A Star Grazed Our Solar System 70,000 Years Ago, Early Humans Likely Saw It ( 121

schwit1 shares a report from Some distant objects in our solar system bear the gravitational imprint of a small star's close flyby 70,000 years ago, when modern humans were already walking the Earth, a new study suggests. In 2015, a team of researchers announced that a red dwarf called Scholzs star apparently grazed the solar system 70,000 years ago, coming closer than 1 light-year to the sun. For perspective, the suns nearest stellar neighbor these days, Proxima Centauri, lies about 4.2 light-years away. The astronomers came to this conclusion by measuring the motion and velocity of Scholzs star -- which zooms through space with a smaller companion, a brown dwarf or "failed star" -- and extrapolating backward in time. Scholz's star passed by the solar system at a time when early humans and Neanderthals shared the Earth. The star likely appeared as a faint reddish light to anyone looking up at the time, researchers with the new study said. The study has been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

SpaceX Launch Last Year Punched Huge, Temporary Hole In the Ionosphere ( 72

The Falcon 9 rocket that launched last August reportedly ripped a temporary hole in the ionosphere due to its vertical launch, which Ars Technica notes as being rather unusual: Contrary to popular belief, most of the time when a rocket launches, it does not go straight up into outer space. Rather, shortly after launch, most rockets will begin to pitch over into the downrange direction, limiting gravity drag and stress on the vehicle. Often, by 80 or 100km, a rocket is traveling nearly parallel to the Earth's surface before releasing its payload into orbit. However, in August of last year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from California did not make such a pitch over maneuver. Rather, the Formosat-5 mission launched vertically and stayed that way for most of its ascent into space. The rocket could do this because the Taiwanese payload was light for the Falcon 9 rocket, weighing only 475kg and bound for an orbit 720km above the Earth's surface. As a result of this launch profile, the rocket maintained a nearly vertical trajectory all the way through much of the Earth's ionosphere, which ranges from about 60km above the planet to 1,000km up. In doing so, the Falcon 9 booster and its second stage created unique, circular shockwaves. The rocket launch also punched a temporary, 900-km-wide hole into the plasma of the ionosphere.

SpaceX Indicates It Will Manufacture the BFR Rocket In Los Angeles ( 92

A new document from the Port of Los Angeles indicates that the company is moving ahead with plans to build a "state-of-the-art" industrial manufacturing facility near Long Beach, about 20 miles south of its headquarters. It's possible that the facility may be used to manufacture the company's Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR vehicle, which is expected to measure 106 meters tall and nine meters wide. The Long Beach location makes sense since the BFR will be so large that it needs to be built near water where it can be transported. Ars Technica reports: The company seeks to use an 18-acre site at Berth 240 in the port "for the construction and operation of a facility to manufacture large commercial transportation vessels." Operations at the site would include "research and development of transportation vessels and would likely include general manufacturing procedures such as welding, composite curing, cleaning, painting, and assembly operations." Completed vessels would need to be transported by water due to their size, the document states, as a means to explain why the company needs a facility immediately adjacent to the water. The document also noted that the 10-year lease, with up to two 10-year renewals, would "accommodate recovery operations undertaken by Space Exploration Technologies to bring to shore vehicles returning from space that are retrieved by an autonomous drone ship offshore." This would be for first-stage recoveries of the Falcon 9 rocket and probably payload fairings as well.
The Almighty Buck

Did Stephen Hawking Owe a Nobel Physicist a Subscription To a Softcore Porn Magazine? ( 105

dmoberhaus writes: In 1974, Stephen Hawking made a bet with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist Kip Thorne about a black hole. The wager was a subscription to the softcore porn magazine Penthouse for Thorne or a subscription to "Private Eye" (basically the British equivalent of The Onion) for Hawking. Hawking ultimately lost the bet, but did he ever pay up? Motherboard dug around to find out if Hawking settled this infamous bet.

Motherboard's Daniel Oberhaus wasn't able to get ahold of Thorne, but did manage to track down a copy of the obscure 1997 straight-to-VHS documentary called Black Holes, which is the only evidence that the wager even happened. "In 1990, Stephen Hawking happened to be visiting Los Angeles and he broke into my office and thumb printed off on this bet," Thorne recalls in the video. Oberhaus writes: "Although the status of Cygnus X-1 was an open question in the 70s, by the 90s mounting evidence had forced Hawking to concede the wager. The bet was recorded in a handwritten note scrawled on a piece of card which is shown in the film. It read: 'Whereas Stephen Hawking has a large investment in general relativity and black holes and desires an insurance policy, and whereas Kip Thorne likes to live dangerously without an insurance policy, therefore be it resolved that Stephen Hawking bets 1 year's subscription to 'Penthouse' as against Kip Thorne's wager of a 4-year subscription to 'Private Eye,' that Cygnus X-1 does not contain a black hole of mass above the Chandrasekhar limit.' 'I had given Thorne a subscription to Penthouse, much to his wife's disgust,' a smiling Hawking says in the film."


