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NASA

NASA Scientists Propose New Definition of Planets, and Pluto Could Soon Be Back (sciencealert.com) 198

Rei writes: After several years of publicly complaining about the "bullshit" decision at the IAU redefining what comprises a planet, New Horizons program head Alan Stern and fellow planetary geologists have put forth a new definition which they seek to make official, basing planethood on hydrostatic equilibrium. Under this definition, in addition to Ceres, Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects, large moons like Titan and Europa, as well as our own moon, would also become planets; "planet" would be a physical term, while "moon" would be an orbital term, and hence one can have a planetary moon, as well as planets that orbit other stars or no star at all (both prohibited under the current definition). The paper points out that planetary geologists already refer to such bodies as planets, citing examples such as a paper about Titan: "A planet-wide detached haze layer occurs between 300-350 km above the surface; the visible limb of the planet, where the vertical haze optical depth is 0.1, is about 220 km above the surface."
NASA

Thrilling Discovery of Seven Earth-Sized Planets Orbiting Nearby Star (theguardian.com) 272

At a press conference on Wednesday, NASA scientists announced that they have spotted seven Earth-sized planets orbiting closely around a small, ultra-cool star. The star is 39 light years away. From a report on The Guardian: It is the first time that so many Earth-sized planets have been found in orbit around the same star, an unexpected haul that suggests the Milky Way may be teeming with worlds that, in size and firmness underfoot at least, resemble our own rocky home. The planets closely circle a dwarf star named Trappist-1, which at 39 light years away makes the system a prime candidate to search for signs of life. Only marginally larger than Jupiter, the star shines with a feeble light about 2,000 times fainter than our sun. "The star is so small and cold that the seven planets are temperate, which means that they could have some liquid water and maybe life, by extension, on the surface," said Michael Gillon, an astrophysicist at the University of Liege in Belgium. [...] While the planets have Earth-like dimensions, their sizes ranging from 25 percent smaller to 10 percent larger, they could not be more different in other features. Most striking is how compact the planet's orbits are. Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system, is six times farther from the sun than the outermost seventh planet is from Trappist-1.
Space

Why Astronauts Are Banned From Getting Drunk in Space (bbc.com) 154

Bryan Lufkin, writing for BBC: "Alcohol is not permitted onboard the International Space Station for consumption," says Daniel G Huot, spokesperson for Nasa's Johnson Space Center. "Use of alcohol and other volatile compounds are controlled on ISS due to impacts their compounds can have on the station's water recovery system." For this reason, astronauts on the space station are not even provided with products that contain alcohol, like mouthwash, perfume, or aftershave. Spilling beer during some drunken orbital hijinks could also risk damaging equipment. [...] There could be another reason to avoid frothy drinks like beer -- without the assistance of gravity, liquid and gases can tumble around in an astronaut's stomach, causing them to produce rather soggy burps.
NASA

NASA Is Studying A Manned Trip Around The Moon On A $23 Billion Rocket (buzzfeed.com) 303

An anonymous reader shares a report on NASA's ongoing work on a manned trip to the moon. From the report: Without a new administrator even nominated yet, NASA's acting head Robert Lightfoot on Wednesday requested a study of whether next year's first flight of the Space Launch System rocket, billed as the most powerful NASA has built, could have a crew of astronauts. "I know the challenges associated with such a proposition," Lightfoot said in a letter to his agency, citing costs, extra work, and "a different launch date" for the planned 2018 Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The mission would be launched by the massive SLS, which is still in development, then boosted by a European service module to put three astronauts inside the new Orion space capsule on a three-week trip around the moon. NASA first sent three astronauts around the moon in 1968 in the Apollo 8 mission. The last astronaut to stand on the moon, the late Gene Cernan returned to Earth in 1972. The new talk of a repeat moon-circling mission, aboard an untested spacecraft, has space policy experts variously thrilled, dismissive, and puzzled. "I frankly don't quite know what to say about it," space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University said. Writing on NASAWatch, Keith Cowing called the study request a "Hail Mary" pass to save the life of the SLS ahead of Trump installing a budget cutter to head the space agency. The Government Accountability Office estimates the costs of SLS and its two planned launches (a second, crewed mission is planned for 2023) at $23 billion.
NASA

