Watch the U.S. Launch a Classified Spy Satellite Today

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 08:54 AM PST

After multiple delays, bad weather, and a dramatic last-second abort, the United Launch Alliance is launching top secret spy satellite into space today.

Final Countdown

After multiple delays, bad weather, and a dramatic last-second abort, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is hoping to finally send a top secret spy satellite into space today.

The satellite is scheduled to launch on top of a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California  at  2:05 p.m. EST. According to the ULA, it’s the 38th time a Delta IV rocket has been launched since 2002.

A handful of failed attempts have delayed the launch of the mission that was originally scheduled for early December. A launch attempt in mid December was aborted when engineers noticed a hydrogen leak coming from one of the boosters. More issues with the rocket delayed launch again earlier this month.

Highly Classified

ULA vice president Gary Wentz called the mission a “high-priority mission for the nation’s warfighters” in a statement earlier this month. But otherwise, details about the satellites on board are sparse.

In fact, the mission is so classified, the public stream of the launch will cut out after only six minutes to protect NRO’s mission from prying eyes, according to Space.com.

But you’ll be able to live stream those first few minutes on ULA’s website.

READ MORE: US Launching Secret Spy Satellite Today! Here’s How to Watch Live

More on the U.S. spy satellite: Watch a U.S. Spy Satellite Launch Fail Seconds Before Liftoff

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Study: A Quarter of Antibiotic Prescriptions in the U.S. Are Unnecessary

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 08:08 AM PST

A new study found that 23.2 percent of antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. were for illnesses that don't require any antibacterial treatment at all.

Resisting the Resistance

The CDC calls antibiotic resistance one of the “biggest public health challenges of our time,” estimating that about 2 million people in the U.S. alone get an antibiotic-resistant infection. And that has a lot do with the overprescribing, and overuse of antibiotic medicines. But have we finally learned our lesson?

A new study published in the British Medical Journal found that out of roughly 15.5 million antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. in 2016, 23.2 percent were for illnesses that normally don’t require any antibacterial treatment at all. Most shockingly, 28.5 percent of the prescriptions had no associated recent diagnosis at all.

Always, Sometimes, Never

The authors of the study divided all cases into three different categories: cases where antibiotics should always, sometimes, or never be used. For instance, tonsillitis is almost always treated with antibiotics, while asthma (by itself) should never require an antibiotic prescription.

Of course, the way these illnesses are classified will vary, and the researchers note that findings may not generalize to publicly insured or out-of-pocket paying patients in the U.S. — their sample of prescriptions only included privately insured patients.

A Worrying Trend

But it does illustrate a worrying trend: too many prescriptions of antibacterial medications could result in antibiotic resistance — essentially make bacteria much harder to kill.

And it’s a common problem. So common, scientists even found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on board the International Space Station back in November. Although, whether nor not they could pose a threat to human health is still unclear.

But researchers are paying attention. It’s evidently an important issue to keep an eye on, and the authors of the study are hoping their methodology could help others identify a solution.

READ MORE: One-quarter of antibiotic prescriptions aren't necessary [Popular Science]

More on antibiotics: Researchers Repurposed CRISPR to Help Develop Better Antibiotics

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A Team of Scientists Want to Land a Drone on Saturn’s Largest Moon

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 06:42 AM PST

Later this year, NASA might decide to fund a Johns Hopkins University mission that would send a drone to Saturn's largest moon Titan.

A Close-Up View

We got our best glimpse of Saturn’s largest moon Titan when European Space Agency’s Huygen probe was successfully dropped off on its surface by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on January 14, 2005 — the farthest ever landing from Earth of a spacecraft. But the probe ran out of battery power in only a couple of hours.

Mission Dragonfly

A team of  scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory have been itching to get back to Saturn’s hazy moon. But this time, rather than sending a stationary probe, the team wants to send a drone that could explore the moon from above its surface — but well below its thick, and nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

“We didn’t know how Titan worked as a system before Cassini got there. We had tantalizing hints, but Cassini and Huygens really took it from [being] this mysterious moon to [being] a place that is incredibly familiar,” principal investigator for Dragonfly and scientist at Johns Hopkins University Elizabeth Turtle told Space.com.

The mission called Dragonfly could eventually explore the most promising, and potentially habitable sites on Titan. Scientists are planning to take advantage  of the moon’s low gravity, and thick atmosphere to visit multiple sites with the drone.

Crossing Fingers

And the proposed mission might actually take shape — that is, if NASA chooses it over a different finalist proposal later this year. NASA chose the two finalist concepts including Dragonfly for its next mid-2020s mission back in December 2017.

