British school kid corrects Nasa’s figures

A British teenager has been on the blower to Nasa scientists to point out an error in a set of their own data.

Miles Soloman in Sheffield found that radiation sensors on the International Space Station (ISS) were recording false data. The correction was said to be “appreciated” by Nasa, which invited him to help analyse the problem.

“What we got given was a lot of spreadsheets, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds,” Soloman told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

The research was part of the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students across the UK the chance to work on data from the space station, looking for anomalies and patterns that might lead to further discoveries.

During UK astronaut Tim Peake’s stay on the station, detectors began recording the radiation levels on the ISS.

“I went straight to the bottom of the list and I went for the lowest bits of energy there were,” Miles explained.

Miles’s teacher and head of physics, James O’Neill, said: “We were all discussing the data but he just suddenly perked up in one of the sessions and went ‘why does it say there’s -1 energy here?'”

What Miles had noticed was that when nothing hit the detector, a negative reading was recorded. Since you cannot get negative energy. So Soloman and O’Neill contacted Nasa.

It turned out that Miles had noticed something no-one else had – including Nasa.

Nasa said it was aware of the error, but believed it was only happening once or twice a year but Solomon noticed it was happening several times a day.

NASA wants self-controlling robots

humans-channel4-amc-sci-fi-tv-seriesNASA’s autonomous robotics group have created a 3D robot user interface which could be the first step towards robots with independent minds.

The group is currently developing new technology to improve how humans explore the solar system, and how robots can help.

Terry Fong, senior scientist for autonomous systems at the NASA Ames Research Centre, said that the cunning plan was for humans to interact with autonomous systems and create trusted systems.

When NASA began working with remotely operated robots several years ago, Fong said the scientists needed a piece of software that would allow them to look at terrain and sensor data coming from autonomous robots. That led to the creation of the VERVE interface which allows scientists to see and grasp the three-dimensional world of remotely operated robots.

Verve has been tested with NASA’s K10 planetary rovers (a prototype mobile robot that can travel bumpy terrain), with its K-Rex planetary rovers (robot to determine soil moisture), with SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station (ISS), and the new Astrobee – a robot that can fly around the ISS.

In 2013, NASA carried out a series of tests with astronauts on the ISS, during which astronauts who were flying 200 miles above Earth remotely operated the K10 planetary rover in California.

Maria Bualat, deputy lead of intelligent robotics group at the NASA Ames Research Centre said that because of the time delay, astronauts can’t just “joystick a robot” and need the bot to complete tasks on its own.

“On the other hand, you still want the human in the loop, because the human brings a lot of experience and very powerful cognitive ability that can deal with issues that the autonomy’s not quite ready to handle.”

Human capabilities and robotic capabilities comprise a powerful combination.

One of the goals at NASA is to transfer its technology to the commercial sector, such as supporting autonomous vehicles in partnership with Nissan.

NASA experiments with X-ray networking

x-rayNASA is researching new technology to transmit data at high rates over vast distances in outer space, as well as enable communications with hypersonic vehicles during re-entry.

At the moment such radio communications are impossible, but NASA boffins think that using X-rays could be just the ticket.

The science is based on the concept that other forms of light can carry data as well. Fibre-optics uses visible and near-infrared light. So NASA started to think about X-rays.

Keith Gendreau, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, thought of developing X-ray emitters that these spacecraft could use as navigational beacons to make sure they stayed in position relative to one another. The system would keep them aligned down to a precision of just 1 micron.

Gendreau then reasoned that by modulating or varying the strength or frequency of these X-ray transmissions on and off many times per second, these navigational beacons could also serve as a communication system. Such X-ray communication (XCOM), might, in theory, permit gigabit-per-second data rates throughout the solar system, he said

X-rays have shorter wavelengths than the visible or infrared light typically used in laser communication. This means that, XCOM can transmit more data for the same amount of power that laser communication requires, Gendreau said.

X-rays have shorter wavelengths, they can be transmitted in tighter beams than visible or infrared light, so less energy is wasted in trying to communicate over vast distances, he added.

A new toy called the Modulated X-ray Source, or MXS, which generates rapid-fire X-ray pulses. MXS is slated to get installed on an experimental pallet that will be deployed outside the International Space Station in 2018.

MXS will transmit data via X-rays about 165 feet to the Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which is designed to study neutron stars and their rapidly spinning relatives, pulsars, and will launch to the International Space Station in early 2017

Trump to scrap NASA’s climate change funding

Donald-Trump-funnyDonald “Prince of Orange” Trump is going to scrap NASA’s funding for climate change and is telling it to focus on space research instead.

According to his senior adviser it is all part of a crack-down on “politicised science”.

