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In 2017, SpaceX finally answered critics of the company who said it had not delivered on the promise of a high flight rate for its low-cost launch program.
Prior to last year, the critics were not wrong—SpaceX had never successfully launched more than eight rockets in any given year. Finally, in 2017, it attempted 18 launches, and all made it safely into space. The SpaceX steamroller had arrived.
This year the company has had a lot on its plate. It flew the large Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time in February. It introduced a brand-new, potentially highly reusable variant of the Falcon 9 rocket in May. And all throughout the year, the company's engineers have been scrambling to finalize development of the Dragon spacecraft to meet NASA's needs to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.
RICHMOND, Va.—Earlier this year, I took a long-overdue look at NASCAR. That deep dive into the technology busted stereotypes and preconceptions, but it really was only part of the NASCAR puzzle. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I ignored perhaps the most important aspect of the nation's most popular motorsport. This only really sank in a few weeks ago after I, at long last, went to Richmond Raceway to witness my first NASCAR race. Because the key to understanding NASCAR—at least to this observer—is simple: it's all about the spectacle.
This Sunday is the title-decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. After 267 laps—400.5 miles if you're reading this in America, 644.5 km if you aren't—the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (to give it its full name) will have a winner. The championship is now a four-way fight among Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing), Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Joey Logano (Team Penske), and Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing). NASCAR has moved to a playoff structure of late to ensure the championship goes down to the wire. So each of the four drivers enters the weekend with an equal shot: whoever finishes highest in the running order will be crowned champion. (What happens in the event of crashes and so on is explored by Alanis King here in much better depth than I could hope to provide.)
Focusing just on the technology was an omission, but it was no error. I purposefully chose my off-season visit to North Carolina at the beginning of this year as my introduction to NASCAR. Ars is about technology, after all; visiting the sport at home, when things are quiet, meant we could focus on the technology without everything else that comes with being at a race weekend. Less danger of cultural tourism, too.
TOKYO—In early September, the island nation of Japan was doing Japan things. One day, Typhoon Jebi roared ashore near Osaka and Kobe, breaking historical wind records. Early the next morning in Tokyo, as thick clouds from Jebi’s outer bands raced overhead, an offshore earthquake rattled softly but perceptibly through the city.
The capital city’s skies remained a bleak gray a few hours later as we entered the headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the city’s bustling Shinagawa area. Men in suits gestured us forward, bowing as we passed, down a corridor to an elevator. After riding up 27 floors to the top of the building, more men in suits ushered our group into a long, formal meeting room. Along one wall, a bank of windows looked to the southwest. From here, on a clear day, the iconic Mount Fuji dominates the distant horizon. But not this day.
A handful of reporters had been invited here to meet with the MHI's chief executive, Shunichi Miyanaga, or Miyanaga-san as he is known throughout this building and beyond. The firm had paid our not-inconsiderable travel expenses so that we might learn more about the industrial conglomerate’s various businesses and its long-range plans to remain globally competitive.
From the phenomenal success of the Kepler mission and a proliferation of ground-based telescopes, we now know that planets are common in our galaxy. But the methods we've used to detect most of them are biased toward finding large planets that orbit close to their host stars. The farther a planet is, the less its gravity pulls at the star and the less likely it is to align so that its orbit passes between that star and Earth, thus blocking out some starlight. Meanwhile, the focus has shifted to nearby stars, as astronomers have started building a catalog of targets for the next generation of telescopes.
These issues provide an intriguing backdrop for today's announcement that one of the closest stars to Earth has a super-Earth companion. Barnard's star is a red dwarf that is only six light years from our Solar System; only the three stars of the Centauri system are closer. But the new planet orbits far enough from Barnard's star that it had been missed by earlier attempts. The detailed follow-up that spotted it also hints at the possibility of a separate, more distant planet, and both could help inform our models of planet formation.A new look
Barnard's star has been observed extensively over the years, partly because it's so close, partly because it's a prototypic example of a red dwarf star. These observations have included exoplanet searches, but nothing about the system stood out. But unless you observe a star regularly, there's a chance you won't happen to be looking at critical points in the planet's orbit.
At an academic conference, the question “where are you from?” can have many meanings. “For anybody who’s in science, that’s a complicated question,” says paleontologist P. David Polly. “Where are we now, where did we get our degree, where did we grow up, where did we get the other degree?” For many people in science, the list of answers will span multiple countries.
