Scientists Want to Use a Plasma Beam to Push Space Junk Out of Orbit

JUNKY SKIES

Not satisfied to clutter up Earth, we’re spreading our trash to our planet’s orbit, too — we’ve produced an estimated 8,262 tons of space junk. But a team of scientists has a new plan to get rid of the largest of those discarded satellites, tools, and bits of spacecraft: zap them with a plasma beam. Researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University outlined their idea in a study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports.

BEAM TOWN

Their idea: fit a satellite with a type of propulsion system known as a helicon plasma thruster, then shoot space junk with the beam of plasma it produces. The force of the carefully aimed shot will knock a piece of space junk out of Earth’s orbit and into the atmosphere where it will burn up.

Of course, shooting this beam out of the satellite will push the satellite itself in the opposite direction (see: Newton’s third law of motion). This would make it difficult to remain close enough to the space junk to effectively push it. To avoid this problem, the researchers suggest adding another plasma beam to the satellite, this one facing in the opposite direction of the first. That’ll push the satellite back into position.

LITTERBUGS

When the team tested a version of this system in a laboratory space simulation chamber, a room that replicates the environmental conditions of space, they found that they were able to control it exactly as they had hoped.

The researchers didn’t give a precise estimate for how long such a satellite could patrol the skies, but in a press release, one of them predicted it would be able to “undertake long operations.” And given that fact that our littering in space is on track to get worse in the future, a long-term solution is just what we need.

READ MORE: Plasma Thruster: New Space Debris Removal Technology [Tohoku University]

More on space junk: Russia Wants to Vaporize Space Junk With a Laser. There Is No Way This Will Go Wrong. 

Actually, Elon Staying at Tesla Is the Best Case Scenario

Some described it as the most expensive two words ever tweeted. “Funding secured.”

It’s hard to think Elon Musk knew the full extent of what he was doing when he tweeted that he was taking Tesla private.

And the consequences are substantial, even for someone who uses Twitter as recklessly as Musk. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) slapped him with subpoena and a lawsuit. On Saturday, Tesla and Musk settled with the SEC. They’ll have to cough up $20 million each, Musk will have to relinquish his seat as chairman for three years, and lawyers will have to oversee his communications.

Musk could have avoided much of the outrage and stock price instability (it dropped 37 points overnight when the SEC first announced its lawsuit, then bounced back even higher than before the suit by Monday morning) if he hadn’t turned down a much tamer settlement last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times report.

We may never know what convinced Musk to change his mind and settle with the SEC just two days after the lawsuit (uncharacteristically, he didn’t offer any tweeted insight into his thought process).

But from where we sit now, this could be a great move for the company — and for the future of electric vehicles. The company will get all of the benefits Musk offers, with fewer of the liabilities that come with his leadership.

You’ve likely heard about some of these liabilities. From lashing out at short sellers to making weed jokes (allegedly to impress his girlfriend Grimes) to even getting sued for libel by a British diver he accused of being a pedophile, Musk’s shenanigans have pulled Tesla into financial uncertainty. The SEC settlement really just seems like the culmination of years of shenanigans.

But there are perks of Musk’s leadership, too. He’s charismatic and ambitious with a devoted following. Tesla’s stock has probably only done as well as it has because many people regard Musk as a visionary and savior of the electric car. “Historically, Tesla has had easy access to capital markets, largely due to the public’s perception of Musk as a visionary,” UBS analyst Colin Langan said in a research note, as quoted by Forbes. Kicking him out completely probably wouldn’t be great for Tesla’s business.

The settlement means Tesla gets the best of all worlds. As CEO, Elon still has quite a bit of power over the company, while a new chairman will take control of the board. That means Musk will have to answer to someone new. And the requirement for a lawyer who oversees Musk’s communications — a.k.a his tweets — will help, too. Maybe having an intermediary that can rein in a hotblooded Musk could put an end to the weed jokes, and potshots aimed at short sellers.

The result, if Tesla’s lucky, will be a more predictable Musk, which will mean more stability for shareholders.

The dust is still settling over at Tesla; Musk has 45 days until he has to step down as chairman. We still don’t know how shareholders will react to a future chairman of the board. What will a Tesla without Musk as chairman look like? Whether Musk will relinquish some of that decision-making power to a new chairman (and who that chairman will be) is difficult to say. And will that chairman be able to keep Musk in line when he decides to tweet himself into a corner again?

That’s also hard to say, but one thing is clear: Musk made the right decision in stepping down as chairman. A company like Tesla with such a bold vision of the future is too important.

Read More: Reports: Elon Musk Turned Down an SEC Settlement

Netflix Plans To Try Out “Interactive” Shows

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

Streaming giant Netflix seems to be planning to allow viewers to make decisions that affect the storylines of certain shows.

