AI helps SETI sleuths find more radio bursts

AI seeking ET

Researchers used artificial intelligence to search through data from a radio source, capturing many more fast radio bursts than humans could. (Breakthrough Listen Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Researchers at Breakthrough Listen, a multimillion-dollar campaign to seek out signals from alien civilizations, still don’t know exactly what’s causing repeated bursts of radio waves from an distant galaxy — but thanks to artificial intelligence, they’re keeping closer tabs on the source, whatever it turns out to be.

A team led by Gerry Zhang, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, developed a new type of machine-learning algorithm to comb through data collected a year ago during an observing campaign that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The campaign focused on a radio source known as FRB 121102, located in a dwarf galaxy sitting 3 billion light-years away in the constellation Auriga. Astronomers have observed plenty of fast radio bursts over the past decade, each lasting only a few milliseconds. Only FRB 121102 has been found to send out repeated bursts, however.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the bursts, ranging from interactions involving magnetized neutron stars and black holes to deliberate signaling by advanced civilizations.

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Boeing gets $2.9B contract for more KC-46 tankers

KC-46 tanker

Boeing’s KC-46 tanker is built to refuel military airplanes in flight. (Boeing Photo)

The U.S. Air Force today awarded Boeing a $2.9 billion contract for 18 more KC-46A tanker aircraft and associated equipment, bringing the total number of tankers on contract to 52.  The report comes as Boeing is preparing to make its first deliveries of the 767-based aircraft, which are being built at the company’s plant in Everett, Wash.

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Jupiter’s brown spot sparks potty humor

Jupiter cloud system

This cloud formation on Jupiter is called “Mr. Hankey.” (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Kevin M. Gill)

Jupiter’s titanic storms have spawned their share of memorable cloud features, including the Great Red SpotOval BA (a.k.a. Red Jr.) and the now-defunct Baby Red Spot. Now there’s a new spot on the map, nicknamed “Mr. Hankey.”

Mr. Hankey? The jolly cartoon poo made famous in a “South Park” Christmas episode?

Believe it: The longish, brownish storm system was the star of the show during last Thursday’s close encounter involving Jupiter and NASA’s Juno orbiter. In the days since the encounter, known as Perijove 15, the probe has been sending back Junocam’s imagery for processing by a legion of professional and amateur astronomers.

It was Kevin Gill, a software engineer and self-described data wrangler at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who gave the spot its “South Park” sobriquet in a tweet. But if you want to call the scene Jet N4, that’s OK, too.

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Boeing boosts laser communications venture

BridgeSat ground station

BridgeSat uses optical systems to send data to orbiting satellites. (BridgeSat / Boeing Illustration)

Boeing HorizonX Ventures is leading a $10 million investment round to boost BridgeSat, a Denver-based satellite communications company that aims to use laser technology for ground-to-space data connectivity.

Founded in 2015, BridgeSat is developing a network of optical ground stations and proprietary space terminals for use with satellites in low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.  The technology enables secure, high-bandwidth data transmission between satellites, other spacecraft, drones and high-altitude aircraft.

In March, the company announced an agreement with NASA that could open the way for a commercial, laser-based communications system to be used on future space missions. The agreement calls for a ground station demonstration by the end of this year, with on-orbit testing to be completed by next May.

BridgeSat is also providing laser terminals and data services for ICEYE’s commercial satellite radar constellation.

In a news release issued today, Boeing and BridgeSat said the new round of investment will accelerate progress on the network of optical ground stations.

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SpaceX puts Telstar 18V satellite in orbit

SpaceX launch

The Telstar 18V satellite separates from the Falcon 9 second stage, as seen in a rocketcam view. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX launched its second heavyweight Telstar telecommunications satellite from Florida tonight, and brought the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster down for a landing on a drone ship hundreds of miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission to put the 15,600-pound Telstar 18 Vantage satellite into geostationary transfer orbit for Canadian-based Telesat was nearly a carbon copy of SpaceX’s successful Telstar 19V launch in July, with a bit of added suspense due to the weather.

Concerns about thunderstorms and lightning near the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station delayed the launch for 77 minutes, but the Falcon 9 rose without a hitch at 12:45 a.m. ET Sept. 10 (9:45 p.m. PT Sept. 9).

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Amazon patent for a safety cage stirs up a buzz

Human transport device

Diagrams show the design of a proposed human transport device, as seen from the side at left and from the top at right. The patented concept was never turned into an actual device. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO).

Warehouse workers confined in cages? That’s the dark vision evoked by an essay delving into the worries that come along with the development of artificial-intelligence devices such as the Amazon Echo speaker.

“Anatomy of an AI System” was published on Friday by the AI Now Institute and Share Lab — and it’s already gotten a rise from the executive in charge of Amazon’s distribution system, who says the cage concept never ended up being used.

The 7,300-word essay was written by Kate Crawford, who is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research as well as co-founder and co-director of New York University’s AI Now Institute; and Vladan Joler, director of the Share Foundation and a professor at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.

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Historical study revisits debate over Pluto

Pluto and Charon

A composite image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows enhanced-color views of Pluto at lower right and Charon, its largest moon, at upper left. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

Twelve years after the International Astronomical Union voted in a definition of planethood that reclassified Pluto, the debate goes on.

A newly published study uses the historical record to take aim at the definition’s most controversial clause: the idea that a planet in the solar system has to “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” so that no other worlds are at a similar orbital distance.

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