Saturday, 12 February 2011

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

NASA Considers Space Station Family Portrait

Posted: 11 Feb 2011 01:05 PM PST

NASA is considering a plan to snap a photo of the International Space Station at its most crowded. The agency hasn't made a decision yet — but maybe enough public support can convince them to take the most mind-blowing space photo of the Space Shuttle era.

During the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, planned for late February or early March, the International Space Station will play host to a record number of spacecraft. Five new visitors from space agencies all over the world will be docked at the ISS, making the space station the heaviest and largest it has ever been.

This flight will the the one and only chance to capture this cosmic conference on film, before the shuttle is retired for good.

NASA officials are investigating a scheme in which one of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft would undock from the ISS to take the family portrait.

This historic photo op may require an in-flight game of musical chairs. The most reasonable plan, NASA officials decided in a meeting at Johnson Spaceflight Center, is for the Soyuz to undock, swing around the ISS so that the crew within can snap a photo, and then redock, requiring a dual-docking procedure to fit both the Soyuz and Discovery. Several different flight plans are being considered, and each one would give a slightly different view of the ISS.

The spacecraft that would gather to say cheese would hail from all over the world, including Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle-2, Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle-2 (named Johannes Kepler), the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module (named Leonardo), the ExPrESS Logistics Carrier-4 and the Shuttle Discovery.

The procedure would be inconvenient, taking a total of 15 hours and possibly removing crew members from their posts at important moments. But the resulting photo would be one for the ages, and a fitting farewell to the Shuttle.

This wouldn't be the first time a Soyuz has played photographer for a space station. In 1995, a Soyuz undocked from the Mir space station to photograph the undocking of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (above).


Image: Nikolai Budarin, Russian Space Research Institute, NASA

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Winter Halts Drilling Into 14-Million-Year-Old Lake

Posted: 11 Feb 2011 12:31 PM PST

By Liat Clark, Wired UK

A Russian team searching for signs of life beneath a 14-million-year-old frozen Antarctic lake has had to halt drilling just a few meters from water, potentially damaging 20 years of work in the process.

The team — headed up by the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg — had to call off work just 29 meters [95-foot] short of the end goal because the Antarctic winter is fast closing in. News that they plan to fill the 3,749-meter [12,300-foot] borehole with kerosene to prevent it from freezing will further trouble groups who fear continued research will contaminate the lake.

Alexei Turkeyev, chief of the Russian-run Vostok Station, told Reuters on Feb. 4: "It's minus-40 [degrees Celsius, which happens to equal minus-40 Fahrenheit] outside. But whatever, we're working. We're feeling good." Unfortunately Turkeyev and his team were forced to pack up last-minute amid fears they would be stranded. Temperatures above Lake Vostok fall to as low as 89 degrees below zero Celsius [minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit] during winter, the coldest recorded natural temperature on Earth.


The lake has been protected from the atmosphere and the other surrounding 150 subglacial lakes by a 4-kilometer-[2.5-mile] thick ice cap. What lies beneath the mammoth sheet of ice may provide answers to what Earth was like before the Ice Age and how life has evolved.

Most importantly, Lake Vostok appears to be incredibly similar to the frozen lakes of Jupiter's Europa satellite and Saturn's Enceladus. As Wired UK reported earlier this week, NASA and the ESA have already planned a joint mission to explore Europa's lake in 2020. If life is found in Vostok, the implications for the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Europa and Enceladus are huge.

"It's like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before," said Valery Lukin of the Arctic and Antarctic Research told Reuters. "We don't know what we'll find."

Drilling began in 1990 after satellite images revealed a series of subglacial lakes in the region, but work has been held-up several times amid concerns that progress could damage the previously untouched environment below.

"If Russia continues to drill, the lubricants and anti-freeze present in their borehole may taint the microorganisms they are trying to discover," the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition has argued.

Last month Wired reported that drilling once again commenced after the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat approved the Russians' method. On reaching the lake's water, the team expect sudden pressure to push fluid back up the borehole where it will freeze. After a year, researchers intend to extract a sample of this frozen lake water to be analyzed. There are fears, however, that the gaseous water below could force liquid back up the borehole faster and farther than expected.

