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Alan Bean, the fourth human to walk on the Moon, has died

Sat, 05/26/2018 - 14:30

Enlarge / "Fast Times on the Ocean of Storms," one of Bean's paintings. (credit: The Alan Bean Gallery)

Alan Bean, the fourth human to walk on the Moon, one of the first Americans to live aboard a space station, and a man who left space flight behind to devote the second half of his life to painting, died on Saturday in Houston. He was 86.

With Bean's passing, just four living human beings have walked on the Moon: Buzz Aldrin, 88; Dave Scott, 85; Charlie Duke, 82; and Harrison Schmitt, 82. The eight other humans who landed on the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s during NASA's Apollo Program have died, as have all of the original seven astronauts in the Mercury space program.

After Bean earned an engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin, he was commissioned in the US Navy and became first an aviator and later a test pilot. NASA selected him as a member of its third class of astronauts in 1963. Following his astronaut training and a few stints as a back-up crew member, Bean received his assignment as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12, which would become NASA's second mission the Moon's surface in November, 1969.

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Doctor slammed by med board for selling $5 homeopathic sound waves for Ebola

Sat, 05/26/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge / Listen to that homeopathic energy. (credit: Getty | Ian Waldie)

The California medical board is threatening to revoke the license of Dr. William Edwin Gray III for selling homeopathic sound files over the Internet that he claims—without evidence or reason—can cure a variety of ailments, including life-threatening infections such as Ebola, SARS, swine flu, malaria, typhoid, and cholera.

In an accusation filed with the state(PDF), the medical board writes that Gray is guilty of gross negligence and requested a hearing in which the board would decide whether to possibly revoke or suspend his license.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gray said he had decided not to contest the board’s allegations, saying it would cost too much money to fight. He added: “Frankly, I think we'd lose anyway.”

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Dinosaur-killing impact + volcanoes kept the Earth hot for 100,000 years

Sat, 05/26/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge / "Wait, this global warming thing is gonna last how long?!?!" (credit: pxhxk)

Mass extinctions aren’t fun times. There’s a reason (usually more than one, actually) species disappear in droves. That makes untangling these reasons a challenge. The geological crime scene investigation is tough given that clues can be elusive after millions of years, and the events are complex.

The extinction that wiped out (most of) the dinosaurs, for example, saw both a massive asteroid impact and long-lived volcanic eruptions that covered most of what is now India in lava flows. While the impact would have darkened the sky, bringing permanent winter for a number of years, the volcanoes' injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere would have produced a rapid swing in the warming direction when the sky cleared.

The record of that warming in the geologic record isn’t very good, though. The problem has been to find a suitable climate record in rocks that were deposited fast enough to show relatively short time periods in detail. To obtain that sort  of record, a team led by the University of Missouri’s Kenneth MacLeod scratched through rocks in Tunisia for crushed up pieces of fossil fish bits.

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This capsule of glowing E. coli will probe your gut for signs of trouble

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 13:46

Enlarge / Open wide. (credit: Getty | Universal Images Group)

Whether you go in from above or below, probing the inner workings of our innards is a tricky task. Our intestines are an extensive, inaccessible tangle of tubes, full of dark tucks and turns. But with a new ingestible capsule, researchers hope to shed light on the depths of our perplexing plumbing—quite literally.

The capsule contains living bacteria engineered to sense specific molecular signs of gut troubles and, when those molecules are present, the bacteria glow. The illuminating biological sensors are paired with low-power microelectronics within the pill. This includes photodetectors, a microprocessor, and a wireless transmitter. In all, this ingestible micro-bio-electronic device, or IMBED, is designed to painlessly drift through our ductwork, probe for trouble, and relay findings wirelessly in real time as it takes its excursion through our entrails.

“Basically, our vision is that we want to try to illuminate and provide understanding into areas that are not easily accessible,” Timothy Lu, a biological and electrical engineer at MIT, said in a press briefing. Lu and electrical engineer Anantha Chandrakasan (also at MIT) led a team of researchers developing the IMBED.

