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Incredible time-lapse video from the International Space Station

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It took Phileas Fogg 80 days to circumnavigate the world but, thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now possible to do it in just a minute.

This whirlwind video tour of the planet is a compilation of time-lapse images shot from the International Space Station (ISS).

James Drake spliced together the images from the ISS, which travels at about 220 miles above the surface, to create the one-minute footage which he posted online – and it has become an internet sensation.

Science teacher Mr Drake used some 600 free-to-access images on the website The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, and knitted them together so everyone can enjoy the amazing view of North and South America.

The Earth is shown at night - and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere - a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere

The Earth is shown at night – and the yellow flashes here show the ionosphere – a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere.

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video

The science teacher, James Drake, stitched together over 600 images to create the amazing video.

The film, which was uploaded on September 15 and has attracted almost 50,000 hits on YouTube, starts over the Pacific Ocean and then moves over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica.

Some cities and landmarks can be spied, and they include, in chronological order, Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, various large conurbations in Texas, New Mexico, Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Further around lightning can be seen in the Pacific Ocean, before other countries included in the video are Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon.

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth

The sun is shown rising in the incredible pictures taken from the ISS, which takes 91 minutes to orbit the Earth.

Some 600 images were used to make the one-minute video

In addition, the Earth’s ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy can be made out in the fascinating footage.

The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, where Mr Drake downloaded the pictures from, has been storing over a million images from space, beginning with the Mercury missions in the early 1960s.

The website’s blurb reads: ‘Our database tracks the locations, supporting data, and digital images for these photographs.

‘We process images coming down from the International Space Station on a daily basis and add them to the 1,118,120 views of the Earth already made accessible on our website.’

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts

The ISS has been manned for almost 11 years, and images of the Earth are regularly beamed back by their astronauts.

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew

The ISS is currently on Expedition 29, and the astronauts will be on the space station until mid-November, when they will be replaced by another crew.

The ISS, a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit, follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and MIR space stations, as the 11th space station launched into orbit by humanity.

It serves as a research laboratory that has microgravity environment in which crews conduct experiments in many fields including biology, human biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology.

The station has a unique environment for the testing of the spacecraft systems that will be required for missions to the Moon and Mars.

The station is expected to remain in operation until at least 2020, and potentially to 2028, when some Russian modules will be separated to form the OPSEK space station.

And the European Space Agency estimate that the cost of the station will be €100 billion over 30 years.

On November 2 last year the ISS marked its 10th anniversary of continuous human occupation, and it was launched almost 11 years ago, on October 31, 2000.

At the time of the anniversary, the station’s odometer read more than 1.5 billion statute miles (the equivalent of eight round trips to the Sun), over the course of 57,361 orbits around the Earth.

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean

Flashes of lightening can be shown over the Pacific Ocean.

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth's surface

The South American coast can be seen from the space station which travels at about 220 miles from the Earth’s surface.

The 29th expedition crew settled in to their new home for the next couple of months last week, with Mike Fossum commanding and being aided by Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov.

They will be up there, travelling about 17,000mph – meaning it takes about 91 minutes to orbit the Earth – until mid-November.

The Expedition 29 crew which will continue to support research into the effects of microgravity on the human body, biology, physics and materials.

The trio took over from Expedition 28 last week, and Commander Andrey Borisenko and Flight Engineers Alexander Samokutyaev and Ron Garan – who had spent 164 days in space – landed their Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft in Kazakhstan a few seconds before midnight on Friday.

The space station and its large solar arrays is the size equivalent of an American football field – including the end zones – and weighs 861,804 pounds (390,908 kilograms), not including visiting vehicles.

The complex now has more liveable room than a conventional five-bedroom house, and has two bathrooms, a gymnasium and a 360-degree bay window.

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation

The International Space year celebrated a decade of human occupation.

