’s climate impact seen in the seasons

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 16:33

Enlarge / Trends in the satellite-measured seasonal temperature cycle of the troposphere (red means larger temperature swing, blue means smaller temperature swing). (credit: Santer et al./Science)

One reason climate scientists have been able to confidently determine that humans are responsible for modern warming is that they have more than just weather records to work with. There are many places where a human cause can be identified if you know how to dust for fingerprints. For example, while the lower atmosphere warms, the stratosphere is actually cooling. That’s what you expect when greenhouse gases—rather than the Sun—are behind the warming.

A new study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Ben Santer looked for fingerprints in a new place: the seasonal cycle of temperatures. The ideal tool for analyzing this is the global temperature record produced by satellites, which began their watch in 1979. That means they don’t go back nearly as far as weather-station records, but the dataset is now long enough to be useful for studies like this.

Hot and cold

While everyone uses the same satellites, several different groups actually maintain separate satellite temperature datasets. This is because the measurements are far from straightforward, and a ton of work goes into all the necessary processing to spit out temperature maps. As a result, the different datasets don’t always line up perfectly with each other—or with those analyzed with previous versions of their processing algorithm. So in this study, the researchers used the most recent two versions of three different datasets.

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Ars on your lunch break: The consequences of a government genetic database

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Do you want GATTACA? Because this might be how we get GATTACA. (credit: Columbia Pictures)

Below you’ll find the third and final installment of my interview with medical geneticist Robert Green about the promise and pitfalls that could lie in reading out your full genome. Please check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

Today we open with a heartening story about an infant who went through one of Robert’s studies and may have picked up fifteen IQ points as a direct result (this is neither a metaphor nor an exaggeration)! It’s an early—and perhaps even the first—hard example of how full-genome sequencing at birth could one day save innumerable lives and preclude untold human suffering.

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

We then talk about the vast potential of pre-conception genetic screening and an early initiative in this area that has almost eradicated an awful genetic disease that long plagued the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

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After 500 years, a UV lamp solves the mystery of the Basel Papyrus

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 10:56

Enlarge (credit: University of Basel)

The University of Basel has dozens of ancient papyrus texts in its collection, but one has been known for centuries as the Basel Papyrus. The two thousand year-old work has been in the university’s collection since the 1500s, when it was acquired from a lawyer and art collector named Basilius Amerbach. And throughout those 500 years, no one could decipher it.

The writing on the Basel Papyrus looked like the ancient Greek script commonly used during the waning days of the Roman Empire, around the 3rd century CE, but the letters were reversed, like writing held up to a mirror.

“A few individual letters were readable before, but no sense could be established,” Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel, told Ars. “There were several theories circulating [about] why the papyrus was written in mirror script: to hide a secret message? As a joke? A medieval forgery?” Generations of archivists have puzzled over the mystery since the papyrus arrived in the University’s collection, but until recently, they’d all been stumped.

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AI plus a chemistry robot finds all the reactions that will work

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 18:00

Simple robots have been part of chemistry for years. (credit: Greg Russ)

Chemistry is a sort of applied physics, with the behavior of electrons and their orbitals dictating a set of rules for which reactions can take place and what products will remain stable. At a very rough level, the basics of these rules are simple enough that experienced chemists can keep them all in their brain and intuit how to fit together pieces in a way that ultimately produces the starting material they want. Unfortunately, there are some parts of the chemical landscape that we don't have much experience with, and strange things sometimes happen when intuition meets a reaction flask. This is why some critical drugs still have to be purified from biological sources.

It's possible to get more precise than intuition, but that generally requires full quantum-level simulations run on a cluster, and even these don't always capture some of the quirks that come about because of things like choice of solvents and reaction temperatures or the presence of minor contaminants.