The team behind Dragonfly submitted a more detailed concept back in December of last year, and are expecting a decision from NASA in the summer, Space.com reports. If chosen this year, the Dragonfly mission would launch around the year 2025 to arrive at Titan nine long years later.

And they’re hopeful. “Not only is this an incredibly exciting concept with amazing, compelling science, but also, it is doable — it’s feasible from an engineering standpoint,” Melissa Trainer, Dragonfly’s deputy principal investigator, and scientist at NASA told Space.com.

READ MORE: NASA May Decide This Year to Land a Drone on Saturn’s Moon Titan [Space.com]

More on Dragonfly: NASA Is Considering Sending a “Dragonfly” Drone to an Alien World

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Ball-Tracking AI Can Predict Your Tennis Opponent’s Next Shot

Posted: 19 Jan 2019 05:55 AM PST

Researchers have created an AI they claim is able to accurately predict the type and location of a tennis player's next shot.

Tennis, Anyone?

Correctly predicting your opponent’s next shot can be the difference between winning and losing in tennis.

Now, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have created an AI that can analyze a specific player’s shot decisions to predict what they’re likely to do next — and it could change the sport for both players and fans.


In a paper published on Wednesday on the preprint server arXiv, the QUT researchers describe how they created their seemingly psychic tennis AI by combining the mental processes human players use to predict shots with a neural network.

According to the researchers’ paper, previous neuroscience studies have shown that tennis experts use parts of their brains associated with episodic memories (memories linked to experiences) and semantic memories (memories linked to knowledge and concepts) when predicting an opponent’s next move.

The team incorporated that information into their AI, which they call a Memory-augmented Semi Supervised Generative Adversarial Network (MSS-GAN).

Take Your Shot

The QUT researchers used data on 8,780 shots taken by tennis pros Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open Men's singles to train, test, and validate their tennis AI. The Hawk-Eye ball tracking system recorded the data, and it included everything from the ball’s trajectory, speed, and angle to the player’s foot movements.

After training the system using about 70 percent of the available data, the team used about 25 percent of it to test the AI’s ability to predict the next shot’s type (winner, error, or return) as well as its location. It was able to predict the type of shot with an accuracy between 82.65 and 89.01 percent and the location within 0.93 meters on average.

When they trained and tested the system using a smaller dataset of shots taken by four other players at the tournament, they found “no significant deviation” in the AI’s performance, which is striking — it suggests the system could be effective in instances where not much data is available.

AI in Action

The researchers envisions a future in which a system such as theirs could give the cameras recording tennis events an added layer of intelligence, allowing them to anticipate a player’s next shot and more effectively track the action for fans.

Coaches could also use this type of AI to train players for upcoming matches, helping them get inside an opponent’s mind before they ever step onto the court.

READ MORE: This AI Learns From Past Matches to Predict Tennis Shot Placement [VentureBeat]

More on AI: AI Coaches Are Here to Unleash Your Inner LeBron

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Russia and America’s Long Space Partnership Could Soon Fall Apart

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:49 PM PST

For the past three decades, NASA and Russia's Roscosmos have operated as equals. But now it seems that NASA may have outgrown its Russian counterpart.

It’s Not You

During the 1960s, the United States and Russia were engaged in a bitter space race. But starting in the 1970s, their rival space agencies started to collaborate. Nowadays, both countries help run the International Space Station.

But it’s starting to look, Ars Technica reports, as though international rivalries could tear that mutually beneficial relationship apart. If it does, it’ll be a blow not just to space research but to the prospects of a friendly, demilitarized international space community.

I Just Need Some Space

One key issue driving the split is that after NASA decommissioned its Space Shuttle program, it started relying on Russia to launch its astronauts and equipment into orbit. Increasingly, though, NASA has inked contracts with American companies like SpaceX, cutting Russia out of the loop.

“I think we are going through a long transition in the relationship,” space historian John Logsdon told Ars. “When Russia joined the station partnership, it demanded and got, on the basis of its human spaceflight experience, treatment as first among US partners. Now, 25 years later, it is no longer a space superpower, but one among several second-tier countries.”

I Have Needs!

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space program Roscosmos, has butted heads with NASA leadership. In 2014, when the Obama administration sanctioned Rogozin and six other Russian leaders over the 2014 Crimea annexation, Rogozin tweeted that America should start using a trampoline to get astronauts to the space station. Last year, he suggested that a small hole in the International Space Station could have been made deliberately, prompting international intrigue.