ISS IN NUMBERS

1.5bn: The number of statute miles the ISS managed in a decade (November 2, 2010)

57,361: Orbits around the Earth managed in the same time period

136: Number of launches to the ISS – up to September 2011 – since the launch of the first module, Zarya on November 1998

161: Total number of space walks performed from the ISS – over 1,015 hours

861,804: Pounds it weighs (390,908 kilograms)

2.3m: Number of lines of computer code used

17,239.2: Average speed – in miles per hour

91 minutes: Time it takes to orbit the Earth

€100bn: The estimated cost of the station over a 30-year period, by ESA

 

Via DailyMail

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 3:29 am

U.S. military drones that are so small they even look like insects

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They look like children’s toys that are left discarded in wardrobes around the world.

But these innocent-looking devices are actually some of the most sophisticated drones on the planet.

The U.S. Air Force is developing the miniature spy craft with the goal of making them so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military's goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military’s goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Some even have moving wings that military chiefs hope will look so convincing that people won’t pay them any attention.

The Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are being developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The base’s Air Force Research Laboratory mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

The engineers, led by Dr Gregory Parker, are using a variety of small helicopters and drones in the lab to develop the programs and software.

Testing takes place in a controlled indoor environment, during which data is gathered to analyse for further development.

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

You'll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone

You’ll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone.

The trials are the latest research into tiny drones funded by the U.S. military.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent years developing a whole host of cyborg critters, in the hopes of creating the ultimate ‘fly on the wall’.

Two years ago, researchers revealed that they had created cyborg beetles that can be guided wirelessly via a laptop.

Using implants, they worked out how to control a beetle’s take-off, flight and landing by stimulating the brain to work the wings.

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment.

They controlled turns through stimulating the basilar muscles on one side or the other to make the wings on that side flap harder.

The embedded system uses nerve and muscle stimulators, a microbattery and a microcontroller with transceiver.

They were implanted in the beetles when they were at the pupal stage.

Three types of large beetles from Cameroon were used in the experiments at the University of California in Berkeley. The smallest was 2cm long, while the largest was 20cm.

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab.

Via DailyMail

Space junk solution in the works

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A next-generation space surveillance system will rely on high-resolution radar and high-performance computing.

The space-junk alerts that have been sounded on the International Space Station over the past couple of weeks highlight the need for the “Space Fence,” a next-generation system for tracking orbital debris that’s due to begin operation in 2015.

One of the alerts, on June 28, came so late that the station didn’t have time to get out of the way. The six astronauts living aboard the orbital outpost had to take shelter in Russian Soyuz lifeboats while debris of unknown origin zoomed past at a distance of just 850 feet (260 meters).

The other alert came Sunday, just as the space shuttle Atlantis was beginning its last visit to the space station. Initially, mission managers worried that the station-shuttle complex would have to be moved out of the way of some Soviet-era satellite debris, but today they said the junk would pass by harmlessly at aNA distance of 11 miles (18 kilometers).

The first case in particular demonstrates why debris-trackers need to know more about what’s out there, said Doug Burgess, manager for space situational awareness programs at Raytheon.

“They only had 15 hours to make a decision about whether to maneuver or not, and clearly human life was at stake,” Burgess told me today. “If the capability that Space Fence brings to bear were available, they would have had a much longer lead time.”

Today, orbital-debris trackers at NASA and the U.S. Strategic Command can keep track of only the tip of the iceberg: About 20,000 pieces of space junk have been cataloged, but experts estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 objects larger than a centimeter (half an inch) are in Earth orbit. At orbital speeds of up to 17,500 mph, even an inch-wide piece of debris could destroy a satellite or damage the space station if it struck in the wrong place.

 

Lockheed Martin video explains the concept behind the Space Fence.

“This issue has always been on the minds of people who are trying to use space for all the things that it’s used for today. … We really are heavily reliant on space,” John Morse, director of Lockheed Martin’s Space Fence Program, told Discovery News.

More satellites in orbit tend to breed more space junk, as illustrated by the 2009 collision of a defunct Russian weather satellite and an Iridium telecom satellite, which left thousands of additional pieces of debris in orbit. “The situation is only going to get worse in time,” Burgess said.

