Google Open Sources Its Exoplanet-Hunting AI ( 16

dmoberhaus writes: Last December, NASA announced that two new exoplanets had been hiding in plain sight among data from the Kepler space telescope. These two new planets weren't discovered by a human, however. Instead, an exoplanet hunting neural network -- a type of machine learning algorithm loosely modeled after the human brain -- had discovered the planets by finding subtle patterns in the Kepler data that would've been nearly impossible for a human to see. Last Thursday, Christopher Shallue, the lead Google engineer behind the exoplanet AI, announced in a blog post that the company was making the algorithm open source. In other words, anyone can download the code and help hunt for exoplanets in Kepler data.
Google's research blog called the December discovery "a successful proof-of-concept for using machine learning to discover exoplanets, and more generally another example of using machine learning to make meaningful gains in a variety of scientific disciplines (e.g. healthcare, quantum chemistry, and fusion research)."

No, Space Did Not Permanently Alter 7 Percent of Scott Kelly's DNA ( 50

Several stories this week have proclaimed that the DNA of former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly changed during his year living on the International Space Station. The stories say that 7 percent of his genes did not return back to normal when he came back to Earth. It makes it seem as if the space environment permanently altered his genetic code. The problem? That's not true. From a report: The mistake stems from an inaccurate interpretation of NASA's ongoing Twins Study. When Scott went to space in 2015, his identical twin Mark -- also a former NASA astronaut -- stayed on the ground. The idea was that Mark would serve as a control subject -- a nearly identical genetic copy that NASA could use to figure out how the space environment changed Scott's body. Some fascinating results have come out of the experiment. For one thing, Scott's gut bacteria changed significantly while he was in space. And yes, he did experience genetic changes. The protective caps on the ends of his DNA strands -- known as telomeres -- increased while in space. But space didn't permenantly alter 7 percent of his DNA. [...] NASA also confirmed this in a statement to The Verge: "Scott's DNA did not fundamentally change," a NASA spokesperson said. "What researchers did observe are changes in gene expression, which is how your body reacts to your environment. This likely is within the range for humans under stress, such as mountain climbing or SCUBA diving."

NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope Is Running Out of Fuel ( 83

Charlie Sobeck, the system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, said in a NASA statement that Kepler is running low on gas. According to Sobekc, it only has "several months" before it reaches the end of the its life. Mashable reports: NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy for nearly a decade. It has spotted over 2,500 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars, and over 2,500 more possible worlds are waiting to be confirmed. Thirty of these confirmed planets live inside their host stars' habitable zones, places where liquid water could exist like it does on Earth. NASA placed the Kepler telescope 94 million miles away from Earth, in an orbit around the sun. This way, Earth's gravity and reflected light don't interfere with Kepler's precise measurements of distant planets. Out there, in the void, it's extremely unlikely that Kepler will become a threatening piece of space junk that could pose collision hazards to other satellites. Although Kepler will soon be spent and left to its long, lonely orbit in space, the spacecraft will soon be replaced by another exoplanet-hunting space telescope, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is set to launch into space on April 16.

NASA Spacecraft Reveals Jupiter's Interior In Unprecedented Detail ( 52

NASA's Juno spacecraft has revealed that Jupiter's iconic striped bands, caused by immensely powerful winds, extend to a depth of about 3,000km below the surface. The findings also provide a partial answer to the question of whether the planet has a core, "showing that the inner 96% of the planet rotates 'as a solid body,' even though technically it is composed of an extraordinarily dense mixture of hydrogen and helium gas," reports The Guardian. From the report: The findings are published in four separate papers in the journal Nature, describing the planet's gravitational field (surprisingly asymmetrical), atmospheric flows, interior composition and polar cyclones. A crucial question was whether the bands on Jupiter, caused by air currents that are five times as strong as the most powerful hurricanes on Earth, were a "weather" phenomenon comparable to the Earth's jet streams or part of a deep-seated convection system. Juno's latest observations point to the latter, showing the jets continued to around 3,000km beneath the surface -- deep enough to cause ripples and asymmetries in the planet's gravitational field that were perceptible to detectors on the spacecraft. On Earth, the atmosphere represents about a millionth of the mass of the whole planet. The latest work suggests that on Jupiter the figure is closer to 1%. The new findings, based on extremely sensitive gravitational measurements, also begin to paint a picture of the internal structure of the planet.