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What exactly are “preppers” prepping for?

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 10:10

Enlarge / For a prepper, this is badly undergoing it. (credit: California Public Health)

"Prepping," or getting ready to live without societal support, is apparently a largely American activity, and a recent one. Companies that cater to people who want to be self-reliant for food, water, and power have grown their revenue by about 700 percent over the last decade, and prepper products are now offered in places like Costco, Kmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond.

But it's not at all clear what's driving this growth—why are more people getting ready for society's collapse? Some explanations focus on a tendency toward paranoia in American society or fears of terrorism or natural disaster. But actual evidence that directly supports any of these ideas as the main reason is pretty sparse.

So Michael Mills at the UK's University of Kent decided to correct this gap in our knowledge. Mills went on an American road trip, spending time talking to (and butchering animals with) 39 preppers in 18 different US states. Rather than rampant paranoia, Mills suggests, preppers are motivated by non stop media coverage of natural disasters, as well as a government that encourages them to prepare for the worst.

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Rocket report: China goes lunar, Antares flies, and a 140-ton Sea Serpent

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry. (credit: Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to the first edition of the Rocket Report! This collaborative effort with readers of Ars Technica seeks to diversify our coverage of the blossoming launch industry. It publishes as a newsletter on Thursday and on this website every Friday morning.

We welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe in the box below. 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.

Another small booster company tests its engine. In a key step toward developing its Intrepid booster, Rocket Crafters has test fired a small-scale engine for 10 seconds. Florida Today reports the company's engine runs on a plastic-based hybrid fuel and that the Intrepid rocket could begin launching as soon as 2020. Under present designs, the Intrepid will carry up to half a ton into low Earth orbit. Rocket Crafters has already won a $650,000 contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help develop a larger 5,000-pound thrust engine.

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White House policy seeks fewer lawyers, more engineers at space companies

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 13:40

Enlarge / United Launch Alliance president and CEO Tory Bruno leads a tour in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen Pence, and then-NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on Feb. 20, 2018. (credit: NASA)

As the White House seeks to smooth the way for commercial spaceflight, President Trump will sign a new space policy directive on Thursday afternoon. The new policy directs US departments and agencies to implement several reforms to ease the regulatory system for launch licensing, remote sensing, and more.

"This builds on Space Policy Directive 1, to reorient the human spaceflight program back toward the Moon using commercial partners," Scott Pace said Thursday.

The new directive formalizes recommendations made in February at the second meeting of the National Space Council to reform the regulatory environment. In short, the White House wants to cut paperwork for commercial companies launching rockets and flying satellites in Earth orbit. As one official told Ars, the White House would like these companies to be able to hire more engineers and fewer lawyers.

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America, your offshore wind is coming: 1.2 GW in contracts awarded

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 13:27

European offshore wind farms have made big US projects possible.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island both awarded major offshore wind contracts on Wednesday, underscoring the increasing economic viability of a kind of renewable energy that has been long considered too expensive.

The Massachusetts installation will have a capacity of 800 MW. Situated 14 miles off Martha's Vineyard, the wind farm will be called "Vineyard Wind" and it has an accelerated timetable: it's due to start sending electricity back to the grid as soon as 2021. According to Greentech Media, the contract was won by Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, both companies with headquarters in Europe. The two share 50/50 ownership of the project and beat Deepwater Wind and Bay State Wind in the bidding.

Massachusetts recently approved an ambitious goal to build 1.6 GW of wind energy capacity off its coast by 2027. This new contract gets the state half of the way there. According to a press release from Vineyard Wind, the owners of the project will now begin negotiations for transmission services and power purchase agreements. The press release added that the project "will reduce Massachusetts’ carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year, the equivalent of removing 325,000 cars from state roads."

