Cosmic Science

Listen to a 17,000-year-old conch shell horn

A sliding musical scale from a conch shell horn that hasn’t been played for 17,000 years, signs that Stonehenge was built with recycled rocks, and the world’s oldest known industrial-scale beer brewery: Here’s your daily dose of science on the Web…

Paleolithic horn blares again: What’s thought to be the world’s oldest known conch shell horn can play three notes: C, C-sharp and D.

The 17,000-year-old conch shell was discovered 90 years ago in the cave of Marsoulas, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. For decades, archaeologists assumed that it was used as a ceremonial drinking cup. But a team led by Carole Fritz, the head of research at France’s Prehistoric Art Research Center, took a closer look and saw signs that the shell had been modified to install a mouthpiece and was shaped to optimize its ability to play musical notes.

In the open-access journal Science Advances, the researchers recount how they recruited a musicologist and a horn player to re-fit the shell with a suitable mouthpiece and produce three different notes.

Sorbonne University archaeologist Philippe Walter told The Guardian that the notes would have reverberated impressively during Paleolithic rituals in the decorated cave. “The power of the sounds produced by the shell is incredible,” he said. “It is more than 100 decibels.”

Want to hear more music played on arguably ancient instruments? Listen to Boston University biologist (and flutist) Jelle Atema play a flute carved from a 4,000-year-old vulture bone, a deer-bone flute that’s thought to date back 30,000 years, and a replica of a 50,000-year-old bear-bone flute that might have been made by Neanderthals.

Stonehenge rocks traced to older ceremonial circle in Wales: Some of the stones that formed the ceremonial circle at Stonehenge were transported hundreds of miles from a similar stone circle in Wales that was built centuries earlier — but then dismantled.

That’s the conclusion of archaeologists who reported their findings last weekend in the journal Antiquity.

Researchers have known for a while that Stonehenge’s slabs of bluestone were quarried in Wales more than 5,000 years ago, but there was an unresolved mystery: Radiocarbon dating suggested that 300 to 400 years passed between the time the stones were quarried and the time they were placed at Stonehenge. What could explain the gap?

Excavation of a Welsh site known as Waun Maun turned up a plausible explanation: Stonehenge’s slabs were a perfect fit for the socket-shaped pits that were left behind at Waun Maun, suggesting that the region’s ancient inhabitants pulled out the stones and carried them to Salisbury Plain during a mass migration.

Four stones that were left behind at Waun Maun helped archaeologists reconstruct the 360-foot-wide circle traced by Waun Maun’s empty sockets — a circle that matched the dimensions of a circular trench that was part of Stonehenge’s original layout.

“There was great excitement, but I think also blessed relief,” University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson told ITV News, “because this had been a real labor of love, trying to untangle this extraordinary mystery.”

5,000-year-old brewery unearthed in Egypt: Archaeologists have found the remains of a sprawling brewery that may have produced the beer for royal burial rituals in Egypt thousands of years ago.

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says the brewery, unearthed in the ancient city of Abydos, was split into eight large sections for beer production, each containing 40 clay pots that were used to warm mixtures of grain and water.

The brewery could have produced as much as 5,900 gallons of beer at a time, New York University archaeologist Matthew Adams said.

Evidence for small-scale beer production goes back as far as 13,000 years, based on an analysis of residues found in a cave in Israel, but the discovery at Abydos suggests that the Egyptians were mass-producing beer during the era of King Narmer, 5,000 years ago.


British-Indian team buys OneWeb network for $1B

Update for 12:20 p.m. Nov. 20: OneWeb has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy with a new CEO, Neil Masterson, who was formerly co-chief operating officer at Thomson Reuters. The British government announced the completion of OneWeb’s acquisition in partnership with Bharti Global.

Previously: The British government and Bharti Global Ltd., which is part of the world’s third-largest mobile operator, have successfully bid more than $1 billion to acquire the bankrupt OneWeb satellite broadband internet venture.

London-based OneWeb said the deal, resulting from an auction held this week in New York, will enable it to resume plans to add to its 74-satellite constellation and offer global internet access from above, starting with the Arctic.

