Science & Technology


SpaceX rocket to ISS explodes two minutes after launch

© John Raoux/AP
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft stands ready for launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Nasa said on Sunday morning that "something went wrong" with the launch of a SpaceX supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and confirmed that "the vehicle has broken up".

A video posted to Instagram appeared to show the vehicle exploding. Reports said pieces could be seen falling into the Atlantic.

Cargo on the unmanned Dragon SpX-7 rocket included food and care packages, systems hardware, "science materials", computer resources and spacewalking equipment. It also carried a docking adaptor for the station as part of operations to prepare for future commercial missions. At the end of a five-week mission the rocket was due to return 675kg of goods to earth.

On Sunday morning, ISS astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted: "Watched #Dragon launch from @space_station Sadly failed Space is hard Teams assess below @NASAKennedy #YearInSpace".

At 10.22am on Sunday, Nasa tweeted a picture of the launch of the rocket with the traditional phrase: "We have liftoff."

Comment: See also:


Dormant monster black hole just woke up

Black hole with stellar companion.
What you're seeing is V404 Cygni, a binary system consisting of a star and a black hole, some 7800 light-years away. It has laid quiet for the last 25 years, but a week ago, NASA's Swift satellite noticed a burst of new activity.

V404 is a binary system, consisting of a star and a black hole orbiting one another. Matter flows from the star to the black hole, where it heats up and lets off all sorts of x-ray and gamma-ray waves, before vanishing into the black hole.

The last time V404 was active was way back in 1989, but NASA's Swift satellite started picking up renewed bursts of gamma rays on June 15.

Fireball 2

Meteor to mark your birthday? Japanese start-up hopes to launch its own shooting stars

© South China Morning Post
Lena Okajima, chief executive of space technology venture ALE.
Fancy a meteor shower racing across the night sky to mark your birthday? One Japanese start-up is hoping to deliver shooting stars on demand and choreograph the cosmos.

And, say scientists, it's not just about painting huge pictures on the night-sky that would be visible to millions of people; artificial meteors could help us to understand a lot more about Earth's atmosphere.

Lena Okajima, who holds a doctorate in astronomy, says her company, ALE, is intending to launch a micro satellite that can eject shooting stars at exactly the right time and place to put on a celestial show. "I'm thinking of streams of meteors that are rare in nature," Okajima said in an interview. "It is artificial but I want to make really beautiful ones that can impress viewers."

In collaboration with scientists and engineers at Japanese universities, the ALE team is developing a satellite that will orbit the Earth and eject dozens of balls, a few centimetres in diameter, at a time.


GMO wheat trial failure: No statistical difference in number of aphids infesting GM and conventional wheat

The project, including developing the crop and installing security, cost almost £3million, which was funded by the taxpayer and the Government through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
A trial to create a genetically-modified wheat that would drive away insects without the need for powerful insecticide sprays has failed.

Millions of pounds of public money was spent on the trial of a crop that GM scientists and supporters hoped would win over consumers sceptical about the technology.

The wheat was genetically modified to release a scent that would supposedly drive away aphids or pests, so allowing the crop to flourish.

However, while the idea worked in the laboratory, it did not when it came to growing the wheat in field conditions at Rothamsted Research Institute in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

The trial was hailed by the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson in a major speech promoting GM technology given at the Rothamsted site in June 2013.

At the time, he condemned critics of GM, describing them as part of the 'Green Blob', and praised the trial of the aphid resistant wheat as 'cutting edge'.

The minister declared: 'It is precisely the type of pioneering science that we are famous for.'

Now the research team has published the results, which reveal the wheat did not repel the insects as expected.

Comment: Despite industry marketing propaganda, the truth is that GMO crops are being ravaged by the very pests they were designed to resist. Repeated studies have also shown that GMO crop yields are not consistently higher than non-GMO crops. Arrogant scientists who continue to believe they can outwit 'mother nature' are simply using the earth's population as guinea pigs where everyone will experience the devastating environmental, economic, and health consequences of their hubris.


Drinking water can become contaminated with viruses, bacteria through leaky pipes: Study

© Reuters
Contaminants, including viruses and bacteria from feces, can enter pipes through leaks and so pollute our drinking water
Water companies around the world take heed: A new University of Sheffield study overturns the previous understanding of how leaky pipes and water pressure function together within major distribution networks. Though it is commonly assumed pressure forces water out through leaks, thus preventing water from getting in, a new research study finds evidence confirming the opposite. Contaminants can enter pipes through leaks and travel throughout a water network.

Importantly, then, our drinking water may become contaminated by way of leaky pipes.

"Previous studies have shown that material around water pipes contains harmful contaminants, including viruses and bacteria from feces, so anything sucked into the network through a leak is going to include things we don't want to be drinking," Dr. Joby Boxall, lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, stated in a press release.


Pluto's probe faces tough task of finding Pluto!

© NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben
The New Horizons spacecraft will swing by Pluto and its moon Charon on July 14.
Some 4.7 billion kilometres from Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft is heading for a historic rendezvous with Pluto. To achieve this, it will need to hit a very small target: an imaginary rectangle in space measuring just 100 by 150 kilometers. Mission navigators need to put New Horizons precisely in that area to ensure that the spacecraft can make all planned science observations during its 14 July fly-by of Pluto — the first ever of that distant dwarf planet.

For now, the spacecraft is on target. But getting to Pluto is one of the hardest tasks in interplanetary navigation, and crucial decisions will be made in the next week and a half. The last chance to change the spacecraft's flight path comes on 4 July.