Drilling has been relatively simple for the first 3 kilometers;. However as the team neared the bottom of the ice layer, it found the structure to be made up of huge monocrystals, hard like glass and a meter [3 feet] each in diameter. As a result, progress has been slow in recent weeks — just 1.6 meter [5 feet] drilled each day — and it was impossible to complete the task in time despite the team working round the clock.

The team will recommence work in December.

Images: 1) Illustration of ice-coring operations above Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. Liquid water may take thousands of years to pass through the lake, which is about the size of Lake Ontario./Nicol Rager-Fuller/NSF. 2) Diagram of the dynamic water system below Antarctic ice./Zina Deretsky/NSF.


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World’s Total CPU Power: One Human Brain

Posted: 11 Feb 2011 10:30 AM PST

By John Timmer, Ars Technica

How much information can the world transmit, process, and store? Estimating this sort of thing can be a nightmare, but the task can provide valuable information on trends that are changing our computing and broadcast infrastructure. So a pair of researchers have taken the job upon themselves and tracked the changes in 60 different analog and digital technologies, from newsprint to cellular data, for a period of over 20 years.

The trends they spot range from the expected—Internet access has pushed both analog and digital phones into a tiny niche—to the surprising, such as the fact that, in aggregate, gaming hardware has always had more computing power than the world's supercomputers.

The authors were remarkably thorough. For storage media, they considered things like paper, film, and vinyl records, and such modern innovations as Blu-ray discs and memory cards. To standardize their measurements across media, they used Shannon's information theory to consider data storage in terms of optimally compressed bits. They also tracked technology, noting that in the year 2000, bits of video were compressed using cinepak, which was far less efficient than the current MPEG-4 format; calculations were adjusted accordingly.

Even so, there are some significant estimations here. "For example," the authors note, "after normalization on optimally compressed bits we can say things like 'a 6 square-cm newspaper image is worth a 1,000 words.'"


Similar sorts of estimates are required for things like broadcast capability and two-way communications, both of which are compiled as bits-per-second figures. The researchers estimate typical consumption of broadcast media to figure out how much of the existing capacity is used, and they figure that, since telecom equipment is run to maximize the use of its capacity, it's usually booked to close to its limit.

Computing capacity is converted into MIPS, and estimates for the total number and class of chips are available. The big question mark here is mostly in embedded controllers; it's hard to estimate both their computational capacity and how many are out there.

So these are pretty rough estimates, but similar assumptions are made at all four time points examined between 1986 and 2007. That should allow comparisons of trends across the time period, even if the absolute values of the estimates are a bit off.


Some trends are very, very obvious. Analog video accounted for over half the data stored in 1986 (vinyl LPs and cassette tapes accounted for over a quarter), and video held 86 percent of all stored data by 1993, squeezing out nearly everything else.

By 2000, CDs and digital tape started pushing back, but analog video still stood at 70 percent of all stored data. By 2007, analog video had plunged to a tiny six percent, eclipsed by hard disks, Blu-ray and DVDs, and digital tape.

During that time, total storage capacity grew at about 23 percent annually, and it topped out at 2.9 x 1020 bytes—that's about 300 exabytes, or 61 CDs for everyone on the planet.

A similar shift to digital occurred in broadcast media and two-way communications. Back in 1986, 80 percent of broadcast capacity was used for terrestrial TV, although analog cable was already a presence. Today, broadcast TV has fallen to 50 percent; a quarter of the broadcast data is now some form of digital, and analog cable is declining from its peak in 2000.

Two-way communications underwent a far more dramatic shift. In 1986, analog phones handled 80 percent of the data, with digital phones taking the other 20 percent; everything else was a rounding error. By 2000, analog telephony was down to two percent of the world's two-way transmissions.

Digital telephony peaked in 1993 at 67 percent; fixed Internet connections accounted for one percent of usage that year. By 2000, it was up to 50 percent, and it's now at 97 percent. Nothing else cleared one percent.