Nokia, Vodafone To Bring 4G To the Moon ( 80

According to Reuters, the moon will get its first mobile phone network next year, enabling high-definition streaming from the landscape back to earth. "Vodafone Germany, network equipment maker Nokia and carmaker Audi said on Tuesday they were working together to support the mission, 50 years after the first NASA astronauts walked on the moon." From the report: Vodafone said it had appointed Nokia as its technology partner to develop a space-grade network which would be a small piece of hardware weighing less than a bag of sugar. The companies are working with Berlin-based company PTScientists on the project, with a launch scheduled in 2019 from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Vodafone said. One executive involved said the decision to build a 4G network rather than a state-of-the-art 5G network was taken because the next generation networks remain in the testing and trial stage and are not stable enough to ensure they would work from the lunar surface.

Microbes Found in Earth's Deep Ocean Might Grow on Saturn's Moon Enceladus ( 69

Life as we know it needs three things: energy, water and chemistry. Saturn's icy moon Enceladus has them all, as NASA spacecraft Cassini confirmed in the final years of its mission to that planet. From a report: Scientists have successfully cultivated a few of these tiny organisms in the lab under the same conditions that are thought to exist on the distant moon, opening up the possibility that life might be lurking under the world's surface. Enceladus is one of the most intriguing places in the Solar System since it has many crucial ingredients needed for life to thrive. For one, it has lots of water. NASA's Cassini spacecraft -- which explored the Saturn system from 2004 to 2017 -- found that plumes of gas and particles erupt from the south pole of Enceladus, and these geysers stem from a global liquid water ocean underneath the moon's crust. Scientists think that there may be hot vents in this ocean, too -- cracks in the sea floor where heated rock mingles with the frigid waters. This mixing of hot and cold material seems to be creating a soup of chemical compounds that might support life.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot May Soon Disappear ( 80

The Great Red Spot has been a fixture of Jupiter 's cloudy visage for centuries and is among the most recognizable features in the solar system. But it won't always be there. In fact, the Great Red Spot is shrinking, and recently, news stories reported that it could vanish within the next 10 or 20 years . From a report: Older observations, from the late 1800s, suggest the storm once spanned more than 30 degrees in longitude and was more of a "Great Red Sausage," says Glenn Orton of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But the storm's shape is changing, most significantly in width, and as time marches on it's becoming less oval and more circular. Way back when, the storm stretched more than 25,000 miles across. When the Voyager spacecraft flew by in the 1970s, scientists estimated that the Spot was just 14,500 miles wide. In 2014, a Hubble Space Telescope observation put the Spot at just 10,250 miles across, and by last spring, it spanned just 10,140 miles. So when will it disappear entirely? Truth is, scientists have no idea. But if you measure the rate at which the Great Red Spot has been shrinking, and extrapolate linearly from that, it looks like the spot will vanish completely in about 70 years, says Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Problem is, "we know for certain it doesn't work like that at all," she says.

Antarctica Is Losing Ice Faster Every Year ( 268

A survey of satellite data published in the journal Cryosphere confirms what scientists have suspected for a while now: ice loss from the critical region of Antarctica is happening at an increasingly fast pace. Quartz reports: In total, researchers found that Antarctica lost roughly 1,929 gigatons of ice in 2015, which amounts to an increase of roughly 36 gigatons per year every year since 2008. (A gigaton is one billion tons.) Nearly 90% of that increase in loss occurred in West Antarctica, "probably in response to ocean warming," according to NASA. The new data analysis mostly confirms other recent research, but does so with a higher degree of precision by using a new technique that can process a larger amount of satellite data than was possible before.

