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Laser-Armed Martian Robot Now Vaporizing Targets of Its Own Free Will ( 57

Slashdot reader Rei writes: NASA -- having already populated the Red Planet with robots and armed a car-sized nuclear juggernaut with a laser -- have now decided to grant fire control of that laser over to a new AI system operating on the rover itself. Intended to increase the scientific data-gathering throughput on the sometimes glitching rover's journey, the improved AEGIS system eliminates the need for a series of back-and-forth communication sessions to select targets and aim the laser.
Rei's original submission included a longer riff on The War of the Worlds, ending with a reminder to any future AI overlords that "I have a medical condition that renders me unfit to toil in any hypothetical subterranean lithium mines..."

47 Years Ago Today, Apollo 11 Landed On the Moon ( 184

An anonymous reader writes: At this point 47 years ago we had begun our orbit around the Moon," writes Buzz Aldrin in a tweet. Today, Wednesday, July 20th, 2016, marks the 47th anniversary of when NASA astronauts landed on the moon for the very first time. Fox News reports: "Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasted off from Earth on a massive Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969. Four days later, the Eagle module landed on the surface with Aldrin and Armstrong inside; Collins stayed behind in the orbiting Columbia craft. Millions of people back on Earth watched, captivated, as Armstrong was the first down the ladder, then uttered his now-famous line: 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' The astronauts eventually returned to Earth, splashing down four days later in the Pacific. On the moon, an American flag and a plaque that read, in part, 'We came in peace for all mankind,' remained." To this day, only 12 people have ever walked on the moon. Hopefully, that number will increase within the next decade. NASA is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Viking 1 lander's arrival on Mars. Viking 1 was the first American craft to land on the red planet on July 20, 1976.

Taiwan Building Lunar Lander For NASA Moon-Mining Mission ( 84

MarkWhittington quotes a report from Blasting News: According to AFP, the Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology in Taiwan is building a $47 million, 3.7 metric ton lunar lander on behalf of NASA. The vehicle is designed to carry a rover called Resource Prospector, which would roll about the lunar surface searching out deposits of oxygen, hydrogen, and water. The Resource Prospector mission is still being formulated but is envisioned to be a joint project with several national space agencies and commercial companies. The lunar lander is the first vehicle of its type to be built in Taiwan. "The Resource Prospector would take samples from about a meter beneath the lunar surface and then heat them in an oven to ascertain what the materials are that comprise it," reports Blasting News. The mission is part of the second stage to NASA's Journey to Mars program called "Proving Ground." "Should the Resource Prospector prove to be successful, the moon could be used as a base for space journeys into Mars," says Han Kuo-change, the head of CSIST's international cooperation program.

Kepler Confirms 100+ New Exoplanets ( 37

schwit1 writes: Astronomers have confirmed another 100 of Kepler's more than 3,000 candidate exoplanets. reports: "One of the most interesting set of planets discovered in this study is a system of four potentially rocky planets, between 20 and 50 percent larger than Earth, orbiting a star less than half the size and with less light output than the Sun. Their orbital periods range from five-and-a-half to 24 days, and two of them may experience radiation levels from their star comparable to those on Earth. Despite their tight orbits -- closer than Mercury's orbit around the sun -- the possibility that life could arise on a planet around such a star cannot be ruled out, according to Crossfield." Because the host star as well as many of these other confirmed exoplanets are red dwarf stars, the possibility of life is reduced because the star and its system is likely to have a less rich mix of elements compared to our yellow G-type Sun. In May, Kepler added a record 1,284 confirmed planets, nine of which orbit in their sun's habitable zone.

Russia Is Building a Nuclear Space Bomber ( 256

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Daily Beast: The Russian military claims it's making progress on a space plane similar to the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B robotic mini-shuttle. The tech is pretty basic. But alone among space-plane developers, the Kremlin is proposing to arm its space plane. With nukes. Lt. Col. Aleksei Solodovnikov, a rocketry instructor at the Russian Strategic Missile Forces Academy in St. Petersburg who is overseeing the space plane's development, said the orbital bomber would be flight-ready by 2020. It's unclear how much money the Kremlin is investing in the project, and how serious senior officers are about actually deploying the space plane, if and when Solodovnikov and his team finish it. In any event, the military space plane could give Russia a potentially history-altering nuclear first-strike capability. "The idea is that the bomber will take off from a normal home airfield to patrol Russian airspace," Solodovnikov said, according to Sputnik, a government-owned news site. "Upon command, it will ascend into outer space, strike a target with nuclear warheads and then return to its home base." Thanks to its orbital capability, the bomber would be able to nuke any target on Earth no longer than two hours after taking off, Solodovnikov claimed.