But improvements in AI have led to a number of impressive demonstrations of its use in chemistry. And it's easy to see why this works; AIs can figure out their own rules, without the same constraints traditionally imparted by a chemistry education. Now, a team at Glasgow University has paired a machine-learning system with a robot that can run and analyze its own chemical reaction. The result is a system that can figure out every reaction that's possible from a given set of starting materials.

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Rooftop solar could save utilities $100 to $120 per installed kilowatt

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 13:05

(credit: Lawrence Berkeley Labs)

When you install rooftop solar panels, the electricity you create cuts into the amount of electricity the utility must provide to meet your needs. Add up the reduced demand of all the homes with solar panels, and you've got a pretty sizable amount of electricity that's no longer needed.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) quantified that reduced demand and found that solar panels installed between 2013 and 2015 in California saved utilities from having to purchase between $650 million and $730 million dollars' worth of electricity. Those avoided purchases create slack in demand, pushing wholesale prices lower.

Lower wholesale prices "should ultimately reduce consumers’ costs through lower retail rates," the researchers write (although whether and how those savings get passed on to retail customers is not discussed in the paper).

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Jeff Bezos said they’d test the heck out of New Shepard—he wasn’t kidding

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 12:11

Blue Origin live video

With its ninth flight test, the New Shepard launch system put on quite a show on Wednesday morning. Flying from West Texas, the rocket and spacecraft ascended toward space before separating after about 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Then, three minutes into the flight, the spacecraft's escape motor fired to pull the spacecraft rapidly upward and away from the booster.

This dramatic test pushed the spacecraft higher into space than it had ever been before, reaching an altitude of 119km. Engineers at Blue Origin wanted to see whether the capsule's reaction control system (RCS) thrusters could stabilize the spacecraft in the space environment, and from all appearances the RCS system did just this. After about 11 minutes of flight, the spacecraft returned to Earth. The rocket, too, made a safe return to Earth.

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Ars on your lunch break: the toxic truths within our DNA

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Don't you know that your DNA is toxic? (credit: Jive Records)

Today we present the second installment of my interview with medical geneticist Robert Green, about the promise and pitfalls that could lie in reading out your full genome. Part one ran yesterday—so if you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

In this installment, we discuss why some medical researchers view personal genetic information as a literal toxin. This isn’t strictly out of paternalism (although there are elements of that). A tiny fraction of people might indeed make discoveries that are both horrible and unactionable. A larger fraction could suffer anguish from the sheer ambiguity of what’s divulged. After carefully studying both the psychology and consequences of these situations, Robert is fully convinced that personal genetic information should be made available to any adult who seeks it, after being soundly apprised of the ramifications.

We next discuss rare genetic diseases, and how incongruously common they are. Robert’s groundbreaking research recently revealed that as many as a fifth of us are recessive carriers of some exotic genetic horror or another. Which brings us to the important notion of partial “penetrance,” or diseases that can be slightly (and often mysteriously) manifest in a recessive carrier. High school biology trains us to think of recessive/dominant and afflicted/unafflicted in very binary terms. In reality, there are many gradations between the poles.

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Watch live: Blue Origin subjects its rocket to high-altitude escape test

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 08:36

Enlarge / New Shepard on the launch pad the morning of Mission 8, April 29, 2018. (credit: Blue Origin)

As it continues to progress toward human flights, Blue Origin will perform another potentially dangerous uncrewed test today of its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft. Although it has not yet provided details, the company says it will fly "a high altitude escape motor test—pushing the rocket to its limits." The test is scheduled to begin at 10 am EDT (14:00 UTC) at the company's West Texas launch site.

This is the ninth test of the reusable New Shepard system and the third in which it has included commercial payloads on its short suborbital flights. This time, the company is also flying a suite of materials from Blue Origin employees as a part of its internal “Fly My Stuff” program. (It's unclear at this point exactly how "abort test" and "payload" fit together in the same mission—presumably the high altitude abort will be followed by the New Shepard spacecraft pressing to orbit, but we're not exactly sure. Blue Origin will have more details about exactly what's going on when its webcast starts.)