The sale still has to be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and regulatory authorities, but the transaction is expected to close late this year.

“With differentiated and flexible technology, unique spectrum assets and a compelling market opportunity ahead of us, we are eager to conclude the process and get back to launching our satellites as soon as possible,” OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel said today in a news release.

The deal breathes new life into a rival of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which already has more than 500 satellites in orbit and could begin limited service this year. OneWeb is also perceived as a competitor of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is working out the regulatory requirements for putting more than 3,000 satellites in orbit for a global broadband internet network.

At one point, Amazon was rumored to be interested in bidding on OneWeb’s assets, including its spectrum licenses, but nothing came of those rumors.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Britain gives its backing to OneWeb satellite bid

The likeliest purchaser of the bankrupt OneWeb broadband satellite venture isn’t Amazon, but a consortium backed by the British government. That’s according to satellite industry watchers cited by Space Intel Report and The Financial Times.

Amazon, which is working on its own Project Kuiper satellite constellation, was said to be among the entities that expressed interest in bidding on OneWeb’s assets after the London-based satellite concern declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March. OneWeb said the market disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic spoiled arrangements to win further financial support from SoftBank group, one of its biggest backers, forcing the move to seek financial protection.

OneWeb’s assets were put up for sale under the supervision of U.S. bankruptcy court in New York. Bids were due to be opened today for an initial round of assessment. If there’s no clear winner in the eyes of the judge and OneWeb’s creditors, an auction would be held on July 2.

The Financial Times quoted its sources as saying the British government was willing to put up about $617 million (£500 million) as part of a wider private-sector consortium bid. If the bid is successful, the government could end up owning more than 20% of OneWeb, according to The Financial Times.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Red Arrows fly aerobatics of a different color

Seattle’s Museum of Flight may have put a Blue Angels jet on a pedestal, but today it rolled out the red carpet for a military aerobatic team of a different color: the Red Arrows of Britain’s Royal Air Force.

“They’re the best,” said Stephen Williams, a visitor from Horsham in southern England who was among the roughly 300 spectators and VIPs who turned out this morning to watch the Red Arrows arrive. “Your Blue Angels … they’re OK.”

Red wasn’t the only color in the Arrows’ quiver: As they made their photo-op rounds over downtown Seattle and Boeing Field, the pilots’ BAE Hawk T1 trainer jets released contrails of red, white and blue — the hues of the Union Jack as well as the Stars and Stripes.

Today’s one-day stopover was mostly aimed at showing the colors and refueling the planes, between last weekend’s performance at the Oregon International Air Show in McMinnville and a series of events starting Sept. 24 in Vancouver, B.C., which is the next stop in the Red Arrows’ grueling two-month North America tour.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Could airport drone disruption happen here?

Drone test
A drone flies over a New York test site. (NUAIR Alliance Photo via NASA / Eric Miller)

Hundreds of flights have been canceled and tens of thousands of airline passengers have been stranded because of the buzz of unauthorized drones over London’s Gatwick Airport — demonstrating how disruptive a simple aerial strategy can be.

Military forces have been called up to hunt down the elusive drone operator, and the crisis has prompted calls to tighten up flight restrictions near Britain’s airport. But on that score, U.S. airports appear to be in a better position to guard against drone disruption.

British regulations call for a no-drone zone within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an airport’s perimeter, while the Federal Aviation Administration restricts drone flights in a five-mile radius around airports such as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In more sensitive areas, such as the National Capital Region around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, restrictions are in force within a much wider radius — ranging from 15 to 30 miles, depending on the type of activity.

Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper told GeekWire that the airport’s operations team hasn’t had any reports of drone incidents, and that it works in collaboration with the FAA on drone monitoring.

The FAA, meanwhile, says that it works with the Department of Homeland Security, the lead agency in drone security issues.