Amazon Considers Buying Some Toys R Us Stores ( 61

According to Bloomberg, Amazon has looked at the possibility of expanding its retail footprint by acquiring some locations from bankrupt Toys R Us. "The online giant isn't interested in maintaining the Toys R Us brand, but has considered using the soon-to-be-vacant spaces for its own purposes," reports Bloomberg. From the report: Such a move would let Amazon quickly expand its brick-and-mortar presence, coming on the heels of buying Whole Foods and its more than 450 locations last year. The Seattle-based company also has opened its own line of bookstores and a convenience-store concept. Additional stores would give Amazon space to showcase its popular Echo line of devices, which run on the Alexa voice-activated platform. Amazon sees voice as the next interface for people to access technology -- supplanting computer mouses and touch screens -- and the benefits may be easier to demonstrate in a real-world setting. A bigger network of stores would put inventory closer to where shoppers live, potentially enabling quick delivery to e-commerce customers. The space could also serve as a staging ground for grocery delivery from Whole Foods stores. Amazon is already planning to roll out free two-hour service to Whole Foods customers in four cities, including Dallas and Cincinnati.

Microsoft Brings Native HEIF Support to Windows 10 ( 151

An anonymous reader shares a report: Microsoft is bringing support for the new HEIF image format to Windows 10. First popularized by Apple with iOS 11, HEIF is a new image format that uses less storage space while preserving image quality. The new image format is used by default on Apple's iPhone X and other devices running iOS 11. While Microsoft's online services like OneDrive already supported HEIF since the release of iOS 11, Windows 10 didn't natively support the new format as of yet. But with the upcoming Redstone 4 update -- possibly called the Spring Creators Update -- the Microsoft Photos app in Windows 10 will support HEIF by default. Further reading: CNET.

How Einstein Lost His Bearings, and With Them, General Relativity ( 117

Kevin Hartnett, writing for Quanta magazine: Albert Einstein released his general theory of relativity at the end of 1915. He should have finished it two years earlier. When scholars look at his notebooks from the period, they see the completed equations, minus just a detail or two. "That really should have been the final theory," said John Norton, an Einstein expert and a historian of science at the University of Pittsburgh. But Einstein made a critical last-second error that set him on an odyssey of doubt and discovery -- one that nearly cost him his greatest scientific achievement. The consequences of his decision continue to reverberate in math and physics today.

Here's the error. General relativity was meant to supplant Newtonian gravity. This meant it had to explain all the same physical phenomena Newton's equations could, plus other phenomena that Newton's equations couldn't. Yet in mid-1913, Einstein convinced himself, incorrectly, that his new theory couldn't account for scenarios where the force of gravity was weak -- scenarios that Newtonian gravity handled well. "In retrospect, this is just a bizarre mistake," said Norton. To correct this perceived flaw, Einstein thought he had to abandon what had been one of the central features of his emerging theory. Einstein's field equations -- the equations of general relativity -- describe how the shape of space-time evolves in response to the presence of matter and energy. To describe that evolution, you need to impose on space-time a coordinate system -- like lines of latitude and longitude -- that tells you which points are where.
Another interesting read on Quanta: Why Stephen Hawking's Black Hole Puzzle Keeps Puzzling.

Ghana's Windows Blackboard Teacher And His Students Have a Rewarding Outcome ( 81

Quartz: A lot has changed in the life of Richard Appiah Akoto in the fortnight since he posted photos of himself on Facebook drawing a Microsoft Word processing window on a blackboard with multi-colored chalk, to teach his students about computers -- which the school did not have. The photos went viral on social media and media stories like Quartz's went all around the world. Akoto, 33, is the information and communication technology (ICT) teacher at Betenase M/A Junior High School in the town of Sekyedomase, about two and half hours drive north of Ghana's second city, Kumasi. The school had no computers even though since 2011, 14 and 15-year-olds in Ghana are expected to write and pass a national exam (without which students cannot progress to high school) with ICT being one of the subjects.

The story of the school and Twitter pressure from prominent players in the African tech space drew a promise from Microsoft to "equip [Akoto] with a device from one of our partners, and access to our MCE program & free professional development resources on." To fulfill this promise, the technology giant flew Akoto to Singapore this week where he is participating in the annual Microsoft Education Exchange.


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 ( 51

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 ( 84

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.