West Antarctica has been losing a lot of ice in recent years, and at an ever-growing pace, while East Antarctica is losing ice more steadily. The West Antarctic ice sheet is of particular concern because, like a building that stands on an uneven foundation, it is inherently unstable, making it especially vulnerable to the warming climate. If the entire ice sheet were destabilized and melted into the sea, researchers estimate it would lead to 3 meters (9 feet) of sea level rise globally. Models suggest that under a low-emissions scenario, where the world commits to "peaking" and then steadily reducing emissions in the near future, complete destabilization of the West Antarctic ice sheet is possible to avoid. But under medium- or high-emissions scenarios, the loss of the ice sheet becomes inevitable.


Bigelow Launching New Company To Sell Private Space Stations ( 57

hyperclocker shares a report from Popular Mechanics: The future of spacecraft in lower Earth orbit (LEO) looks to be an increasingly commercial affair. Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that builds livable space habitats, has now created a spinoff company known as Bigelow Space Operations (BSO). BSO will market and operate any space habitats that Bigelow sells. The creation of BSO signals that Bigelow is preparing for a future of commercial space living. Recently leaked NASA documents show that the Trump Administration wants to convert the International Space Station into a commercial venture, and BSO is betting that businesses including private scientific ventures and hotels will be interested in creating a profit above the Earth. A prototype Bigelow habitat, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), has been connected to the ISS since 2016. It's proven such a successful addition that last year NASA extended its contract for an additional three years. But Bigelow is thinking past the BEAM. In its press release announcing BSO, it highlights its planned launches of the B330-1 and B330-2, spacecraft with 6-person capacity, in 2021.

The Next Falcon Heavy Will Carry the Most Powerful Atomic Clock Ever Launched ( 128

schwit1 shares a report from This isn't your average timekeeper. The so-called Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) is far smaller than Earth-bound atomic clocks, far more precise than the handful of other space-bound atomic clocks, and more resilient against the stresses of space travel than any clock ever made. According to a NASA statement, it's expected to lose no more than 2 nanoseconds (2 billionths of a second) over the course of a day. That comes to about 7 millionths of a second over the course of a decade. n an email to Live Science, Andrew Good, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory representative, said the first DSAC will hitch a ride on the second Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled for June.

Every deep-space mission that makes course corrections needs to send signals to ground stations on Earth. Those ground stations rely on atomic clocks to measure just how long those signals took to arrive, which allows them to locate the spacecrafts position down to the meter in the vast vacuum. They then send signals back, telling the craft where they are and where to go next. Thats a cumbersome process, and it means any given ground station can support only one spacecraft at a time. The goal of DSAC, according to a NASA fact sheet, is to allow spacecraft to make precise timing measurements onboard a spacecraft, without waiting for information from Earth. A DSAC-equipped spacecraft, according to NASAs statement, could calculate time without waiting for measurements from Earth -- allowing it to make course adjustments or perform precision science experiments without pausing to turn its antennas earthward and waiting for a reply.


New Horizons Probe Captures Images At Record Distance From Earth ( 55

jwhyche writes: The New Horizons probe has captured the farthermost images of Earth. The probe took images of Earth from a distance of over 3.79 billion miles on December 5th, 2017. This beats the image Voyager 1 captured 27 years ago. The Voyager image was taken at a distance of 3.75 billion miles and has become known as the "Pale Blue Dot" photo. Engadget notes that this new record is likely to be broken again within a matter of months. "The [New Horizons spacecraft] is slated to swing by another Kuiper Belt object (2014 MU69) on January 1st, 2019 and record more imagery in the process," reports Engadget. "So long as the mission goes according to plan, New Horizons could hold on to its lead for a long time."

The Trump Administration is Moving To Privatize the International Space Station: Report ( 236

The Trump administration is planning to privatize the international space station instead of simply decommissioning the orbiting international experiment in 2024, The Washington Post reports. From a report: According to a document obtained by the Post, the current administration is mulling handing the International Space Station off to private industry instead of de-orbiting it as NASA "will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit." The Post also reported that the administration was looking to request $150 million in fiscal year 2019 "to enable the development and maturation of commercial entities and capabilities which will ensure that commercial successors to the ISS -- potentially including elements of the ISS -- are operational when they are needed." The U.S. government has already spent roughly $100 billion to build and operate the space station as part of an international coalition that also includes the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Russian Space Agency.