That’s where the $3.5 billion Space Fence comes in. The existing radar tracking system, known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, uses VHF and UHF frequency bands to track orbital debris, but those wavelengths are too wide to catch the small stuff. The new system will be far more sensitive because it’ll operate in finer-resolution S-band wavelengths.

“It’s an order-of-magnitude improvement,” Burgess said.

But that’s just the start: The next-generation Space Fence will also rely on high-performance computing to identify and keep track of orbital paths for what’s likely to be hundreds of thousands of bits of orbiting junk. That should provide better “predict-ahead ability,” Burgess said. Right now, NASA’s rules call for the space station’s crew to take evasive action — or prepare to abandon ship — if a piece of debris is projected to fly within an imaginary “pizza box” that’s about 15 miles (25 kilometers) on each side and a half-mile (0.75 kilometers) above and below the station. The Space Fence would reduce the margin of error.

“Things like the pizza box get smaller, your uncertainty gets smaller, your ability to predict orbital tracks in advance becomes greater,” Burgess said.

 

Raytheon video focuses on the company’s experience with radar technology.

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are in competition for the Space Fence contract, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided each company with a $107 milllion, 18-month design contract. The designs are to get a preliminary review next February, with the contract awarded a year from now. The first of three planned globe-girdling radar installations is to be in operation in 2015, and the Space Fence should be fully operational in 2020. The favored sites for the installations are in Australia, the Marshall Islands and Ascension Island.

$3.5 billion may sound like a lot to pay for an invisible fence. But when you consider that the space station alone is a $100 billion-plus investment that needs to last until at least 2020 … well, it just seems to me that they can’t build that fence fast enough.

 

Via MSNBC

China building an army of unmanned military drones ‘to rival the U.S.’

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America’s success with unmanned military drones has sparked a ‘global rush’ for weaponised and surveillance aircrafts, according to a new report.

Over 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones or started their own development programmes to step up military capacity in recent years.

And experts say China, having only unveiled its first drone at an air show five years ago, is on the fast track to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that rival U.S. technology.

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November.

Experts told the Washington Post America’s ‘cheap weapons, reconnaissance abilities, and ease of use, could make drones the standard for many application.’

The recent spike, they say, is ‘because no nation is exporting weaponised drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.’ And China is seeking to take a piece of the market.

Twenty five UAVs were unveiled the Zhuhai air show in southern China last November, designed and produced by China’s ASN Technology Group, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).

At the show, a crowd gathered around an armed, jet-propelled drone called the WJ-600, where a video demonstrated the aircraft locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan.

The drone is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Other models were designed to fire missiles, and one, powered by a jet engine, has the capability to fly faster than the Predator and Reaper drones the U.S. has used on missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the report.

Cheaper alternative: America's Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet's $150million price tag

Cheaper alternative: America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

It was a record number for the country, which until recently, had not extended its military capacity to include UAVs.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that while military and aviation experts said China’s drones are presumed to be several years behind the U.S., the country is on the fast track to catching up.

Retired Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Air Force, told the Washington Post: ‘We are well ahead in having established systems actively in use. But the capability of other countries will do nothing but grow.’

The industry is expected to boom over the next decade; according to a 2011 market study by the Teal Group in Fairfax, global spending on drones will double to $94billion by 2021.

Much of China’s progress remains secret.

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show.

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Exhibitors of the 25 UAVs did not disclose which aircrafts were fully operational.

However, the Wall Street Journal confirmed at least two propeller-powered UAVs had been deployed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army, told the Washington Post: ‘The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.’

U.S. anxiety about China’s UAVs was highlighted in a report released last November by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reported the Journal.

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target.

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan.

‘The PLA Air Force has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes,’ the report read.

It cited the Pentagon, continuing: ‘In addition, China is developing a variety of medium and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed will expand the PLA Air Force’s options for long-range reconnaissance and strikes.’

And other countries are following the lead; around the world UAVs are being seen as cheap and effective alternative to manned aircraft. America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

According to the Washington Post, Israel trails the U.S. as the second-largest drone manufacturer, and has flown armed models; India also announced this year it is developing armed drones that will fly at 30,000ft.