That’s according to Bloomberg, which reported on Monday that the company is planning a push into interactive television that will present viewers with decisions about what should happen next during an episode, like a branching “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel.

The project would be a bold experiment in storytelling for Netflix. The company has reoriented the TV industry around online streaming in ways that reportedly terrify traditional networks. It’s mostly stuck with the classic linear formats of TV and movies — until now.

HELP PAGE

Netflix hasn’t formally announced its interactive shows, and the Bloomberg report is based on an anonymous source (though allowing someone to speak to the press on background might just be a way to drum up buzz for the new series). But we turned up a little something that makes us think the new series are totally happening — a page on Netflix’ help site that appears to describe the upcoming interactive content. It’ll work on most platforms, it says, but not Chromecast or Apple TV.

Bloomberg pointed out that Netflix has already test-driven the technology on the kids’ show “Puss in Book.” That show presents viewers with simple choices, like who the title character Puss should fight, but Bloomberg’s sources said in adult programming (likely to drop before the end of the year), the branches will be more complex.

HOOK ‘EM

One of the first adult titles that will let viewers make decisions will be an episode of the dystopian technology show “Black Mirror,” according to Bloomberg’s sources.

That feels pretty on the nose. Netflix has perfected the art of roping viewers — even children — into binge-watching sessions. Interactive shows might be an exciting new method of storytelling, but there’s no doubt the interactive shows are just another way to keep us all watching.

READ MORE: Netflix Is Planning a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ‘Black Mirror’ [Bloomberg]

More on Netflix: Netflix CEO Says Entertainment’s Future is a Matrix-Like Hallucinogen

You Can Now Navigate a US Airport Terminal Using Just Your Face as ID

FACE OFF

There are lots of indignities of modern air travel — cramped seats, barely palatable food. But there’s nothing quite like fumbling to pull your passport out of your bag while an unsympathetic TSA agent and a line of people glare at you.

Soon, though, some passengers flying out of one U.S. terminal will have another option. The only type of ID they’ll have to show is their face.

DELTA FORCE

On September 20, Delta announced plans to launch the first biometric terminal in the U.S. at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Starting in December, international passengers flying out of Terminal F will have the option of completing the check-in, baggage, security, boarding, and customs processes using facial recognition software.

If passengers want to use the biometric identification system, they first must check in at home by entering their passport information online. When they arrive at the airport, they’ll approach a kiosk in the lobby. A camera will take their photo, and the system will compare it to the photo on file with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After that, the passenger approaches more cameras that will shepherd them through the baggage drop-off, TSA checkpoints, and the boarding area.

Passengers will still be able to go through the terminal with their ID as usual if they choose. In a blog post describing the program, Delta emphasized that passengers should still bring their passports on international trips.

540 SECONDS

Delta claims the facial recognition option can save a traveler up to nine minutes per trip, so don’t expect it to be your saving grace if you’re running late for a flight.

But if you’d rather not empty the contents of your purse onto some TSA agent’s kiosk in the hunt for your passport — and you aren’t worried about Delta having this biometric info on you in some database — facial recognition could be the way to go. After all, you’ll never misplace your face.

READ MOREDelta’s Fully Biometric Terminal Is the First in the US [Engadget]

More on facial recognition: Facial Recognition Tech Catches Traveler With Fake Papers

Automation Could Destroy Poor Economies, Says Historian

AUTOMATION STATION

Experts predict that automation is going to replace hundreds of millions of jobs over the next few decades. One approach to offsetting total social upheaving in the process is “universal basic income”: the idea that if there aren’t enough jobs, the government — or some other entity, like maybe our robotic overlords — will pay everybody enough money to live on.

But that solution could make old injustices worse, according to the historian Noah Harari, the author of the bestselling 2011 book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” In a new interview with the Wall Street Journal, Harari worries basic income won’t be universal: that rich countries will be able to afford it, but poor countries won’t. The result, then, would be an ever-widening gap between the world’s wealthy and the poor.

INEQUALITY OF LIFE

The problem, Harari said, is that the most likely providers of basic income are governments. That’ll work fine for the United States, which can tax high-revenue companies like Google and Facebook. But those taxes won’t help support people in less developed countries, like Honduras or Bangladesh, who will also be put out of work by growing automation.

“The automation revolution is likely to make some areas of the world extremely rich and powerful,” Harari told the Journal, “while completely destroying the economy of others.”

Not all experts are pessimistic about basic income, however. It’s possible that widespread automation will lead to an era of global plenty — if our robot overlords are willing to share.

READ MORE: Historian Yuval Noah Harari on the Robot Revolution [The Wall Street Journal]

More on the SEC investigation: McKinsey Finds Automation Could Eradicate a Third of America’s Workforce by 2030

NASA’s Got Ambitious Goals for Crewed Space Exploration

NASA’s got a whole new plan.

