777X tool sets record for 3-D-printed objects

Image: Judge measures tool
Guinness World Records’ judge, Michael Empric, measures the trim tool (Credit: ORNL)

A trim-and-drill tool that will be tested during construction of the Boeing Co.’s next-generation 777X jet has already produced something notable: recognition from Guinness World Records as the world’s largest solid 3-D-printed object.

The trim tool, developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, was made in only 30 hours using carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials. It’s 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet tall, and weighs about 1,650 pounds.

After Oak Ridge completes verification testing, the tool will get its tryout at a Boeing production facility in St. Louis, Mo. It’ll be used to secure the jet’s composite wing for drilling and machining before assembly.

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Dogs get what you say, and how you say it

Image: Dogs on scanner
Trained dogs gather around the fMRI scanner in Budapest. The researchers said the dogs seemed to enjoy lying in the scanner during the experiment. (Credit: Enikő Kubinyi)

Scientists have put dogs through brain scans to confirm what pet owners already suspected: Dogs not only comprehend the words we speak, but also how we say them.

The patterns of brain activity suggest that dogs process the words of their trainers much as humans do.

“There is a well-known distribution of labor in the human brain,” Attila Andics of Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University said in a news release. “It is mainly the left hemisphere’s job to process word meaning, and the right hemisphere’s job to process intonation. The human brain not only separately analyzes what we say and how we say it, but also integrates the two types of information, to arrive at a unified meaning. Our findings suggest that dogs can also do all that, and they use very similar brain mechanisms.”

The findings, which are being published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, are based on functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

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Crew ends a year on Hawaii’s make-believe Mars

Image: Simulation crew
Andrzej Stewart, chief engineering officer for the HI-SEAS simulation, looks around after emerging from a habitat in Hawaii. Other crew members celebrate in the background. (Credit: Univ. of Hawaii)

After spending 365 days cooped up in a habitat and mock spacesuits in Hawaii, six volunteers say astronauts can cope with an even longer, real-life mission to Mars and back.

“A mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” said Cyprien Verseux, a French biology student who was part of the HI-SEAS simulation crew. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

Verseux and his crewmates were held in isolation for an entire year inside the 1,200-square-foot habitat on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. They were allowed to venture outside only for scientific expeditions while wearing simulation spacesuits.

The experiment is part of a NASA-funded program aimed at identifying psychological, technological and logistical factors that might pose challenges for a long-term mission to Mars. This was the fourth and longest simulation managed by HI-SEAS at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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DNA sequenced in space for the first time

Image: Kate Rubins with DNA experiment
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA using the MiniON device at lower right. (Credit: NASA)

NASA biologist-astronaut Kate Rubins performed the first DNA sequencing experiment in space over the weekend, using a miniaturized device that was delivered to the International Space Station just last month.

The palm-sized MiniON DNA sequencer, built by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, could eventually open the way for full-fledged experiments studying how space radiation might scramble the genes of earthly organisms. This time around, the experiment was aimed merely at finding out whether the device worked.

Rubins used the MiniON sequencer to analyze prepared DNA samples from a mouse, bacteria and a virus. The same analysis was done with equipment down on the ground, with the aim of reading out and matching up the chemical letters of genetic code – that is, adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.

The outcome? In today’s status update, NASA reported that the experiment demonstrated for the first time that DNA sequencing could indeed be done in an orbiting spacecraft. That wasn’t a sure thing. Some researchers worried that air bubbles could have gummed up the works in zero-G.

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Thousands sign up for drone pilot testing

Image: Drone
The FAA says it’s a new dawn for commercial drone ventures. (Credit: FAA via Twitter)

More than 3,000 people signed up today to get certified as commercial drone pilots under new regulations, and there’ll be more to come, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said during a kickoff news briefing in Washington, D.C.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency already has issued 76 waivers that allow commercial ventures to go beyond the now-standard rules, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. Almost all of those waivers give the go-ahead for flying drones at night, he said. CNN has gotten clearance for flying drones over people, while BNSF Railway will be allowed to fly drones beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

The FAA’s new regulations for small drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, generally rule out night flying, flights over uninvolved people, or flights beyond the line of sight. But Huerta said the ventures that received waivers have laid out extra measures to ensure safe operation under those conditions.

The new regulations, known as Part 107, were issued in June but didn’t take effect until today. They replace a case-by-case regulatory system for drones weighing less than 55 pounds – a system that relied on individually issued Section 333 exemptions.

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Signal traced to sunlike star sparks SETI interest

Image: RATAN-600 radio telescope
SETI researchers say a radio spike was detected by the RATAN-600 radio telescope. (Credit: SAO RAS)

SETI researchers are buzzing about a strong spike in radio signals that seemed to come from the direction of a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, known as HD 164595.