Linus Torvalds Slams CTS Labs Over AMD Vulnerability Report ( 115

Earlier this week, CTS Labs, a Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity startup claimed it has discovered critical security flaws in AMD chips that could allow attackers to access sensitive data from highly guarded processors across millions of devices. Linus Torvalds, Linux's creator doesn't buy it. ZDNet reports: Torvalds, in a Google+ discussion, wrote: "When was the last time you saw a security advisory that was basically 'if you replace the BIOS or the CPU microcode with an evil version, you might have a security problem?' Yeah." Or, as a commenter put it on the same thread, "I just found a flaw in all of the hardware space. No device is secure: if you have physical access to a device, you can just pick it up and walk away. Am I a security expert yet?" CTS Labs claimed in an interview they gave AMD less than a day because they didn't think AMD could fix the problem for "many, many months, or even a year" anyway. Why would they possibly do this? For Torvalds: "It looks more like stock manipulation than a security advisory to me."

These are real bugs though. Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, a security company with a proven track-record, tweeted: "Regardless of the hype around the release, the bugs are real, accurately described in their technical report (which is not public afaik), and their exploit code works." But, Guido also admitted, "Yes, all the flaws require admin [privileges] but all are flaws, not expected functionality." It's that last part that ticks Torvalds off. The Linux creator agrees these are bugs, but all the hype annoys the heck out of him. Are there bugs? Yes. Do they matter in the real world? No. They require a system administrator to be almost criminally negligent to work. To Torvalds, inflammatory security reports are annoying distractions from getting real work done.


All Disk Galaxies Rotate Once Every Billion Years ( 89

According to a new study published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers discovered that all disk galaxies rotate about once every billion years, no matter their size or mass. Astronomy Magazine reports: To carry out the study, the researchers measured the radial velocities of neutral hydrogen in the outer disks of a plethora of galaxies -- ranging from small dwarf irregulars to massive spirals. These galaxies differed in both size and rotational velocity by up to a factor of 30. With these radial velocity measurements, the researchers were able to calculate the rotational period of their sample galaxies, which led them to conclude that the outer rims of all disk galaxies take roughly a billion years to complete one rotation. However, the researchers note that further research is required to confirm the clock-like spin rate is a universal trait of disk galaxies and not just a result of selection bias. Based on theoretical models, the researchers also expected to find only sparse populations of young stars and interstellar gas on the outskirts of these galaxies. But instead, they discovered a significant population of much older stars mingling with the young stars and gas.

A Brief History of Stephen Hawking ( 48

New Scientist: The most recognisable scientist of our age, Hawking holds an iconic status. [...] He was routinely consulted for oracular pronouncements on everything from time travel and alien life to Middle Eastern politics and nefarious robots. He had an endearing sense of humour and a daredevil attitude -- relatable human traits that, combined with his seemingly superhuman mind, made Hawking eminently marketable.

But his cultural status -- amplified by his disability and the media storm it invoked -- often overshadowed his scientific legacy. That's a shame for the man who discovered what might prove to be the key clue to the theory of everything, advanced our understanding of space and time, helped shape the course of physics for the last four decades and whose insight continues to drive progress in fundamental physics today.
The New York Times: 1970 Dr. Hawking shows that the area of a black hole's event horizon -- a spherical surface marking the point of no return -- can only increase, never decrease, as stuff falls into a black hole or it collides and merges with other black holes.
1971 He suggests that mini black holes much smaller than stars created in the Big Bang could be peppering the universe.
1974 He shocks his colleagues and the world by showing that black holes will leak and explode when quantum effects -- the weird laws that describe subatomic behavior -- are taken into account.
1976 Dr. Hawking says exploding black holes add randomness and unpredictability to the universe, forever erasing information about what might have fallen into a black hole.

Quantum physicists object, saying the universe can't forget, initiating a 40-year argument about the fate of information. Dr. Hawking concedes in 2004, but does not say how information is preserved in a black hole, and the argument continues to this day.
1982 Using a mathematical conceit called imaginary time, Dr. Hawking and James Hartle, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, propose a model of a self-contained universe that has no boundary in space or time, and thus no place or time when the laws of physics break down. [...]
Further reading: Stephen Hawking is still underrated (The Atlantic); Science mourns Stephen Hawking's death (Nature); and How it all began: a colleague reflects on the remarkable life of Stephen Hawking (Smithsonian).

UFO Disclosure Group Releases Newest Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet UFO Encounter Video ( 241

alaskana98 writes: CNN and other media outlets are reporting that the "To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science" group has released the third in a series of videos purportedly showing an encounter between Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet pilots and an object moving at seemingly impossible speeds off the East Coast of the United States. The video was captured by the Raytheon: Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod and includes audio of the pilots excitedly observing this object from far above as it zooms over the ocean surface. The ATFLIR system has trouble getting a lock on the object at first but then gets a lock on it eventually demonstrating that whatever this this was it wasn't a figment of the pilots imaginations. If the video is authentic there are indeed some strange things flying in our skies. The video can be viewed here.