NASA Scientist Revive 10,000-Year-Old Microorganisms (bbc.com) 109

"Scientists have extracted long-dormant microbes from inside the famous giant crystals of the Naica mountain caves in Mexico -- and revived them," reports the BBC. An anonymous reader writes: "The organisms were likely to have been encased in the striking shafts of gypsum at least 10,000 years ago, and possibly up to 50,000 years ago," according to the BBC, which calls the strange lifeforms "another demonstration of the ability of life to adapt and cope in the most hostile of environments." With no light, extremophile species must "chemosynthesise," deriving all their energy by extracting minerals from rocks. These ancient microbes "are not very closely related to anything in the known genetic databases," according to the new director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, who helped conduct the research, and believes that the microbes could help suggest what life might look like on other planets. The BBC adds that many other scientists "suspect that if life does exist elsewhere in the Solar System, it is most likely to be underground, chemosynthesising like the microbes of Naica."
Cellphones

Should International Travelers Leave Their Phones At Home? (freecodecamp.com) 511

Long-time Slashdot reader Toe, The sums up what he learned from freeCodeCamp's Quincy Larson: "Before you travel internationally, wipe your phone or bring/rent/buy a clean one." Larson's article is titled "I'll never bring my phone on an international flight again. Neither should you." All the security in the world can't save you if someone has physical possession of your phone or laptop, and can intimidate you into giving up your password... Companies like Elcomsoft make 'forensic software' that can suck down all your photos, contacts -- even passwords for your email and social media accounts -- in a matter of minutes.... If we do nothing to resist, pretty soon everyone will have to unlock their phone and hand it over to a customs agent while they're getting their passport swiped... And with this single new procedure, all the hard work that Apple and Google have invested in encrypting the data on your phone -- and fighting for your privacy in court -- will be a completely moot point.
The article warns Americans that their constitutional protections don't apply because "the U.S. border isn't technically the U.S.," calling it "a sort of legal no-man's-land. You have very few rights there." Larson points out this also affects Canadians, but argues that "You can't hand over a device that you don't have."
Biotech

SpaceX's Next Launch Carries Colonies Of A Drug-Resistant Superbug (businessinsider.com.au) 56

An anonymous reader quotes Business Insider: SpaceX is preparing to launch a lethal, antibiotic-resistant superbug into orbit...to live its days in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station. The idea is not to weaponize space with MRSA -- a bacterium that kills more Americans every year than HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, emphysema, and homicide combined -- but to send its mutation rates into hyperdrive, allowing scientists to see the pathogen's next moves well before they appear on Earth. The NASA-funded study will see SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launch colonies of MRSA into space, to be cultivated in the US National Laboratory on the International Space Station.

"We will leverage the microgravity environment on the ISS to accelerate the Precision Medicine revolution here on Earth," lead researcher Anita Goel, CEO of biotech company Nanobiosym, told Yahoo News... "Our ability to anticipate drug-resistant mutations with Gene-RADAR will lead to next generation antibiotics that are more precisely tailored to stop the spread of the world's most dangerous pathogens," says Goel.

That launch was scheduled for today, but SpaceX postponed it to "take a closer look at positioning of the second stage engine nozzle." [UPDATE: The launch was completed successfully on Sunday.] Two more externally-mounted payloads will conduct other experiments, with one monitoring lightning strikes on earth and the other measuring chemicals in the earth's atmosphere. In addition, there's also 21 science experiments that were submitted by high school students

Meanwhile, Slashdot reader tomhath brings news that researchers have discovered the red berries of a U.S. weed can help fight superbugs. The researchers found "extracts from the Brazilian peppertree, which traditional healers in the Amazon have used for hundreds of years to treat skin and soft-tissue infections, have the power to stop methicillin-resistant MRSA infections in mice." One of the researchers said the extract "weakens the bacteria so the mouse's own defenses work better."
NASA

