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Universe Today

Japanese billionaire reveals his round-the-moon crew

Four years after announcing that he’d lead an around-the-moon mission aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has named the eight people he wants to fly with him.

In 2018, Maezawa said he’d fund a mission aimed at letting creative artists on the level of the late Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson experience a trip beyond Earth orbit. Some of the people he’s picked are making use of creative channels that didn’t exist when Picasso was in his prime.

The eight crew members — and two alternates — were chosen out of more than a million people from 249 countries and regions who registered their interest via Maezawa’s DearMoon website.

“I’m very thrilled to have these amazing people join me on my journey to the moon and excited to see what inspiring creations they come up with in space,” Maezawa said as he announced his selections.

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GeekWire

AI matches an average programmer’s prowess

Artificial intelligence software programs are becoming shockingly adept at carrying on conversations, winning board games and generating artwork — but what about creating software programs? In a newly published paper, researchers at Google DeepMind say their AlphaCode program can keep up with the average human coder in standardized programming contests.

“This result marks the first time an artificial intelligence system has performed competitively in programming contests,” the researchers report in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

There’s no need to sound the alarm about Skynet just yet: DeepMind’s code-generating system earned an average ranking in the top 54.3% in simulated evaluations on recent programming competitions on the Codeforces platform — which is a very “average” average.

“Competitive programming is an extremely difficult challenge, and there’s a massive gap between where we are now (solving around 30% of problems in 10 submissions) and top programmers (solving >90% of problems in a single submission),” DeepMind research scientist Yujia Li, one of the Science paper’s principal authors, told me in an email. “The remaining problems are also significantly harder than the problems we’re currently solving.”

Nevertheless, the experiment points to a new frontier in AI applications. Microsoft is also exploring the frontier with a code-suggesting program called Copilot that’s offered through GitHub. Amazon has a similar software tool, called CodeWhisperer.

Oren Etzioni, the founding CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and technical director of the AI2 Incubator, told me that the newly published research highlights DeepMind’s status as a major player in the application of AI tools known as large language models, or LLMs.

“This is an impressive reminder that OpenAI and Microsoft don’t have a monopoly on the impressive feats of LLMs,” Etzioni said in an email. “Far from it, AlphaCode outperforms both GPT-3 and Microsoft’s Github Copilot.”

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GeekWire

First Mode’s zero-emission ambitions get a $200M boost

Seattle-based First Mode and the Anglo American mining company have signed a binding agreement to combine First Mode with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. The transaction, which is expected to close next month, values the newly combined business at around $1.5 billion and includes a $200 million equity injection from Anglo American.

The outlines of the business combination plan were first announced in June. At that time, Anglo American said the terms of the agreement were non-binding, and the financial details weren’t released.

First Mode is an engineering company that initially focused on providing expertise for space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But in recent years, it’s devoted increasing attention to carbon-reduction technologies for heavy industry.

The company provided the hydrogen-fueled hybrid power plant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa this year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“First Mode was founded in 2018 with the goal of building the barely possible,” Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and CEO, said today in a news release. “We have done just that, and our mission is now to rapidly decarbonize heavy industry by dramatically reducing our customers’ greenhouse gas emissions. I can’t imagine a team better suited to this urgent challenge.”

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GeekWire

Boeing’s last 747 has left the building

Nearly 55 years after Boeing started production of its jumbo 747 jet, the last model of the iconic airplane left the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., closing a chapter in aviation history.

“For more than half a century, tens of thousands of dedicated Boeing employees have designed and built this magnificent airplane that has truly changed the world,” Kim Smith, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for 747 and 767 programs, said in a statement after Tuesday night’s rollout.

Workers and VIPs gathered at the Boeing plant to watch the plane, wrapped in a green protective skin, emerge from the giant assembly building. The 747-8 will go on to other facilities for painting and fitting-out, with delivery to Atlas Air scheduled in early 2023. Atlas plans to operate the cargo freighter as well as the second-last 747 to be delivered for Kuehne + Nagel, a Swiss logistics company.

Back in the 1960s, Boeing engineer Joe Sutter designed the 747, the world’s first twin-aisle airplane, to carry 400 passengers or more on long-haul flights. Production began in 1967, and the first plane entered service with Pan Am in 1970.

For decades, the 747 was celebrated as the “Queen of the Skies” — and it played supporting roles in movies ranging from “Airport ’77” and “Air Force One” to the 2020 sci-fi movie “Tenet.” More than 1,500 of the planes were produced.