Trump wants to have explored the entire solar system by the end of the century.

However, this cunning plan would mean the end of Nasa’s world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena. NASA’s network of satellites provides a wealth of information on climate change.

Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said there was no need for Nasa to do what he has previously described as “politically correct environmental monitoring. We see Nasa in an exploration role, in deep space research. Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission”.

Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicised science, Walker claimed. Walker is a retired US politician who will be dead in a few years, before politicised climate change starts killing his children and grandchildren.  Of course, he might have figured out that sticking them on a Mars colony is the only safe way to avoid the end of the world.

Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, said NASA has a “critical and unique role” in observing Earth and climate change.

“Without the support of Nasa, not only the US but the entire world would be taking a hard hit when it comes to understanding the behavior of our climate and the threats posed by human-caused climate change,” he said.

“It would be a blatantly political move, and would indicate the president-elect’s willingness to pander to the very same lobbyists and corporate interest groups he derided throughout the campaign.”

Nasa has appointed two officials, Tom Cremins and Jolene Meidinger, to lead the transition to the new Trump administration. However, the president-elect’s team has yet to formally review the space agency. A NASA spokesman said:

“The Nasa community is committed to doing whatever we can to assist in making the executive branch transition a smooth one. The agency remains focused on the future, a future that will improve our understanding of our changing home planet from Nasa’s unique platforms in space.”

Quantum computer is dead, alive or hacked

schrodingers_catNASA’s Quantum computer may or may not have a security problem.

The D-Wave 2X quantum computer at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing facility is being used to research a new area of computing.

The machine is also being used by researchers at universities, and it’s hooked up to the internet, like other NASA supercomputers made available to academics.

But NASA engineers, while happy to talk about its capabilities, were less happy about mentioning the security measures in place to stop hackers.

“It’s behind various security firewalls, with RSA security tokens to get in,” said David Bell, a director at the Universities Space Research Association, in response to a question. ”We are very much aware of systems being hacked,” said Rupak Biswas, who heads exploration technology at the NASA Ames Research Centre, in response to another question. “NASA, of course, is a major target”.

But hacks asking about hacking were quickly shut down by a NASA moderator, who said the topic was “for later discussion at another time”.

But given everyone’s obsession about security it is one which might not go away that easily.

What a D-Wave machine does in a second” would take a conventional computer with a single core “10,000 years” to perform a similar task, said Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google, told the same news conference.

Hacking such a computer would be a major challenge, but if you did get control of it you could programme it to solve some serious encryption problems rather quickly.  It should make brute force password guessing a doddle.


Google Airlines is out of gas

The internet is all abuzz with the fact that US Sen. Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) is seeking an audit of the arrangements between NASA, the Pentagon, and Google.

H211 LLC , a holding company, is apparently the entity that Google executives formed to handle their dealings with NASA on their fleet of aircraft. H211 LLC signed an agreement with NASA to lease space at Ames Research – Moffett Air Park, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. for $1.3 million per year to fly research missions for NASA at their own expense.

At the time, that sounded like an excellent quid pro quo. Additional H211 LLC would obtain a Dornier Alpha fighter jet which would be modified to carry specialty NASA test gear. I wrote about this for Mike Magee’s ITExaminer in 2008. At that time there were grumblings by the local residents concerned that additional flights would mean additional noise.

In the 1960s I worked on US Army aircraft, helicopters, and fixed wing, that were located at Moffett Field in Hanger One. At that time, Moffett Field was a US Navy facility. Hanger One was built during the Great Depression to handle the large dirigibles (my father was in charge of the roofing for the hanger). For nine months last year, workers rappelled down the outside of Hangar One to remove sections of contaminated steel and redwood siding. Now, it is a steel skeleton within sight of Highway 101 – Bay Shore Freeway. Thus, I know a great deal about Moffett Airpark, as it is now known.

In 2007, Google said that similar to the other H211 LLC/Google planes offered to NASA, the Dornier Alpha Jet was being outfitted with scientific instruments for NASA missions, including instruments that the other planes could not carry. Matt Furman, then an official Google spokesperson, said that because of the type of aircraft we are talking about, NASA now has the ability to do even more than they could before.

One of the reasons Google purchased the Dornier Alpha fighter jet is because CEO Eric Schmidt has a pilot’s license and cockpit experience in high-performance jet aircraft. The other reason is the rest of their aircraft, including a Boeing 767, Boeing 757, and four Gulfstream V’s along with two helicopters, would have to be recertified by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration ) if NASA test gear were installed.

What has Sen. Grassley’s knickers in a knot is Google’s been buying jet aviation fuel at government prices. This allowed the Google aircraft to travel on sharply discounted jet fuel bought from the Pentagon at NASA’s Ames-Moffett facility. Moffett Airpark has a government contract with the jet fuel supplier who is the only aviation fuel supplier allowed on Moffett Airpark for security reasons.

