Category Archives: The Space Age

NASA rovers still going after 5 years

NASA is passing round the champagne and not in an attempt to say goodbye to Woolworths but instead they are celebrating because they have remained a presence on the Red Planet, Mars, for a full five years.

NASA originally sent a robot in 2004, called Spirit, to the planet which was later joined by its brother, Opportunity, 21 days later.  The robots were only expected to last for 3 months, however they have carried on operating to the astonishment of everyone at NASA.

“The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan. The twins have worked almost 20 times that long. That’s an extraordinary return of investment in these challenging budgetary times,” claimed the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Ed Weiler.

Since it’s landing, Spirit has traveled 4.7 miles and has recently been holding its own against the harsh Martian winter.  Both rovers have recorded over 36 Gigabytes of information including having taken millions of pictures.  NASA are claiming that the strong winds on Mars are a part of why the rovers have lasted so long as the winds are blowing the dust off the robots.  Still, NASA say that the rovers are in dire need of a good cleaning as the solar panels are so dirty they are hardly providing any power.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory project manager for the two robots, John Callas, said, “These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day. We realize that a major rover component on either vehicle could fail at any time and end a mission with no advance notice, but on the other hand, we could accomplish the equivalent duration of four more prime missions on each rover in the year ahead.”

Callas added that, “This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit.  We just made it through.”

The principal investigator for the robot’s science instruments, Steve Squyres, believes that the robots have discovered what could appear to be a volcanic explosion crate, which he claims has never been seen before.

Squyres highlights the aims of the missions as having a huge social impact for everyone here on Earth, by saying, “The journeys have been motivated by science, but have led to something else important. This has turned into humanity’s first overland expedition on another planet.  When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now, Spirit and Opportunity may be considered most significant not for the science they accomplished, but for the first time we truly went exploring across the surface of Mars.”

Unfortunately Spirit has a broken wheel and so has to travel everywhere backwards, and the problems are only set to get worse over time.  Opportunity isn’t in much better shape as the robots arm has a malfunctioning arm due to a damaged wire.  NASA will not be looking forward to the day that these two robots go offline as their next surface mission will not be until 2011.

Mind Control:The Future is Now

Ever wished you could move mountains with your mind? Well this new piece of cutting edge technology won?t quite let you do that much, but its still pretty cool. Emotiv?s EPOC headset is a lightweight headset that allows a user, after some configuration, to control computer functions and most excitingly games, with his/her mind.

Tan Le, CEO of Australian based company says, “We’re hoping to help evolve the way humans interact with machines.”

The EPOC works by putting the helmet on, and then fitting the 16 brain-wave sensors in place. Once you?re comfortable, you then the software automatically logs a set of background emotions and expressions. Users are then required to image 11 cognitive actions, i.e. Lift, push, pull, for a few seconds each.

The user?s brain is analysed and the EPOC is even capable of increasing difficulty levels in games if it detects that you are bored.

“Telekinesis has always been one of mankind’s fantasies,” Le says. “After Star Wars came out, I wanted to use the Force to make my cereal box float into my hands.”

The technology was developed from decades of research on brain waves. Scientists have used ?skull caps? loaded with sensors that intercept brain activity in a processes called ?electroencephalography?, and Emotiv have spent the last five years developing it a commercial product.

“For now, we’re focused on the video game application (for EPOC), but we see possibilities beyond this, such as market research or health care,” Le says.

Monica Fabiani, a professor at the University of Illinois psychology and neuroscience program believes the EPOC headset could be of more use to medial scientists. “Often, when companies make products that are comfortable and easy to use by the public, interesting applications on the medical side” follow, she says.

Acknowledging that medical use of their new gadget is a long way off, Emotiv?s vice president of engineering Steve Sapiro said: “Anything like that would require approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which takes years. But the possibility is there, if simply from a cost standpoint. Our product is in the hundreds, whereas most EEG machines cost between $50,000 and $250,000.”

Sounds like Emotiv are on to something, but gamers aren?t quite convinced: “I’m not sure it’s at the point of being as precise as it would need to be,” said Brian Crecente of gamer blog Kotaku. “I don’t see it being a mainstream device in this form. That said, it’s certainly beyond a gimmick. Game issues aside, it’s uncanny.”

Others see it as a gimmick that may work in the same way that Nintendo?s Wii has taken off. Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference said: “When the [item on-screen] did what I thought it to do, it was surreal,” says Moledina, who concedes his learning curve was steep. “This is science-fiction stuff. [Emotiv] has jumped the first hurdle in simply making the device. Now, they have to make it work with most games. If they do, this could hit the jackpot.”