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Researchers identify a protein that viruses use as gateway into cells

Thu, 05/24/2018 - 12:57

Enlarge / An electron micrograph of multiple copies of the chikungunya virus. (credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)

The word “chikungunya” (chik-en-gun-ye) comes from Kimakonde, the language spoken by the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. It means “to become contorted,” because that’s what happens to people who get infected. The contortion is a result of severe and debilitating joint pain. Chikungunya was first identified in Tanzania in 1952, but by now cases have been reported around the globe. There is no cure; the CDC recommends that “travelers can protect themselves by preventing mosquito bites.”

Chikungunya is only one of a family of viruses transmitted through mosquitoes for which we have no targeted treatment. This may partially be due to the fact that we didn’t know how they get into our cells. But for chikungunya, we've just found one of the proteins responsible.

Identification via deletion

Researchers used the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA editing system to delete more than twenty-thousand mouse genes—a different one in each cell in a dish. Then they added chikungunya to the dish, isolated the cells that didn’t get infected, and looked to see which gene they lacked. This gene would encode a protein required for viral infection, since infection didn’t happen in its absence.

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Categories: News

Newest NOAA weather satellite suffers critical malfunction

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 15:30

Enlarge / GOES-17 is in space now, where fixing problems is... difficult. (credit: NASA)

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released some bad news today: the GOES-17 weather satellite that launched almost two months ago has a cooling problem that could endanger the majority of the satellite’s value.

GOES-17 is the second of a new generation of weather satellite to join NOAA’s orbital fleet. Its predecessor is covering the US East Coast, with GOES-17 meant to become “GOES-West.” While providing higher-resolution images of atmospheric conditions, it also tracks fires, lightning strikes, and solar behavior. It’s important that NOAA stays ahead of the loss of dying satellites by launching new satellites that ensure no gap in global coverage ever occurs.

The various instruments onboard the satellite have been put through their courses to make sure everything is working properly before it goes into official operation. Several weeks ago, it became clear that the most important instrument—the Advanced Baseline Imager—had a cooling problem. This instrument images the Earth at a number of different wavelengths, including the visible portion of the spectrum as well as infrared wavelengths that help detect clouds and water vapor content.

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Arizona state education standards see evolution deleted

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 15:10

Enlarge / A facepalm with ponies seems to be the most reasonable response to the proposed science education standards. (credit: Joachim S. Müller / Flickr)

In Arizona, the state's superintendent of public instruction has led a campaign to remove evolution from the state's science education standards. Diane Douglas has taken the standards, written by educators, and selectively replaced instances of the word "evolution" with euphemisms like "change over time." The alterations come less than a year after Douglas publicly advocated for introducing religious ideas into biology classrooms. Arizona residents still have roughly a week to submit comments on the changes.

Edited standards

Most states develop educational standards that define their expectations for what students should know at different stages of their time in school. These standards then govern things, from the mass purchase of textbooks to the design of instructional plans by individual teachers. For large states like California and Texas, the decisions involved in the formation of educational standards can dictate the structure of textbooks that are released nationwide, as publishers try to develop one book that they can sell everywhere.

Arizona doesn't have this level of influence, but it has more than a million students enrolled. The science standards would govern the textbooks that could be available to them, how they'll be instructed, and the content of any standardized testing they receive.

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Stellarator’s plasma results show a triumph of engineering and modeling

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 12:50

Enlarge / The plasma vessel has a shape that mimics that of the magnetic field. (credit: Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics)

Many moons ago, Ars was introduced to the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator (W7-X), an experimental fusion concept. At the time, W7-X—the world's largest stellarator—had just completed some warm-up tests and had been shut down to install more bits and pieces. That installation is not yet complete, but the results from some of those early runs are being analyzed, and they look good. The scientists may not be cracking champagne bottles, but they are certainly drinking boutique beer in celebration of the agreement between theory and experiment.

Banging rocks together to create bigger rocks

All of the elements heavier than hydrogen are the result of fusion. To create a heavier element through fusion, you first strip all the electrons away from two lighter atoms and then force the two nuclei together. That is difficult, because they are both positively charged and repel each other vigorously. But if you succeed in getting the nuclei to bang together, they may stick, creating a heavier nuclei.

