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In Pictures: The weirdest, wackiest and coolest sci/tech stories

We’re talking Pluto, Earth 2.0, Brain algorithms, software coding and tons more.

  • Your wackiest In 2015 the science world has been dominated by space event – NASA’s flyby of Pluto and subsequent deluge of information about that dwarf planet. Then we have another NASA probe – Kepler – pointing out one closest-to-Earth planet discoveries to date. There have been tons of other interesting stories though regarding 3D printed cars, drones, high-tech singers and more. Take a spin:

  • The dwarf planet of the millennium There are arguably few cooler science stories than the NASA New Horizons Pluto flyby this month. And the good or bad news (if you are on Pluto news overload) is that the mission gathered so much data that we’ll be getting dwarf planet news for months to come.

  • We don’t need no stinkin’ gunpowder US Navy war ships and gunpowder have gone together like peanut butter and jelly throughout history but that relationship may change in the not too distant future. Admiral Jonathan Greenert Chief of Naval Operations said he wanted to reduce the Navy’s reliance on gunpowder in a wide-ranging speech on the future technogical needs of the Navy. “Number one, you’ve got to get us off gunpowder,” said Greenert, noting that Office of Naval Research-supported weapon programs like Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the electromagnetic railgun are vital to the future force.

  • US intelligence group wants to reverse-engineer human brain algorithms In an effort to significantly improve artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, the research arm of the of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently announced a program whose chief goal is to reverse engineer human brain algorithms. Researchers with the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) said their five-year program called Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) would offer participants a “unique opportunity to pose biological questions with the greatest potential to advance theories of neural computation and obtain answers through carefully planned experimentation and data analysis.”

  • Earth 2.0? NASA's Kepler planet-hunting telescope has spotted what the space agency called the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. Kepler-452b is 60% larger in diameter than Earth and its 385-day orbit is only 5% longer. The planet is 5% farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20% brighter. The Kepler-452 system is located 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

  • 3D-printed car-maker targets mass distribution Talk about going from the drawing board to reality. The company, Local Motors in September 2014 demonstrated one of the world’s first full 3D printed cars, said this week that by the end of 2015 it hopes to be producing the vehicles for everyday consumption. The two-seat car, known as a Strati, was demonstrated at the Detroit Auto Show and is built almost entirely of carbon-reinforced plastic, including the body and chassis, which takes about 44 hours to make. The goal for the next stage of research and development is to speed up the print rate to 24 hours while maintaining quality, the company says.

  • Virgin Galactic wants to launch 2,400 comm. satellites Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson this week said he wants to launch as many as 2,400 small satellites in an effort to set up a constellation capable of bringing broadband communications through a company called OneWeb to millions of people who do not have it. He said he plans to initially launch a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation of 648 satellites to get the project rolling.

  • Waves for energy A prototype wave energy device advanced with backing from the Energy Department and U.S. Navy has passed its first grid-connected open-sea pilot testing. According to the DOE, the device, called Azura, was recently launched and installed in a 30-meter test berth at the Navy’s Wave Energy Test Site (WETS) in Kaneohe Bay, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. This pilot testing is now giving U.S. researchers the opportunity to evaluate the long-term performance of the nation’s first grid-connected 20-kilowatt wave energy converter (WEC) device to be independently tested by a third party—the University of Hawaii—in the open ocean, the DOE said.

  • The hyperloop challenge Looking to hasten the development of a Hyperloop pod transportation prototype, SpaceX recently said it would open a public completion to build a half-scale passenger system capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 760 mph. SpaceX founder, entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2013, envisioned the Hyperloop concept. He proposed building a network of elevated pneumatic tubes where specially build passenger pods could zip between two points – in this case between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds over 760 mph.

  • Solar sailing cubesat spreads wings and flies After years and many setbacks the Planetary Society’s test spacecraft deployed its 344 square foot solar sail in space in June. The society’s LightSail is a cubesat whose initial flight will begin to test the feasibility of using much larger solar sails for space voyages. The Solar sails use the sun’s energy or rather its light photons as a method of propulsion. The Planetary Society says that while photons have no mass, a photon traveling as a packet of light has energy and momentum.

  • NASA research aims at developing quieter, greener, supersonic aircraft Regular commercial supersonic flight ended with the iconic Concord in 2003 but NASA in particular has been pushing research into a new class of quieter, greener high-speed aircraft. In June the space agency said it invested $2.3 million for eight research projects that will address sonic booms and high-altitude emissions from supersonic jets. NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project, which picked the new projects, focuses on developing sonic boom reduction methods and defines the necessary approaches or techniques for objectively assessing the levels of sonic boom acceptable to communities living in the vicinity of future commercial supersonic flight paths.