The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source – but it could also be a case of earthly radio interference, or a microlensing event in which the star’s gravitational field focused stray signals coming from much farther away.

In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI – including Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster, who brought the case into the public eye this weekend.

At least two SETI research groups are aiming to track HD 164595 tonight. The SETI Institute is using the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, while METI International is looking to the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama.

Gilster reports that the signal spike was detected more than a year ago, on May 15, 2015, by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya.

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Check out Juno’s close encounter with Jupiter

Juno's view of Jupiter
Jupiter’s north polar region is coming into view as NASA’s Juno spacecraft approaches the planet. This view was captured on Aug. 27 from a distance of 437,000 miles (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Ted Stryk).

NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its closest scheduled swing over the cloud tops of the giant planet Jupiter today – and sent back pictures.

The solar-powered probe zoomed about 2,600 miles above the clouds at a speed of 130,000 mph, at 6:44 a.m. PT, NASA said. It was the first close encounter since Juno entered Jovian orbit on July 4, 53 days ago.

“Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned, and Juno is firing on all cylinders,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update.

Juno had all of its science instruments turned on, plus its JunoCam visible-light imager. Hours after the encounter, NASA released a picture of Jupiter that was snapped during today’s approach from a distance of 437,000 miles. Even closer views are on the way.

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How to shield a probe for trip to Alpha Centauri

Image: Starshot nano-probe
An artist’s conception suggests how light from a battery of laser-equipped antennas can power a sail to the Alpha Centauri system. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission are already fine-tuning the design for their nano-probes to increase the odds they’ll survive the trip to Proxima Centauri b.

In a paper posted to the arXiv pre-print server last week, researchers lay out their latest calculations on the kinds of damage their scaled-down spacecraft could face as they speed toward the Alpha Centauri system at 20 percent of the speed of light.

The mission and the study have taken on greater importance, due to this week’s announcement that a potentially habitable planet has been detected in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf that’s part of the star system. It’s the star that’s closest to our own solar system, lying only 4.2 light-years away.

In astronomical terms, Proxima Centauri is right next door. But in mission planning terms, it’s far, far away. It would take tens of thousands of years for a conventional spacecraft to get there.

To reduce that time frame, Breakthrough Starshot has proposed sending bunches of lightweight electronic wafers, known as “Starchips.” The Starchips would be accelerated to relativistic speeds by aiming powerful lasers at film-thin light sails that carry the probes along.

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Map shows where climate will move species

Image: Migrations in Motion
A visualization shows the likely routes that would be taken by mammals (pink), birds (blue) and amphibians (yellow) as they move northward in response to climate change. (Credit: Mapbox / OpenStreetMap / Migrations in Motion / Nature Conservancy)

A University of Washington professor’s research into climate-caused migrations has been transformed into a hypnotic map of the Americas that gets the message across.

The animated map, titled “Migrations in Motion,” shows the trajectories that species are expected to take in response to the warming trend that’s likely to unfold over the course of the coming decades.

“One of the nice things about the map is that it gives you a look at the main effects of climate change for animals: that species are going to move around,” UW ecologist Joshua Lawler told GeekWire.

Three years ago, Lawler and his colleagues published a study in Ecology Letters that laid out the likely impact of rising temperatures on migration patterns for nearly 3,000 species.

The study suggested that species in North America would tend to shift toward more northerly habitats, following routes that went through higher elevations and less developed terrain. In the eastern United States, the Appalachian Mountains stuck out as a superhighway for species shifts.

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Concrete poured for Blue Origin space complex

Image: Blue Origin construction work
Workers pour concrete at the site of Blue Origin’s rocket factory in Florida. (Credit: Space Florida)

Work is progressing on the facility in Florida where Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture plans to build its orbital spaceships.

Bezos called attention to the groundbreaking milestone for the 750,000-square-foot rocket factory in June. Today, Space Florida, the state development agency that’s leasing the property and Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36 to Blue Origin, tweeted that concrete is being poured for the campus’ first building.

The $200 million manufacturing and launch facility at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park is expected to open by early 2018 and employ about 300 people.

That’s in addition to the folks who work at Blue Origin’s headquarters and production facility in Kent, Wash., and at its suborbital launch complex in West Texas. The company says it has about 700 employees today.

Blue Origin is currently focusing on its suborbital space effort. So far it’s conducted four fully successful uncrewed tests of its reusable, hydrogen-fueled New Shepard spaceship, which is built in Kent and flown in Texas.

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