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A killing field from the day the dinosaurs died

Cretaceous inundation
Scientists say a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma)

First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began.

That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week.

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Astronauts take a not-so-historic spacewalk

Spacewalkers
NASA astronaut Anne McClain floats between spacewalkers Christina Koch and Nick Hague in advance of today’s spacewalk. (NASA Photo)

Today’s spacewalk at the International Space Station wasn’t as historic as it was originally meant to be, but it got the job done nevertheless.

NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch connected a set of three lithium-ion batteries on a pair of the station’s solar arrays, replacing a set of six older, less powerful nickel-hydrogen batteries.

The six-hour, 45-minute outing followed up on a spacewalk that Hague and NASA crewmate Anne McClain conducted last week to swap out a similar set of batteries. It turns out that one of those newly installed batteries hasn’t been charging properly. To remedy the situation, Hague and Koch did some set-up work that will make it possible for two of the nickel-hydrogen batteries to take its place. That part of the job will be completed using the station’s robotic arm.

Originally, NASA planned to have Koch and McClain take on today’s extravehicular tasks. That would have made it the first all-female spacewalk in history. Women have gone on spacewalks many times before, dating back to 1984, but always in the company of men.

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Jeff Bezos’ worlds collide over ‘The Expanse’

Cara Gee in Blue Origin crew capsule mockup
Cara Gee, who plays a tough-as-nails spaceship captain on “The Expanse,” takes a seat in a mockup of Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule. “No one asked me to wear this helmet on our tour of the facility,” she tweeted. “But here I am in a real life space chair.” (Cara Gee via Twitter)

Science fiction met space fact this week in the Seattle area when the cast of “The Expanse,” the science-fiction jewel in Amazon’s streaming-video crown, got a look at Blue Origin’s spaceship.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the common denominator in the meetup: He personally engineered the sci-fi series’ shift from SyFy to Prime Video, and announced it onstage at a space conference last May while I was sitting beside him. Bezos is also the founder of Blue Origin, the space venture that is testing its New Shepard suborbital spaceship and gearing up to build its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.

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Robotic ostrich handles box-stacking tasks

Boston Dynamics Handle robot
Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot picks up and stacks boxes. (Boston Dynamics via YouTube)

Boston Dynamics’ latest robo-creature may be cuter than its creepy robot dogs, but its potential application could nevertheless make warehouse workers wary.

The Handle robot, demonstrated in a YouTube video posted on March 28, is a long-necked robot that looks a lot like a two-wheeled mechanical ostrich. The robot’s “head” features an arrangement of suction cups that can pick up boxes from a pallet, and then release them to make a neat stack.

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Rocket Lab launches DARPA’s R3D2 satellite

Rocket Lab launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from its New Zealand launch pad. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed its first launch of the year from New Zealand today, sending an experimental satellite into orbit for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The company’s Electron launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula right on time, at 4:27 p.m. PT March 28 (12:27 p.m. local time March 29). Launch had been delayed for several days — first, due to concerns about a video transmission system, and then due to unacceptable weather conditions.

About 50 minutes after launch, the Electron’s kick stage successfully deployed DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration satellite, or R3D2, into a 264-mile-high orbit..

“Mission success! Great kick stage burn and final orbit. Perfect flight!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a tweet.

The 330-pound satellite is designed to unfurl a 7-foot-wide antenna to demonstrate how large structures can be packed within small satellite-size packages.

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Bill Gates endorses bill to boost nuclear power

TerraPower test
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo)

If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today.

The world’s second-richest person is the founder and chairman of Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as one of his top policy priorities, and he reportedly followed up by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States.

TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan.

During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors.

The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035.

That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is planning to build a small-scale modular reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026.

There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the legislation was reintroduced by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter.

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‘Nobel Prize of computing’ goes to AI trio

LeCun, Bengio and Hinton
Facebook’s Yann LeCun, Mila’s Yoshua Bengio and Google’s Geoffrey Hinton share the 2018 Turing Award. (ACM Photos)

The three recipients of the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2018 Turing Award, known as the “Nobel Prize of computing,” are sharing the $1 million award for their pioneering work with artificial neural networks — but that’s not all they share.

Throughout their careers, the researchers’ career paths and spheres of influence in the field of artificial intelligence have crossed repeatedly.

Yann LeCun, vice president and chief AI scientist at Facebook, conducted postdoctoral research under the supervision of Geoffrey Hinton, who is now a vice president and engineering fellow at Google. LeCun also worked at Bell Labs in the early 1990s with Yoshua Bengio, who is now a professor at the University of Montreal and an adviser for Microsoft’s AI initiative.

All three also participate in the Learning in Machines and Brains program sponsored by CIFAR, previously known as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

In the March 27 award announcement, ACM credited the trio with rekindling the AI community’s interest in deep neural networks — thus laying the groundwork for today’s rapid advances in machine learning.

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How Lumotive will put metamaterials in your car

Lumotive's William Colleran and Gleb Akselrod
Lumotive’s co-founders, CEO William Colleran and CTO Gleb Akselrod, show off a printed-circuit wafer that’s part of their “secret sauce” for next-generation lidar detectors. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — A succession of spinouts supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has taken an unorthodox technology known as metamaterials to high-flying realms ranging from satellite communications to drone-sized radar systems — but the latest metamaterials venture to come out of stealth is aiming for a more down-to-earth frontier: the car that will someday be driving you.

Like KymetaEchodyneEvolv and Pivotal CommwareLumotive takes advantage of electronic circuits that are able to shift the focus and path of electromagnetic waves without moving parts. Unlike those other Seattle-area companies, Lumotive is using those metamaterials to steer laser light instead of radio waves.

“It’s always been kind of a Holy Grail of metamaterials to figure out how you can do that at optical wavelengths,” Lumotive’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Gleb Akselrod, told GeekWire this week.

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737 MAX hearings focus on training and FAA’s role

Senate hearing
Acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, face a Senate panel during a hearing on airline safety. (C-SPAN Photo)

Were airline pilots adequately trained on a catastrophic scenario involving the automatic flight control system for Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes? And did the Federal Aviation Administration cede too much of its responsibility to Boeing when the system was certified as safe?

Those are among the key questions that U.S. senators had for federal officials today during a pair of Capitol Hill hearings today.

Meanwhile, Boeing brought about 200 pilots and airline industry officials to Renton, Wash., the base of operations for the company’s 737 program, to learn more about the changes being made in the wake of two fatal MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia killed all 189 people aboard, while this month’s Ethiopian Airlines crash killed 157.

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LIGO and Virgo gear up for gravitational waves

LIGO upgrade
Detector engineers Hugh Radkins (foreground) and Betsy Weaver (background) take up positions inside the vacuum system of the detector at LIGO Hanford Observatory to perform the hardware upgrades required for Advanced LIGO’s third observing run. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT Photo / Jeff Kissel)

Physicists won’t be fooling around on April 1 at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Washington state and Louisiana, or at the Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy.

Instead, they’ll all be bearing down for the most serious search ever conducted for signs of merging black holes, colliding neutron stars — and perhaps the first detection of a mashup involving both those exotic phenomena.

Both experiments have been upgraded significantly since their last observational runs, resulting in a combined increase of about 40 percent in sensitivity. That means even more cosmic smashups should be detected, at distances farther out. There’s also a better chance of determining precisely where cosmic collisions occur, increasing the chances of following up with other types of observations.

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