SpaceX Successfully Lands Two Falcon Heavy Boosters Simultaneously After Rocket Launch [Update] ( 446

After nearly a decade of development, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket has successfully launched from pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida today. After reaching orbit, the two side boosters simultaneously landed at Landing Zone One. We do not know the status of the central core of the rocket, which was destined to land on the "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship roughly 8:19 minutes into the flight.

According to, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket to launch since NASA's Saturn V -- the iconic vessel that, with 7.5 million pounds of thrust, accomplished the definitive Apollo-era feat of putting astronauts on the moon. Elon Musk says that Falcon Heavy is "twice as powerful as any other booster operating today." As for the payload, it includes a Tesla Roadster electric car. "The Falcon Heavy will send the vehicle around the sun in an elliptical orbit that will extend farther than Mars' orbit," reports

UPDATE: SpaceX has confirmed The Verge's reporting that the middle core of SpaceX's Heavy Rocket missed the drone ship where it was supposed to land. "The center core was only able to relight one of the three engines necessary to land, and so it hit the water at 300 miles per hour," reports The Verge. "Two engines on the drone ship were taken out when it crashed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a press call after the rocket launch. It's a small hiccup in an otherwise successful first flight."

Scientists May Have Discovered the First Planets Outside the Milky Way ( 74

Using data from a NASA X-ray laboratory in space, Xinyu Dai, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of Oklahoma, detected a population of planets beyond the Milky Way galaxy (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source). The planets range in size from Earth's moon to the massive Jupiter. From the report: There are few methods to determine the existence of distant planets. They are so far away that no telescope can observe them, Dai told The Washington Post. So Dai and postdoctoral researcher Eduardo Guerras relied on a scientific principle to make the discovery: Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Einstein's theory suggests light bends when tugged by the force of gravity. In this case, the light is coming from a quasar -- the nucleus of a galaxy with a swirling black hole -- that emits powerful radiation in the distance. Between that quasar and the space-based laboratory is the galaxy of newly discovered planets. The gravitational force of the galaxy bends the light heading toward the Milky Way, illuminating the galaxy in an effect called microlensing. In that way, the galaxy acts as a magnifying glass of sorts, bringing a previously unseen celestial body into X-ray view. In a university news release, Guerras had a less formal way to describe the complicated process: "This is very cool science."

SpaceX Has Received Permission From the US Government To Launch Elon Musk's Car Toward Mars ( 225

SpaceX this week is preparing to launch Falcon Heavy, the biggest rocket in the company's history, for the first time. From a report: The 230-foot-tall three-booster launcher is scheduled to blast off Tuesday between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. ET. SpaceX says Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world. SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, wanted this test launch to happen as early as 2013, though he recently said it could end in an explosion. Instead of putting a standard "mass simulator" or dummy payload atop Falcon Heavy, Musk -- who once launched a wheel of cheese into orbit -- will put his personal 2008 midnight-cherry-red Tesla Roadster on top of the monster rocket. In an Instagram post over the weekend, Musk also revealed that the car would carry a dummy driver, which Musk is calling "Starman," wearing a SpaceX space suit. "Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring," Musk said in an Instagram post in December, adding that the company "decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel." However, all rocket payloads need a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch, and Musk's sleek electric car is no exception. The FAA granted SpaceX that permission on Friday in a staunchly formal notice, which Keith Cowing posted on NASA Watch.