The device could make its way on to one of the nets largest gaming community?s, Second Life, if Le?s comments are anything to go by: “Right now, when you want your (Second Life) avatar to grin, you type it, which is completely unnatural,” Le says. “If we have it our way, EPOC will make avatars truly come to life.”

UFO Hacker to be Extradited to US

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The House of Lords in the UK has decided to extradite Gary McKinnon, the British hacker who got in to several US military, defence and NASA computers, to stand trial in the United States.

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McKinnon has been fighting extradition since 2002, since it was discovered hat he?d hacked his way in to one of the US?s most sensitive networks ? reportedly from a friend?s aunt?s house ? between 2001 and 2002. He is alleged to have caused US$900,000 in damages to computers located in 14 states.

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Amazingly McKinnon did all this without being an expert at high-level hacking, and even more amazingly, he didn?t look at military secrets or sensitive design plans ? instead he tried to unlock the mysteries of the universe and find out if UFO?s and aliens were real. Since his case started he ha revealed that his search was successful and that he uncovered photographs of alien spacecraft and the names and ranks of ?non-terrestrial officers?.

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However, the US government has rubbished his claims and said that he left a note on an Army computer criticising US foreign policy as government sponsored terrorism.

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In the indictment against him, the U.S. government accuses McKinnon of handicapping it in the aftermath of September 11.

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“The entire network of 300 computers at NWS Earle, located in Colts Neck, N.J., was effectively shut down for an entire week. … [F]or another three weeks afterward, military personnel and government civilian employees at NWSE were only able to send and receive internal e-mail. It was only approximately a month after McKinnon’s last intrusion into the network that NWS Earle was able to automatically route Naval message traffic and access the Internet,” according to the indictment.

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The reason for McKinnon wanting a trial in the UK is because he believes the US will trial him as a terrorist. The House of Lords rejected this argument, but he still has the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

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?That McKinnon was able to access secure government information using basic hacking software is not all that remarkable,? said Matt Shanahan, SVP of marketing and strategy for AdmitOne Security.

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“In most cases, when people hack into a system — the vast majority of the time — they are able to get in because reasonable controls were not in place,” he said. “In the case of McKinnon, there were a number of devices the systems administrator had not set.”

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?A highly fragmented systems administration environment, together with the fact that a lot of controls are manual, usually results in some vulnerability,? Shanahan said. “People usually forget to set something, or they are using a virtual machine that might not have been set up correctly and then copies the same mistake 100 times,” he explained.

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“McKinnon was able to find, and then take advantage of, these vulnerabilities.”

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?What is worrisome is that high-level professional hackers still have ways to access these systems if they want to,? said Bill Johnson, CEO of TDI. “We have become a big proponent of securing the computer baseboard manager controller, or BMC.?

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?The BMC is network-accessible once a hacker can get past the firewall, and it allows command and control of the main motherboard. Even systems in NASA would be vulnerable to this method of attack,” noted Johnson.

Virgin Galactic:A Knight in Shining Armour

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Virgin founder, billionaire, and the UK?s favourite boss, Richard Branson has unveiled a new high-altitude jet that will allow tourists to reach new heights.

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The jet will act as the ?mothership? for a spacecraft, releasing it in mid-air so it can take two crew and six passengers on sub-orbital flights.

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Already over 250 people have already paid ?100,000 ($200,000) each to be among the first making the tourist trips.

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Business tycoon Branson predicts the vehicles maiden voyage will take place in 18 months time. For the grand unveiling of White Knight Two ?Eve?, crowds of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts gathered inside a hanger in the Mojave Desert in California.

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Virgin Galactic has contracted aerospace designer Burt Rutan to build its spacecraft at his Scaled Composites factory in California. Before the craft can even take off, ?Eve? must undergo a rigorous flight testing programme, which begins in the autumn.

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The mother ship is a white, four-engine jet, designed to cradle SpaceShipTwo under its wing and release it a 50,000 feet in the air. Once separated, SpaceShipTwo will fire its hybrid rocket and climb some 62 miles (100km) above the Earth.

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Engineers still need to finish building SpaceShipTwo, which is now about 70 percent complete, according to Virgin Galactic.

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Mr Branson said the name of the White Knight Two reflected the pioneering spirit of his space tourism venture.

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“We are naming it Eve after my mother, Eve Branson, but also because it represents a first and a new beginning, the chance for our ever-growing group of future astronauts and other scientists to see our world in a completely new light,” he said.