Because astronomers discovered the dwarf planet in 1930, they have seen only part of its 248-year path around the Sun, and they don't know exactly where Pluto is. And New Horizons is so far from Earth that it takes 9 hours to send and receive a signal, making the spacecraft hard to direct in real time. "Everything is pushed to the extreme," says Bobby Williams, an engineer at KinetX Aerospace in Simi Valley, California, who heads the mission's navigation team.

Comment: Pluto has five known moons: Charon, Nix, Styx, Hydra and Kerberos, three of which are locked together in a mutual orbit - a three-body resonance. Charon is the biggest and has 11% the mass of Pluto, thought to have formed during a cosmic collision early in the Solar System's history. The other moons are thought to be a coalescence of debris from that collision.


Exoplanet discovered in comet's clothing

© Mark Garlick/University of Warwick
Astronomers have discovered a spectacular comet-like tail around a distant planet the size of Neptune. The findings reported in the journal Nature, could provide new clues as to how some rocky terrestrial planets are formed.

"This is truly incredible, it's the largest atmosphere ever detected around a planet," says one of the study's authors Dr Vincent Bourrier of the University of Geneva Observatory.

"This cloud of hydrogen, which has escaped the planet, is forming a comet like tail trailing behind the planet."

The planet, named Gliese 436b, is in a very close orbit around the small red dwarf star Gliese 436, which is less than half the size of the Sun. The system is located about 33 light-years away in the constellation of Leo.

Earlier studies of Gliese 436b have suggested it has a small rocky core, a mostly water ice mantle, and a thin outer envelope of hydrogen and helium gas. Its size and estimated daytime surface temperature of about 530°C led scientists to classify Gliese 436b as a 'warm Neptune'.

The planet takes just 2.64 Earth days to orbit its host star, circling it at a distance of only about four million kilometres, 15 times closer than Mercury's orbit around the Sun. Because it is so close, the star irradiates the planet's atmosphere, causing it to heat up and expand.

However, the star's stellar winds aren't powerful enough to blow away Gliese 436b's atmosphere. Bourrier and colleagues used an ultraviolet spectrometer aboard the Hubble Space Telescope to analyse and map the chemical signature of the planet's atmosphere.

During three separate Hubble observations of the planet as it transits or moves in front of its host star as seen from Earth, the scientists detected a hugely extended envelope of hydrogen gas surrounding and trailing out far behind the planet.

"Because of the low ionisation from the star, the gas can stay for a long time, trailing for extended distances behind the planet," says Bourrier.

The giant envelope is large enough to cover around 56 per cent of the star's surface.

Eye 2

Your church may be using facial recognition software to spy on you

Dozens of churches in the United States and around the world are using facial recognition software to track their members, according to the company that's selling them the software to do it.

Moshe Greenshpan is the founder and CEO of Skakash, an Israeli company that aims to provide churches with a program called Churchix to scan everyone who walks through their holy halls. The program was covered in a VentureBeat interview with Greenshpan back in February, and enjoyed a string of recent coverage in European outlets like Der Spiegel and The Times. It sounded wild, so I called Greenshpan to find out more.

But, when I asked Greenshpan in our interview if he could provide the names of some of his clients so that I could speak with them about their use of facial recognition, he was reticent—a theme that would develop throughout our conversation as he refused to confirm numerous details about his operation.

"I can tell you in general that churches also don't like to be described as privacy invaders," Greenshpan told me. "Most of them would like to keep this confidential. We try to encourage churches to make Churchix more visible, so it will become like a checkpoint for registration. Of course, so far we haven't had great success in doing that."

Comment: It seems there is no remaining place outside your own home that you cannot be spied upon without your knowledge or consent, and now you can add your local house of worship to the list of places where you are tracked.

Eye 1

Google under fire over covert installations of eavesdropping tool in Chrome web browser

© Reuters / Stephen Lam
Open source developers and privacy campaigners are raising concerns over the automatic installation of a shady "eavesdropping tool" designed to enable 'OK Google' functionality but potentially capable of snooping on any conversation near the computer.

When one installs an open source Chromium browser, as it turns out, it "downloads something" followed by a status report that says "Microphone: Yes" and "Audio Capture Allowed: Yes," according to an article by Rick Falkvinge, Swedish Pirate Party founder, published on the website Privacy Online News.

While the Chromium, the open source basis for Google's browser, at least shows the code and allows user to notice it and turn it off, the same installation is included by default in the most popular browser Chrome, used by over 300 million people.

The code was designed to enable the new "OK, Google" hot word detection, which lets the computer do things like search or create reminders in response to human voice. Yet, some users are worried that the service could be activated without their permission, eventually sending recorded data to Google. The worried users describe the Chrome Hotword Shared Module as an audio-snooping "black box", with only the corporation that provided it fully aware of what the injected pre-compiled code is capable of.


3-mile high 'pyramid peak' spotted on mysterious Ceres dwarf planet

A variety of craters and other geological features can be found on dwarf planet Ceres. NASA's Dawn spacecraft took this image of Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) on June 5, 2015.
The mystery surrounding the dwarf planet Ceres continues to thicken: New images taken by the Dawn probe have revealed a three-mile high pyramid shaped peak, while also giving updated photographs of the planet's puzzling bright spots.

The craft took the photographs on June 9 from a distance of 2,700 miles (4,300 kilometers). It revealed a number of new geographical characteristics, in particular, the high peak that juts out from the surrounding landscape.

"The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features. For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.