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.

Researchers Discover Efficient Way To Filter Salt, Metal Ions From Water ( 67

schwit1 shares a report on a new study, published in Sciences Advances, that offers a new solution to providing clean drinking water for billions of people worldwide: It all comes down to metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), an amazing next generation material that have the largest internal surface area of any known substance. The sponge like crystals can be used to capture, store and release chemical compounds. In this case, the salt and ions in sea water. Dr Huacheng Zhang, Professor Huanting Wang and Associate Professor Zhe Liu and their team in the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, in collaboration with Dr Anita Hill of CSIRO and Professor Benny Freeman of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, have recently discovered that MOF membranes can mimic the filtering function, or "ion selectivity," of organic cell membranes. With further development, these membranes have significant potential to perform the dual functions of removing salts from seawater and separating metal ions in a highly efficient and cost effective manner, offering a revolutionary new technological approach for the water and mining industries. Currently, reverse osmosis membranes are responsible for more than half of the world's desalination capacity, and the last stage of most water treatment processes, yet these membranes have room for improvement by a factor of 2 to 3 in energy consumption. They do not operate on the principles of dehydration of ions, or selective ion transport in biological channels.

Elon Musk Explains Why SpaceX Prefers Clusters of Small Engines ( 240

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The company's development of the Falcon 9 rocket, with nine engines, had given Musk confidence that SpaceX could scale up to 27 engines in flight, and he believed this was a better overall solution for the thrust needed to escape Earth's gravity. To explain why, the former computer scientist used a computer metaphor. "It's sort of like the way modern computer systems are set up," Musk said. "With Google or Amazon they have large numbers of small computers, such that if one of the computers goes down it doesn't really affect your use of Google or Amazon. That's different from the old model of the mainframe approach, when you have one big mainframe and if it goes down, the whole system goes down."

For computers, Musk said, using large numbers of small computers ends up being a more efficient, smarter, and faster approach than using a few larger, more powerful computers. So it was with rocket engines. "It's better to use a large number of small engines," Musk said. With the Falcon Heavy rocket, he added, up to half a dozen engines could fail and the rocket would still make it to orbit. The flight of the Falcon Heavy likely bodes well for SpaceX's next rocket, the much larger Big Falcon Rocket (or BFR), now being designed at the company's Hawthorne, California-based headquarters. This booster will use 31 engines, four more than the Falcon Heavy. But it will also use larger, more powerful engines. The proposed Raptor engine has 380,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, compared to 190,000 pounds of thrust for the Merlin 1-D engine.


AIs Have Replaced Aliens As Our Greatest World Destroying Fear ( 227

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a report via Quartz: As we've turned our gaze away from the stars and toward our screens, our anxiety about humanity's ultimate fate has shifted along with it. No longer are we afraid of aliens taking our freedom: It's the technology we're building on our own turf we should be worried about. The advent of artificial intelligence is increasingly bringing about the kinds of disturbing scenarios the old alien blockbusters warned us about. In 2016, Microsoft's first attempt at a functioning AI bot, Tay, became a Hitler-loving mess an hour after it launched. Tesla CEO Elon Musk urged the United Nations to ban the use of AI in weapons before it becomes "the third revolution in warfare." And in China, AI surveillance cameras are being rolled out by the government to track 1.3 billion people at a level Big Brother could only dream of. As AI's presence in film and TV has evolved, space creatures blowing us up now seems almost quaint compared to the frightening uncertainties of an computer-centric world. Will Smith went from saving Earth from alien destruction to saving it from robot servants run amok. More recently, Ex Machina, Chappie, and Transcendence have all explored the complexities that arise when the lines between human and robot blur.

However, sentient machines aren't a new anxiety. It arguably all started with Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic, Blade Runner. It's a stunning depiction of a sprawling, smog-choked future, filled with bounty hunters muttering "enhance" at grainy pictures on computer screens. ("Alexa, enlarge image.") The neo-noir epic popularized the concept of intelligent machines being virtually indistinguishable from humans and asked the audience where our humanity ends and theirs begin. Even alien sci-fi now acknowledges that we've got worse things to worry about than extra-terrestrials: ourselves.


Scientists Create a New Form of Matter: Superionic Water Ice ( 62

According to The New York Times, scientists created a new form of water that simultaneously acts like a solid and liquid. "The substance, which consists of a fluid of hydrogen ions running through a lattice of oxygen, was formed by compressing water between two diamonds and then zapping it with a laser," reports Science Magazine. "That caused pressures to spike to more than a million times those of Earth's atmosphere and temperatures to rise to thousands of degrees, conditions scientists had predicted may lead to the formation of superionic ice. This kind of water doesn't exist naturally on Earth, the scientists report in Nature Physics, but it may be present in the mantles of icy planets like Neptune and Uranus."