It’s possible that the two space programs will patch things up, but it’ll be a long road — and if they don’t, the whole community of space research stands to suffer.

READ MORE: The longstanding NASA-Russian partnership in space may be unraveling [Ars Technica]

More on space: The Competitors in Today's Space Race Are Companies, Not Countries

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Amazon Built Vests to Protect Warehouse Workers From Its Robots

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 01:45 PM PST

Amazon's in-house design firm came up with a vest that protects its warehouse workers from robots by making them slow down.

Magic Vest

We already knew that working at one of Amazon’s warehouses could be hazardous. Amazon Robotics’ latest product could protect workers — but its existence is a strange vision of human-robot relations.

TechCrunch reports that the online retail giant’s in-house design firm had to come up with a solution — in the form of a vest — to protect workers from warehouse robots. The vest sends signals to nearby robots telling them to slow down in order to avoid a collision.

“In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region,” Amazon Robotics VP Brad Porter told TechCrunch. “What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear.”

Bad Robots

There have been a couple of incidents between robots and warehouse workers in the past. A robot malfunctioned in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey back in December, tearing open a can of bear spray, and injuring dozens of workers in the vicinity.

But safety advocates are paying attention. Last year, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health put Amazon on its “dirty dozen” list of the most dangerous U.S.-based companies to work for, nothing that seven workers were killed at Amazon’s warehouses since 2013.

It’s a gesture of goodwill for Amazon’s warehouse workers, but will it be enough to keep the robots at bay? Let’s hope we won’t find out the hard way.

READ MORE: Amazon built an electronic vest to improve worker/robot interactions [TechCrunch]

More on Amazon’s Warehouses: An Amazon Warehouse Robot Sprayed 24 Workers With Bear Repellent

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This Drone Takes off by Leaping With Bird-Inspired Legs

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 12:10 PM PST

Passerine's drone uses its bird-like legs to jump into the air, overcoming a design flaw that plagues many other fixed-winged aircraft.

Rare Bird

Once you know a little about Passerine’s drones, the startup’s name — a reference to a category of birds that perch — makes a lot more sense.

By giving its drones bird-like legs, the company believes they’ll be able to delivery heavy payloads with no runway, a fundamental limitation of existing drone designs — and if Passerine’s upcoming pilot programs go as hoped, the avian-inspired drones could soon be making deliveries in the places that need them most.

Jump Start

Most drones excel at one of two things. They can either take off and land without a runway, or they can quickly transport heavy payloads across long distances. But drones that can do the former can’t usually do the latter, and vice versa.

The problem is that the rotors needed for a vertical takeoff — the kind that a drone can manage with limited space — aren’t terribly efficient for flight. Meanwhile, the fixed wings that are efficient for flight can’t get a drone off the ground vertically.

In a recently published interview with IEEE Spectrum, Passerine CEO Matthew Whalley explained how the company’s drones can both launch without a runway and fly efficiently.

“When it launches, it essentially jumps into the air,” he said. “The launch is very similar to a bird… When it jumps, it's not about gaining height, it's about launching the drone forward to get it up past its minimum flight speed, and at that point it's flying like a conventional aircraft.”

Idea With Legs

Whalley believes Passerine is less than two months from figuring out how to complete a takeoff and landing cycle. Then, in the second quarter of 2019, it plans to launch several pilot projects with its bird-inspired drones.

If those go well, the company hopes to put its drones to use in the areas Whalley believes they could have the biggest impact.

“[S]pecifically in Africa, but also generally in the developing world, there is potential for this massive improvement by using drones, but there's not a lot of infrastructure, not a lot of places where you could use a conventional fixed-wing airplane or drone,” he told IEEE Spectrum. “So you need something that can operate from very low infrastructure, and the legs came about as being a more efficient way of getting a long-range airplane into the air rather than trying to strap a quadcopter to it.”

READ MORE: Delivery Drones Use Bird-Inspired Legs to Jump Into the Air [IEEE Spectrum]

More on drones: A Child Was Immunized by the World's First Drone-Delivered Vaccine

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How the Government Shutdown is Hurting Science

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 11:23 AM PST

The ongoing government shutdown is causing dire effects on biological research, as furloughed scientists struggle to keep their research subjects alive.

Hungry Bugs

On Dec. 22, the U.S. government shut down. Since then, government-funded biologists have been struggling to feed and tend to the organisms — insects, plants, microbes — that they study.

All the while, the scientists are navigating the fine line between doing the bare minimum to keep their subjects alive and furthering their research, which is technically banned by federal law, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Lost Knowledge

Scientists who spoke to the LA Times said that their work and that of other scientists could be set back for months or even years as a result of the shutdown. Experiments that were set in motion before the shutdown began can’t just be paused.