Because of this international culture, science is feeling the effects of increasing restrictions on international travel. At last week’s Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in San Diego, a research poster drew a lot of attention: the bulk of the poster was grayed out, covered instead by a message from the author explaining that, as a citizen of Iran, she had been unable to enter the US to take part in the conference. “Science should be about breaking barriers,” she wrote, “not creating new ones.”Tightening barriers
Leili Mortazavi, an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, ran into the same barrier. When her work was accepted for presentation at SfN, she started the visa application process, but when she arrived at her appointment, she was told she was “ineligible to apply” because of her Iranian citizenship. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a visa application or a background check,” she told Ars. But the current situation is one of “excluding everyone based on their place of birth and not caring if the reason for their traveling is legitimate or not.”
Last week, some Harvard University scientists sparked widespread media attention about a possible alien origination for the mysterious interstellar object known as 'Oumuamua. At the end of a paper speculating about the object's observed movement, the authors presented "a more exotic scenario" suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may be "a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization."
As we reported at the time, this outlandish theory may have been catnip for online news editors, but there just wasn't much evidence to take it seriously. Now, thanks to some previously unpublished observations by NASA, we can further discount the idea.
The object now called 'Oumuamua made its closest approach to Earth in September 2017, and astronomers first spotted it in October of that year as it began moving away. In November, when NASA trained its Spitzer Space Telescope on where astronomers expected to find 'Oumuamua, it found nothing over the course of two months of observations in the infrared portion of the spectrum.
Bitcoin's price has fallen more than 12 percent over the last 24 hours to $5,400, the lowest price for the popular cryptocurrency in more than a year.
Bitcoin's plunge is part of a broader cryptocurrency sell-off. Ethereum has fallen more than 15 percent over the last 24 hours, while Bitcoin Cash is down 18 percent.
Cryptocurrency markets are jittery ahead of a high-stakes "hard fork" of Bitcoin Cash. Rival factions are pushing different, mutually incompatible versions of the spinoff cryptocurrency, and the two versions are scheduled to create separate, competing versions of the blockchain starting on Thursday. The schism could create confusion among users and damage the reputation of the cryptocurrency.
While end users have been customizing the color schemes of their computers for decades, we've lately seen operating system developers follow their users' lead with built-in, first-party support for dark themes. The dark theme was a big part of the appeal of macOS Mojave, and dark theme support in applications such as Windows Explorer was no less welcome.
With the next feature update of Windows 10, codenamed 1H19 and likely to ship in April next year, Microsoft is going a step further, with the introduction of a light theme. The light theme also comes with a new wallpaper (an iteration of the default Windows 10 wallpaper), and it will brighten up certain areas of the operating system that have always tended be dark regardless of the theme being used.
If the screenshot is anything to go by, it's going to be a good-looking theme, too.
Microsoft today launched a preview of PlayFab Multiplayer Servers, a new Azure-based service giving game developers dynamic, on-demand scaling of multiplayer servers.
Microsoft bought Seattle-based PlayFab earlier this year with a view to using it to expand Azure's reach in the gaming world. PlayFab is building all the cloud-based infrastructure needed for today's games: matchmaking (using the same algorithms as Xbox Live to try to group players of similar skill together), leaderboards, server hosting, player identity/profile management, commerce, and so on. Broadly speaking, the intent of PlayFab is to let games developers focus on their games, taking care of the server-side work for them. PlayFab's services are platform agnostic, and Microsoft has preserved this aspect: there are SDKs for Xbox, Windows, PlayStation, Switch, iOS, and Android.
At the time of the purchase, PlayFab ran atop Amazon's AWS. Some parts still do, but others have moved to Microsoft's own Azure. The Multiplayer Server feature, released in preview today, is one of the services on Azure. Microsoft has more Azure data centers in more parts of the world than Amazon or Google, which in turn means that Azure servers should generally be closer to where the players are. This should ensure lower latency and a better gaming experience for games on those servers.
How badly do you want a headphone jack on your smartphone? Android creator Andy Rubin's smartphone startup, Essential, is still alive after laying off 30 percent of its staff, and it's still producing products. The latest is a headphone jack attachment called the "Audio Adapter HD" for the company's only standalone product, the ill-fated Essential Phone. The Essential Phone doesn't have a headphone jack built into the device, but it does have a modular accessory system that this headphone jack can click onto. So if you really, really want to use wired audio, you can fork over a $150 for this accessory. That price seems just a bit excessive considering the entire phone has had fire sales for $250 and $224.