But as the aviation industry came to focus on fuel efficiency and point-to-point route planning, the business model for the passenger 747 became obsolete. In recent years, the 747 has increasingly been used for cargo rather than passengers, and the baton has been passed to other wide-body jets such as the 767, 777, 787 and 777x.

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GeekWire

Orion spacecraft takes its last close look at the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that’s meant to put the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles to the lunar surface during what’s expected to be the final large maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to succeed in order to bring the uncrewed spacecraft back to Earth intact. The only other firings on the schedule are aimed at making tweaks in the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to blaze a trail for future crewed missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and ranged as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are filled by three mannequins that have been hooked up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that might affect future fliers.

There’s also an experimental, Alexa-style AI assistant code-named Callisto, which was built for NASA by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, including “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, have been using Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Debbie Korth, NASA’s Orion deputy program manager, said Callisto’s users found the system to be “very interactive, very engaging in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes, play music, ask questions.”

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Cosmic Science

If it looks like a duck, it might have been a dinosaur

It’s long been accepted that birds are essentially modern dinosaurs, but does that mean an ancient dinosaur could have looked and acted like a duck? Paleontologists are pointing to fossils from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to make that argument.

In a study published by Communications Biology, researchers say that a well-preserved skeleton dated to the Upper Cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, exhibits streamlined features that would have been well-adapted to swimming. Back then, the region that’s now arid desert would have been much more hospitable to ducks and their kin — offering forests, streams and lakes.

The fossilized species was named Natovenator polydontus, a Latinized scientific name meaning “swimming hunter with many teeth.”

“This dinosaur, a carnivorous theropod that walked on two legs, is the first non-avian dinosaur to evolve into a streamlined body and start living in the water,” Yuong-Nam Lee, a vertebrate paleontologist at Seoul National University, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

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Cosmic Space

Scientists say we were caught in a black hole’s bull’s-eye

Nine months ago, astronomers observed a flash that they said came from a mysterious object that seemed to flare with the brilliance of a quadrillion suns, located 8.5 billion light-years from Earth.

Now they say they’ve figured out what that object was.

In a pair of studies published by Nature and Nature Astronomy, researchers report that the event was probably sparked when a supermassive black hole suddenly consumed a nearby star. The event’s violent energy was released in the form of a relativistic jet of blazing-hot material that headed in Earth’s direction.

The jet didn’t do us any damage. But its bull’s-eye directionality produced a phenomenon called “Doppler boosting,” also known as the headlight effect. That made the jet’s flash look brighter than it would have if the jet went in a different direction.

Scientists say the flash, which was designated AT2022cmc when it was detected by the Zwicky Transient Facility in February, is only the fourth known example of a Doppler-boosted tidal disruption event.

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Universe Today

Quantum data gets sent through a simulated wormhole

For the first time, scientists have created a quantum computing experiment for studying the dynamics of wormholes — that is, shortcuts through spacetime that could get around relativity’s cosmic speed limits.

Wormholes are traditionally the stuff of science fiction, ranging from Jodie Foster’s wild ride in “Contact” to the time-bending plot twists in “Interstellar.” But the researchers behind the experiment, reported in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature, hope that their work will help physicists study the phenomenon for real.

“We found a quantum system that exhibits key properties of a gravitational wormhole, yet is sufficiently small to implement on today’s quantum hardware,” Caltech physicist Maria Spiropulu said in a news release. Spiropulu, the Nature paper’s senior author, is the principal investigator for a federally funded research program known as Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics.

Don’t pack your bags for Alpha Centauri just yet: This wormhole simulation is nothing more than a simulation, analogous to a computer-generated black hole or supernova. And physicists still don’t see any conditions under which a traversable wormhole could actually be created. Someone would have to create negative energy first.

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GeekWire

How data analysis is done on an orbiting satellite

For the past 10 months, Amazon Web Services has been running data through its cloud-based software platform on what’s arguably the world’s edgiest edge: a satellite in low Earth orbit.

The experiment, revealed today during AWS’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, is aimed at demonstrating how on-orbit processing can help satellite operators manage the torrents of imagery and sensor data generated by their spacecraft.

“Using AWS software to perform real-time data analysis onboard an orbiting satellite, and delivering that analysis directly to decision makers via the cloud, is a definite shift in existing approaches to space data management,” Max Peterson, AWS’ vice president of worldwide public sector, said today in a blog posting. “It also helps push the boundaries of what we believe is possible for satellite operations.”

AWS’ experiment was done in partnership with D-Orbit, an Italian-based company that focuses on space logistics and transportation; and with Unibap, a Swedish company that develops AI-enabled automation solutions for space-based as well as terrestrial applications.

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GeekWire

Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.