GLAST Blasts in to Space

?You have about as much chance as the Hubble Telescope has of finding that at the centre of each black hole there’s a little man with a flashlight trying to find the circuit breaker.? Sheldon, Big Bang Theory

So the Hubble Telescope was outstanding in its day, but now NASA has developed ? and blasted in to space ? the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST, to hopefully answer questions about what exactly is ?up there?.

Launching from the Kennedy Space Centre last Wednesday, a Delta 2 rocket fired the telescope to its destination in an impressive 90 minutes. Costing $690m the telescope will pick up where its predecessor, the Energetic Gamma-ray Experiment Telescope, or EGRET, left off eight years ago. The GLAST is much faster that the previous model ? scanning the entire universe in three hours, compared to EGRET?s 15 months.

“We live in a universe in which we don’t understand what 96 percent of the matter is,” explained Peter Michelson, principal investigator of GLAST’s Large Area Telescope. “GLAST may give us important clues as to the nature of that dark matter.”

In addition to the dark matter, GLAST will seek to explore the universe?s most extreme environments. The telescope will search for a better understanding of the invisible high-energy bursts known as ?gamma rays?.

EGRET did find hundreds of possible sources of radiation, but the majority of them were never identified. If the new telescope does find where those explosions originated, it would still only scratch the surface of what the scientists involved hope to learn.

“Cosmic rays are probably one of the oldest mysteries in astrophysics,” Michelson said. “The origin of where those particles come from and what is responsible for accelerating them at very high energies is really the question.”

GLAST could give us even more insight in to the origins and evolution of our universe.

“Understanding that is part of understanding our role,” Michelson noted. “GLAST will allow us to do that.”

The telescope will scan the universe for five years, but researchers could extend this to nearer ten. The telescope will also be re-named after NASA held a contest online to come up with something better than GLAST ? more than 12,00 entries were submitted.

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Google Co-Founder Heads on Space Adventure

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Google co-founder Sergey Brin was clearly not satisfied with just looking at the earth via satellite as the millionaire has put done a $5m deposit on a flight to space, through a new program called Space Adventures.

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Brin is the first person to reserve a spot, leaving 5 places available in Space Adventures? new Orbital Mission Circle, which allows individuals to reserve seats on future orbital spaceflights.

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“I am a big believer in the exploration and commercial development of the space frontier, and am looking forward to the possibility of going into space,” said Brin. “Space Adventures helped open the space frontier to private citizens and thus pave the way for the personal spaceflight industry. The Orbital Mission Explorers Circle enables me to make an immediate investment while preserving the option to participate in a future spaceflight.”

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In 2001, Space Adventures launched into space Dennis Tito, the world’s first privately funded spaceflight participant. Since then, the company has also launched Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth as well as Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi.

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The company’s advisory board includes Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin; Shuttle astronauts Sam Durrance, Tom Jones, Byron Lichtenberg, Norm Thagard, Kathy Thornton, Pierre Thuot and Charles Walker; Skylab/Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott; and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev.

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Visits to the International Space Station (ISS) will soon be within reach of more private citizens through Space Adventures’ new arrangement with the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA), its long-standing partner. Also announced on Wednesday, the arrangement calls for the launch of the first private mission to the ISS in the second half of 2011.

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The trip in October will be a fully dedicated mission of the Soyuz-TMA spacecraft, with two seats available for private space explorers, along with a comprehensive package of mission services including science, education and media program options.

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Budding space adventurers will have to undergo the same training as other private space explorers have, but the mission is open to not jut individuals but businesses, organisations and institutions, Vienna, VA-based Space Adventures said.

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With the new arrangement, Space Adventures will contribute to increasing launch capacity to the ISS. “This method for growing our commercial partnership with Space Adventures is beneficial for all parties,” said Alexey B. Krasnov of the FSA.

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“This private mission, flying two Space Adventures’ clients at once, will not interfere with the implementation of the ISS program or the obligations of the Russian space agency; on the contrary, it shall add flexibility and redundancy to our ISS transportation capabilities,” he said.

Indeed, that is a key point, Harry Lambright, a space policy expert at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, said.

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“As long as they are expanding the capacity and not preventing the use of the Soyuz for some other, public purpose, I think it’s great,” Lambright said. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we use space as much as possible and make it as popular as possible for those who can afford it.”

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James Oberg, a retired rocket scientist who is now an author and full-time media consultant, said: ?There have always been plenty of options for the Russians to keep making money off of private spaceflight, and this is only one of several?.

