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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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GeekWire

Drone for the holidays? You’ll have to register it

Image: Phantom drone
The Phantom 2 Vision Plus is likely to be among drones that will require registration. (Credit: DJI)

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s fast-track plan to register recreational drones may not directly affect Amazon’s ambitions of using robo-fliers to deliver purchases, but it could have a big impact on how you buy a drone from Amazon for the holidays.

Flanked by a phalanx of officials and industry leaders, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today announced the creation of a task force that’s due to make recommendations for a registration system by Nov. 20 – with the aim of having the rules in place by mid-December.

Those who already own recreational drones would be required to register retroactively, Foxx said. It’s not yet clear exactly how the system would work – for example, whether operators would have to register in order to purchase the drone or sign up afterward – but Foxx promised the system would be “as user-friendly a portal as possible.”

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Science gives Pluto its day in the sun

Image: Pluto's edge
NASA’s New Horizons probe captured this backlit image of Pluto as it flew past the dwarf planet on July 14. Scattered sunlight reveals numerous haze layers within Pluto’s thin atmosphere, while the surprisingly diverse surface landscape indicates ongoing geological activity. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The first peer-reviewed scientific paper about the New Horizons probe’s July flyby past Pluto lays out puzzling evidence that suggests the dwarf planet isn’t frozen in time. Rather, its smooth plains, high mountains and nitrogen glaciers are leading the NASA mission’s researchers to suspect that it’s geologically active even now.

“Pluto’s still got an engine, and it’s still running,” principal investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute told journalists in advance of the paper’s publication today by the journal Science.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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Pluto pics reveal blue glow – and water ice

Image: Blue Pluto
A picture from NASA’s New Horizons probe reveals the blue color of Pluto’s atmospheric haze, as seen in a backlit view. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The latest pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto reveal for the first time that the backlit dwarf planet is surrounded by a beautiful blue glow – and also pinpoint the location of water ice deposits exposed on the surface.

Thursday’s images were released after a hubbub that suggested an “amazing” discovery would be revealed this week. Although the hype got a bit out of control, the revelations really do raise intriguing questions about Pluto’s weather and geology.

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