The Arctic is Full of Toxic Mercury, and Climate Change is Going To Release it ( 195

We already knew that thawing Arctic permafrost would release powerful greenhouse gases. On Monday, scientists revealed it could also release massive amounts of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin and serious threat to human health. From a report: Permafrost, the Arctic's frozen soil, acts as a massive ice trap that keeps carbon stuck in the ground and out of the atmosphere -- where, if released as carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas would drive global warming. But as humans warm the climate, they risk thawing that permafrost and releasing that carbon, with microbial organisms becoming more active and breaking down the ancient plant life that had previously been preserved in the frozen earth. That would further worsen global warming, further thawing the Arctic -- and so on. That cycle would be scary enough, but U.S. government scientists on Monday revealed that the permafrost also contains large volumes of mercury, a toxic element humans have already been pumping into the air by burning coal. There are 32 million gallons worth of mercury, or the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools, trapped in the permafrost, the scientists wrote in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. For context, that's "twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined," they wrote.

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."

Flat Earther Fails To Launch His Homemade Rocket -- Yet Again ( 162

An anonymous reader writes: Flat earther "Mad" Mike Hughes, who also bills himself as "the last great daredevil," promised Super Bowl-sized ratings for an event Saturday where he'd blast himself nearly half a mile into the sky on a homemade rocket. "We had 20 cameras on site today, ready for a full segment," explained the video-on-demand site Noize TV on their Facebook page. One newspaper described it as also being "an event which he hopes will get people to investigate the ideology which holds the earth is flat." But judging from online reactions, the event was just another disappointment.

Noize TV's Facebook post titled "The Launch!!! Finally" shows a picture of Mike standing beside his rocket -- but it's followed by a commenters saying things like "There was no launch. I doubt there will be," and the official Noize TV account saying "We thought he would press that button... He did not. And won't be doing so we are pretty certain." And this morning Noize TV posted that "we will no longer cover non launches, only launches... It turns out non launches are not as funny as we anticipated."

One woman even posted that "I was there for awhile...police were there. Ambulance was there. 100 people that weren't supposed to be there was there..." And while there's rumors Mike might still try again another day, her ultimate verdict about the limo-driver-turned-daredevil was cynical. "He's all about getting seen rather than getting launched... My husband gave him $100 cash the last time he was going to and learn."


Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle ( 64

Laser-toting archaeologists have discovered an entire new city in the Central American jungle, the National Geographic reported this week. From the report: In what's being hailed as a "major breakthrough" in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala. Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for "Light Detection And Ranging"), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed. "The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated," said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.

Insect Die-off: Even Common Species Are Becoming Rare ( 127

Scientists at Senckenberg Nature Research Society and Technical University of Munich (TUM) have been able to show that currently widespread insects are threatened with a serious decline in species diversity in the near future. From the report: The research team lists the fragmentation of habitats and the intensification of agriculture as reasons for the decline of these "generalists." According to the study, published today in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, the genetic diversity among the examined butterfly species is also expected to decline sharply in the future -- as a result, the insects will become more sensitive to environmental changes.

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.

How To Watch the 'Super Blue Blood Moon' Lunar Eclipse ( 90

Stephanie Pappas reports via Live Science how you can watch Wednesday's "Super Blue Blood Moon" eclipse: The eclipse will occur in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, Jan. 31, when the full moon will pass through the Earth's shadow. Viewers on Earth will see the face of the moon turn a murky red. On the West Coast, totality (the full shading of the moon) will occur at 4:51 a.m. PST until 6:08 a.m. PST. Before that, the moon will enter the outer portion of the Earth's shadow, or penumbra, at 2:51 a.m. PST. The real show will become visible starting at 3:48 a.m. PST, when the moon will be entering the umbra, or central portion of Earth's shadow, and a dark shadow will move over the face of the moon. The moon will leave the umbra at 7:11 a.m. PST. East Coasters can catch the partial lunar eclipse before dawn, but they will miss totality because the moon will have set below the horizon by 7:06 a.m. EST. To see the shadow of the Earth become visible on the moon's face, look up at 6:31 a.m. EST; by 6:48 a.m. EST, the moon will be entering the umbra, or central portion of the shadow, which should make the color change more apparent.

For viewers in the Central and Mountain time zones, the moon will set either during the total eclipse or while the satellite is exiting the Earth's shadow. The moon enters the dark umbra at about 5:48 a.m. CST and will hit totality slightly before moonset, at 6:51 a.m. CST. The umbra will appear at 4:48 a.m. MST, and the moon will enter totality at 5:51 a.m. MST. Viewers in the Mountain time zone will also get the chance to see the middle of totality, when the moon is up to 100,000 times fainter than usual, at 6:29 a.m. The eclipse will end slightly before moonset, at 7:07 a.m. MST. Viewers in Alaska and Hawaii will get a full dose of totality, too, but they'll have to be very early birds or night owls. Totality begins at 3:51 a.m. AKST and ends at 5:05 a.m. AKST. Totality hits at 2:51 a.m. HST and will be over by 4:05 a.m. HST.


Rocket Lab Criticized For Launching Their Own Private 'Star' Into Orbit ( 265

Newsweek reports: A private satellite company launched a three-foot-wide, carbon-fiber orb called the Humanity Star into the sky last week. Rocket Lab has promised the Humanity Star will be "the brightest thing in the sky," presumably other than the sun. The orb will reflect light from the sun back to Earth to achieve this effect. It's expected to orbit the Earth once every 90 minutes for the next nine months before it falls out of the sky and burns up in the atmosphere. The reaction on social media has been largely swift and scornful...