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?There are already four Soyuz vehicles slated for launch in 2009, compared with the normal launch rate of only two per year?, said Oberg. With the new plan, a fifth one would need to be added by 2011.

Each one takes about 30 months to build, Oberg added. “We’re already in a situation where there are at least four vehicles in various stages of fabrication on an assembly line that used to handle two. This is a significant staffing challenge.”

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The key question now is, “can they safely ramp up to this production rate?” Oberg said. “That issue is being seriously questioned in light of the back-to-back failures in the last two Soyuz landings.”

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Assuming the production challenges are handled, however, adding a fifth one could help further depress the price of any single Soyuz, and “might even save NASA some money,” he said. An additional benefit could also be derived if the new, special Soyuz is used to transport cargo for NASA or the European Space Agency, for example. “That could help them recoup their launch costs,” he explained.

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Overall, Oberg concluded, “I consider this a very positive development.”

IBM Roadrunner Speeds Ahead of the Competition

IBM has designed a new $100m supercomputer named ?Roadrunner?, that is powerful enough to operate at 1 petaflop ? that?s 1 thousand trillion calculations a second (beat that Vorderman).? The system is twice as fast as the next closest super computer ? the IBM Blue Gene system – and nearly three times as fast as other top supercomputers in the world.

To put the whole system in perspective ? Roadrunner?s computing power is the equivalent of 100,000 of today?s fastest laptops. IBM says that if you took the whole population of the earth and gave them a calculator ? that?s about 6 billion people ? and they used them at a rate of one calculation a second, it would take humans more than 46 years to do what Roadrunner can do in a day.

“What I find particularly interesting about it . . . is that it’s the first instance of a hybrid supercomputer,” said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT.

“Rather than just a monolithic single chip architecture, this is a blended architecture that uses AMD Opteron and IBM processors,” he said.

“The angle that AMD was taking on this is that by creating an integrated blend of chip architectures, Roadrunner would be able to not only achieve high performance, but could also be used for a wider variety of supercomputing activities,” he added.

Roadrunner uses IBM?s Cell Broadband Engine, which remarkably was originally developed for Sony?s Playstation 3 video game console, and works with AMD?s x86 Opteron processors, creating the hybrid architecture.

The system is made from commercially available parts ? 6,948 dual core AMD Opteron chips on IBM LS21 blade servers with 12,960 Cell engines on IBM QS22 blade servers.

Roadrunner has 80 terabytes of memory and is crammed into 288 fridge-sized IBM BladeCentre racks that weigh 500,000 pounds and occupy 6,000 square feet. It?s not exactly portable?

Boasting a 10,000 Infiniband and Gigabit Ethernet connection requiring 57 miles of fibre optic cable, and it runs on Red Hat?s Linux software.

“Over the last five years, there’s been this massive shift in supercomputer design. The older architectures were designed from bottom up. They were highly proprietary, and everybody had their own secret sauce to pour onto the mix,” King pointed out.

“In the last few years, things have shifted radically to clustered x86 systems instead,” he added, noting that about 90 percent of the world’s top supercomputers are made up of clustered x86 processors.

This summer, IBM will load Roadrunner onto 21 tractor trailer trucks and deliver it to the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where it will be used to ensure the safety and reliability of the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile.

It will also be used for research into astronomy, energy, human genome science and climate change.

When Modern Technology Goes Wrong!

While the use of satellites has become something of an everyday event these days, it appears that what for years has been one of the more reliable areas of new technology is about to come crashing down to earth ? quite literally!

Apparently a US spy satellite ?the size of a bus? has lost power during its orbit of the earth and is slowly descending towards us, due to ?hit? earth in February / March 2008.? While there have been satellite malfunctions over the years without any threat to human life, this satellite seems to be a little different. While the size is larger than normal there are strong rumours that the satellite may well contain an array of potentially hazardous materials.

The US authorities have been unwilling to go into to much detail for obvious reasons but the very fact that all of the major government agencies around the world have been advised of the possible threat is more than a little worrying.? Some people are even linking the vessel to the famous ?Star Wars? program which would have seen the launch of armed satellites capable of knocking our missiles headed for the US, from outer space.? Officially this program was cancelled sometime ago, but there are some concerns that elements of the early stages of the program may be ?active?.

It is hoped that much of the satellite will breakup on re-entry to the earth?s atmosphere, but there are real fears that we may not be as lucky this time and the satellite could hit a heavily populated area of the earth.? The speed and weight of the satellite would be similar to that of a missile hitting the earth and has the potential to cause widespread damage ? aside of the fact it may well be carrying some form of hazardous material!