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Feds investigate Tesla Autopilot fatality

Tesla Autopilot
Tesla Motors stresses that its Autopilot feature is still in beta. (Credit: Tesla Motors)

Tesla Motors says it’s cooperating with federal authorities in the investigation of the first known traffic death involving a driver who was using the Autopilot self-driving feature on the company’s Model S electric car.

In a report posted online today, Tesla said it had just learned that the National Highway Transportation Safety Board was opening a preliminary evaluation into Autopilot’s performance during a fatal crash. In a statement, the NHTSA said the opening of an investigation shouldn’t be construed as a determination that “there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles.”

Tesla’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, expressed his condolences to the victim and his family today in a tweet.

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Sand ripples tell tales about Mars’ climate

Image: Mars sand ripples
Two sizes of ripples can be seen in this view of a Martian sand dune. The larger ripples are roughly 10 feet apart, and unlike any type seen in earthly sand fields. The smaller ripples, superimposed on the larger ripples, are similar to those seen on Earth. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

The sands of Mars move in mysterious ways – including one way that’s not seen on Earth’s surface, but only on the sandy bottom of bodies of water. And the scientists behind NASA’s Curiosity rover mission say those weird medium-sized ripples can reveal how Mars’ atmosphere has changed, or not, over the course of billions of years.

The alien ripples are the focus of a research paper published today by the journal Science.

“Earth and Mars both have big sand dunes and small sand ripples, but on Mars, there’s something in between that we don’t have on Earth,” Caltech researcher Mathieu Lapotre said in a NASA news release. Lapotre, who works with the Curiosity mission’s science team, is the lead author of the Science report.

The report is based on a close-up examination of the Bagnold Dunes, a stretch of Martian sand that Curiosity passed through as it made its way toward the foothills of 3-mile-high Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons).

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Next IT plans to deploy an army of chatbots

Sgt. Star, the virtual assistant that Next IT created for Army.com, can answer questions via smartphones. (Credit: Next IT)
Sgt. Star, the virtual assistant that Next IT created for Army.com, can answer questions via smartphones. (Credit: Next IT)

Before Siri, Cortana and Alexa, there was Next IT and its chatbots: The Spokane Valley company made it possible for you to “Ask Jenn” at Alaska Airlines, or “Ask Julie” at Amtrak, or check in with “Sgt. Star” at GoArmy.com.

Now Next IT is raising $20 million to take advantage of the new wave of enthusiasm about conversational AI assistants.

“That’s a wave we’re certainly ready to ride,” Tracy Malingo, Next IT’s president, told GeekWire.

Malingo said $12 million of Next IT’s investment round is in the form of equity, with the remaining $8 million taking the form of debt restructuring. “We are pleased with the response that we’ve gotten,” she said. About $14.5 million has been raised so far, and she expects to hit the $20 million target within 90 days.

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UW says prof violated sex harassment rules

The University of Washington says that an internal investigation has found virus researcher Michael Katze violated sexual harassment policies – and that disciplinary action is currently under consideration.

Michael Katze
The University of Washington says virologist Michael Katze has violated university sexual harassment policies. (Credit: UW)

“His conduct was inappropriate and not in any way reflective of the university’s values,” UW spokesman Norm Arkans said today in a statement posted online. “This is why the matter is now in the faculty disciplinary process, through which an appropriate outcome will be adjudicated.”

The statement came after BuzzFeed published a lengthy report delving into the details of the investigation. The UW case is the latest in a series of academic sexual-harassment cases to come to light.

Buzzfeed quoted Katze’s attorney, Jon Rosen, as saying that Katze will “continue to vigorously defend against the false and salacious charges pending before the University of Washington adjudication panel.”

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Asteroid Day hits home with videos

Image: Asteroid entering atmosphere
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

One bad day is all it takes for an asteroid to set off a mass extinction. But Asteroid Day – which falls on June 30 – is set aside as one good day to focus on the effort to head off future bad days, and even take advantage of the riches that near-Earth objects can offer.

“Our goal with Asteroid Day is to dedicate one day each year to learn about asteroids, the origins of our universe, and to support the resources necessary to see, track and deflect dangerous asteroids from Earth’s orbital path,” Brian May, the guitarist/astrophysicist who co-founded the Asteroid Day campaign, said in a news release marking the occasion.

Hundreds of museums and science centers around the globe, including Seattle’s Museum of Flight, are joining in the campaign. The museum will be live-streaming Asteroid Day video presentations and offering family activities to raise awareness about asteroids on Thursday.

This year, Asteroid Day’s organizers also have rolled out a seven-part YouTube video series that explains the threat – and the solutions that are within our reach.

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SNC works with U.N. on global space program

Image: Dream Chaser
An artist’s conception shows Sierra Nevada’s uncrewed version of the Dream Chaser space glider in orbit with a cargo module attached at the back. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Sierra Nevada Corp. says it’s working with the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs on an arrangement that would give countries around the world the opportunity to fly payloads into orbit and back on the company’s Dream Chaser space plane.

“Beyond the commerce, this represents the global reason and the holistic reason why space is important to us,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC’s Space Systems business area, told GeekWire today.