Media Reports About a Massive Geomagnetic Storm Hitting Earth on March 18 Are Inaccurate, NOAA Says ( 50

Several news outlets this week are reporting that Earth is expecting a "massive magnetic storm" on March 18. Yeah, so that's not happening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Newsweek and other outlets. From a report: And they would know: Not only does NOAA help people build forecasts for weather here on Earth, they also predict space weather events like geomagnetic storms. "This story is not plausible in any way, shape or form," Bob Rutledge, who leads NOAA's Space Weather Forecast Center, told Newsweek via e-mail. "Things are all quiet for space weather, and the sun is essentially spotless." The magnetic storm's "imminent" arrival was one of Monday morning's top science news stories, according to Google News. But most coverage appeared to be based on a misinterpretation of a chart posted on Russia's Lebedev Institute's website showing a minor uptick in geomagnetic activity on the 18th. That elevated activity is expected to be a minor storm at most.

Dial P for Privacy: The Phone Booth Is Back ( 110

As mobile phone use exploded and the pay phone was increasingly linked to crime, the booth began to disappear. But things are appear to be changing. From a report: Now, the phone booth -- or at least a variation of it -- is making a modest comeback. When the women-only club and work space The Wing opened its first location in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan in October of 2016, the interior featured marble tables, pink velvet couches, and one small, windowless, reflective glass-doored room dubbed the Phone Booth. One year later, when another location of The Wing opened in Soho, eight built-in, glass-doored call rooms were included in the design. [...]

Other companies that have recently purchased Zenbooths include Volkswagen, Lyft, Meetup and Capital One. The Berkeley, Calif., company was launched in 2016, and its products range from $3,995 (for a standard one-person booth) to $15,995 (for a two-person "executive" booth). The one-person booth is a soundproof, eco-friendly, American-made box that's about 36 inches wide and 34 inches deep, with an insulated glass door, a ventilation fan, power outlets and a skylight -- and it can be assembled in roughly an hour. (It does not, however, contain an actual phone.) Sam Johnson, a co-founder of the company, said it produced "hundreds" of Zenbooths a month in 2017. This year, it's on track to quadruple that production. But he doesn't call them phone booths. "We're manufacturing quiet spaces and privacy," he said.

Zenbooth is not the only free-standing office phone booth in the game. Companies like Cubicall, Nomad, and TalkBox, among others, are offering up solutions to the modern office's privacy problem.


Elon Musk: SpaceX's Mars Rocket Could Fly Short Flights By Next Year 144

On stage at SXSW, Elon Musk issued yet another incredibly ambitious timeline. During a Q&A session on Sunday, Musk said SpaceX will be ready to fly its Mars rocket in 2019. He said: We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now, and we'll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, during the first half of next year. Further reading: Fortune.

Could This Bold New Technique Boost Gravitational-Wave Detection? ( 32

Slashdot reader astroengine writes: One of the most expensive, complex and problematic components in gravitational wave detectors like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) — which made the first, historic detection of these ripples in space-time in September 2015 — is the 4-kilometer-long vacuum chambers that house all the interferometer optics. But what if this requirement for ground-based gravitational wave detectors isn't required? This suggestion has been made by a pair of physicists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) who are developing a method that could allow extremely sensitive interferometers to operate in the "open air."

Their work, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, uses the weird quantum properties of light to counteract interference from turbulence in the air to allow interferometer measurements to be made. Their method, which is a variation on the classic Young's double-slit experiment, has been demonstrated in a tabletop experiment — but gravitational wave scientists are skeptical that it could be scaled up to remove sophisticated vacuums from their detectors.


Can Electricity Travel Through Space on Astrophysical Jets? ( 313

Slashdot reader Chris Reeve writes: An October 2017 paper titled Electric Currents along Astrophysical Jets reports that "Several researchers have reported direct evidence for large scale electric currents along astrophysical jets." A review of the citations at the end of that paper and others (here and here, for instance) would seem to suggest that one of the great Internet science debates has finally been settled: Electricity does indeed travel through space over vast cosmic distances.

What has been interesting to watch about this unexpected development is that science journalists have so far not explicitly reported this as a shift in theory, and commenters on sites like appear to deny that any change has even occurred: "The jets have been shown not to be electric currents, the energy and the physics involved are certainly not electromagnetic." This comment completely rejecting these new findings was highly rated by other readers, suggesting that the failure to explicitly report this as a change in theory has left this controversial topic in a highly confused state.

The paper summarizes what it calls "observational evidence for the existence of large scale electric currents and their associated grand design helical magnetic fields in kpc-scale astrophysical jets." And the original submitter details the history of the question in a follow-up comment arguing that at our current moment in time, "a mistaken bias against electricity in space continues to dominate conversations."

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