In doing so they release energy. That energy powers the Sun, and we hope that local, slightly smaller versions might someday supply electricity.

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US gov’t employee in China left with brain injury after strange sounds, pressure

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 11:19

Enlarge / United States Consulate General Guangzhou, China, where an employee reported experiencing unexplained sounds and pressures that led to a brain injury. (credit: US Dept of State)

The US government issued an alert Wednesday following reports that a government employee stationed in southern China experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” and sustained a brain injury.

The case draws clear and eerie parallels to mysterious health problems that affected US diplomats in Cuba, who also experienced unexplained episodes of unusual sounds and pressure followed by diagnoses of traumatic brain injury.

Responding to an email from the New York Times, a spokesperson for the United States Embassy in Beijing said that the unnamed employee was working in the US consulate in the city of Guangzhou, just northwest of Hong Kong, and experienced a variety of symptoms from late 2017 until April of this year. In statements to the BBC, she noted that the employee had been sent back to the US. Last Friday, the 18th of May, “the embassy was told that the clinical findings of [an] evaluation matched mild traumatic brain injury,” she wrote.

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In absence of fog, the images from a SpaceX launch Tuesday are stunning

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 10:21

SpaceX

Most of us associate Southern California with Hollywood, beaches, and sunny weather. However, with relatively cold waters offshore and typically higher pressures over the Pacific Ocean, there is essentially a competition between air rising from the surface and sinking air further up in the atmosphere. The rising air and sinking air meet in the lower atmosphere to form a marine layer—typically low-altitude stratus clouds.

This marine layer often manifests as a thick, rolling fog at Vandenberg Air Force Base, a two- to three-hour drive northwest along the Pacific coast from Los Angeles. This means rocket launches from Vandenberg often end in disappointment for expectant viewers. This occurred most recently with the Atlas V rocket launch of NASA's Mars InSight lander a few weeks ago, which people could hear, but not see.

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How you end up sleep-deprived matters

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 09:46

Enlarge (credit: Aaron Jacobs)

Anyone who has tried to pull a late-night study session and wound up rereading the same pages of their  textbook because  they can't focus has experienced it.  And countless studies confirm it: if you're sleep deprived, your brain starts functioning poorly. Reaction times slip, you're more prone to careless actions, and generally just get bad at things. But how is it your body registers "too little sleep"? It could be after you spend too much time awake. Or it could be the amount of sleep you get in a 24-hour period. Or it could be tracked in relationship to your body's internal 24-hour circadian clock.

A new study out this week suggests it's not just one of these things, and different aspects of our mental capacities are more or less sensitive to precisely how you end up short on sleep.

Deprived

The challenge with separating out different aspects of sleep deprivation in the real world is that anything you do will involve multiple aspects of sleep. Get too little sleep during a 24-hour cycle, and you'll necessarily be awake more—and awake at times your circadian clock says you shouldn't be. So, the researchers behind the new work messed with people's clocks. They got a small group of people (because it would be hard to recruit a large one) to live at a sleep center for 32 days, cut off from any indication of outside time.

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EPA boots reporters from meeting on chemicals called a PR disaster

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 18:30

Enlarge / US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Scott Pruitt's tenure as head of the US' Environmental Protection Agency has often been bogged down in scandals involving questionable spending and the unjustifiable rollback of regulations.

But the latest controversy is one the agency's own making. This morning, Pruitt was speaking at a workshop convened to discuss the handling of specific chemical contaminants that have been found in water supplies. The EPA was already under fire for what appeared to be an attempt to stall a report that suggests these chemicals were more toxic than previously thought, so the workshop provided an opportunity to show that the agency took the risks seriously. Instead, the EPA started a brand-new controversy by specifically excluding CNN and the AP from Pruitt's speech and by having security physically escort a reporter out of the building.

