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SpaceX goes slow on Internet satellite plan

Image: SpaceX and Space Needle
During SpaceX’s Seattle announcement about an Internet satellite network, the company’s logo lit up Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. (GeekWire photo)

It’s been nine months since SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, announced plans to put up a constellation of 4,000 satellites to provide global Internet service, and scores of employees are being hired in the Seattle area to start making it so. But today SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell signaled that the company is reconsidering those plans.

“I would say that this is actually very speculative at this point,” Space News quoted Shotwell as saying at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia convention in Hong Kong. “We don’t have a lot of effort going into that right now.”

The project is technically doable, she said. “But can we develop the technology and roll it out with a lower-cost methodology so that we can beat the prices of existing providers like Comcast and Time Warner and other people? It’s not clear that the business case will work,” she said.

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Forbes

Scientists raise alarm over Persian Gulf climate

Image: Hajj
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray outside the Namira Mosque near Mecca on Sept. 23 during this year’s hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. (AP file photo by Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Climate researchers say that summertime conditions in some parts of the Persian Gulf region could become intolerable by the end of the century – and that the annual hajj pilgrimage, a core observance for Muslims, is ”likely to become hazardous to human health.”

“The main day of the pilgrimage involves worshiping at a site outside Mecca from sunrise to sunset in an outdoor setting. … That’s the kind of ritual that could be quite limited,” said Elfatih Eltahir, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is one of the authors of a report published today by Nature Climate Change.

Eltahir and his co-author, Jeremy Pal of Loyola Marymount University, base their projections on an analysis of the potential regional effects from global climate change under two of the scenarios laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One scenario assumes “business as usual” and a steady rise in greenhouse gas emissions. The other, known as the RCP4.5 scenario, assumes the rise in emissions can be stabilized.

The analysis suggests that if current trends continue, summertime heat and humidity would occasionally rise beyond the limit of human endurance in Abu Dhabi and Dubai; in Qatar’s capital, Doha; in the Saudi city of Dhahran and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Temperatures in Mecca wouldn’t hit the threshold by the end of the century, but they’d come close.

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Forbes

NASA patents are so crazy they just might work

Image: ARGOS training
A NASA astronaut trains for a future mission task that would typically be conducted in weightlessness, using the patented Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS. (Credit: NASA)

When NASA put out the word this month that it was offering more than 1,200 of its patented technologies to startups for no money down, the spotlight naturally fell on the farthest-out ideas – for example, a collapsible airplane suitable for sending to Mars, or solar sails for interplanetary flights.

But the real point of the exercise is to make it easier to convert NASA’s out-of-this-world ideas into profitable innovations on Earth. NASA is willing to waive the patent licensing fees for the first three years of commercialization, but will take a standard net royalty fee once businesses start selling commercial products.

The resulting products might well have nothing to do with outer space. Here are seven patented ideas that may sound crazy but could work for the right kind of startup.

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GeekWire

Hurricane Patricia looks scary from space

VIIRS view of Hurricane Patricia
An infrared image from the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument shows the well-defined eye of Hurricane Patricia as of 9:20 GMT Friday. (Credit: NASA / NOAA / CIMSS)

Even the International Space Station’s commander is worried about Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever tracked by the National Hurricane Center.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently heading the station’s crew during his yearlong tour of orbital duty, passed along a picture showing the monstrous whirl of white clouds as it approached Mexico today:

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Pluto’s dog-bone moon poses a puzzle

Kerberos
This image of Kerberos was created by combining four individual images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager that were captured on July 14, approximately seven hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, at a range of 245,600 miles (396,100 kilometers) from Kerberos. The image has bee processed to recover the highest possible resolution. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA’s New Horizons probe has finally filled out its family portrait of Pluto and its moons – and Kerberos, the last moon to get its closeup, turns out to be nothing like what scientists expected.

Before the piano-sized spacecraft’s July flyby, an analysis of Kerberos’ gravitational influence on Pluto’s four other moons suggested that it had some heft. But the fact that it was so dim led the mission team to conclude it must have a dark surface. Otherwise, why would an object so large reflect so little light?

It turns out that Kerberos is almost as tiny as Pluto’s smallest moon, Styx. Like Styx, Kerberos’ surface appears to consist of relatively clean water ice, making it bright enough to reflect about half of the sunlight it receives.