Juno Jupiter Probe Won't Move Into Shorter Orbit After All (space.com) 56

NASA announced today that their Juno spacecraft will not move into a closer orbit around Jupiter as originally planned. "Juno slipped into a highly elliptical, 53-Earth-day-long orbit around Jupiter when it arrived at the giant planet on July 4, 2016," reports Space.com. From their report: The probe was supposed to perform an engine burn in October to reduce its orbital period to 14 days, but an issue with two helium valves postponed that maneuver. The engine burn has now been canceled, meaning Juno will stay where it is through the end of its mission. "During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit," Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "The bottom line is, a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno's science objectives." But Juno should still be able to accomplish its mission goals in the longer orbit, NASA officials said. In fact, the 53-day path will allow the probe to perform some "bonus science" in the outer regions of Jupiter's magnetosphere, they added.
NASA

US-Born NASA Scientist Detained At The Border Until He Unlocked His Phone (theverge.com) 626

Sidd Bikkannavar works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After racing solar-powered cars in Chile, he had trouble returning to America. mspohr quote The Verge: Bikkannavar says he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the Customs and Border Protection agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn't supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar's phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn't know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device...

The officer also presented Bikkannavar with a document titled "Inspection of Electronic Devices" and explained that CBP had authority to search his phone. Bikkannavar did not want to hand over the device, because it was given to him by JPL and is technically NASA property. He even showed the officer the JPL barcode on the back of phone. Nonetheless, CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN. "I was cautiously telling him I wasn't allowed to give it out, because I didn't want to seem like I was not cooperating," says Bikkannavar. "I told him I'm not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it."

While border agents have the right to search devices, The Verge reports that travelers aren't legally required to unlock their phones, "although agents can detain them for significant periods of time if they do not." They also report that Bikkannavar "was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN," adding that the cybersecurity team at JPL "was not happy about the breach."
Space

We Finally Have a Computer That Can Survive the Surface of Venus (arstechnica.com) 156

Planet Venus is one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system. The surface temperature there is 470C (878F). This has been one of the key challenges that has prevented us from deeply exploring Venus. Normal chips can only function until around 250C, but it appears, we will soon have a computer that can withstand Venus' weather. From a report on ArsTechnica: Now, researchers out of NASA's Glenn Research Centre appear to have cracked the other big problem with high-temperature integrated circuits: they've crafted interconnects -- the tiny wires that connect transistors and other integrated components together -- that can also survive the extreme conditions on Venus. The NASA Glenn researchers combined the new interconnects with some SiC transistors to create a ceramic-packaged chip. The chip was then placed into the GEER -- the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig, a machine that can maintain Venus-like temperature and pressure for hundreds of hours at a time. The chip, a simple 3-stage oscillator, kept functioning at a steady 1.26MHz for 521 hours (21.7) days before the GEER had to be shut down.
NASA

A Supermassive Black Hole Has Been Devouring a Star For a Decade (usatoday.com) 69

An anonymous reader quotes a report from USA Today: A massive black hole devoured a star over a 10 year period, setting a new record for the longest space meal ever observed, according to new research. Researchers spotted the ravenous black hole with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift satellite as well as ESA's XMM-Newton, according to a statement from NASA. When objects like stars get too close to black holes, the intense gravity of the black hole can rip the star apart in what's called a tidal disruption event (TDE), according to NASA. While some of the debris from the star is flung forward, parts of it are pulled back and ingested by the black hole, where it heats up and emits an X-ray flare, NASA said in a statement. The tidal disruption event spotted by the trio of X-ray telescopes, is unlike anything researchers have ever seen, lasting ten times longer than any observed incident of star's death caused by a black hole, according to research published in Nature Astronomy Feb. 6. The black hole, dubbed XJ1500+0154, is located in a galaxy 1.8 billion light-years from Earth. Researchers first spotted it in 2005 and it reached peak brightness in 2008, according to the statement. According to NASA, researchers believe that the black hole may have consumed the most massive star ever completely torn apart during a TDE.
Businesses

Uber Hires a Nasa Veteran Who Thinks We'll Start Seeing Flying Cars In Next Three Years (bloomberg.com) 123

