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30 years after Challenger, legacies linger

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The crew of the shuttle Challenger takes a break during countdown training on Jan. 9, 1986: From left are space teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka. (NASA photo)

It’s been 30 years since the loss of the shuttle Challenger and its crew on Jan. 28, 1986, but its impact is still being felt – sometimes with sadness, sometimes with hope for the future.

Seven astronauts died when the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, due to the failure of an O-ring seal that led to a burn-through in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. The result was an explosion that flung the orbiter in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean.

The investigation that followed found that the O-ring became brittle at low temperatures, and that the flight should not have launched on that chilly January morning. Investigators learned that “go fever” led mission managers to overrule the engineers who recommended a delay.

The mission’s commander, Dick Scobee, was born in Cle Elum, Wash. Challenger’s other astronauts were Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis – and Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.

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A.I. software masters the game of Go

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Google is set for the ultimate human-vs.-machine Go match. (Credit: Nature / Google DeepMind)

Mark another milestone in the rise of the machines: An artificial intelligence program pioneered by Google DeepMind has learned how to play the game of Go well enough to beat a human champion decisively in a fair match.

That’s a quantum leap for artificial intelligence: Go is looked upon as the “holy grail of AI research,” said Demis Hassabis, the senior author of a research paper on the project published today by the journal Nature.

The game seems simple enough, involving the placement of alternating black and white stones on a 19-by-19 grid. The object is merely to avoid having your stones hemmed in on four sides by your opponent’s stones. But Go, which originated in China thousands of years ago, is considered the world’s most complex game. “It has 10170 possible board positions, which is greater than the number of atoms in the universe,” Hassabis noted.

That means a computer program can’t best humans with the same kind of approach used for checkers and and chess. The programs for those games combine brute-force searches through the possible moves with a weighted evaluation of patterns in moves. But researchers at Google DeepMind say their software, known as AlphaGo, takes a different approach.

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NASA fuels interest in Dream Chaser spaceship

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Technicians at an SNC facility in Colorado inspect the Dream Chaser engineering test article, or ETA, which is being put through flight tests. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

NASA’s decision to use Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station marks the most positive development to date for a space program that’s been a decade in the making. But the head of that program says it’s only the beginning.

“We’re getting more interest in the last couple of weeks than we’ve had before,” Mark Sirangelo, SNC’s corporate vice president of space systems, told GeekWire on Monday.

The privately held Nevada-based company mostly flies under the radar, even though it’s a significant military contractor. But thanks to the cargo contract announced this month, SNC’s Colorado-based space systems operation is likely to get a brighter spotlight – as well as additional work for the Dream Chaser.

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A.I. pioneer Marvin Minsky dies at age of 88

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MIT Professor Emeritus Marvin Minsky has died at 88. (Credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach via MIT)

Marvin Minsky, the computer scientist who helped blaze the trail for virtual smartphone assistants and other manifestations of artificial intelligence, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Sunday at the age of 88.

Word of Minsky’s passing came today from his family as well as from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Minsky worked on the foundations of A.I. since the 1950s.

As the co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, now known as theComputer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Minsky contributed to the decades-long drive to make machines more humanlike – through the development of robotic hands and neural networks, as well through his musings on the philosophical underpinnings of intelligence.

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This biologist slips science into ‘The X-Files’

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University of Maryland biologist Anne Simon puts science into “The X-Files.” (Credit: Univ. of Md.)

If the truth is out there in this year’s reboot of “The X-Files,” microbiologist Anne Simon helped put it there.

Simon, a researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, has been a science adviser to “X-Files” creator Chris Carter since the end of the original show’s first season in 1994. Carter was a family friend, and Simon was so taken by the show’s premiere that she volunteered her scientific services.

She loved seeing the interplay between FBI Agent Fox Mulder, who’s a true believer in UFOs, and Agent Dana Scully, who starts out as a thoroughly skeptical scientist. “How often are scientists portrayed as real people?” she told GeekWire. “Back then, never.”

The first show she consulted on, “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” featured a mysterious character with green blood, as well as a flask containing weird bacteria. Simon came up with a way to tell that the bacteria were of extraterrestrial origin.

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Blue Origin repeats launch-and-landing feat

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard propulsion module fires its rocket engines for a soft landing. It marked the second trip to space and touchdown for the same prototype vehicle. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture sent up its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on another flight test to outer-space altitudes today, and brought it back to a safe landing.

The uncrewed flight at Bezos’ West Texas test facility arguably marks the first time that a reusable rocket designed for a vertical landing proved to be actually reusable for space missions.

