Aliens? Even Elon Musk has fun with rocket show

Rocket contrail

The contrail left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch looked like a giant fish in the skies over Southern California. (Elon Musk via Twitter)

The bloom of exhaust that blossomed in Southern California’s skies during Dec. 22’s liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket sparked jokes and jitters — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joining in.

Was it an alien visitation? A North Korean rocket attack? A stunt involving Santa’s sleigh?

Folks who were following the launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base at sunset knew full well what it was: a rocket booster’s contrail, catching the last rays of sunlight high above the California coast.

But for a while there, it was a mystery to unaware residents in Los Angeles, San Diego and locales in between. Such displays, including the infamous “Norway Spiral” of 2009, often spark UFO reports.

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SpaceX satellite launch sparks sky spectacle

SpaceX launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX has sent 10 more satellites into orbit for the Iridium NEXT constellation, passing the halfway point in its 75-satellite launch contract.

The satellites went into space aboard a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket launched at 5:27 p.m. PT today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and were deployed sequentially into pole-to-pole orbits.

The first-stage booster was initially used for an Iridium mission in June, and then was recovered and refurbished for today’s launch. The contrail that was created during the booster’s descent provided a spectacle that was visible in sunset skies throughout Southern California.

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OceanGate wins more funding for Titanic sub

OceanGate team with Cyclops 2

OceanGate’s workers get into the holiday spirit as they work on the Cyclops 2 submersible at the company’s Everett headquarters. (OceanGate Photo via Twitter)

OceanGate is in the midst of a $5.1 million investment round aimed at pushing the Everett, Wash.-based company closer to a Titanic undersea adventure.

The round was reported today in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Joel Perry, OceanGate’s director of media and marketing, told GeekWire that the privately held company’s existing investors have already filled out much of the funding. He declined to identify the investors.

The money will give OceanGate “a little more runway” as it finishes work on its Cyclops 2 deep-sea submersible, Perry said.

OceanGate’s team has nearly completed construction of Cyclops 2 at the company’s Everett marina workshop. Perry said the pressure vessel underwent testing this week to make sure there were no leaks.

“It’s a perfect seal,” Perry said.

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Iconic free-flying astronaut passes away at 80

Retired astronaut Bruce McCandless II, the first astronaut to fly untethered from his spacecraft, has died at the age of 80. NASA said McCandless passed away on Thursday in California, but gave no cause of death. The former naval aviator flew in space twice. During a spacewalk in 1984, McCandless tested a hand-controlled maneuvering unit that took him more than 300 feet away from the shuttle Challenger. He jokingly referred to Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk: “That may have been one small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.”

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Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster gets set for liftoff

Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster is nestled within the payload shroud for a Falcon Heavy rocket. (Elon Musk via Instagram)

After a flurry of speculation, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is showing off his midnight cherry-red Tesla Roadster sports car as it’s being prepared for its ride atop a Falcon Heavy rocket.

Liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is currently set for next month, and if all goes as planned, the car will be put into a long, looping trajectory bridging the orbits of Earth and Mars.

“A Red Car for the Red Planet,” Musk wrote in the Instagram post that accompanied pictures of the car.

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Year in Science: Neutron star smashup leads the list

Neutron star merger

An artist’s conception shows the “cocoon” that is thought to have formed around the smashup of two neutron stars. (NRAO / AUI / NSF Image / D. Berry)

For the second year in a row, the journal Science is hailing a discovery sparked by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory as the Breakthrough of the Year.

Last year, the breakthrough was LIGO’s first-ever detection of a gravitational-wave burst thrown off by the merger of two black holes. This time, the prize goes to the studies spawned by the first observed collision of two neutron stars.

More than 70 observatories analyzed the data from the Aug. 17 event, which came in the form of gravitational waves as well as electromagnetic emissions going all the way from radio waves to gamma rays.

“The amount of information we have been able to extract with one event blows my mind,” Georgia Tech physicist Laura Cadonati, deputy spokesperson for the LIGO team, told Science.

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How machine learning will affect future jobs

Dermatoscope

A dermatologist uses a dermatoscope, a type of handheld microscope, to look at skin. Computer scientists at Stanford have created an artificially intelligent diagnosis algorithm for skin cancer that matched the performance of board-certified dermatologists. (Stanford Photo / Matt Young)

Computer scientists have created artificial-intelligence algorithms that are at least as good as trained humans at recognizing the signs of skin cancer or malaria, but does that mean your future physician will be a bot?

Two experts on AI explain in the journal Science why the rapid rise of machine learning could be good for well-paid professionals like dermatologists and epidemiologists, no big deal for workers on the low end of the wage spectrum, but big trouble for employees in the middle.

That’s because those middle-spectrum jobs are particularly vulnerable to the machine-learning treatment, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tom Mitchell say.

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