U.S. flights to Cuba begin; Alaska Air gets set

Image: JetBlue arrival in Cuba
Crew members at the Santa Clara Abel Santamaría International Airport in Cuba welcome JetBlue Flight 387, the first commercial flight to Cuba from the U.S. in 55 years. (Credit: Business Wire)

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines today won the federal government’s formal approval to fly between Los Angeles and Havana, on the same day that JetBlue made a historic flight to Cuba.

JetBlue’s Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara marked the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the two countries since 1961.

The chill in air travel began after Cuba’s communist revolution, and warmed up last year when a deal was struck to let U.S. carriers make up to 110 daily round-trip flights to Cuban cities. Since then, the Transportation Department and U.S. airlines have been laying the groundwork for service to Cuba.

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Was SETI signal from aliens? Russians say ‘nyet’

Image: RATAN-600 radio telescope
Detectors for the RATAN-600 telescope form a wide ring in this fisheye view. (Credit: SAO-RAS)

Russian astronomers acknowledge that they picked up an “interesting radio signal” in the course of their search for alien transmissions, but that the signal was most probably a case of terrestrial interference.

“It can be said with confidence that no sought-for signal has been detected yet,” astronomers from the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement issued Aug. 30.

The signal spike at 11 GHz was detected by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in the southern Russian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia in May 2015, during a campaign that’s part of the worldwide search for extraterrestrial intelligence (a.k.a. SETI).

The detection didn’t come to light until last weekend, but once news started circulating, it touched off parallel observations by the SETI Institute and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. Those groups focused on the same area of the sky that was the target of the Russian observation: a sunlike star known as HD 164595 in the constellation Hercules.

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Why it’ll take years to see what Proxima b is like

Image: Proxima Centauri b
An artist’s conception shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b, with the red dwarf Proxima Centauri near the horizon. (Credi:t: M. Kornmesser / ESO)

University of Washington astronomer Rory Barnes says Proxima Centauri b is the biggest discovery in 20 years for planet hunters like himself, but it could take another 20 years to find out just how livable it is.

The alien planet orbits a red-dwarf star at a distance that puts it in a zone where liquid water could conceivably exist. The fact that such a world circles the sun’s nearest stellar neighbor, 4.2 light-years away, puts it on top of the list of potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system.

Barnes, however, emphasizes the word “potentially.” During a lecture at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, set for 7:30 p.m. tonight, the UW astronomer will delve into the opportunities and obstacles for life on Proxima Centauri b.

“We’re looking at a 15- to 20-year time frame before we can answer this question of whether it’s habitable,” Barnes told GeekWire in advance of the talk.

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Elephant census confirms catastrophic decline

Image: Elephants
Savanna elephant populations are dropping dramatically. (Credit: Great Elephant Census)

A first-of-its-kind census of African savanna elephants reveals that populations have declined by as much as 30 percent over the course of just seven years.

The backer of the Great Elephant Census, Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, said the findings were “deeply disturbing.” The tally was laid out today at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

Allen spent more than $7 million to fund and manage the survey and make the results available online.

“Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action, and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species,” Allen said in a statement.

The two-year project took advantage of sightings from the ground and from the air, as well as standardized data collection and verification methods, to come up with a baseline for future surveys. The project’s leaders figure that they counted more than 93 percent of savanna elephant populations across nearly 600,000 square miles of savanna.

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IBM’s Watson makes AI trailer about AI movie

Image: Morgan
IBM’s Watson AI software selected creepy moments for a trailer touting the AI thriller “Morgan,” including this close-up of the Morgan AI. How meta! (Credit: 20th Century Fox / IBM)

Experts may reassure us that artificial intelligence won’t take over the world anytime soon – but they just might invade the multiplex.

At least that’s the plot developing at IBM, where the Watson artificial-intelligence team programmed a computer to come up with a scary trailer for “Morgan,” a thriller about a genetically modified, AI-enhanced super-human.

GeekWire’s crack team of movie critics gave “Morgan” an average grade of C – but I have to say Watson’s trailer gave me the creeps. Maybe it’s the way short cuts are spliced together to create a sense of ominousness without revealing what the heck is going on. Maybe it’s the eerie music. Or maybe it’s just knowing that a faceless piece of software helped create it.

