Looking for Planet 9? There’s an app for that

Image: Planet X

An artist’s conception shows Planet X, a.k.a. Planet Nine. (Credit: Robin Dienel / Carnegie Inst.)

Citizen scientists can join an online hunt for icy worlds, brown dwarfs and other yet-to-be-discovered objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, using a technique that’s not all that different from the method that led to Pluto’s discovery 87 years ago.

“Backyard Worlds: Planet 9” could even lead to the discovery of a super-Earth that may (or may not) be hidden on the solar system’s far frontier. The icy world known as Planet Nine or Planet X is only theoretical for now, but its existence would explain some of the puzzles surrounding the weird orbits of some far-out objects.

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NASA looks into quicker trip beyond the moon

Image: Orion

An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion capsule in flight. (Credit: NASA)

NASA and its commercial partners say they’re studying the possibility of sending astronauts beyond the moon years earlier than planned, by putting a crew on the first flight of the space agency’s heavy-lift Space Launch System.

The NASA study, sparked in part by a desire for the Trump administration to do something dramatic in space during its first term, would consider whether such a flight could occur in 2019 or 2020.

The current plan calls for an uncrewed test flight of the SLS and NASA’s Orion capsule in late 2018, known as Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1. That mission would followed by a crewed test flight called EM-2 in the 2021-2023 time frame.

In a statement, NASA said acting administrator Robert Lightfoot asked Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, to assess whether the first crew could ride on EM-1 instead of EM-2.

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India’s 104-satellite launch sets a record

PSLV launch

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, sending 104 satellites spaceward. (ISRO Photo)

A record-setting flock of 104 satellites was successfully deployed into orbit overnight after the launch of an Indian rocket. Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries played a part in getting nine of those satellites where they needed to go.

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota at 9:28 a.m. local time today (7:58 p.m. PT Feb. 14).

The mission’s main payload was the Indian Space Research Organization’s Cartosat 2D, a car-sized satellite designed for environmental mapping. Another 88 Dove nanosatellites, each about the size of a toaster oven, will become part of Planet’s Earth-observing constellation.

Eight more nanosatellites were launched for Spire Global, which is filling out a constellation to monitor weather as well as aviation and maritime traffic. This is the second Spire PSLV mission facilitated by Spaceflight Industries, which handles launch logistics.

Spaceflight also arranged to get Israel Aerospace Industries’ BGUSat nanosatellite on the flight. BGUSat is a research spacecraft built by students at Ben Gurion University to perform cloud imaging and measure atmospheric background radiation.

Six more research satellites rounded out the flock, which represented the highest number of satellites launched on a single rocket. ISRO said all 104 satellites were successfully deployed into pole-to-pole orbits within a half-hour after launch.

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Amazon’s plan to turn packages into gliders

Amazon drone delivery

An Amazon delivery drone prepares to descend toward its target during a test run in England. One of Amazon’s patents covers a system that would eject packages from as high as 500 feet. (Amazon via YouTube)

Amazon has come up with some wild and crazy patents, but a patent issued today has to rank among the wildest: It calls for turning the packages ejected by its delivery drones into radio-controlled gliders.

The patent application was filed back in 2015, months before the Seattle-based retailing giant unveiled its initial design for delivery drones. There’s no indication that the concept has been incorporated into Amazon’s prototype systems. But don’t be surprised if someday you see your package of potato chips winging its way into your back yard.

The maneuvering system, developed by a team of inventors including Brian Beckman and a trio of Israelis, calls for ejecting the packages from drones while they’re in flight. A spring-loaded shooter, a drogue parachute or a set of actuators could do the trick.

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Get a sneak peek at Boeing’s 737 MAX 9 jet

Boeing 737 MAX 9

A photographer takes a picture of the first Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet during its assembly at the company’s Renton plant. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

RENTON, Wash. – One year after Boeing’s super-fuel-efficient 737 MAX 8 jet made its aerial debut, its bigger sibling – the MAX 9 – is just weeks away from its rollout.

The 737 MAX 9 nearly 9 feet longer and should be able to carry up to 20 more passengers than the first MAX variant to roll down the runway. The assembly process takes advantage of new technologies, including a streamlined robotic system to drill the holes and screw in the bolts on the plane’s wings.

Boeing’s engineers have come up with new tricks for putting the planes together and testing them. But the biggest difference between getting the MAX 8 and the MAX 9 ready for prime time has to do with human factors, says Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for the 737 MAX program.

“I don’t think with respect to the design, the supply chain, there’s anything like that that gives us pause on what we ought to be doing on the Dash 9,” he told reporters at Boeing’s Renton plant on Feb. 13 during a sneak peek at the first MAX 9 and the assembly lines where it’s being built.

“But one thing that I would expect is that as we move through the flight tests of the past year, there are internal efficiencies that we should be able to gain,” Leverkuhn said. “Can we be sure that we’ve got the right team in place, with what I call full kits: parts, plans, tools ready to go?”

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NASA picks 3 top spots for a Mars landing

An artist’s conception shows the 2020 Mars rover with its robotic arm extended. (NASA / JPL Graphic)

An artist’s conception shows the 2020 Mars rover with its robotic arm extended. (NASA / JPL Graphic)

NASA has whittled down its choices for its next Mars landing site to three spots, including the hills where the space agency’s Spirit rover roamed a decade ago.

The Columbia Hills are among the three finalists because the silica deposits discovered there during Spirit’s mission suggest the site might have been part of an ancient hot springs.

That’s the sort of place that geologists say might hold evidence of past life, which is high on the scientific agenda for the rover that’s due to be launched in 2020.

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This laser scanner goes inside blood vessels

Endoscope views

Scanning fiber angioscopic images with red reflectance for structural images (left) and blue fluorescence for label-free biochemical contrast (right). The images reveal multiple atherosclerotic lesions with very low fluorescence in the blue spectrum in comparison to the surrounding healthy artery. (University of Michigan Medicine Photos)

Researchers have found a way to use a laser-scanning mini-camera to map the inner working of blood vessels and spot the early signs of stroke risk.

The proof-of-concept demonstrations, conducted using carotid arteries that were harvested during autopsies, are described today in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The technique takes advantage of an instrument known as a scanning fiber endoscope, or SFE, which was invented by Eric Seibel, a mechanical engineering research professor at the University of Washington.

Seibel designed the endoscope to be used in early cancer detection, but medical researchers at the University of Michigan repurposed the device to look for signs of atherosclerosis inside the harvested arteries. The researchers also conducted experiments using live rabbits.

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