In October, language written into FAA reauthorization legislation gave Homeland Security and the Justice Department the authority to counter the use of drones for “nefarious purposes.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Lockheed Martin wins $31M for Scottish spaceport

Lockheed Martin is in line to receive $31 million (£23.5 million) in grants from the UK Space Agency to establish Britain’s first spaceport on Scotland’s north coast, and to develop a new made-in-Britain system for deploying small satellites in orbit.

The British government announced the grants today, only hours after lifting the curtain on its plan to develop a vertical-launch spaceport in Scotland’s rugged Sutherland district and support the rise of horizontal-launch spaceports in other British locales.

In addition to Lockheed Martin’s grants, another $7 million (£5.5 million) will be awarded to London-based Orbex to support the development of its Prime rocket for launch from the Sutherland spaceport. The Prime rocket is designed to be fueled by bio-propane and will deliver payloads of up to 330 pounds to low Earth orbit.

Orbex said today in a separate announcement that it has raised a total of $40 million in public and private funding for the development of orbital launch systems.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Britain chooses Scottish site for its prime spaceport

Sutherland spaceport
Artwork shows the spaceport at Scotland’s Sutherland site. (HIE / Courtesy of Perfect Circle PV)

The British government has selected a spot in Sutherland, on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, as the site of the country’s first vertical-launch spaceport. Three other sites will receive boosts for horizontal air-launch operations.

In a news release timed to coincide with the opening of this week’s Farnborough International Airshow, the government said it would provide initial funding of £2.5 million ($3.3 million) to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to develop the vertical-launch site in Sutherland, with an aim of seeing the first liftoff in the early 2020s.

The consortium behind the Sutherland bid includes Lockheed Martin.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


How Britain sees the drone revolution

Amazon drone
Amazon is testing its delivery drone system in Britain. (Amazon Photo)

Regulators have to work out lots of issues before they let drones start delivering packages routinely, but in Britain at least, there’s a timetable.

“We’ve got a soft target of 2020,” Michael Clark, deputy director at Britain’s Department for Transport, told GeekWire. And although the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t announced its own timetable, 2020 could well be a soft target for U.S. operations as well.

Clark and other British transport officials discussed the U.K. perspective on unmanned aircraft systems last week while visiting the States for the Drone World Expo in San Jose, Calif.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority is playing a key role in Amazon’s plans to develop delivery drones, highlighted by the Seattle-based retailer’s flight test program near Cambridge.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spoke warmly about the company’s relationship with British regulators last month at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “We’re getting really good cooperation from the British equivalent of the FAA, the CAA,” he said. “It’s incredible. It’s really cool.”

For what it’s worth, the feeling is mutual: “Amazon is a pathfinder,” Clark said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Reporter hunts for Amazon’s drones in Britain


Amazon is expanding its drone testing operation in the English countryside, to smooth the way for what it hopes will be an aerial package delivery system. But exactly where are the tests taking place?

Based on clues from the BBC, plus interviews with local sources, Business Insider’s Sam Shead went out to farm fields southeast of Cambridge, near a place called Worsted Lodge.

In one of the fields, he found two bases that were located at each end of the acreage, about 400 meters (a quarter-mile) apart. Next to each of the bases, there were apparent landing spots made from patches of artificial grass.

The locale is near Amazon’s research and development center in Cambridge, which would make it handy for drone testing teams. But there’s at least one piece of evidence that’s missing: No drones were spotted.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Britain’s EU exit vote throws techies into a tizzy

Image: London and Microsoft Lumia phone
The “Let’s Go” message on a Microsoft Lumia phone takes on an ironic meaning in the wake of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. (Credit: MIcrosoft Lumia Conversations UK)

Just a couple of days ago, longtime Seattle tech entrepreneur Marcelo Calbucci wasexcited about moving his family to London. But now that Britain has voted to leave the European Union, he’s feeling a different emotion.

“I would use a ‘disappointed’ emoji,” Calbucci told GeekWire today.

He’s still going ahead with the move. His wife will be starting a job at Microsoft in London, and his kids (aged 7 and 10) are ready to go as well. But Calbucci has no idea what “Brexit” will do to the tech environment he was so looking forward to jumping into.

“People were moving to London to build these startups – now they might think twice,” he said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.