The Essential Phone is compatible with the usual headphone jack dongles, so this add-on is being pitched as an artisanally crafted accessory for the discerning audiophile. The company says the "limited edition" accessory is "handcrafted" and made from "100% machined titanium." Inside is the beloved 3.5mm audio jack and a high-quality DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) from ESS Sabre. You'll also get three free months of the Tidal HiFi music service. Besides the higher-quality DAC, the other advantage this attachment offers over the usual USB-C dongle is the ability to charge the device and listen to music at the same time! What a concept.
After soft-announcing a new Command & Conquer project last month, EA has taken the wraps off a plan that will (hopefully) satisfy that '90s real-time strategy series' biggest fans. Production has officially begun on a full remaster of the first two Command & Conquer RTS games—the 1995 original and the 1996 sequel Red Alert—with all the games' expansion packs included as part of the complete package.
What's more, development is being spearheaded by Petroglyph Games, a studio formed from the ashes of original C&C development studio Westwood.
"This is getting the band back together," Petroglyph Audio Director Frank Klepacki said in an announcement video on Wednesday. "This is how it should be. We were all there from the inception of it."
Your gut isn’t the only place that harbors a community of microbes. There are also microbiomes coating your skin and most household, industrial, and commercial surfaces. There's even a community hanging out in the lower atmosphere. Scientists in Spain have monitored this airborne microbiome by taking rain and snow samples every two weeks for seven years at a site in the central Pyrenees. The samples were then run through a DNA sequencer to reveal the airborne microbiome. They found that the bacteria, archaea, protists, and fungi all varied predictably by season.
In the wintertime, microbes frequently had marine origins, coming primarily from the Atlantic, although these were mixed in with bugs from forest and other terrestrial sources. Overall, the winter atmospheric microbiome was the most diverse, and that diversity included the highest levels of pathogens in any season.
In the summer, the microbiome was more regional, coming from the Mediterranean as well as fresh water, cropland, and cities. There was more pollution in the summer; the scientists monitored atmospheric levels of chemicals, including nitrates and sulphates, in addition to microbes. One of the most abundant and recurring taxa over the seven summers was Ramlibacter, related to a bacterium first isolated in 2011 from meteorite fragments buried in the sands near Tatouine, in Tunisia. It is specifically adapted to live in hot, dry, desert climes, so the researchers suggested that it could be used as a forensic signature for “summertime in Europe—African dust in the air.”
Black holes are… um, black. The point of a black hole is that the force of gravity is strong enough to prevent light from escaping its grasp. But the matter that is being sucked into a black hole is not at all happy about its fate. The matter gets hot and bothered and starts to glow very brightly before it reaches the black hole. This produces what are called luminous accreting black holes.
Most black holes are proud of themselves, sucking down matter right before our very eyes. But others are shy and seem to hide their antisocial behavior, raising questions about whether they were actually there. It turns out that these murderous monsters are hiding behind the gas clouds created by galaxy collisions. It took a serious amount of detective work to penetrate the fog.Introducing the eyewitnesses
Astronomers have long recognized that not everything in the Universe happens slowly. Sure, our Sun will be stable for billions of years, but when things start to go wrong, they go downhill quickly (use your remaining eight minutes wisely). Likewise, when something big gets sucked into a black hole, it sends a last desperate SOS in the form of a bright X-ray flash.
Comcast has agreed to pay $700,000 in refunds "and cancel debts for more than 20,000 Massachusetts customers" to settle allegations that it used deceptive advertising to promote long-term cable contracts, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced yesterday. "Comcast stuck too many Massachusetts customers with lengthy, expensive contracts that left many in debt and others with damaged credit," Healey said.
The Massachusetts AG alleged that Comcast violated state consumer protection laws by "fail[ing] to adequately disclose the actual monthly price and terms of its long-term contracts for cable services, including failing to disclose to customers that the company could increase the price of certain monthly fees at any point during the long-term contracts."
Comcast advertised a $99 lock-in rate "but did not adequately disclose equipment costs and mandatory monthly fees" that would add to monthly bills, and "failed to adequately disclose that the fees could increase while the customer was locked into the long-term contract," the AG investigation found.
Ford is working with Postmates and Walmart on a pilot program for self-driving grocery deliveries, the companies announced on Wednesday.
"We are exploring how self-driving vehicles can deliver many everyday goods such as groceries, diapers, pet food and personal care items," Ford said in a press release.
The grocery delivery pilot experiment will be based in Miami, where Ford's self-driving car company, Argo, is already testing self-driving vehicles. Ford had been testing self-driving deliveries with Postmates prior to this announcement.
