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How solar storms blasted Mars’ atmosphere

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Atmospheric readings from NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, shown in this artist’s conception, are helping scientists figure out how Mars’ climate changed from warm to cold. (Credit: LASP / NASA)

Scientists studying Mars’ atmosphere say solar storms probably played a big role in transforming the Red Planet from the warm, hospitable place it was billions of years ago to the cold world it is today.

That’s just one of the many findings about Mars found in four dozen research papers published today by Science and Geophysical Research Letters. The source of the scientific cornucopia is NASA’s $671 million MAVEN mission, which put a bus-sized spacecraft into Martian orbit last year.

The mission’s name is an acronym that stands for Mars Atmosphere and VolatileEvolutioN. Its aim is to measure the current dynamics of the Martian atmosphere – and then factor those measurements into models to figure out how Mars lost much of its air billions of years ago.

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James Bond’s SPECTRE tech: 7 gadgets for 007

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James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) checks out an Aston Martin DB10 sports car as geekmaster Q (Ben Whishaw) looks on. (Credit: MGM Pictures / Columbia Pictures / Eon Productions)

What’s a James Bond movie without gadgets? “SPECTRE,” the latest film in the decades-long series, delivers way-out innovations that aren’t yet ready for real life, tributes to classic gee-whiz-ware and a couple of high-tech twists that are ripped from the headlines.

Here are seven technological tropes to watch for when Bond goes after the shadowy crime organization known as SPECTRE.

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Want to be an astronaut? Here’s your chance

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NASA says it will take astronaut applications starting next month. (NASA photo)

NASA is opening its doors to recruit a fresh batch of astronauts – and by the time the candidates finish training, they just might be able to ride shiny new space taxis into orbit.

The space agency says it will start taking applications on Dec. 14 for its next class of astronaut candidates. Applications will be accepted via USAjobs.gov through mid-February, and selections are to be announced in mid-2017.

That’s close to the time when Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 are expected to start ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, representing the first crewed spaceships to be launched into orbit from U.S. soil since the shuttle fleet retired in 2011.

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‘Origins’ concert sets the Big Bang to music

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An artist’s conception shows two “branes” colliding in multidimensional space, creating the Big Bang that gave rise to our own universe 13.8 billion years ago. (Animation by Deep Sky Studios)

The Big Bang never looked, or sounded, so good: The piece de resistance for this week’s SpaceFest in Seattle is a symphonic review of 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, from its expansive beginnings to an unpredictable sonic wave of emergent behavior.

Most of the SpaceFest events take place at the Museum of Flight, but the capper is a concert titled “Origins: Life in the Universe,” unfolding at Benaroya Hall at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“The whole focus is to blow people away with the beauty of astronomy,” said scientist-composer Glenna Burmer, one of the prime movers for “Origins.”

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Let Google’s A.I. bot answer your emails

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Google’s Smart Reply feature analyzes incoming email with an encoder. (Google image)

Weary of spambots, robo-calls and Twitter bots? Google is coming out with an artificial-intelligence tool that’s on your side for a change: Smart Reply, a feature that’s built into its Inbox app for Android and iOS.

Smart Reply is designed to take the thumbwork out of replying to email on a mobile device.

“I get a lot of email, and I often peek at it on the go with my phone. But replying to email on mobile is a real pain, even for short replies,” Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google, writes on the company’s research blog. “What if there were a system that could automatically determine if an email was answerable with a short reply, and compose a few suitable responses that I could edit or send with just a tap?”

Corrado explains at length how Google’s engineers developed a deep neural network that analyzes incoming email and suggests short responses based on context.

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FAA chief wants drone experts to ‘think big’

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Quadcopters are among the types of drones that are expected to be registered. (NASA photo)

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told the members of a policy task force to “think big, and think outside the box” as they met today for the first time to discuss a system for registering recreational drones.

This week’s three-day meeting in Washington comes against the backdrop of heightened capability, heightened expectations and heightened concerns about remote-controlled and robotic aerial vehicles.

Task force co-chair David Vos – who handles Project Wing for Google’s holding company, Alphabet – told attendees at an air traffic control convention on Monday that his venture could start using drones for commercial deliveries in 2017. Amazon and Walmart are working on similar systems.

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After 15 years, it’s time to remodel space station

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The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since 2000. (NASA photo)

Today marks the 15th anniversary of that first moving-in day for spacefliers living on the International Space Station – and like many places that have been lived in for 15 years, the ISS is in the midst of renovations.

This isn’t your typical “reno,” however: There’s no other place where the doors have to be replaced while the construction site is moving at 18,000 mph, 225 miles above Earth’s surface. That’s basically what’s involved in getting the station ready for the arrival of Boeing and SpaceX crew transport ships in the 2017 time frame.

“To implement it on orbit is extremely complex, and must be orchestrated very carefully,” John Vollmer, Boeing’s chief engineer for the space station project, says in a video marking the anniversary. Boeing is the prime contractor for the station’s U.S. segment.

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Three future frontiers for Seattle space ventures

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Jeff Bezos shows off the concept for Blue Origin’s launch system during a September news conference in Florida. Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is headquartered in Kent, Wash. (Blue Origin photo)

What is it about Seattle that’s led some folks to call it the “Silicon Valley of space,”and how far can space entrepreneurs go in the next 20 years? One of the panels at Friday’s Xconomy Seattle 2035 conference tackled those questions – and added a couple of shorter-term predictions as well.

Jason Andrews, the CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., listed three reasons why Seattle is up there with Southern California, Silicon Valley, Texas and Florida’s Space Coast when it comes to commercial spaceflight.

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Lithium-air battery nirvana comes nearer

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Researchers say lithium-air batteries could boost the range of electric cars. (Credit: IBM via YouTube)

A decade from now, we could all be driving low-cost electric cars for hundreds of miles without recharging, thanks to an advance in lithium-air battery technology announced today. Or maybe it’ll be some other lithium-air innovation. Or maybe we’ll see batteries with a different chemistry, such as sodium-air or sodium-lithium.

“The battery of the future is going to encompass a lot of these different technologies,” University of Cambridge chemist Clare Grey told GeekWire.

Grey is the senior author of a study describing a technological twist that promises to remove some of the obstacles that have blocked the path to battery nirvana. The research, featured on the cover of this week’s issue of the journal Science, shows how changing the nanostructure of the electrodes and shifting the chemistry can boost a lithium-oxygen battery’s efficiency and make it more stable.

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Amazon gets two spots on drone task force

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Amazon Prime Air is developing drones that could be used for deliveries. (Amazon photo)

The Federal Aviation Administration says the task force charged with drawing up recommendations for registering recreational drones includes two Amazon representatives: Sean Cassidy, a former Alaska Airlines pilot who’s working on the Amazon Prime Air drone venture; and Ben Gielow, who’s a senior manager for public policy at Amazon.

In today’s announcement detailing the task force’s membership, the FAA said the group’s co-chairs are Dave Vos of GoogleX and Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office.

Other task force members include Walmart’s Thomas Head, Best Buy’s Parker Brugge and GoPro’s Tony Bates, as well as representatives of drone manufacturers and operators, aviation associations, surveyors and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Amazon and Walmart are both working on drone delivery systems. GoogleX, which has served as Google’s think tank, is looking into commercial drones as well. Such operations, however, would be covered by a different set of regulations that’s working its way through the FAA system.

The task force is charged with suggesting a system for registering recreational drones by Nov. 20. The group is due to convene formally for the first time next Tuesday, the FAA said.  Public comments are being taken through Nov. 6.

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