How President Jimmy Carter Saved The Space Shuttle ( 236

MarkWhittington writes: Eric Berger has published an account in Ars Technica about how President Jimmy Carter saved the space shuttle program. The article is well worth reading for its detail. In essence, around 1978 the space shuttle program had undergone a crisis with technical challenges surrounding its heat-resistant tiles and its reusable rocket engines and cost overruns. President Carter was not all that enthused about human space flight to begin with, adhering to the since discredited notion that robotic space probes were adequate for exploring the universe. His vice president, Walter Mondale, was a vehement foe of human space flight programs, maintaining that money spent on them were better used for social programs.

NASA's Juno Spacecraft Sends First Images From Jupiter ( 77

An anonymous reader writes: After its patriotic arrival at Jupiter on July 4th, the Juno spacecraft has sent its first images of the planet back to earth via the JunoCam. The visible-light camera aboard Juno was first turned on roughly six days ago after Juno placed itself into orbit. "This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter's extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "We can't wait to see the first view of Jupiter's poles." The color image, which was obtained on July 10th when the spacecraft was 2.7 million miles from Jupiter, shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet's four largest moons -- Io, Europa and Ganymede. "JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit," said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. "The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter."

New Dwarf Planet Discovered In Outer Solar System ( 119

astroengine quotes a report from Seeker: Astronomers have found another Pluto-like dwarf planet located about 20 times farther away from the sun than Neptune. The small planet, dubbed 2015 RR245, is estimated to be about 435 miles in diameter and flying in an elliptical, 700-year orbit around the sun. At closest approach, RR245 will be about 3.1 billion miles from the sun, a milestone it is expected to next reach in 2096. At its most distant point, the icy world is located about 7.5 billion miles away. It was found by a joint team of astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Maunakea, Hawaii, in images taken in September 2015 and analyzed in February. The discovery was announced on Monday in the Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

Assembly Code That Took America to the Moon Now Published On GitHub ( 74

An anonymous Slashdot reader writes: "The code that took America to the moon was just published to GitHub, and it's like a 1960s time capsule," reports Quartz. Two lines of code include the comment "# TEMPORARY, I HOPE HOPE HOPE," and there's also a quote from Shakespeare's play Henry VI. In addition, the keyboard and display system program is named PINBALL_GAME_BUTTONS_AND_LIGHT, and "There's also code that appears to instruct an astronaut to 'crank the silly thing around.'"

A former NASA intern uploaded the thousands of lines of assembly code to GitHub, working from a 2003 transcription made from scans inherited by MIT from a Colorado airplane pilot, and developers are already using GitHub to submit funny issue tickets for the 40-year-old code -- for example, "Extension pack for picking up Matt Damon". Another issue complains that "A customer has had a fairly serious problem with stirring the cryogenic tanks with a circuit fault present." Because this issue succinctly describes the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, the issue has been marked "closed".


First Water Clouds Reported Outside The Solar System ( 41

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Scientific American: For the first time ever, astronomers have found strong evidence of water clouds on a body outside the solar system. New observations of a frigid object called WISE 0855, which lies 7.2 light-years from Earth, suggest that the "failed star" has clouds of water, or water ice, in its atmosphere, the researchers said. "We would expect an object that cold to have water clouds, and this is the best evidence that it does," study lead author Andrew Skemer, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement released by the university. Scientists discovered WISE 0855 in 2014, using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. A later paper in 2014 (co-authored by Skemer) uncovered some evidence of water clouds in the object's atmosphere, based on limited photometric data (how bright the object is in specific light wavelengths). In the new study, Skemer and his colleagues used the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii to study the brown dwarf for 13 nights. Gemini North is located on the highest Hawaiian mountain (Mauna Kea), at an altitude with little water vapor to interfere with telescopic observations. These observations allowed the astronomers to make the first spectroscopy (light fingerprint) measurements of WISE 0855. The team found water vapor and also confirmed the object's temperature, which is about minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 degrees Celsius, or 250 kelvins).

NASA's Juno Space Probe Enters Orbit Around Jupiter ( 131

An anonymous reader quotes a report from CNN: NASA says it has received a signal from 540 million miles across the solar system, confirming its Juno spacecraft has successfully started orbiting Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. "Welcome to Jupiter!" flashed on screens at mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. The probe had to conduct a tricky maneuver to slow down enough to allow it to be pulled into orbit: It fired its main engine for 35 minutes, effectively hitting the brakes to slow the spacecraft by about 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second). Juno was launched nearly five years ago on a mission to study Jupiter's composition and evolution. It's the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter since Galileo. The largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter is a huge ball of gas 11 times wider than Earth and 300 times more massive than our planet. Researchers think it was the first planet to form and that it holds clues to how the solar system evolved. Juno is a spinning, robotic probe as wide as a basketball court. It will circle Jupiter 37 times for 20 months, diving down to about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers) above the planet's dense clouds. The seven science instruments on board will study Jupiter's auroras and help scientists better understand the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. An onboard color camera called JunoCam will take "spectacular close-up, color images" of Jupiter, according to NASA. Juno launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011, which is some 445 million miles (716 million kilometers) away from Jupiter. Juno has however traveled a total distance of 1,740 million miles (2,800 million kilometers) to reach Jupiter as it had to make a flyby of Earth to help pick up speed. "After a 1.7 billion mile journey, we hit our burn targets within one second, on a target that was just tens of kilometers large," said Nybakken, Juno Project Manger. "That's how well the Juno spacecraft performed tonight."