The stated goal of the project, at least, seems admirable: "No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement on the project's website. "Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead, and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than 7 billion other people on this planet we share this ride with."

Slashdot reader dmoberhaus writes that "astronomers are annoyed by what they perceive as just another piece of space junk getting in the way."

"Wow. Intentionally bright long-term space graffiti. Thanks a lot Rocket Lab," complained an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. And one New Zealand journalist accused Rocket Lab of "vandalising the night sky with shiny space rubbish."

Scientists Discover the Oldest Human Fossils Outside Africa ( 107

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered the oldest fossil of a modern human outside Africa, suggesting that humans first migrated out of the content much earlier than previously believed. NPR reports: The scientists were digging in a cave called Misliya, on the slopes of Mount Carmel on the northern coast of Israel. "The cave is one of a series of prehistoric caves," says Mina Weinstein-Evron of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, who led the team. "It's a collapsed cave, but people lived there before it collapsed." The cave had been occupied for several hundred thousand years, she says. All the archaeological evidence suggested that the ancient people who lived in the cave were hunter-gatherers. "They were hunting animals, mainly ungulates, like fallow dear, gazelle, aurochs [an extinct species of wild cattle] and other small animals," says Weinstein-Evron. "They built fireplaces throughout the length of the cave, again and again, in the same place, in the same sort of defined arrangement."

Weinstein-Evron says she and her team wanted to find out which species of ancient humans lived in the cave. So, she says, they kept digging. "And among the animal bones and flint tools we found a jawbone, an upper jawbone of an individual," she says. A detailed analysis of the jawbone and the teeth confirmed that it indeed belonged to someone of our species, Homo sapiens. And when they dated the fossil, it turned out to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years old, making it the oldest known such fossil outside the African continent.


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.

Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs, 4-Year Study Finds ( 90

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: A new study based on four years of diving on 159 reefs in the Pacific shows that reefs in four countries -- Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar -- are heavily contaminated with plastic. It clings to the coral, especially branching coral. And where it clings, it sickens or kills. "The likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic," researchers report in the journal Science. Study leader Drew Harvell at Cornell University says the plastic could be harming coral in at least two ways. First, bacteria and other harmful microorganisms are abundant in the water and on corals; when the coral is abraded, that might invite pathogens into the coral. In addition, Harvell says, plastic can block sunlight from reaching coral. Based on how much plastic the researchers found while diving, they estimate that over 11 billion plastic items could be entangled in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, home to over half the world's coral reefs. And their survey did not include China, one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution.

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.

1.7-Billion-Year-Old Chunk of North America Found Sticking To Australia ( 122

walterbyrd shares a report from Live Science: Geologists matching rocks from opposite sides of the globe have found that part of Australia was once attached to North America 1.7 billion years ago. Researchers from Curtin University in Australia examined rocks from the Georgetown region of northern Queensland. The rocks -- sandstone sedimentary rocks that formed in a shallow sea -- had signatures that were unknown in Australia but strongly resembled rocks that can be seen in present-day Canada. The researchers, who described their findings online Jan. 17 in the journal Geology, concluded that the Georgetown area broke away from North America 1.7 billion years ago. Then, 100 million years later, this landmass collided with what is now northern Australia, at the Mount Isa region.

"This was a critical part of global continental reorganization when almost all continents on Earth assembled to form the supercontinent called Nuna," Adam Nordsvan, Curtin University doctoral student and lead author of the study, said in a statement. Nordsvan added that Nuna then broke apart some 300 million years later, with the Georgetown area stuck to Australia as the North American landmass drifted away.


Half-Assed Solar Geoengineering Is Worse Than Climate Change Itself ( 164

New submitter beccaf writes: Ecologists and climate scientists investigated the consequences of rapid initiation of solar geoengineering (pumping sulfuric aerosols into the atmosphere) in 2020 and then rapid termination of this solar geoengineering fifty years later. It provides only short-term benefits to biodiversity, and, if stopped abruptly, temperatures will soar faster than they would with climate change alone and the consequences to all living things will be even worse than if humans had never interfered in Earth's natural processes at all. The study has been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Rebecca Flowers via Motherboard summarizes the effects of solar geoengineering, according to research conducted by Christopher Trisos, an ecologist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, and his colleagues: "Initially, organisms stop having to change habitats in response to rising temperatures. Highly mobile species that had already moved, like migratory birds, might return to their original ecosystems, and species that were too slow to move before, like corals, have a higher chance of survival than they did before the geoengineering project began. After mere decades, though, living things in highly biodiverse areas like the Amazon Basin have to start moving again, as much as they would have to in a non-geoengineering scenario."

"Suddenly, it's 2070," Flowers continues. "Governments begin to disagree on how to handle climate change, and, besides, they can no longer afford to pump aerosols into the atmosphere. As a result, we stop pumping aerosols into the atmosphere. Then things really go to hell. The amount of warming that would have happened without geoengineering over fifty years is essentially squished into a decade..."

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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