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Cassini probe survives dive inside Saturn rings

Saturn view from Cassini
This unprocessed image of Saturn’s atmosphere was captured by the Cassini probe during its dive inside the planet’s rings. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute Image)

NASA’s Cassini orbiter zoomed inside Saturn’s rings overnight for the first time in its 20-year-long flight – and lived to tell about it.

Signals received by the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone radio antenna in California confirmed that the bus-sized spacecraft survived its closest-ever encounter with the ringed planet.

Cassini zoomed as close as 1,900 miles to Saturn’s cloud tops and within about 200 miles of the innermost visible edge of the rings, at a relative speed of 77,000 mph, NASA reported in an update early today.

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This robot can build a house all by itself

Construction robot at work
Artwork shows the Digital Construction Platform at work in an icy environment. (MIT Illustration)

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a double-armed, laser-guided robot that can basically 3-D print a 50-foot-wide house in less than 14 hours with almost no human intervention. The Digital Construction Platform, described today in Science Robotics, consists of a large hydraulic arm mounted on a platform with motorized treads, plus a smaller electric-powered arm for finer movements.

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Space ventures call for boosting FAA’s budget

Image: Blue Origin launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lifts off for a test in January 2016. (Credit: Blue Origin)

When senators asked executives from Blue Origin and other commercial space ventures what they could do to help them at a Senate hearing today, they received an unusual reply: Give more money to the regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration.

“”It may be rare for companies to be pushing for more funding for their regulators, but we really think this is a case where it could be a good investment for the country,” Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said during a Senate space subcommittee hearing.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known as AST, is responsible for regulating and encouraging development of private-sector launch companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX.

AST’s budget for the current fiscal year is just a little less than $20 million, or just a little more than 0.1 percent of the FAA’s total budget of $15.9 billion.

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First live ultra-HD video beamed from space

Whitson and Fischer
As NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson looks on, crewmate Jack Fischer jokes that “you can probably see into my pores” during the first’ever live 4K UHD video feed from the International Space Station. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA and AWS Elemental showed off something completely different from the International Space Station today: the first live video in ultra-high-definition 4K detail beamed down from space.

The technical achievement was as important as what the audience at the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Las Vegas expo saw on the big screen – and what internet users around the world could see on 4K UHD devices.

“My thought was, ‘Wow, am I glad all this was working,’” Rodney Grubbs, program manager for NASA Imagery Experts, said afterward during an NAB panel. NASA has put plenty of 4K UHD videos online, but this was the first time it did live video streaming in 4K UHD.

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Scientists spur debate over First Americans

Mastodon unearthed
San Diego Natural History Museum paleontologist Don Swanson points to a rock fragment near a large piece of a mastodon tusk at the excavation site. (San Diego Natural History Museum Photo)

Scientists say the patterns of breakage in mastodon bones found 25 years ago near a San Diego highway suggest that humans battered the beast 130,000 years ago.

That’s a shocker, because before now, the oldest widely accepted evidence of human habitation in North America goes back only about 16,000 years. If the scientists are right, that makes the place they studied, known as the Cerutti Mastodon site, the oldest archaeological site in North America.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling to have 130,000 years proposed,” said University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins. He has found previous evidence for human habitation in 14,000-year-old preserved poop but wasn’t involved in the latest study, published today by the journal Nature.

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Waymo opens up self-driving test in Phoenix

Waymo family
Waymo’s call for early riders highlights Phoenix-area families who are already participating in the company’s autonomous-car trial. (Waymo via YouTube)

It’s been a good day on the streets and in the courts for Waymo, the driverless-car company that was spun out from Google as another Alphabet subsidiary last year.

First off, Waymo opened up its closed trial for autonomous driving in the Phoenix metropolitan area for public signup. This means Arizonans can apply to become “early riders” in the self-driving minivans and SUVs that Waymo is testing.

In a blog post, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said the rider pool will be expanded from a handful to hundreds over the course of the trial. “The goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco,” he said.

The cars will be made available for free to the households of applicants selected for the trial, with rides provided in an area including Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert. To accommodate the extra riders, Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans will be expanded from 100 to 600 vehicles, Krafcik said.

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Uber will bring flying cars to Dallas and Dubai

Uber concept for flying cars
http://www.geekwire.com/2017/uber-flying-car-2020-dallas-dubai/

Uber has been talking about flying cars for months, but today the ride-sharing company fleshed out its plan to become a flight-sharing company in 2020.

“We actually get to live in this era of flying cars,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, said today at the first-ever Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas. “I hate that term, by the way, but we’ll have to live with it.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth region in Texas and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have been targeted as the pilot cities for the Uber Elevate Network, Holden said. Eventually, the company sees urban aviation as a service that can roll out to the hundreds of cities that Uber serves around the world.

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‘Genius’ spices up Einstein’s tale for TV

Geoffrey Rush as Einstein
Geoffrey Rush, who plays the older Albert Einstein in “Genius,” re-enacts a cllassic picture of the world-famous physicist. (National Geographic Photo / Dusan Martincek)

There have been plenty of TV documentaries about Albert Einstein, but almost none of them begin with a political assassination and a sex scene. “Genius” does.

The 10-part docudrama series, premiering April 25 on the National Geographic Channel, goes where few accounts of the physicist’s life have gone before.

Executive producer Ron Howard told The Associated Press that the series’ eyebrow-raising first scenes “fulfilled the desire to announce to audiences right away that we weren’t approaching it in an entirely straightforward, traditional and academic way.”

“We were looking for the drama in the story and willing to deal with Einstein, warts and all,” Howard said.

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Mozak turns brain mapping into video game

Mozak video game
Mozak employs citizen scientists and gamers to trace the intricate shapes of neurons, as shown by the purple lines above, and to speed fundamental brain science research. (UW Graphic)

game called Mozak is turning thousands of Internet users into “tracers” who help neuroscientists map out the tangled circuitry of brain cells.

The citizen-science project was created by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in partnership with the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Mozak took a share of the spotlight at last October’s White House Science Fair, but the project is just now coming out of beta. In a news release, UW says results gleaned from the game have helped the Allen Institute’s researchers reconstruct neurons 3.6 times faster than previous methods.

Guided by online tutorials, the game’s tracers can produce neuron reconstructions that are 70 to 90 percent complete, compared to the 10 to 20 percent success rate for the most effective computer-generated reconstructions.

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Kitty Hawk’s flying car looks like a flying raft

Kitty Hawk prototype
The prototype Kitty Hawk Flyer takes to the air. (Kitty Hawk via YouTube)

Kitty Hawk, the hush-hush flying car venture backed by Google billionaire co-founder Larry Page, unveiled the first working prototype of its all-electric Flyer today – but this one is more suited for a dock than a garage.

The single-seat vehicle looks like a cross between a Jet Ski watercraft and a scaled-up octocopter, with a couple of floats attached to the bottom.

“As you can see it’s a bit rough around the edges,” Kitty Hawk said on its website, “but we were so excited to show you its capabilities that we didn’t want to wait until we finished its design. The consumer version will be available by the end of this year.”

Kitty Hawk said the finished Flyer “will have a different design.” But like the prototype, it’ll be classified as an ultralight and won’t require a pilot’s license to operate. Kitty Hawk expects it to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for recreational flying over fresh water in uncongested areas.

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