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Scientists say they’ve detected birth of first stars

First stars
This artist’s rendering shows the universe’s first, massive, blue stars embedded in gaseous filaments, with the cosmic microwave background just visible at the edges. (NSF Illustration / N.R. Fuller)

Astronomers have detected radio waves from a time within 180 million years of the Big Bang, and they say they see signs of what may be the first stars to coalesce in the infant universe.

The detection was made using an array of radio antennas that was set up in Australia for a project known as the Experiment to Detect the Global Epoch of Reionization Signature, or EDGES. Astronomers from Arizona, Massachusetts and Colorado reported their discovery in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

“Finding this minuscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,” lead investigator Judd Bowman of Arizona State University said in a news release. “Telescopes cannot see far enough to directly image such ancient stars, but we’ve seen when they turned on in radio waves arriving from space.”

Although the signal was difficult to detect, it was twice as dramatic as computer models predicted for the startup of the first stars. If the findings hold up, the models would have to be adjusted to account for the effect, and one possible explanation could involve interactions with dark matter.

“If that idea is confirmed, then we’ve learned something new and fundamental about the mysterious dark matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe,” Bowman said. “This would provide the first glimpse of physics beyond the standard model.”

Some astronomers counseled caution.

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Will common-sense AI keep us safer?

Elephant and basketball
Which object would fit through the doorway? The elephant vs. basketball choice is an example of the common-sense questions that pose a challenge for artificial intelligence programs. (AI2 Illustration)

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s new $125 million initiative to give artificial intelligence programs more common sense has another goal that’s closer to home: making AI safer for humans.

That’s the way Oren Etzioni, the CEO of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, explained it in an exclusive interview with GeekWire about Project Alexandria.

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Space station trio comes home amid a big chill

Soyuz descent
A Russian Soyuz spacecraft descends through the morning sky on its way to a touchdown in Kazakhstan. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Three spacefliers touched down amid subfreezing temperatures in Kazakhstan tonight, closing out their 168-day mission on the International Space Station. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft brought NASA’s Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, plus Russia’s Alexander Mazurkin, back to Earth at 6:31 p.m. PT Feb. 27 (8:31 a.m. local time Feb. 28).

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Chinook salmon are shrinking – but why?

Chinook salmon
A Chinook salmon frequents Oregon’s McKenzie River. (Morgan Bond Photo via UW)

King salmon, the big fish that are famous in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, are shrinking — not only in numbers, but in size as well.

A study published today in the journal Fish and Fisheries has found that the largest and oldest Chinook salmon (also known as king salmon or Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) have mostly disappeared along the West Coast.

“Chinook are known for being the largest Pacific salmon, and they are highly valued because they are so large,” lead author Jan Ohlberger, a research scientist in the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, said in a news release. “The largest fish are disappearing, and that affects subsistence and recreational fisheries that target these individuals.”

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White House, Boeing reach $3.9B Air Force One deal

Air Force One
Boeing will beef up two 747 jets to serve as Air Force One planes. (Boeing Illustration)

The White House says President Donald Trump has struck an “informal deal” with Boeing on a $3.9 billion fixed-price contract for two new Air Force One planes.

“Thanks to the president’s negotiations, the contract will save the taxpayers more than $1.4 billion,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said today in a widely distributed statement.

The extent of the savings is debatable, however.

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How tech team plans to put 4G service on the moon

Lander and rover
The PTScientist team’s Alina lander and Audi Quattro rover are on display at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. (PTScientists Photo via Twitter)

Can you hear me now, on the moon? Not yet, but Nokia has just signed onto a team that aims to extend 4G coverage to the lunar surface as early as next year.

The Finnish company says it will be Vodafone’s technology partner in an industry-supported moonshot led by PTScientists, a German-based team that was one of the competitors in the soon-to-be-ended Google Lunar X Prize competition.

Even though PTScientists couldn’t make the deadline to go for the prize, it’s still working on a plan to send its Alina lander and two Audi Quattro rovers to the lunar surface. The team has a contract with Seattle-based Spaceflight to ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket or an alternative by as early as 2019.

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Flap over Russian troll factory hits home

Katarina Aistova and Agata Burdonova
A photo that Russian linguist Agata Burdonova posted to her VKontakte account shows her at right, getting a hug from Katarina Aistova at left. Aistova has been linked to the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s “troll factory.” (Agata Burdonova via VK.com)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Agata Burdonova may marvel on LiveJournal over the fact that she lives just a couple of miles from Bill Gates’ house, but I’m marveling more over the fact that I live just a couple of miles from her apartment.

The proximity is notable because Burdonova has been drawn into an international controversy over her connections to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA. That’s the infamous troll factory whose activities sparked 13 federal indictments this month, stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

According to a report from Russia’s TV Rain, Burdonova was an aide to the head of the IRA’s media and public forums department, Katarina Aistova, who figured in a New York Times story about the operation in 2015.

Burdonova’s voluminous social-media postings paint a much softer picture,

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Stratolaunch’s giant airplane picks up the pace

Stratolaunch taxi test
Stratolaunch’s twin-fuselage airplane undergoes taxi tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. Note the size of the pickup truck that’s traling the plane. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Stratolaunch Systems, the space launch venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, says it put its super-duper-sized carrier plane through a fresh round of revved-up taxi tests last weekend at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

The six-engine, 385-foot-wide aircraft, nicknamed Roc, is the world’s largest airplane as measured by wingspan. It’s designed to carry up rockets for high-altitude launches in midflight.

Stratolaunch has said orbital launches could begin in the 2019-2020 time frame if the test program goes well.

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Vahana shows off video of flying car’s first flight

Vahana, the Airbus-backed venture that’s developing a fleet of electric-powered air taxis, shared the results of its first flight test amid the prairies of eastern Oregon three weeks ago. But now there’s video showing the Alpha One octocopter landing on its airstrip at the Pendleton UAS Test Range.

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New team takes charge of Arecibo radio telescope

Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory has a 1,000-foot-wide radio dish built into Puerto Rico’s karst terrain. (NAIC Arecibo Observatory / NSF Photo)

The 1,000-foot Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, made famous by such movies as “Contact” and the James Bond thriller “Goldeneye,” will be under new management.

Today the National Science Foundation announced that the University of Central Florida has begun the transition process for taking on operation and management of the observatory. “NSF is currently negotiating the operations and management award with UCF,” the federal agency said in a statement.

The handover is aimed at reducing the federal outlay for the Arecibo Observatory, which has been struggling with squeezed budgets in recent years.

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