Russia has shown models of drones with weapons, but it is unknown if they are fully operational; and Pakistan has said it plans to obtain armed drones from China, according to the report.

Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University who studies the legal questions surrounding the use of drones in warfare, said: ‘This is the direction all aviation is going. Everybody will wind up using this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many applications of what are now manned aircraft.’

 

 

Via DailyMail

Sci-fi master turns into film character

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The latest movie based on Philip K. Dick’s offbeat science-fiction stories features one especially offbeat character … named Philip K. Dick.

“Radio Free Albemuth,” an indie film that is getting a sneak-preview screening tonight at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, incorporates some of the wilder parts of Dick’s biography — including his belief that he was getting information from a superintelligent, extraterrestrial entity called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

“Dick was very skeptical of these experiences,” John Alan Simon, the screenwriter, director and producer for “Radio Free Albemuth,” told me this week. “Some people think he was crazy. But if he was, he was a very lucid, skeptical kind of crazy.”

Simon will participate in a Q&A at the Seattle screening, which kicks off a weekend celebration for new inductees in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Dick, who passed away in 1982, is already in that Hall of Fame — in part because his works have been such a fertile ground for sci-fi film adaptations such as “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” ” A Scanner Darkly” and “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Unlike those tales, “Radio Free Albemuth” is set in an alternate-reality past rather than the future: a past in which a Nixon-like president burns the Watergate tapes and creates a conspiracy theory aimed at keeping him in office. Meanwhile, VALIS transmits messages down to a resistance movement. Philip K. Dick (played by Shea Whigham in the movie) is among those who are drawn into the resistance, along with the story’s protagonist (Nicholas Brady, played by Jonathan Scarfe) and a singer whose songs are encoded with subliminal messages.

The singer’s role is filled by Alanis Morissette, the Canadian-American singer/actress who just happened to play God in the 1999 film “Dogma.” Whigham is best-known for his role in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” while Scarfe has appeared in a number of TV series including “E.R.” and “CSI: Miami.” Most of the actors have had meaty roles in films and on TV, but Simon said “Radio Free Albemuth” is more about Dick’s vision rather than about big-name movie stars.

“The movie asks a lot of very, very interesting questions about ‘What is religion,’ and ‘What is God,’ and ‘What do you do if God begins sending messages to you?'” he told me. “What if God were an alien, and what if all the great religious movements of all time were inspired by the same over-intelligence in the universe? I found that a very intriguing notion. … The movie is skeptical of answers, the same way Philip K. Dick was skeptical of religion.”

Another theme in the film is sparked by the conflict between the government and the resistance. “It’s the message of ‘1984,’ the message of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’ which is the importance of the individual over the supremacy of the state,” Simon said. “That’s a timeless message.”

But the director also emphasized that the film wasn’t just a philosophical treatise. “It is, at the end of the day, an exciting science-fiction thriller. … not that dissimilar from ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” Simon said.

“Radio Free Albemuth” has been making its way through the film-festival circuit, and so far it’s gotten awards as well as accolades for staying true to the spirit of Dick’s work, even if that means the movie gets a little talky at times.

“While watching ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ has made me wonder whether stage or radio may be a better platform for a Dick adaptation, I came away from the film with that unique Dickian sense of unease, insignificance and wonder, and it’s good to see his work reproduced so faithfully on the big screen, flawed or not,”Quiet Earth’s” Ben Austwick wrote.

Simon said he hopes “Radio Free Albemuth” will build on the same sort of grass-roots interest that turned “What the Bleep Do We Know” into such a phenomenon seven years ago.

The movie seems certain to win over the sci-fi master’s hard-core fans, who call themselves “Dick-heads.” But will the wider public dial in to “Radio Free Albemuth” as well? Stay tuned. …

 

Via MSNBC

Cassini finally catches Helene

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The Cassini team has had a wretched time trying to get pictures of Helene in the past, but their streak of bad luck is over. Helene is one of the four “co-orbital” moons in the Saturn system, which occupy meta-stable spots in the leading and trailing Lagrangian points on the orbits of Tethys and Dione.