This is not the first high-energy test of New Shepard. In October, 2016, the company conducted a lower altitude in-flight escape test when engineers intentionally triggered the spacecraft's launch abort system at about 45 seconds after launch and an altitude of 16,000 feet. Such systems are designed to fire quickly and separate the crew capsule from the booster during an emergency.

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Using a virus to kill what antibiotics can’t

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge / Phages on the surface of a bacterial cell. (credit: Dr. Graham Beards )

Due largely to overuse, we're at risk of seeing many of our antibiotics lose effectiveness, leaving us without a defense against a number of potentially fatal infections. People are taking a variety of approaches to dealing with this, like looking for combinations of drugs that remain effective, developing entirely new drugs, and trying to reform how we dispense these critical drugs. (Although the latter may be an impossible dream).

There's another option that was under consideration even before antibiotic resistance had hit crisis levels: use something that makes killing bacteria part of its life cycle. Like other cells, bacteria often find themselves victims of viral infections, dying as new viruses burst out to infect their neighbors. If this happens out in regular ecosystems, people reasoned that maybe bacteria-killing viruses would also work in a pneumonic lung. But those maybes had always been accompanied by a long list of reasons why a virus wouldn't work. Now, a group of researchers has tested it on mice with pneumonia, and none of those reasons seems to be an issue.

Meet the phages

Viruses that specialize in infecting bacteria are often called bacteriophages, or simply phages. We've known of some of them from shortly after we started studying bacteria, since their spontaneous infections would leave open holes of what would otherwise be an even lawn of bacteria. We've studied a number of them in detail, and some of the proteins they encode have become key tools in our genetic-engineering efforts. And they're not simply oddities that strike when bacteria are forced to live in artificial lab conditions. Surveys of DNA obtained in environments from the deep ocean to the subways show that, wherever you find bacteria, you also find viruses that prey on them.

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Ecuador’s cloud forests hide a tragic history

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 15:57

Enlarge / Lake Huila records centuries of environmental change in the Quijos Valley. (credit: Nicholas Laughlin)

On the slopes of northern Ecuador's Quijo Valley, perpetual clouds shroud the canopy of a seemingly pristine tropical forest. But the beauty of the cloud forest hides a violent, tragic history. A new study of sediments from the valley's Lake Huila reveals centuries of indigenous agriculture that came to an abrupt end in warfare and fire around 1588.

Population collapse

From about 1400 to 1532, the Quijos Valley marked the eastern frontier of the Incan Empire. Although they were subjects of the Empire, the people of the Quijos Valley maintained a distinct cultural identity from the Incas, and historical and archaeological records show that the valley was a conduit for trade between Incan territory and the peoples of the Amazon Basin.

The first Europeans to set foot in the Quijos Valley were Spanish expeditions in 1538 and 1541, who arrived in search of gold and cinnamon. They estimated that about 35,000 indigenous people lived in the region. By 1577, about 11,400 people had clustered around the Spanish town of Baeza, which the colonizers built in 1559 alongside the indigenous community of Hatunquijos. But by 1600, three out of four of these people were dead.

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Doctors fear urgent care centers are wildly overusing antibiotics—for profit

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 14:30

Enlarge / Here, have some antibiotics. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Popular urgent care centers may be the biggest—and most overlooked—culprits in the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in clinics, according to a new analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Based on insurance claims from patients with employee-sponsored coverage, researchers estimated that about 46 percent of patients who visited urgent care centers in 2014 for conditions that cannot be treated with antibiotics—such as a common cold that’s caused by a virus—left with useless antibiotic prescriptions that target bacterial infections. That rate of inappropriate antibiotic use is almost double the rate the researchers saw in emergency departments (25 percent) and almost triple the rate seen in traditional medical offices (17 percent).

The authors of the analysis—a team of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Utah, and the Pew Charitable Trusts—concluded that interventions for urgent care centers are “urgently needed.”

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