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Forbes

Carve a scientist into your Halloween pumpkin

Physicist pumpkins
Symmetry magazine’s pumpkin designs include Paul Dirac-ula, Mummy Noether, Albert Frank-Einstein, Werewolfgang Pauli and Scary Curie. (Photo for Symmetry by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab with Sandbox Studios)

Albert Frank-Einstein? Scary Curie? You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Symmetry magazine: Those science geeks really know how to throw a Halloween party. Or a Christmas party. Or a Valentine’s Day soiree. Their latest holiday tribute to scientific greats takes the form of pumpkin-carving patterns that will impress trick-or-treaters even if they don’t know a thing about Werewolfgang Pauli’s Exclusion Principle.

In addition to Einstein, Curie and Pauli, Symmetry provides templates to make your jack-o’-lanterns look like Paul Dirac-ula (with batty positrons flying in the background) or Mummy Noether (featuring the famous mathematician under wraps).

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Forbes

Find the people in the ‘Pluto Time’ picture

"Pluto Time" mosaic
A mosaic showing the New Horizons probe’s view of Pluto is made up of thousands of images sent in by fans of the “Pluto Time” project. The tiny red box near the center highlights a picture of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. (Credit: NASA / JPL)

During the buildup to the big Pluto flyby in July, the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission launched a campaign to show regular folks what time of day during earthly twilight was as bright as high noon on the dwarf planet – and asked them to send in their “Pluto Time” selfies. Now those pictures have been assembled into mosaics that show off the shades of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

If you look closely at the blown-up view of Pluto, you’ll find a bonus: a portrait of Clyde Tombaugh, the self-taught astronomer who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930.

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Forbes

Egypt plans cosmic-ray pyramid scans

Bent Pyramid
The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, is slated to be the first target for the Scan Pyramids project in Egypt. (Credit: Coralie Carlson / AP)

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out: The international project to scan Egypt’s pyramids for hidden chambers, using cosmic rays, is gearing up for its launch this weekend.

The scientists behind the Scan Pyramids effort will install sensitive detectors to map the pyramids’ structure by studying how the cosmic rays that continually zap our planet skitter through the stones. Similar techniques have been used recently to look inside ancient pyramids in Mexico and Belize, as well as theruined reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site.

“The survey will be implemented through invasive – though non-destructive – scanning techniques using cosmic rays in cooperation with scientists and experts from Japan, France and Canada,” Egypt’s antiquities minister, Mamdouh Eldamaty, told Ahram Online. Ahram Online and Le Figaro reportedthat Eldamaty would announce the project’s official launch on Sunday.

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Forbes

‘Back to the Future’ sets off a tech time warp

Image: Marty McFly and hoverboard
In “Back to the Future Part 2,” Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) grabs a hoverboard to make his escape in 2015 – sparking a decades-long effort to invent hoverboards that actually work. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

One of the running gags in the Back to the Future movies is the Hollywood equivalent of a closed timelike curve – in which a time traveler brings an innovation back from the future and invents it in the past, so that it exists in the future. For example, there’s Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, doing the “Johnny B. Goode” duckwalk that inspires Chuck Berry’s signature move, 30 years earlier in 1955.

This week marks the flip side of that record: In Back to the Future Part 2, Marty travels ahead from 1985 to Oct. 21, 2015 – and brings back glimpses of a weird future world where flying robots roam the skies and the Cubs are contenders. It’s one thing to talk about which technologies the movie got right (fingerprint recognition) or wrong (dog-walking drones). But what’s really interesting are the technologies that arguably take a page from the “BTTF” script and close the time loop, just in time for Marty’s arrival.

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GeekWire

Is it aliens? SETI telescope targets mystery star

Image: Allen Telescope Array
The antennas of the Allen Telescope Array in California is collecting signals from a strange star known as KIC 8462852. (Credit: SETI Institute)

One of the premier telescope arrays in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is focusing its antennas on an anomalously blinking star, thanks in part to speculation that the star called KIC 8462852 could harbor a network of alien megastructures.

The Allen Telescope Array, a complex of 42 radio dishes in Northern California that was funded in part by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, has been collecting data about the star since Thursday evening, SETI Institute researcher Doug Vakoch said.

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