It’s the biggest of the four, but that’s not saying much; it’s only about 36 by 32 by 30 kilometers across, so it’s in the same general size range as Phobos.

It’s proven challenging to predict where it’s going to be with enough accuracy to make sure Cassini can capture it in its camera field of view, with the result that nearly every imaging sequence that Cassini has been commanded to take of Helene has seen the moon wander out of the field of view at one time or another.
Well, Cassini has finally achieved gorgeous global imaging of Helene with a spectacular flyby on Saturday, in which they absolutely nailed the spacecraft’s pointing and got Helene to pose prettily for the camera from beginning to end of the encounter. And what a wacky, wacky world Cassini has revealed Helene to be!!

Helene in enhanced color

Helene in enhanced color
Cassini flew within 7,000 kilometers of Helene, Dione’s leading co-orbital satellite, on June 18, 2011. The Saturn-facing hemisphere of the moon is covered with strange gully-like features that probably represent slides of dry material into local topographic lows. Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / color composite by Gordan Ugarkovic

We saw these gullies on the previous close flyby but this is a much better view. There are two things that are very strange about these gullies. One is to see them at all. Features like this, if seen on Earth or even Mars, would be assumed to have something to do with water, but there is no possibility of liquid water on Helene (though it is likely made mostly of rock-hard water ice). These gullies must form by a dry process in which material — likely very powdery dusty stuff — cascades toward local topographic lows.

The other thing that is very strange is the strong difference in color between the higher-standing stuff and the smooth gully slide areas in between them. Others of Saturn’s moons have some color variations across their surfaces, but really I don’t know of one other than Iapetus where there are such sharp boundaries between one color of material and another. The color differences are most obvious on the right side of the image, where the Sun hits Helene directly and there aren’t many cast shadows; color differences fade as you get toward the lower and lower light near the terminator at the left side of the image. Those color differences are what make this movie version of the flyby images appear to “beat” — every time an image is shot through a short-wavelength ultraviolet filter, the inter-gully ridge areas darken substantially.

 

Cassini’s June 2011 Helene flyby (bounces 3 times)
Cassini got its best-ever view of Saturn’s moon Helene on June 18, 2011, when it approached to within 7,000 kilometers. Helene is a co-orbital moon of Dione. The sunlit face is mostly the side of the moon that always faces Saturn, and is covered with strange gully-like features. The animation “bounces” back and forth to help the viewer see the 3D shape of Helene.

The surface appears to “beat” with contrast changes because Cassini was cycling through different filters to take the images. In short-wavelength filters, the areas between gullies are darker than the smooth gully floors, while there is less contrast between them in the longer-wavelength filters.

To generate this animation, I aligned the frames and rotated them 180 degrees to place north up. Then I used the Photoshop “dust and scratches” filter to remove most of the cosmic ray hits. This also removed a bit of detail from gully areas, unfortunately, but it saved me a lot of time and effort. I cleaned up the worst remaining cosmic ray hits using the clone tool. I adjusted the contrast to push black space to completely black and to bring out some more detail in shadowed areas.

As you watch the animation, try focusing on different areas. Like the massive crater in the north that is partially illuminated in the opening of the animation. Or the faceted shape of the moon, which suddenly brings a huge sunlit face into view. Also try to see if you can see the shadows move across Helene’s face as it rotates; most of the apparent motion is due to Cassini’s motion, but some is Helene rotating on its axis.

Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / animation by Emily Lakdawalla

There are a couple of dozen little tiny bowl-shaped impact craters scattered across the image, and there are eroded features that are almost certainly older, larger impact craters, but really there are not very many craters considering Helene’s location in the shooting gallery of the Saturn system, so whatever process makes these gullies has also very likely been active recently and has wiped away past smaller craters. This inference becomes even more interesting when you look at the opposite face of Helene, the one that faces out from Saturn, which is heavily cratered as you might expect. Ian Regan put together a really nice comparison of Cassini’s various views of Helene’s two faces:

Cassini's views of Helene through March 2010

 

Cassini’s views of Helene through March 2010
Ian Regan composed this montage of Cassini’s highest resolution views of Dione’s co-orbital moon Helene to attempt to make sense of the positions of its features. The small moon appears very different seen from different angles and under different lighting conditions. The view from the June 18, 2011 flyby is quite similar to the geometry of the Saturnlit view from March 3, 2010 on the lower left of this mini-atlas. Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Ian Regan

Why are Helene’s two sides so different? It’s just one of many mysteries that Cassini’s science team still has to solve.

 

Via Planetary

IBM thinks about the next 100 years

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A hundred years from now, will we be assimilated by the machines? Or will we assimilate them? These are the kinds of issues facing International Business Machines as the company begins its second 100 years.

Right now, most folks are thinking about the past 100 years at IBM, which is celebrating the centennial of its founding on Thursday. But for Bernard Meyerson, the company’s vice president of innovation, it’s all about the next century.

“That’s pretty much what we think about,” Meyerson told me today.

Meyerson has plenty to look back on, including his own not-so-small part in IBM’s past innovations. When his cell phone dropped the connection during our telephone conversation, he called back and casually mentioned that he had a hand in creating the transistors built into that cell phone. And when I asked him to explain, he said, “I actually invented the technology known as silicon-germanium.”

It turns out that IBM has played a behind-the-scenes role in all sorts of technologies, ranging from semiconductor development to barcodes to Wi-Fi. “IBM is a funny company,” Meyerson said. “We don’t force you to put a little sticker on anything that says, ‘We’re the smart guys.'”

But enough about the past: What about the future? “Going forward, you have tremendous opportunities,” particularly when it comes to making sense of the huge databases that are being built up in all sorts of fields, Meyerson said. For example, imagine a system that can take medical records from the 285 million people around the world with diabetes, anonymize those records and analyze them, looking for potential new treatments or preventive measures.

“The fact is, there is no mechanism today that could do that, and the reason is that medical data is unstructured,” he said. There’s little consistency in how the records are kept, and medical conditions might be described in different ways by different doctors.

When you put together the volumes of data and the numbers of people that have to be covered in these massive, unstructured data sets, the figures mount up to quintillions of bytes. That’s the challenge facing new types of computing tools — for example, the Watson supercomputer, which won a highly publicized “Jeopardy” quiz-show match earlier this year. Now Watson is being put to work on a tougher task: making sense of medical records, which is just the kind of job Meyerson has in mind.

Still other challenges await. Watson-style computers could digest the millions of data points involved in tracking the flow of highway traffic, then develop models to predict where the tie-ups could arise before they actually happen. The computers of the next century will have to handle a wide range of “big data” challenges, ranging from climate modeling to natural-language search engines for multimedia.

Meyerson doesn’t expect Watson to answer that challenge completely. A hundred years from now, Watson will almost certainly be considered a quaint antique, much like the tabulating machines that were made back in 1911.

“Watson specifically is not the issue, as much as the combination of Watson’s ability to interpret natural language, the capacity to store ‘big data’ and apply data analytics to come up with solutions for society,” he said. “In the absence of natural language, you’re going to have a short, unhappy life attempting this work. Without that key ingredient, how are you going to take the interaction of humans and machines to the next level and make it easy?”

What will the next level be in the year 2111? “Honestly, at 100 years I’m genuinely unsure,” Meyerson said. The past century has shown that the pace of technological advancement can be highly variable, depending on what kinds of breakthroughs come to the fore. But if Meyerson had to bet on one particular game-changing technology, it would be coming up with a direct interface between computing circuits and the human brain.

“If it turns out that there is a very natural way to communicate data back and forth without being obtrusive, then the whole world changes,” he told me. This wouldn’t be a Borg-like assimilation, in which humans look increasingly like machines. Rather, the machines would blend into the human body.

Does that sound like a grand dream for the next century? Or a nightmare? Feel free to chime in with your comments below.