NASA's Juno Spacecraft Braves Jupiter Radiation For a 4th of July Arrival ( 74

MarkWhittington writes: July 4, if all goes well, will be an occasion for celebration at NASA as the Juno spacecraft, after a nearly five-year voyage, will go into orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Juno will spend its time in a zone of intense radiation, against which it has been armored, in an effort to ferret out Jupiter's secrets. By so doing, NASA hopes to gain insights into the origin of the solar system as well as gaining more knowledge of the gas giant, comprised mostly of hydrogen and helium with trace elements of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur.

Scientists Say The Asteroid That Killed The Dinosaurs Almost Wiped Us Out Too ( 265 writes: Conventional wisdom states that mammalian diversity emerged from the ashes of the Cretaceous/Tertiary mass extinction event, ultimately giving rise to our own humble species. But Joshua A. Krisch writes at This Week that the asteroid that decimated the dinosaurs also wiped out roughly 93 percent of all mammalian species. "Because mammals did so well after the extinction, we have tended to assume that it didn't hit them as hard," says Nick Longrich. "However our analysis shows that the mammals were hit harder than most groups of animals, such as lizards, turtles, crocodilians, but they proved to be far more adaptable in the aftermath." Mammals survived, multiplied, and ultimately gave rise to human beings. So what was the great secret that our possum-like ancestors knew that dinosaurs did not? One answer is that early mammals were small enough to survive on insects and dying plants, while large dinosaurs and reptiles required a vast diet of leafy greens and healthy prey that simply weren't available in the lean years, post-impact. So brontosauruses starved to death while prehistoric possums filled their far smaller and less discerning bellies. "Even if large herbivorous dinosaurs had managed to survive the initial meteor strike, they would have had nothing to eat," says Russ Graham, "because most of the earth's above-ground plant material had been destroyed." Other studies have suggested that mammals survived by burrowing underground or living near the water, where they would have been somewhat shielded from the intense heatwaves, post-impact. Studies also suggest that mammals may have been better spread-out around the globe, and so had the freedom to recover independently and evolve with greater diversity. "After this extinction event, there was an explosion of diversity, and it was driven by having different evolutionary experiments going on simultaneously in different locations," Longrich says. "This may have helped drive the recovery. With so many different species evolving in different directions in different parts of the world, evolution was more likely to stumble across new evolutionary paths."

Google's Satellite Map Gets a 700-Trillion-Pixel Makeover ( 70

An anonymous reader writes: On Monday, Google Maps has received a makeover with 700 trillion pixels of new data added to the service. The Atlantic reports: "The new map, which activates this week for all users of Google Maps and Google Earth, consists of orbital imagery that is newer, more detailed, and of higher contrast than the previous version. Most importantly, this new map contains fewer clouds than before -- only the second time Google has unveiled a "cloudless" map. Google had not updated its low- and medium- resolution satellite map in three years. The new version of the map includes data from Landsat 8, the newer version of the same satellite (Landsat 7, the U.S. government satellite which supplied the older map's imagery data), letting Google clear the ugly artifacts. Google's new update doesn't include imagery at the highest zoom levels, like the kind needed to closely inspect an individual house, pool, or baseball field. Those pictures do not come from Landsat at all, but from a mix of other public and private aerial and space-based cameras, including DigitalGlobe's high-resolution satellites. The image processing for this most recent map was completed entirely in Google Earth Engine, the company's geospatial-focused cloud infrastructure. In fact, the entire algorithm to create the cloudless map was written in Javascript in the Earth Engine development interface."

Axiom Plans A New Private-Sector Outpost in Space ( 28

A seed-funded company named Axiom wants to build a private-sector outpost in orbit by launching a new module for the International Space Station, according to an article on Space News. Once on the station, Axiom Space would use it for commercial purposes, ranging from research to tourism. [Former space station manager] Suffredini said that it would also be available for use by NASA when the company is not using it, helping the process of transitioning research done on the International Space Station to future private stations. Research hardware elsewhere in the station could eventually be moved to this module to allow its continued use after the station's retirement.
Slashdot reader MarkWhittington shares an article from Blasting News: In the meantime, Nanoracks, a company that is already handling some of the logistics for the ISS, is proposing a commercial airlock for the ISS. The development of commercial space stations, as well as commercial spacecraft such as the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner, constitutes NASA's long-term strategy of handing off low-Earth orbit to the private sector while it concentrates on deep space exploration.