There are caveats to that claim, to be sure: The SpaceShipOne rocket plane, the X-15 and NASA’s space shuttles have all demonstrated reusability after going into space. Those craft landed horizontally, like an airplane, rather than vertically. In addition, test rockets flown by the DC-X program as well as Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace and SpaceX have been reused after taking vertical hops. However, those rockets stuck to altltudes below 100 kilometers (62 miles), the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Despite all the caveats, Blue Origin’s feat marks a significant step toward flying reusable rocket ships on suborbital space trips on a commercial basis, for tourism as well as for research.

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Space billionaires trade banter and blastoffs

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Richard Branson is in a friendly rivalry with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may have done another flight test, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is making waves with its rocket progress – but don’t forget about Richard Branson.

“Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t,” the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic said during a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “There’ll be banter like this which will take place, and that’s good. People will have a choice of which spaceships they want to use to go to space.”

Blue Origin is developing spaceships for suborbital as well as orbital trips. In November, Blue Origin’s uncrewed New Shepard test vehicle went into space for the first time and made a successful vertical landing. If all goes well, the company could be flying passengers in two years.

Today there was a torrent of tweets about a possible Blue Origin flight test. First, the Federal Aviation Administration alerted aviators to stay away from the airspace over the company’s test range in West Texas. Then, around midday today, the restrictions were lifted. One Twitter user, Patrick Brown, went so far as to post a picture of what appears to be a rocket trail leading up from the company’s test range in West Texas.

Blue Origin kept mum. “Unfortunately, Blue Origin doesn’t have anything to contribute at this time,” the company said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

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SpaceX shows how its Dragon spaceship hovers

A newly released video shows SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule pulling off a valuable trick: firing its thrusters to hover above a landing pad.

The Nov. 24 test was part of Project DragonFly, the California-based company’s effort to develop a Dragon that can touch down on land rather than splashing down in the ocean. The trick is likely to come into play when future Dragons come back from the International Space Station — or land on Mars.

This test was conducted at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in Texas. The Dragon was suspended from a tether, and then engineers fired up its eight SuperDraco thrusters for five seconds. SpaceX said the firing generated about 33,000 pounds of thrust before the craft was returned to its resting position.

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‘X-Files’ revival brings UFO sleuths into the light

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Alien visitation is a big topic for “The X-Files.” (Credit: Fox)

UFOs are back in style, thanks in part to the return of “The X-Files” to television this weekend, almost 13 years after the last episode had its original airing. And while Mulder and Scully are delving into new anomalies in prime time, the folks who deal with UFO reports in real life are gearing up for renewed attention as well.

“X-Files, Y-Files, No-Files, I get calls from people who say they have evidence of alien visitation,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “Either they’ve seen something, they’ve photographed something or they’re in touch with something.”

The calls generally come in at a regular rate, but Shostak does recall that there was a noticeable uptick while the original “X-Files” show was on TV.

Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab who’s the author of “Alien Universe,” notes that attitudes toward UFOs tend to reflect depictions in popular culture, ranging from flying saucers and little green men to mysterious “Men in Black” and alien conspiracies. The original “X-Files” told tales of gray extraterrestrials and government coverups, and he’s curious to see whether the new series will follow the same path.

“It could well be that what the new X-Files will ultimately accomplish is to introduce a new generation to the mysteries of Area 51 and the unsettling idea of the Men in Black,” Lincoln wrote in an email. “I have said enough. They’re watching…”

One expert who won’t be watching is Peter Davenport, who’s the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, or NUFORC. He doesn’t even own a television.

“I try to avoid addressing works of fiction, because I am a scientist,” he told GeekWire from his home base in Harrington, Wash. “I collect data that is appropriate and accurate. … I find [fictional UFO tales] to be unsatisfying, seeing that I deal with the real thing, all day, every day.”

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Boeing trims back 747 jet production

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A Boeing 747-8 jet is assembled at the company’s factory in Everett. (Credit: Boeing)

The Boeing Co. says it will cut back the production rate for its 747 jets to one every two months and report an $885 million pre-tax charge against earnings, due to the slower-than-expected recovery of the air cargo market.

“Global air passenger traffic growth and airplane demand remain strong, but the air cargo market recovery that began in late 2013 has stalled in recent months and slowed demand for the 747-8 Freighter,” Ray Conner, Boeing vice chairman and president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said Jan. 21 in a news release.

He voiced confidence that business would pick up for the 747-8 jet as companies replace their older 747-400 freight airplanes, but said cutting back production was a “prudent step to further align production with current market requirements.”

Some observers were less sanguine about the 747’s prospects.

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