 

 

Via MSNBC

Eclipse? Meh. Catch a shooting star

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As astronomy fans geek out over today’s lunar eclipse that’s not even visible from North America (except on the Internet), now is the time to step outside and catch a shooting star, part of the June Lyrids.

This video courtesy of astro-photographer John Chumack shows us what the shower looked like Tuesday night from Ohio. Peak activity occurs tonight, June 15, with a maximum rate of around 8 meteors per hour.

Although the full moon will make viewing a bit difficult, it is still a chance to step outside and stargaze. To see the meteors, look for the radiant near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra.

The June Lyrids are the lesser of the two Lyrid showers. A better display occurs in April, which peaks with between 15 and 20 meteors per hour on April 22.

 

Via MSNBC

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Approaches Protoplanet Vesta

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NASA’s Dawn mission to the doughnut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which launched in September 2007, is now approaching Vesta, a protoplanet that is currently some 143 million miles from Earth. Many surprises are likely awaiting the spacecraft.

“We often refer to Vesta as the smallest terrestrial planet,” said Christopher T. Russell, a UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics and the mission’s principal investigator. “It has planetary features and basically the same structure as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. But because it is so small, it does not have enough gravity to retain an atmosphere, or at least not to retain an atmosphere for very long.

“There are many mysteries about Vesta,” Russell said. “One of them is why Vesta is so bright. Earth reflects a lot of sunlight — about 40 percent — because it has clouds and snow on the surface, while the moon reflects only about 10 percent of the light from the sun back. Vesta is more like Earth. Why? What on its surface is causing all that sunlight to be reflected? We’ll find out.”

Dawn will map Vesta’s surface, which Russell says may be similar to the moon’s. He says he expects that the body’s interior is layered, with a crust, a mantle and an iron core. He is eager to learn about this interior and how large the iron core is.

Named for the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta has been bombarded by meteorites for 4.5 billion years.

“We expect to see a lot of craters,” Russell said. “We know there is an enormous crater at the south pole that we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope. That crater, some 280 miles across, has released material into the asteroid belt. Small bits of Vesta are floating around and make their way all the way to the orbit of Earth and fall in our atmosphere. About one in every 20 meteorites that falls on the surface of Earth comes from Vesta. That has enabled us to learn a lot about Vesta before we even get there.”

Dawn will arrive at Vesta in July. Beginning in September, the spacecraft will orbit Vesta some 400 miles from its surface. It will then move closer, to about 125 miles from the surface, starting in November. By January of 2012, Russell expects high-resolution images and other data about surface composition. Dawn is arriving ahead of schedule and is expected to orbit Vesta for a year.

“It’s been a long trip,” said Russell, who started planning the journey back in 1992. “Finally, the moment of truth is about to arrive.”

Vesta, which orbits the sun every 3.6 terrestrial years, has an oval, pumpkin-like shape and an average diameter of approximately 330 miles. Studies of meteorites found on Earth that are believed to have come from Vesta suggest that Vesta formed from galactic dust during the solar system’s first 3 million to 10 million years.

Dawn’s cameras should be able to see individual lava flows and craters tens of feet across on Vesta’s surface.

“We will scurry around when the data come in, trying to make maps of the surface and learning its exact shape and size,” Russell said.

Dawn has a high-quality camera, along with a back-up; a visible and near-infrared spectrometer that will identify minerals on the surface; and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer that will reveal the abundance of elements such as iron and hydrogen, possibly from water, in the soil. Dawn will also probe Vesta’s gravity with radio signals.

The study of Vesta, however, is only half of Dawn’s mission. The spacecraft will also conduct a detailed study of the structure and composition of the “dwarf planet” Ceres. Vesta and Ceres are the most massive objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn’s goals include determining the shape, size, composition, internal structure, and the tectonic and thermal evolution of both objects, and the mission is expected to reveal the conditions under which each of them formed.

Dawn, only the second scientific mission to be powered by an advanced NASA technology known as ion propulsion, is also the first NASA mission to orbit two major objects.

“Twice the bang for the buck on this mission,” said Russell, who added that without ion propulsion, Dawn would have cost three times as much.