NASA Approves Five More Years For Hubble Space Telescope ( 47

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Scientist: NASA has announced plans to extend operations of the famous space telescope for another five years, through to June 2021. That means it will still be on the job when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2018, giving astronomers a dual view of the universe. "Hubble is expected to continue to provide valuable data into the 2020s, securing its place in history as an outstanding general-purpose observatory in areas ranging from our solar system to the distant universe," said a NASA statement. Squeezing more life out of Hubble means it will overlap with NASA's next big telescope, JWST when it launches in 2018. While Hubble sees the cosmos in visible and ultraviolet light, JWST operates in the infrared. The various wavelengths can reveal different aspects of stars and galaxies, so using the scopes in tandem will enable astronomers to study the heavens in even greater detail.

India Launches Record 20 Satellites In Space Using A Single Rocket ( 110

William Robinson writes from a report via Times of India: The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) used its workhorse PSLV-C34 to inject 20 satellites which includes 17 satellites from various countries like US, Canada, Germany and Indonesia, into orbit in a single mission and set a new record on Wednesday. In the final stages of the mission, ISRO also demonstrated the vehicle's capability to place satellites in different orbits. In the demonstration, the vehicle reignited twice after its fourth and final stage and moved further a few kilometers into another orbit. Also included are a couple of satellites from academic institutions, Sathyabamasat from Sathyabhama University, Chennai and Swayam from College of Engineering, Pune. From the report: "The 320 ton Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C34) took off on its 36th flight at 9:26 a.m. from the Satish Dhawan Space Center with 20 satellites including its primary payload Cartosat-2 series, which provides remote sensing services, and earth observation and imaging satellites from U.S., Canada, Germany and Indonesia. It was also the 14th flight of PSLV in 'XL' configuration with the use of solid strap-on motors. ISRO scientists said, the vehicle had been pre-programmed for today's launch to perform tiny maneuvering to place the 20 satellites into polar sun-synchronous orbits with different inclinations and velocities. It ensured that the satellites were placed with enough distance to prevent collision."

NASA Unveils Plans For Electric-Powered Plane ( 55

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New York Times: A new experimental airplane being built by NASA could help push electric-powered aviation from a technical curiosity and pipe dream into something that might become commercially viable for small aircraft. At a conference on Friday of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington, Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, announced plans for an all-electric airplane (Warning: source may be paywalled) designated as X-57 and nicknamed "Maxwell," part of the agency's efforts to make aviation more efficient and less of a polluter. "The X-57 will take the first giant step in opening a new era of aviation," Mr. Bolden declared. Maxwell is equipped with 14 electric propeller-turning motors located along the wings, which will all be used to create sufficient thrust during take-off and landing. Only two large motors on the tips of the wings will be used once it's up in the air. The plane is a result of NASA's "New Aviation Horizons" initiative: a 10-year program to create a new generation of X-planes that will make use of greener energy, use half as much fuel, and be half as loud as commercial aircraft in use today.

Astronomers Say There Could Be At Least Two More Mystery Planets In Our Solar System ( 84

schwit1 quotes a report from ScienceAlert: A team of astronomers has performed new calculations on the data that originally gave rise to the Planet Nine hypothesis, and these new numbers suggest that the hypothetical extra planet might not be alone -- there could be multiple planets hiding at the edge of our Solar System that we've yet to discover. If the researchers are correct -- which nobody knows for sure right now -- it could really mean a do-over for the high school textbooks. The scientists estimate that Planet Nine is 10 times more massive than Earth, and think it performs an extremely elongated orbit of the Sun, that takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to complete. The Caltech researchers based their hypothesis for the existence of Planet Nine on the unusual movement of six large objects floating in the Kuiper belt, suggesting that their orbits are being shaped by a hidden planet.

Small Asteroid Discovered Orbiting Earth ( 237

Frosty Piss writes from a report via CNN: A small asteroid has been found circling Earth. Scientists say it looks like the asteroid, named 2016 HO3, has been out there for about 50 years. Calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth's companion for centuries to come. Scientists think the asteroid is between 120 and 300 feet (37 to 91 meters) in diameter, and NASA says it never gets closer than 9 million miles (14 million kilometers) from Earth. It was found on April 27, 2016 by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope in Haleakala, Hawaii. So how do we miss a 300 foot object that has been orbiting the Earth for around 50 years? Probably the same way we've missed all the flying saucers!

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