  • Coder/Gamers Can online gamers perform the sometimes tedious software verification work typically done by professional coding experts? Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) think so and were so impressed with their first crowdsourced flaw-detecting games, they announced a new round of five games designed for improved playability as well as increased software verification effectiveness. According to DARPA, gameplay generates mathematical proofs that can verify the absence of certain software flaws or bugs in common open source software. “If gameplay reveals potentially harmful code, DARPA will implement approved notification and mitigation procedures, including notifying the organization responsible for the affected software…”

  • Scientists want to blast space debris with a space station-mounted laser Researchers in Japan are proposing an interesting way to get rid of space debris – mount laser in the International Space Station and zap it with a beam. Lasers have been proposed for such as task in the past but researchers at Japan’s largest research institution RIKEN want to combine a super-wide field-of-view telescope, developed by RIKEN which would detect objects and a recently developed high-efficiency laser system, known as CAN, that could track space debris and remove it from orbit. The group plans to deploy a small proof-of-concept experiment on the ISS, with a small, 20-centimeter version of the EUSO telescope and a laser with 100 fibers.

  • US Navy researchers get drones to swarm on target The Office of Naval Research said in May it had successfully demonstrated a system that lets small-unmanned aircraft swarm and act together over a particular target. The system, called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) features a tube-based launcher that can send multiple drones into the air in rapid succession. The systems then use information sharing between the drones, allowing autonomous collaborative behavior in either defensive or offensive missions, the Navy said.

  • 100-year old software Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said announced a new program aimed at building software systems that can adapt and survive more than a century years on the job. The program, called Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems, or BRASS is expected to lead to significant improvements in software resilience, reliability and maintainability by developing the computational and algorithmic requirements necessary for software systems and data to remain robust in excess of 100 years. The program looks to address the issues of high costs and frustration with current software systems which continue to grow in complexity and require users to become accustomed to constant update cycles.

  • Could modernized analog computers bring petaflops to the desktop? Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are looking to discover -- through a program called Analog and Continuous-variable Co-processors for Efficient Scientific Simulation (ACCESS) -- what advances analog computers might have over today’s supercomputers for a large variety of specialized applications such as fluid dynamics or plasma physics. “[Analog computers and] their potential to excel at dynamical problems too challenging for today’s digital processors may today be bolstered by other recent breakthroughs, including advances in micro-electromechanical systems, optical engineering, microfluidics, metamaterials and even approaches to using DNA as a computational platform,” said Vincent Tang, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office in a statement.

  • The end of an long unnecessary era RSA Conference 2015 this year nixed a long-controversial trade-show attraction: “booth babes.” While RSA does not use the term “booth babe” specifically, language in this year’s exhibitor contract made it clear what style of salesmanship will be no longer welcome at this event.

  • Hacker remorse? In June a new strain of ransomware called Locker was activated after having been sitting silently on infected PCs. Security firm KnowBe4 called Locker a "sleeper" campaign that, when the malware's creator "woke it up," encrypted the infected devices' files and charged roughly $24 in exchange for the decryption keys. A week after the ransomware appeared however, its reported creator apologized for the campaign and released the decryption keys for all the devices that fell victim to it. Bizarre.

  • Virtuality Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have developed a robot that incorporates high-level sensors and Oculus Rift virtual reality to give the user a fully immersive experience from a remote location. According to an IEEE Spectrum report, the DORA system (which stands for Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton) streams video taken from the robot's cameras to the Oculus Rift. Sensors on the VR headset monitor the user's head motion and send the data to the robot, which is programmed to replicate those movements in real time. So when the user turns his or her head to the left, the robot does too, and it streams the video immediately, giving off the feeling that the user is in the same environment as the robot. Thanks to my colleague Colin Neagle for this story.

  • Under my skin The BBC reported earlier this year that a Swedish company, Epicenter was offering workers a novel way to enter their building and make some purchase – by inserting a smart chip in their hand. The chip has a tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip, about the size of a grain of rice and is implanted with some slight degree of pain – if you don’t mind injections, the story states. The image here is not of Epicenter employees but they do have RFID chips implanted in their hands.

  • Your personal hovercraft Aerofex this year announced what it calls a personal hovercraft that rides like a motorcycle. The company’s Aero-X is capable of carrying two people 10 feet (3 m) above any surface at airspeeds up to 45 mph (72 km/h). The craft has a useful load of 310 lb (140 kg), and can be customized by partners and developers for specific applications and aerial tasks. First flight of the $85,000 Aero-X is scheduled for 2016, with deliveries beginning in 2017.

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