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R.I.P.: Boeing’s Joe Sutter, ‘Father of the 747’

Image: Joe Sutter
Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, the “Father of the 747,” takes a turn in the pilot’s seat. (Credit: Boeing file)

Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, who led the engineering team for the 747 jet in the mid-1960s and played a role in the investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, died this morning at the age of 95.

His passing was announced online by Ray Conner, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The cause of death was not mentioned.

Sutter’s role in creating Boeing’s biggest passenger jet earned him the title of “Father of the 747.” His 4,500-member team came to be known as “the Incredibles” for putting the plane into production 29 months after it was conceived.

“It remains a staggering achievement and a testament to Joe’s ‘incredible’ determination,” Conner wrote.

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AT&T focuses on down-to-earth drone strategy

Image: Drone at cell tower
A drone hovers near an AT&T cellular tower for an inspection. (Credit: AT&T)

When you think of the up-and-coming players in the commercial drone market, you might think of Amazon, or Google … but how about AT&T?

“AT&T is going to be one of the biggest users of drones in the United States,” Art Pregler, who heads AT&T’s drone program and serves as director of national mobility systems, told GeekWire in an interview.

That may sound like a bold statement – but Pregler is just reinforcing what John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and president of technology and operations, said last month at the company’s Shape conference in San Francisco.

Long before Amazon gets its drone delivery fleet in operation in the United States, AT&T will be deploying fleets of robo-fliers across the nation, thanks to regulatory changes that took effect this week.

Because of those changes, AT&T is now able to use unmanned aircraft systems to inspect cellular towers and check cellphone reception in urban areas – including the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, where the procedure is being demonstrated this week.

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Still no aliens: Lessons learned from SETI signal

Image: Green Bank Telescope
The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is tracking a faraway sunlike star known as HD 164595 for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. No alien blips have been received so far. (Credit: NRAO)

Fifteen months after an intriguing radio signal was picked up from a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, follow-up observations over the past couple of days have so far yielded nothing notable.

That shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s the way things have always turned out so far in the 56-year history of the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as SETI.

Nevertheless, the focus on a star called HD 164595 has served as a teachable moment for those interested in the search.

“Our follow-up observations of HD 164595 remind us of the importance of developing the organizational infrastructure that will let SETI research groups around the world communicate easily with one another, so interesting signals can get a fast follow-up observation from an independent site,” Doug Vakoch, president of METI International, told GeekWire in an email.

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NASA spotlights cloud app for citizen scientists

Image: GLOBE Observer app
NASA’s GLOBE Observer app lets anyone become a citizen scientist by collecting observations of clouds. (Credit: NASA GLOBE Observer)

One of NASA’s longest-running citizen science programs isn’t just for kids anymore: A newly released app called GLOBE Observer can turn any smartphone user into a cloud researcher.

And we don’t mean “cloud” in the computing sense. A program called Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE, is looking for a wide range of cloud imagery that can feed into climate research.

“Clouds are one of the most important factors in understanding how climate is changing now, and how it’s going to change in the future,”  Holli Riebeek Kohl, NASA lead for the GLOBE Observer project, explained today in a news release.

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Hunt for Planet Nine leads to mini-worlds

Image: Planet X
An artist’s conception shows Planet X, a.k.a. Planet Nine. (Credit: Robin Dienel / Carnegie Inst.)

The hypothetical world known as Planet X or Planet Nine hasn’t yet been found, but thanks to the search, astronomers have discovered smaller worlds on the solar system’s edge.

Mapping such objects could lead to the big discovery: a planet that’s thought to be at least several times bigger than Earth, lurking at least 200 times farther away from the sun. Or it could lead to a different explanation for the puzzling, highly elongated orbits of some of the objects that lie far beyond Pluto.

Planet Nine’s existence was proposed last year as the most elegant way to account for the orbits of worlds such as Sedna and 2012 VP113 (which has been nicknamed “Biden” in honor of the veep). Ever since then, astronomers have been surveying the skies in hopes of tracking it down.

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