Kenneth Ambrose, an executive with H211, said the company bought “the only fuel available at Moffett” and pays “full retail for hangar space that includes none of the ground support typically included in business aircraft hangers”. He added that the total value of H211’s payments and scientific of flights means NASA and taxpayers are “$2 million a year to the good for our presence at Moffett”.

Flight records from the FAA suggest that the vast bulk of the flights by the Google executives’ fleet have been for non-NASA purposes.

The Google/H211 LLC aircraft departed from Moffett a total of 710 times since 2007, FAA records show. The most frequent destinations were Los Angeles and New York, but the planes also flew 20 times to the Caribbean island of Tortola; 17 to Hawaii; 16 to Nantucket, Massachusetts; 15 to Tahiti and 4 of the jet aircraft, including the 767, took off from Moffett for Croatia this past July. The departures were just before the wedding in Croatia of Google CEO Larry Page’s brother-in-law, held in a medieval hill town near the Adriatic coast. Mr. Page attended as a groomsman and was photographed wearing his pet project eyeglass-like Google Glass computer at the altar.

Meanwhile, as of last year, NASA told Sen. Grassley that the Google craft had flown a total of 155 missions for it. All but 11 of those, however, had been flown by the small Alpha jet, a fuel sipper compared with the big aircraft.

What started Sen. Grassley on his investigation was a pencil neck Pentagon Col. who overheard a conversation from the private aircraft owners association complaining about Google’s special treatment. Sen. Grassley is asking the question: “are some executives getting a special deal on fuel,” and if so, is it available to other businesses? He said the setup raises concerns about the government’s role as a “fair broker with business is an responsible steward of tax dollars”.

H211 LLC has bought 2.3 million gallons of JP4 jet fuel since early 2009, according to Pentagon records viewed by the Wall Street Journal, paying an average $3.19 per gallon to $3.33 per gallon. Aviation JP4 jet fuel in the San Francisco Bay Area airports average just under $4.50 per gallon – similar to Grade 2 vehicle diesel fuel which JP4 is derived from.

Obviously it is great fun to pick on billionaires, especially when they are affiliated with Google. However, when you look at all the facts, there were not a lot of options for fueling the jet aircraft.

The only option is to land at a different airport, refuel the aircraft, and then land at Moffett Airpark, with a jet aircraft that has a full load of fuel rather than near empty. That is a safety hazard based on my experience working on jet helicopters and jet fixed wing aircraft.

Sen. Grassley also wants to have the passenger manifests of every flight by Google/H2 11 LLC aircraft since 2007. 

Chinese "spy" caught with NASA porn

A Chinese man who was suspected of spying on NASA was pulled off a plane with a stolen laptop.  But instead of the expected state secrets, the laptop was packed full of porn.

Bo Jiang was headed for China with a NASA laptop which counterintelligence spooks expected to contain spectacular details on “huge thrusters,” “rings around Uranus” and the “conquest of the outer rim”.

However, it is clear that someone in counterintelligence did not read the file information correctly and the files were not what they seemed.

While the Face of Bo was apparently red his crime was not spying but downloading illegal porn onto his NASA laptop.

According to Business Week, at the time of his arrest in March, Jiang was under federal investigation at NASA’s request for a possible conspiracy involving violations of the Arms Export Control Act, according to an FBI affidavit.

Spooks were trying to determine whether Jiang had taken, or was seeking to take, “secret, confidential or classified information” to China.

Jiang, 31, was one of about 281 nationals from countries designated as security threats employed at NASA. He was barred from NASA facilities late last year and fired in January. In the end he decided to pop home to China and failed to tell the authorities that his laptop belonged to NASA.

This might have been because he didn’t want people to look too closely at it because it was packed with illegal porn.

What is telling about the whole incident is the level of anti-Chinese feeling at NASA. Jiang was outted by whistleblowers but so far no evidence has surfaced that he is a Chinese spy and he claims he is the target of a witch-hunt.

Jiang dealt with “generic work resulting from fundamental research with no classified sensitive or restricted information”.

He was going home because he had no job prospects and his student visa had expired, according to the documents. He is currently being held on a charge of lying to federal agent and could be banged up for five years. 

NASA puts three more smartphones in orbit

NASA has put three more smartphones into orbit on board of an Antares rocket. The tiny satellites were built in a standard cubesat frame and they were built using off-the-shelf components. They may very well be the cheapest satellites ever launched, Gizmag reckons.