Unlike chemical rocket engines, ion engines accelerate their fuel nearly continuously, giving each ion a tremendous burst of speed. The fuel used by an ion engine is xenon, a gas that is also used in photo-flash units and which is more than four times heavier than air. Xenon ions shoot out the back of the engine at a speed of 90,000 miles per hour.

UCLA graduate and postdoctoral students work with Russell on the mission. Now is an excellent opportunity for graduate students to join the project and help analyze the data, said Russell, who teaches planetary science to UCLA undergraduates and solar and space physics to undergraduates and graduate students.

After orbiting Vesta, Dawn will leave for its three-year journey to Ceres, which could harbor substantial water or ice beneath its rock crust — and possibly life. On the way to Ceres, Dawn may visit another object. The spacecraft will rendezvous with Ceres and begin orbiting in 2015, conducting studies and observations for at least five months.

Russell believes that Ceres and Vesta, formed almost 4.6 billion years ago, have preserved their early record, which was frozen into their ancient surfaces.

“We’re going back in time to the early solar system,” he said.

The Dawn mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Team members include scientists from JPL, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Planetary Science Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions.

Scientific partners include the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg, Germany; the DLR Institute for Planetary Research in Berlin; the Freie Universitaet in Berlin; the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome; and the Italian Space Agency.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft.

UCLA is in charge of Dawn’s science and public outreach. Russell leads the science team; he and his colleagues make science decisions through the science center at UCLA’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. His science team has the lead role in analyzing and interpreting the data from Dawn.

Dawn is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in which scientists find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of our solar system by answering some of humanity’s oldest questions.

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/dawn and http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

 

 

The team behind NASA’s Dawn probe has released a video showing the asteroid Vesta spinning in space with a mysterious shadowy spot on its surface. It’s really just the beginning of a weeks-long stream of images climaxing with Dawn’s rendezvous with Vesta next month.

 

Via ScienceDaily

 

 

 

 

Epic Solar Flare Pops Sun’s Magnetic Cork

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In the early hours of Tuesday morning, our nearest star put on a show that won’t be forgotten for a long, long time. Under the ever-watchful eyes of an armada of solar observatories, the sun unleashed an M2-class solar flare.

Keep in mind that an M2 flare, although powerful, is still only classed as a “medium” explosion. But there was nothing medium about this event.

Erupting from an active region of sunspots (sunspot complex 1226-1227) — where highly stressed and concentrated magnetic fields are forced through the solar surface (the “photosphere”), pushing the hot plasma aside, exposing the cooler plasma below the surface — the flare ejected a huge coronal mass ejection (CME).

A surprisingly large quantity of plasma didn’t escape the gravitational pull of the sun, however, and was dragged back down as a vast cloud of cooler plasma, resembling the foaming, bubbly mess after popping a champagne cork.

The veil of darker plasma (it appears darker as it’s cooler — at a temperature of around 80,000 K, compared with the surrounding million degree coronal plasma) expanded and appeared to cover half the sun’s disk before being funneled along the powerful magnetic field lines, raining back into the photosphere. There even appeared to be sparks of sudden plasma heating as the huge blobs of gas impacted the dense plasma at the surface.

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“I’ve never seen material released like this before,” C. Alex Young, solar physicist of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, exclaims in the video depicting the event.

“It looks like somebody just kicked a giant clod of dirt up into the air.”

The plasma that did escape the sun’s gravity in the form of a CME is now racing through space at a breakneck speed of 1,100 kilometers per second (that’s 2,448,000 miles per hour!). A rough calculation reveals the CME will reach the orbital distance of Earth in a little under 40 hours after the event and Spaceweather.com confirms that we may receive a “glancing blow,” potentially causing geomagnetic storms (resulting in aurorae) at high latitudes later on Wednesday.

There’s little cause for concern however. As dramatic at the explosion looks, it’s only predicted to cause some minor interference to communications, satellites and potentially power grids if we do get hit. NASA states that the CME’s impact is expected to be “fairly small.”

Via Discovery