Uber is getting serious about its intentions of building a flying car. Uber's plan involves airborne taxis that will travel 50 to 100 miles between "vertiports" that connect passengers between their homes and offices, according to a report on Bloomberg. Now it is hiring the right leader for this project. From the report: In 2010, an advanced aircraft engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center named Mark Moore published a white paper outlining the feasibility of electric aircrafts that could take off and land like helicopters but were smaller and quieter. The vehicles would be capable of providing a speedy alternative to the dreary morning commute. Moore's research into so-called VTOL -- short for vertical takeoff and landing, or more colloquially, flying cars -- inspired at least one billionaire technologist. After reading the white paper, Google co-founder Larry Page secretly started and financed two Silicon Valley startups, Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, to develop the technology. Now Moore is leaving the confines of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he has spent the last 30 years, to join one of Google's rivals: Uber Technologies Inc. Moore is taking on a new role as director of engineering for aviation at the ride-hailing company, working on a flying car initiative known as Uber Elevate. "I can't think of another company in a stronger position to be the leader for this new ecosystem and make the urban electric VTOL market real," he says.
Space

Government Watchdog Says SpaceX Falcon 9s Are Prone To Cracks (engadget.com) 139

An anonymous reader shares an Engadget article: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets apparently have a serious issue that could delay the company's manned missions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Government Accountability Office investigated both Boeing and SpaceX -- the corporations that won NASA's space taxi contracts -- and found that Falcon 9's turbine blades suffer from persistent cracks. GAO's preliminary report says these turboblades' tendency to crack is a "major threat to rocket safety," since they pump fuel into Falcon 9's rocket engines. NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot told the WSJ that government officials have known about the issue for months or even years. The agency even told SpaceX that the cracks are too much risk for manned flights. A spokesperson said SpaceX has "qualified [its] engines to be robust" to cracks, but it's now "modifying the design to avoid them altogether."
NASA

NASA's Cassini Captures Photos of Saturn's Rings In Unprecedented Detail (voanews.com) 43

NASA's Cassini probe has captured news images of Saturn's rings in unprecedented detail. The images were captured by the probe in its penultimate mission phase of its mission that includes "20 orbits that dive past the outer edge of the main ring system" before the spacecraft plunges into the planet itself. Interestingly, the rings include what NASA calls "moonlets" embedded in them. VOA News reports: The images are the closest ever taken of Saturn's rings and, according to NASA âoeresolve details as small as 550 meters, which is on the scale of Earth's tallest buildings.â The"ring-grazing" orbits began last November and will continue until the end of April, and in addition to spotting the moonlets, they have given greater clarity to other structures within the rings such as the so-called propeller-like formations. NASA added that Cassini has also provided the "closest-ever" glimpses of two small moons, Daphnis and Pandora. The report via NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) adds: "Some of the structures seen in recent Cassini images have not been visible at this level of detail since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004. At that time, fine details like straw and propellers -- which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively -- had never been seen before. (Although propellers were present in Cassini's arrival images, they were actually discovered in later analysis, the following year.) Cassini came a bit closer to the rings during its arrival at Saturn, but the quality of those arrival images (examples: 1, 2, 3) was not as high as in the new views. Those precious few observations only looked out on the backlit side of the rings, and the team chose short exposure times to minimize smearing due to Cassini's fast motion as it vaulted over the ring plane. This resulted in images that were scientifically stunning, but somewhat dark and noisy.
NASA

Today Marks 50th Anniversary of Fatal Apollo 1 Disaster (nasaspaceflight.com) 87

schwit1 writes: NASASpaceFlight.com reports: "Fifty years ago Friday, the first -- but sadly not the last -- fatal spaceflight accident struck NASA when a fire claimed the lives of Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White during a training exercise at Launch Complex 34. The accident, a major setback for the struggling Apollo program, ushered in the first understanding of the 'bad day' effects of schedule pressure for spaceflight and brought with it words and reminders that still echo today." The article provides a very detailed and accurate look at the history and causes of the accident, as well as its consequences, which even today influence American space engineering. Are there any Slashdotters who were old enough to remember the incident? If so, we'd love to hear your take on the disaster. Where were you when the news broke and how did it affect you and the country at that time...?
NASA