NASA Poised To Topple a Planet-Finding Barrier ( 66

schwit1 shares a report from Babak Saif and Lee Feinberg at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have shown for the first time that they can dynamically detect subatomic- or picometer-sized distortions -- changes that are far smaller than an atom -- across a five-foot segmented telescope mirror and its support structure. Collaborating with Perry Greenfield at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the team now plans to use a next-generation tool and thermal test chamber to further refine their measurements. The measurement feat is good news to scientists studying future missions for finding and characterizing extrasolar Earth-like planets that potentially could support life. To find life, these observatories would have to gather and focus enough light to distinguish the planet's light from that of its much brighter parent star and then be able to dissect that light to discern different atmospheric chemical signatures, such as oxygen and methane. This would require a super-stable observatory whose optical components move or distort no more than 12 picometers, a measurement that is about one-tenth the size of a hydrogen atom.

Amateur Astronomer Discovers Long-Dead NASA Satellite Has Come Back To Life ( 62

schwit1 shares a report from Behind The Black: In his hunt to locate Zuma, an amateur astronomer has discovered that a long-dead NASA satellite, designed to study the magnetosphere, has come back to life. IMAGE went dead in 2005, and though NASA thought it might come back to life after experiencing a total eclipse in 2007 that would force a reboot, no evidence of life was seen then. It now appears that the satellite came to life sometime between then and 2018, and was chattering away at Earth waiting for a response. NASA is now looking at what it must do to take control of the spacecraft and resume science operations. Zuma is the secret U.S. government payload that was launched by SpaceX earlier this month and reportedly lost. As for why Scott Tilley -- the amateur radio astronomer -- decided to have a look for the present of secret military satellites, Ars Technica reports that he apparently does this semi-regularly as a hobby and, in this case, was inspired by the Zuma satellite.

Tech Firms Let Russia Probe Software Widely Used by US Government ( 115

Major global technology providers SAP, Symantec, and McAfee have allowed Russian authorities to hunt for vulnerabilities in software deeply embedded across the U.S. government, Reuters reported on Thursday. From the report: The practice potentially jeopardizes the security of computer networks in at least a dozen federal agencies, U.S. lawmakers and security experts said. It involves more companies and a broader swath of the government than previously reported. In order to sell in the Russian market, the tech companies let a Russian defense agency scour the inner workings, or source code, of some of their products. Russian authorities say the reviews are necessary to detect flaws that could be exploited by hackers. But those same products protect some of the most sensitive areas of the U.S government, including the Pentagon, NASA, the State Department, the FBI and the intelligence community, against hacking by sophisticated cyber adversaries like Russia.

Trump Administration Wants To End NASA Funding For ISS By 2025 ( 344

According to budget documents seen by The Verge, the Trump administration is preparing to end support for the International Space Station program by 2025. As a result, American astronauts could be grounded on Earth for years with no destination in space until NASA develops new vehicles for its deep space travel plans. From the report: The draft may change before an official budget request is released on February 12th. However, two people familiar with the matter have confirmed to The Verge that the directive will be in the final proposal. We reached out to NASA for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. Any budget proposal from the Trump administration will also be subject to scrutiny and approval by Congress. But even announcing the intention to cancel ISS funding could send a signal to NASA's international partners that the U.S. is no longer interested in continuing the program. Many of NASA's partners still have yet to decide if they'd like to continue working on the station beyond 2024. The International Space Station has been an ongoing program for more than two decades. It costs NASA between $3 to $4 billion each year, and represents a more than $87 billion investment from the U.S. government. It's become a major hub for conducting both government and commercial experiments in microgravity, as well as testing out how the human body responds to weightlessness.

In the Search for Alien Life, 'Everyone Is an Astrobiologist' ( 41

Mary Voytek, NASA's senior scientist for astrobiology, likes to tell other researchers that "everyone is an astrobiologist; they just don't know it yet." From a report: What she means is that answering the question currently at the heart of astrobiology -- Does life exist beyond Earth? -- requires input from an incredibly wide range of disciplines, including astrophysics, geology, exoplanet science, planetary science, chemistry and various subfields of biology.

On the plus side, that means astrobiologists have a lot of resources to draw on. But it also means that people like Voytek have to deal with a flood of relevant information coming in from all of those scientific fields and figure out how to get scientists from those disciplines to work together. Voytek and other NASA representatives discussed how they are dealing with that information influx, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, at the Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe meeting, hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, here at the University of California, Irvine this week.

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