“It’s like telling a doctor you can't go in and see your patients,” Victor Raboy, a retired USDA plant geneticist, told the LA Times.

Research organisms, some of which are irreplaceable genetic hybrids, still need to eat and will continue to grow, reproduce, and die. That means time-sensitive research may be totally ruined as scientists miss their chance to study or cultivate a particular generation.

“We are losing lots of research,” Ashley Maness, president of a chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the LA Times.

Risky Business

Aside from being a nuisance for furloughed scientists, interrupting this research has grave real-world repercussions. Some of the government scientists who spoke to the LA Times studied things like stopping the spread of Zika virus, and others were investigating ways to protect vulnerable crops from hungry pests.

With no end to the government shutdown in sight, things will only get more difficult for scientists and other government employees who have now missed nearly a month’s worth of pay. The scientific community will feel reverberations of the shutdown’s impact for years to come.

READ MORE: As shutdown drags on, scientists scramble to keep insects, plants and microbes alive [Los Angeles Times]

More on the shutdown: Gov Shutdown Means 95 Percent of NASA Employees Aren't At Work

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China Is Facing A “Precipitous” Population Decline

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:49 AM PST

Chin is facing a "precipitous" population decline that leaders fear could lead to economic catastrophe for the rising world power.

Population Decline

Chinese demographers recently “delivered a stark warning” to the country’s leaders, according to The New York Times: China, which once feared overpopulation, is facing a “precipitous” population decline that could lead to economic catastrophe for the rising world power.

“It can be seen that 2018 is a historic turning point in China's population,” University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Yi Fuxian told the Times. “China's population has begun to decline and is rapidly aging. Its economic vitality will keep waning.”

One-Child Policy

That concern is a startling reversal for China, where leaders once feared out-of-control population growth so much that they instituted the “one-child policy” in 1979, forbidding couples from having multiple offspring.

Though China started allowing families to have two children in 2016, demographers now fear that the longstanding policy has created a downward population trajectory that could haunt China for decades. As the country’s population ages, economists fear, there will be too few workers and too many old people in need of increasing amounts of care.

New Plan

That said, China’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to jumpstart vast social and economic shifts — from the one-child policy itself to the creation of the technical and economic megalopolis of Shenzhen over the course of just a few decades — via official policy.

If China’s leaders lean into stabilizing the country’s population through policy changes, there’s no telling what they’ll be able to accomplish.

READ MORE: China's Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population [The New York Times]

More on China: China Plans to Launch Its First Mars Lander Mission Next Year

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Report: There’s a Critical Flaw in Russia’s New Heavy Lift Rocket

Posted: 18 Jan 2019 10:41 AM PST

A Critical Flaw

More bad news for the Russian space agency Rocosmos: Reuters reports that engineers found a fatal flaw in the design of its much anticipated Angara A5 heavy lift space rocket.

The rocket went through its first test launch back in 2014. Once completed, it’s supposed to lug 20 metric tons of cargo into space at a time — roughly a third of the payload of SpaceX’s Heavy Falcon rocket.

Now, Reuters reports that scientists warned of dangerous low-frequency oscillations that could rip the Angara A5 rocket’s RD-191 engines apart during launch. Despite efforts to reduce these oscillations, including the installation of a special valve, scientists working for Russian engine manufacturer Energomash allegedly warned that a launch could still end in disaster.

Mixed Messages

Reuters mentions that a paper published by Energomash was reported on by the Russian RIA News earlier Friday. Oddly, RIA News later published an update stating that the problems had been eliminated and referencing an official press release on Energomash’s website.

“Messages appearing in the media about a defect in the Angara RN engines contain inaccurate information that’s taken out of the context,” reads the press release, as interpreted by Google Translate.

Bad Timing

The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for Russia’s space ambitions. It comes after a bent Soyuz rocket sensor forced a NASA and Russian astronaut to make an emergency landing in October. A different, uncrewed cargo spacecraft fell back to Earth shortly after launch in December 2016.

Russia’s current Proton M heavy launch rocket didn’t fare much better, experiencing a failure rate of ten percent.

It’s impossible to say at this stage if Angara A5’s rocket is ready to launch. All we can do is hope that engine manufacturer Energomash has found a solution in time for next test.

READ MORE: Russian scientists find defect in new heavy lift space rocket engine [Reuters]

More on Roscosmos: Russia’s Only Space Telescope Has Stopped Responding to Commands

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