Boeing Unveils New NASA Spacesuits For Starliner Austronaut Taxi (space.com) 49

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Space.com: The NASA astronauts who fly aboard Boeing's new spaceship will wear sleek, blue suits that are lighter, simpler and more comfortable than the bulky orange gear of the space shuttle era, company representatives said. Unveiled today (Jan. 25), the new "Boeing Blue" spacesuits for the Starliner capsule weigh about 20 lbs. (9 kilograms) each with all of their accessories, compared to 30 lbs. (13.6 kg) for the old space shuttle suits, NASA officials said. Other advances include touch-screen-sensitive gloves, more-flexible material and soft helmets that are incorporated into the suit (rather than the hard, detachable helmets of the shuttle era). The Boeing Blue suit, and the one that SpaceX develops, will help keep astronauts safe in the event of an emergency during trips to and from orbit. The suits are not designed for spacewalks; the large, bulky "extravehicular mobility units" that astronauts use for this latter purpose are already aboard the ISS. "The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft's redundant life-support systems," Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said in the same statement. "If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don't need a spacesuit. It's like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed." You can view pictures of the spacesuits here.
NASA

NASA Names an Asteroid After 'Star Trek' Actor Wil Wheaton (cnet.com) 126

"An asteroid going boldly through the universe now carries a new name that honors actor Will Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation," reports CNET. An anonymous reader quotes their article. The announcement showed up on Twitter Wednesday from NASA's Ron Baalke, who describes himself as a "space explorer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory". Wheaton is in good company with other Star Trek alumni. Asteroid 7307 Takei is named for Sulu actor George Takei and 68410 Nichols gets its name from Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura. There's also asteroid 4659 Roddenberry for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
"Today, I found out that I kind of get to be in space and live right here on Earth..." Wheaton wrote on his blog Wednesday, describing his life-long interest in space exploration. "As soon as it gets dark here, I'm going to walk out into my backyard, look up into the sky, just a little above Sirius, and know that, even though I can't see it with my naked eye, it's out there, and it's named after me."
Mars

Scientists Enter Hawaii Dome In Eight-Month Mars Space Mission Study (reuters.com) 94

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Reuters: Six scientists have entered a dome perched atop a remote volcano in Hawaii where they will spend the next eight months in isolation to simulate life for astronauts traveling to Mars, the University of Hawaii said. The study is designed to help NASA better understand human behavior and performance during long space missions as the U.S. space agency explores plans for a manned mission to the Red Planet. The crew will perform geological field work and basic daily tasks in the 1,200-square-foot (365 m) dome, located in an abandoned quarry 8,000 feet (2.5 km) above sea level on the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii's Big Island. There is little vegetation and the scientists will have no contact with the outside world, said the university, which operates the dome. Communications with a mission control team will be time-delayed to match the 20-minute travel time of radio waves passing between Earth and Mars. "Daily routines include food preparation from only shelf-stable ingredients, exercise, research and fieldwork aligned with NASA's planetary exploration expectations," the university said. The project is intended to create guidelines for future missions to Mars, some 35 million miles (56 million km) away, a long-term goal of the U.S. human space program. The NASA-funded study, known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-SEAS), is the fifth of its kind.
NASA

NASA Is Planning Mission To An Asteroid Worth $10 Quintillion (usatoday.com) 308

New submitter kugo2006 writes: NASA announced a plan to research 16 Psyche, an asteroid potentially as large as Mars and primarily composed of Iron and Nickel. The rock is unique in that it has an exposed core, likely a result of a series of collisions, according to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche's principal investigator. The mission's spacecraft would launch in 2023 and arrive in 2030. According to Global News, Elkins-Tanton calculates that the iron in 16 Psyche would be worth $10,000 quadrillion ($10 quintillion).
NASA

Earth Hit Record Hot Year in 2016: NASA (news.com.au) 267

Earth sizzled to a third-straight record hot year in 2016, government scientists have said. They mostly blame man-made global warming with help from a natural El Nino, which has since disappeared. From a report: Measuring global temperatures in slightly different ways, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that last year passed 2015 as the hottest year on record. NOAA calculated that the average 2016 global temperature was 14.84 degrees Celsius (58.69 degrees Fahrenheit) -- beating the previous year by 0.04 Celsius (0.07 degrees F). NASA's figures, which include more of the Arctic, are higher at 0.22 degrees (0.12 Celsius) warmer than 2015. The Arctic "was enormously warm, like totally off the charts compared to everything else," said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York, where the space agency monitors global temperatures. Records go back to 1880. This is the fifth time in a dozen years that the globe has set a new annual heat record. Records have been set in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010 and 2005.

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