Cubesats are not a new concept, in fact they date back to the nineties, but the mobile revolution has made them quite a bit more sophisticated. Cubesats have a volume of one liter and they are basically cubes measuring 10cm across. This means that smartphones are a perfect match for cubesats, not only in terms of size. Smartphones are relatively rugged and they feature an array of useful components, including GPS receivers, cameras, accelerometers, radio transmitters and speedy processors with decent operating systems. They can simply do more for less. 

“Smartphones offer a wealth of potential capabilities for flying small, low-cost, powerful satellites for atmospheric or Earth science, communications, or other space-borne applications,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington. “They also may open space to a whole new generation of commercial, academic and citizen-space users.”

However, NASA’s choice of handsets might irk some Apple fans. First generation PhoneSats are based on the HTC Nexus One, while the second generation uses the Nexus S, built by Samsung. The latter one also has a few more sensors, gyroscopes and an S-band radio. NASA launched two first-gen satellites and a single second generation PhoneSat.

PhoneSats cost between $3,500 and $7,000 to build, making them incredibly cheap even as far as cubesats go. The satellites are expected to stay in orbit for about two weeks, so keeping them cheap sounds like a very good idea indeed. 

NASA scientist develops DIY marijuana growth system

What do manned missions to Mars and marijuana have in common? Well it seems that NASA’s only way to get to Mars is by getting high and now a former NASA scientist is looking to apply his life-support expertise to marijuana growing.

Dale Chamberlain spent years working on advanced life support systems and hydroponics, hoping that NASA would go to Mars sooner or later. Sadly though, financial concerns have forced NASA to all but shelve its plans for a manned mission to Mars.

Chamberlain then decided to develop a self-contained hydroponic system for DIY marijuana growers in Colorado. Since it is now legal to possess and grow cannabis for personal use in the South Park state, Chamberlain though it would be a good idea to apply his expertise to this growing field, pardon the pun.

Colorado state law mandates that marijuana growers need to have an enclosed, lockable space and Chamberlain’s Colorado Grow Box offers just that. It is a lockable, self-contained system that requires very little maintenance. 

“The bottom line is people don’t have time, they don’t have time because of a job and other things to deal with,” Chamberlain told The Rocky Mountain Collegian. “With my background with plant chambered automation systems, it is a natural conclusion to build a chamber that would be like a refrigerator, where all you need to do is go and open the door and get your bud.”

In addition to the hydroponic grow box, Chamberlain has launched a marijuana growing school with his cousin. Dubbed the High Altitude School of Hydroponics (HASH), the school offers three levels of classes designed for the casual grower. He is also considering producing videos to reach “students” who can’t attend classes, and considering his target audience, there’s probably quite a few of them.

Copyright takes down YouTube Mars footage

Big Content has ordered a takedown of dramatic footage from the Mars Curiosity landing from YouTube.

A news agency claimed that the tax payer funded probe footage belongs to it and put out a takedown notice on YouTube to ban the film from NASA’s official page.

Motherboard’s Alex Pasternack spotted that an hour or so after Curiosity’s 1.31am landing in Gale Crater, NASA’s main YouTube channel had posted a 13-minute excerpt of the stream. Ten minutes later the video had been taken down by a news agency claiming that NASA was a pirate and that all of its Martian bases are belong to them.

YouTube said that the video contained content from Scripps Local News, which has blocked it on copyright grounds.

Pasternack points out that the takedown notice boils down to a $2.5 billion taxpayer funded NASA project, shown on a NASA-made public domain video, posted on NASA’s official YouTube channel, was blocked because of a copyright claim from a private news service.

A spokesperson for the Scripps News Service later apologised for what they said was an accidental takedown.

Michele Roberts said that it had made a mistake and reacted as quickly as possible to make the video viewable again. But it is curious how anyone could have thought they owned the footage in the first place, and just how someone got away with making such an obviously bogus claim.

This is not the first time that NASA footage has been blocked by way of copyright antics. Bob Jacobs, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, said such claims happen once a month, and tend to be more common with popular videos.

Scripps has claimed it owned a video of one of NASA’s Space Shuttles being flown atop a 747.

Sometimes if the videos are not blocked they get slapped with ads from the fraudulent claimant, the NASA spokesperson said.

Jacobs said that it has been working with YouTube to avoid the automatic disabling of videos. So far, it hasn’t helped.

It seems that there are some who are attempting to play YouTube’s system – trying to get as much content taken offline as possible.

One user’s video of foraging for salad in a field was taken down because the media company Rumblefish claimed to own the birdsong.

This sparked complaints that YouTube’s system is heavily biased in favour of complainants and is ignoring “fair use” provisions.

After Google and YouTube has been under attack for so long, it must feels it’s safer to give them what they want without asking too many questions – if any at all.