A memorandum of understanding with the U.N. office, known by the acronym UNOOSA, was signed last week, Sirangelo said. The pact is meant to lead to a detailed agreement under which UNOOSA and SNC would facilitate affordable access to space for U.N. member states.

SNC is currently developing an uncrewed cargo version of the Dream Chaser, whichNASA could use to transfer cargo to and from the International Space Stationstarting as early as 2019. For those resupply flights, the winged spaceship would be launched into low Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and brought back down to a runway landing at the end of each mission.

At last week’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle, Sirangelo said a Dream Chaser prototype was on track to be delivered to NASA for atmospheric testing in August.

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Microsoft’s CEO lays out his 10 Laws of AI

Image: Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella lays out his vision for ethical AI research. (Credit: Microsoft)

Taking a page from Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has drawn up six “musts” for the revolution in artificial intelligence that he sees coming, plus four musts for the humans living in the AI age.

Nadella’s deep dive into the philosophical underpinnings of AI research comes as Microsoft is turning its attention toward AI tools with a vigor reminiscent of billionaire co-founder Bill Gates’ pivot to the internet in the mid-1990s. In his own essay, published today online on Slate, Nadella refers not only to Asimov’s laws, but also to Gates’ 1995 “Internet Tidal Wave” memo.

The essay also comes amid a debate over whether AI could pose a “Terminator”-level threat to humanity’s long-term future. Just this week, for example, British physicist Stephen Hawking warned about the rise of an “AI arms race” in autonomous weapons. Over the past month, the White House has been conducting a nation-spanning series of workshops focusing on the promise and potential peril of intelligent machines.

Nadella says humans and machines could work together to address society’s greatest scourges, including disease, ignorance and poverty.

“Doing so, however, requires a bold and ambition approach that goes beyond anything that can be achieved through incremental improvements to current technology,” he writes. “Now is the time for greater coordination and collaboration on AI.”

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Hubble hails the 4th with galactic fireworks

Image: Kiso 5639
The tadpole galaxy Kiso 5639, also known as LEDA 36252, sparkles in this Hubble image. (Credit: D. Elmegreen et al. / Vassar / NASA / ESA)

Kiso 5639 is just a tadpole when it comes to galaxies, but it’s a real firecracker in a picture unveiled by the Hubble Space Telescope’s science team just in time for the Fourth of July.

Today’s image emphasizes the galaxy’s blazing head and its long, star-studded tail in shades of red, purple and blue that’d be well-suited for a fireworks display. The colors represent the different wavelengths that were picked up by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and UVIS imager during viewing opportunities in February and July of 2015. (A version of the picture released by the European Space Agency’s Hubble team isn’t quite as colorful.)

KIso 5639, which lies 82 million light-years away in the northern constellation Ursa Major, is an elongated type of galaxy known as a tadpole. The tadpole’s bright head marks a frenzy of starbirth, thought to be sparked by intergalactic gas that’s raining down on one end of the galaxy as it drifts through space. About 10 percent of all galaxies in the early universe are tadpoles, but few such galaxies have been seen nearby.

“I think Kiso 5639 is a beautiful, up-close example of what must have been common long ago,” Vassar College astronomer Debra Elmegreen said in today’s news release. “The current thinking is that galaxies in the early universe grow from accreting gas from the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a stage that galaxies, including our Milky Way, must go through as they are growing up.”

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A peek at Blue Origin’s Florida rocket factory

Image: Blue Origin Florida factory
An artist’s rendering shows Blue Origin’s orbital vehicle production facility, which is under construction in Florida. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos today put a spotlight on the construction of a giant rocket production facility in Florida for his Blue Origin space venture – but he also gave a shout-out to the engine production team back in Kent, Wash.

In an email to Blue Origin’s fans, Bezos noted that ground has been broken for an orbital vehicle manufacturing site at Exploration Park, just south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Ground-clearing actually began last month.)

“The 750,000-square-foot rocket factory is custom-built from the ground up to accommodate manufacturing, processing, integration and testing,” Bezos wrote. In comparison, the production facility in Kent where Blue Origin is building rocket engines and its New Shepard suborbital spaceships takes in about 300,000 square feet.

“It’s exciting to see the bulldozers in action – we’re clearing the way for the production of a reusable fleet of orbital vehicles that we will launch and land, again and again,” Bezos said.

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NASA’s heavy-lift booster blasts through test

Image: SLS booster test
Orbital ATK’s solid-rocket booster is in the midst of a test firing in Utah. (Credit: NASA)

The solid-rocket booster that’s destined to help send future NASA missions into deep space has blasted through its last full-scale test firing in advance of 2018’s maiden launch of the heavy-lift SLS rocket.

Today’s two-minute, six-second firing at Orbital ATK’s test range near Promontory, Utah, wowed hundreds of workers and onlookers who gathered (at a safe distance) to watch the booster light up like a “Game of Thrones” dragon.

“It’s always a blast,” Alex Priskos, manager of NASA’s Space Launch System Boosters Office, said with a straight face afterward.

Charlie Precourt, a former NASA astronaut who is now Orbital ATK’s vice president and general manager for propulsion systems, said it was a “beautiful test.”

“That rumble that you get is awesome,” he said.

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