Sound is very much an ephemeral phenomenon. So when acoustician Yuri Lysoivanov wanted to capture the unique acoustics of natural caves, he lugged all his recording equipment to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to analyze the reverberations and resonances. He described this experience at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Victoria, Canada, earlier this month.
Reverberation is a critical design element, especially for performance spaces. It's not the same as an echo, which is what happens when a sound repeats. Reverb is what happens indoors when sound can't travel sufficient distance to produce those echoing delays. Instead, you get a continuous ring that gradually "decays" (fades).
American audio engineer Bill Putnam was the first person to use "artificial reverb" for commercial recording in the late 1940s with the Harmonicats' "Peg o' My Heart"—achieved by placing a microphone and loudspeaker in the recording studio's bathroom. (Bathroom and subway tiles have excellent reverberation, which is why buskers have their favorite spots in New York City's subway stations.) Today, one of the most popular digital techniques is called convolution reverb, which uses recordings of the acoustics of real spaces to produce highly realistic simulations of those spaces.
After rolling out wearables apps across other platforms over the past few weeks, Spotify just released the first iteration of its Apple Watch app. The watchOS app will be rolling out to Apple Watch users over the next week, and you must have the latest version of the Spotify iOS app on your iPhone to download the app.
Much like Spotify's other wearable device apps, the program for the Apple Watch focuses on controlling playback on your iPhone from the watch. Users can pause, play, skip, and rewind their music, podcasts, and other tracks. They can also tap a heart icon to add new music that they stumble upon to their libraries. Most of these features, aside from adding music to your library, are available in Apple's native Now Playing app that lets users control playback from nearly any audio source on their connected iPhone.
The Apple Watch app also has Spotify Connect support, which lets users manage connections and playback with Bluetooth devices. Directly from the watch, you can choose which devices—like laptops, speakers, headphones, and others—you want to play music.
Phase-change memory seems to offer the best of both worlds: the speed of current RAM with the permanence of a hard disk. While current implementations are too expensive for widespread use, researchers have been doing interesting things with test hardware. Its distinct properties have allowed people to perform calculations and train neural networks, all in memory. So finding out how to make phase-change memory more efficient could open some new approaches to computing.
This week, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Brookhaven National Lab is publishing a paper describing how it made a tiny set of memristors that acts similar to phase-change memory. The features of the memory are only two nanometers across, and they can be separated by as little as 12nm—below the cutting edge of processor manufacturing. The down sides? So far, the team has only made nine bits at a time, and they're made using platinum.On the grid
Key to this new work are tiny sheets of platinum only two nanometers thick—that's just over 11 atoms of the element. While platinum is rather pricey, the thin sheets provide extremely low resistance. The researchers measured each sheet at about 10,000 times less than the expected resistance of a similar-thickness carbon nanotube. And the authors say they can manufacture the sheets in the appropriate dimensions with a 100-percent efficiency.
Back at the start of the year, a set of attacks that leveraged the speculative execution capabilities of modern high-performance processors was revealed. The attacks were named Meltdown and Spectre. Since then, numerous variants of these attacks have been devised. In tandem, a range of mitigation techniques has been created to enable at-risk software, operating systems, and hypervisor platforms to protect against these attacks.
A research team—including many of the original researchers behind Meltdown, Spectre, and the related Foreshadow and BranchScope attacks—has published a new paper disclosing yet more attacks in the Spectre and Meltdown families. The result? Seven new possible attacks. Some are mitigated by known mitigation techniques, but others are not. That means further work is required to safeguard vulnerable systems.
The previous investigations into these attacks have been a little ad hoc in nature: examining particular features of interest to provide, for example, a Spectre attack that can be performed remotely over a network or Meltdown-esque attack to break into SGX enclaves. The new research is more systematic, looking at the underlying mechanisms behind both Meltdown and Spectre and running through all the different ways the speculative execution can be misdirected.
Federal prosecutors in Kansas announced Tuesday that a 26-year-old Californian has admitted that he caused a Wichita man to be killed at the hands of local police during a swatting attack late last year.
Swatting is a way to harass or threaten someone by calling in a false threat to law enforcement, and, when successful, it usually results in a police SWAT team showing up needlessly at its victim's house.
According to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Kansas, Tyler Barriss pleaded guilty to making a false report resulting in a death, cyberstalking, and conspiracy. He also admitted that he was part of "dozens of similar crimes in which no one was injured."