Two-way communications handled 65 exabytes in 2007, dwarfed by broadcasting, which sent a whopping 2 zetabytes of data. But, while broadcasting is increasing at a linear rate, the advent of the Internet has given two-way transmissions a big boost, increasing the bytes transmitted by a factor of 29 in just 7 years.


Computation is probably the most varied mix of hardware of the lot. Back in 1986, pocket calculators represented about 40 percent of all computer capacity, beating out PCs at 33 percent and servers at 17 percent. Even then, gaming hardware held a nine percent share.

Calculators were gone by 2000, when the PC peaked at 86 percent and the mobile phone/PDA first appeared at 3 percent. By 2007, phones held six percent of world processing power, but the big story was gaming hardware, which shot up to a quarter of the total computational capacity, pushing the PC back down to a two-thirds share. Supercomputers are apparently rare enough not to measure.

One surprising result of the research is the amount of total horsepower found in the application-specific space, where the authors considered only DSPs, microcontrollers, and GPUs (GPUs alone account for 97 percent of this category's capacity). And that capacity is huge, about 30 times that of all the general purpose computation hardware. GPUs account for the lion's share of the 6.4 x 1018 operations a second that the planet can now perform, and they showed a compound annual growth rate of 86 percent over the study period.

Lest we get too enamored with our technological prowess, however, the authors make some comparisons with biology. "To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second," they write.

Our total storage capacity is the same as an adult human's DNA. And there are several billion humans on the planet.

Image: Flickr/adafruit.

Citation: "The World's Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information." Martin Hilbert and Priscila López. Science, 692-693, Feb. 11, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1200970

Source: Ars Technica.

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Q&A: Company Buys Robot a Rocket Ride to the Moon

Posted: 11 Feb 2011 07:00 AM PST

It's impossible to know which team is leading the Google Lunar X Prize competition to land a robot on the moon. But one thing is certain: Only team Astrobotic has announced that their rocket ride is booked.

Spawned in September 2007, the GLXP is a $30 million lunar exploration competition created by the X Prize Foundation and backed with Google's cash. It is designed to reinvigorate public interest in space exploration and seed new industries on lunar soil.

If the destination were anywhere closer than the moon, the $20 million grand prize challenge — be the first to safely land a robot, have that robot travel 500 meters and send images and data back — would be easy. But the moon is an unforgiving rock that has no atmosphere, brutal temperature swings, two-week nights and a surface buried in razor-sharp dust. It's also 239,000 miles away.

Of the 20 or so teams publicly involved in the competition, which Google Lunar X Prize plans to finalize next week, only Astrobotic Technology has announced a contract with an aerospace company for a lunar rocket ride. Their 368-ton Falcon 9 rocket will be built by aerospace newcomer SpaceX, and it's currently scheduled to launch some time in December 2013. It will sling Astrobotic's planned 1,100-lb lander-and-rover combo, plus cargo and propellant, into lunar orbit. called Astrobotic's president David Gump to talk money (lots and lots of money), lunar science, what it will take to reach the moon and how parading around a revered celestial body may not go over well with some folks. No team except yours has said they have a ride to the moon. That's a big deal, right?

David Gump: We're certainly the first to announce it, but many teams are playing their hands very close to the vest. They're not saying much. Let me put it this way: Having a contract for a Falcon 9 makes us much more credible than we were a few weeks ago. It's a very hard thing to accomplish because of the cost. Once you have a ride, you have sort of arrived. You have a mission people can really have some confidence in.

That's important because $24 million, the maximum you can win from the competition, isn't enough to cover our costs. We need to sell a fair amount of space on our rocket to make the economics work, and having a contract to ride makes that so much easier. What kind of total costs are we talking about here?


Gump: We're under a non-disclosure agreement with SpaceX. But I can say their rockets cost roughly half of their competitors'. [Editor's note: SpaceX's pricing for a Falcon 9 launch varies from $49.9 million to $56 million.]