Contamination

The controversy focuses on a large class of chemicals that are variations of perfluorooctanoic acid. This is a chain of eight carbon atoms, seven of which have fluorine atoms attached to them; the eighth is linked to two oxygen atoms, typical of an organic acid. There are many variations of perfluorooctanoic acid that can be made by substituting for various fluorines, and many of these variants have found uses in the production of everything from non-stick cooking to fire-fighting foams.

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“Like slavery”: Rehab patients forced into unpaid labor to cover “treatment”

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 16:16

Enlarge / A heroin addict at a rehab house. (credit: Getty | AFP)

If you caught John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight this past Sunday, you saw a lengthy segment detailing the atrocities of the rehabilitation industry. As Oliver pointed out, it’s largely an unregulated, unstandardized market rife with bad actors, scams, and bunkum that offers little help to patients desperate to recover from deadly addictions. With some charging tens of thousands of dollars for a month of treatment, rehab facilities often rely on therapies with little evidence of efficacy—such as horse petting—and report largely made-up percentages for their success rates.

Even experts in the field find themselves at a loss for how to identify effective, quality facilities. The result is that many patients pay large sums only to go on to struggle with or die from their condition. And these devastating consequences are only heightened by the country’s current epidemic of opioid addiction.

While Oliver gave a skillful overview of some of the rampant problems, an ongoing investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting picked out a particularly egregious case this week—Recovery Connections Community, a rehabilitation program outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

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Waiting for cheaper renewables can cost more in the long run

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 15:32

Enlarge (credit: Paul / Flickr)

Waiting for the price to come down before switching to a new technology sounds like a frugal decision. But when it comes to a country’s electrical grid, what saves you money now could actually cost you much more in the long run. That’s the central conclusion of a new study led by Imperial College London’s Clara Heuberger.

Almost every nation in the world (depending on how you categorize the United States’ erratic behavior) has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of limiting global warming. A large component of that pledge is the conversion of electrical generation from fossil fuels to renewables. But there is a tension between the cheap and immediate availability of fossil fuels and the varied status of different renewable technologies.

Waiting for unicorns

It may make some economic sense to watch the price of solar continue its fall before installing. But there’s also the temptation to wait for what the researchers categorize as “unicorn technologies”—things like next-generation batteries for grid-scale storage, cheaper systems for capturing carbon dioxide from power plants, or even fusion. In other words, there’s a tendency to think that renewables aren’t worth pursuing too hard until some game-changing, cheap technology comes along that revolutionizes the grid.

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The SpaceX rocket used for the ill-fated Zuma mission to fly again today

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 08:45

Enlarge / A sooty Falcon 9 rocket is ready for launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (credit: NASA)

SpaceX will attempt its 10th launch of the year on Tuesday, a mission serving two different customers. The Falcon 9 rocket will carry five communications satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation, along with two gravity-measuring satellites for NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

This first-stage booster has flown once before, a little more than four months ago when it launched the Zuma mission for the US government—a satellite or spacecraft that was apparently lost in space after it failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX appears to have been absolved from blame for this mishap, and certainly the first stage booster performed nominally during that mission.

SpaceX will not attempt to recover this core, as it is a Block 4 variant of the booster. Each Block 4 core will fly just two times as the company seeks to move all of its launches onto the newer Block 5 version of the rocket, which has slightly increased performance and numerous upgrades to optimize the first stage for reusability.

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The Rocket Report newsletter launches on Thursday

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 17:40

Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry. (credit: Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance)

Note: This post has been bumped to remind readers that this newsletter launches Thursday. We've had a tremendous response so far, and we really appreciate it.

I have covered the space beat at Ars Technica for 2.5 glorious years, and during that time, I have made a couple of observations about the community of readers here. One, you like rockets. And two, many readers here know as much, if not more, than I do about those rockets—both their history and what is happening today.

The volume and diversity of new launch vehicles under development with private and public money today is both inspiring and daunting. After a lull in innovation during the 1980s and 1990s, the launch industry has undergone a renaissance in new technology and concepts, such as rapid reusability, 3D printing of engines and even entire boosters, micro-rockets, and commercial heavy lift.

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