From when we started until we're done with our first mission, I think a cost of $90 to $100 million is a reasonable estimate. Part of that is flexible because it's based on how many partners provide components to us at no cost. But at the end of the mission, we hope to see a profit of at least $50 to $60 million, including the first-place prize and bonuses.

By the way, that includes media rights, too. Our rover will have a 3-D high-definition camera on it at about the height of a human, and we think one or more networks would buy exclusive rights much like they would to the Olympics. It will look be as if you're standing on the lunar surface. What bonus prizes are you going after?

Gump: That depends on which customers sign on to go to the moon with us, but we're looking at surviving a two-week lunar night, going five kilometers instead of only 500 meters and visiting an Apollo heritage site. I wanted to ask you about that. There are some folks who won't be happy if a rover messes with a historical landing site. How do you respond to that?

'We think it would be really cool, and so do scientists, to see what four decades of exposure has done to Apollo materials.'

Gump: Many of us grew up during Apollo, so we certainly don't want to disgrace those sites. We think it would be really cool, and so do scientists, to see what four decades of exposure has done to Apollo materials. You can see what kind of stuff survives best in the lunar environment. Engineers call it a witness plate — a material that records environmental damage. On the moon, that's micrometeorite bombardment, wild thermal changes, solar radiation and other punishment.

But we may in fact not go to an Apollo site because of the stunning [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] discoveries at the poles of frozen water, frozen methane, frozen ammonia and all sorts of things that would be very useful to start a lunar civilization. The first lunar export could be rocket propellant. We're big on science here, as you can imagine. Other than materials science, how else might researchers benefit from privatized trips to the moon?

Gump: Well, science is going to be done by NASA and ESA [The European Space Agency] and JAXA, the Japanese aerospace agency, and by the academic researchers that draw funding from those sources.

Here's one example of science you could do: No one is able to say with certainty where the water, methane, and ammonia on the moon actually came from. Some advocate that it came from comets over 2 billion years and is averaged out. But it could be leftover from the formation of the moon four-and-a-half billion years ago, when a Mars-sized body hit the Earth before it was Earth, and left a moon-sized remnant.

Digging into the surface and running tests with a rover like ours is the best way to find out. Okay, so you have a rocket scheduled and a plan to pay for it. What's the biggest hurdle you're facing now?

Gump: Have you ever seen that old movie "Mars Needs Women"? No. Sounds like I have something to add to Netflix.

Gump: (laughs) Well, in our case, the moon needs money. Burt Rutan had great technical competence to build SpaceShipOne for the Ansari X Prize, which was an inspiration to many of us. But he couldn't have done it without a $25 million check from Paul Allen. And that's the same shortfall we're looking at before we can go.

We need hedge fun owners, stray billionaires, or even deca-millionaires that can realize the lunar frontier is coming, and that we're going to be there first making maps, doing the prospecting.

Anyway, our biggest to-do is nail down the money. You've got less than 3 years to pull the money together. Are you worried?

Gump: You know, it's an adventure. And going to space ain't easy — it's an enormous challenge. We need allies to get there, and some far-sighted customers and investors.

Images courtesy Astrobotic Technology. 1) Illustration of Astrobotic's third and latest rover prototype. 2) Astrobotic's intended mission plan (not to scale).

Video: Astrobotic Technology.

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Gallery: The Last Uncontacted People

Posted: 11 Feb 2011 06:25 AM PST

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Still Uncontacted

Photographs released last week of a tribe in southwest Brazil have put public attention on uncontacted people, of which about 100 are believed to exist.

Those tribes, most of whom live in the Amazon, are often described as living fossils of Stone Age life, flash-frozen in time. Such descriptions are unfair: We don't really know how people lived in the Stone Age, and there's no reason to think that uncontacted cultures have not continued to evolve in their own unique ways.

What can be said, however, is that uncontacted people are threatened by disease and development. If they're going to survive, they need help from the outside world. takes you on a tour of uncontacted people and the issues facing them — and us.

(Editor's note: the machete in the photograph was likely obtained through trade with Indians who have made contact.)

Image: Gleison Miranda-FUNAI/Survival International.

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