On Wednesday, the space agency announced its detailed National Space Exploration Plan to achieve the President’s lofty goals set out in his December 2017 Space Policy Directive-1.

Those bold plans include: planning a new Moon landing, long-term human deployment on and around the Moon, reassertion of America’s leadership in space, strengthening private space companies, and figure out how to get American astronauts to the surface of Mars.

There are a lot of unknowns built into the plan, not the least of which is whether or not scientists can figure out a way to keep astronauts safe from the many hazards of space.

Those smarties at NASA took that into account when detailing expected timelines for completing each goal in the 21-page report. Indeed, the timeframe within which NASA expects to reach key milestones along the way to their goals includes dates that NASA expects it will actually figure out certain parts of the plan.

That’s important because it means NASA will be able to incorporate what it learns along the way. Any claims — like the one published in NASA’s new report — that astronauts will stroll around on Mars by the 2030s has flexibility built in and could change if NASA researchers hit a snag or two in the process.

For instance, NASA plans to wait until the results of the Mars 2020 mission, during which a rover will collect and analyze samples from Mars’ surface, before it will even begin to draft up a budget ask for the crewed mission that is slated for some time in the 2030s. That’s just good thinking.

But before NASA even starts to think about sending astronauts to Mars, there are even more fundamental mysteries to solve. For instance, NASA will be launching 13 CubeSats into low Earth orbit in 2020 so it can learn how to better prepare payloads for space travel, whether it be to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. Once those satellites are in orbit, NASA hopes to use what it’s learned to put astronauts in lunar orbit by June 2022.

These gaps in NASA’s proposed plans aren’t an accident — they represent key gaps in our understanding of space and interplanetary travel. Put another way: they represent the things NASA scientists want to learn. And if NASA sticks to this timeline, it will hopefully achieve it, which will guide us further into exploring space.

More on NASA’s timeline: NASA Wants Its Deep Space Gateway Habitat To Orbit The Moon By 2024

Giving Robots Lizard-Like Tails Could Improve Their Mobility

RUN, LIZARD, RUN

It’s not every day that a single study tells us something unexpected about lizards and robots, but such is the case for a new research project out of Australia.

Researchers from several Aussie universities teamed up to study eight species of Australian lizards that run on two legs. They determined that we may have been wrong about why lizards move that way — and concluded that we might want to consider giving robots lizard-like tails to help with the bots’ own bipedal movement.

HEADS UP

For their study, published Tuesday in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the researchers used a slow motion camera to record the lizards as they ran along a horizontal racetrack. To keep tabs on the lizards’ body positions, the researchers tagged nine locations, including the tops of the lizards’ heads and their tails, with Liquid Paper. They then analyzed the footage using custom-built software.

“There was an existing understanding that the backwards shift in these lizards’ centre of mass, combined with quick bursts of acceleration, caused them to start running on two legs at a certain point,” researcher Nicholas Wu said in a press release. “It’s just like a motorcycle driver doing a ‘wheelie.’ What we found, though, is that some lizards run bipedally sooner than expected, by moving their body back and winging their tail up.”

BIO-INSPIRED BOTS

That means the lizards consciously choose to run on two legs — the laws of physics don’t just force them to. The researchers have a couple of ideas for why the reptiles might make this decision. It might, for instance, help the animals navigate obstacles.

They also think we would be wise to look to these lizards as we consider future robot designs.

“If obstacle negotiation is indeed improved with bipedal locomotion, then we have shown how the tail and body can be moved to enable it sooner and for longer,” researcher Christofer Clemente said in the press release. “Maybe adding a tail to robots can help them go ‘off-road’ sooner.”

Seems the makers of Mechagodzilla might have been onto something.

READ MORE: Robots May Need Lizard-Like Tails for ‘Off-Road’ Travel [The University of Queensland]

More on animal-inspired robots: Watch These Animal-Inspired Robots Find Their Footing

NASA Is Looking For New Ways to Detect Alien Technology

PHONE HOME

Are we alone in the universe? Hunting for biological signatures of life on moons and exoplanets is just one way we might find an answer.

Another is to look for “technosignatures” of alien technology — radio signals or microwaves coming from deep in space. The idea has been around for decades, but now Congress is pushing NASA to ramp up the approach. This week, the agency held a three-day workshop in Houston to explore the state of the field and what might come next.

ALIEN TECH

The organizing committee included representatives from NASA, the Planetary Science Institute, the SETI Institute and several large research universities. During a Reddit question-and-answer session on Thursday between workshop participants and the public, Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics Jason Wright said that though the search for alien technosignatures goes back decades, its pace slowed in the United States after the 1990s.

But more recently, Wright wrote, there’s been a “resurgence of activity” in the field. So it’s time for those actively looking for technosignatures to be sure they’re looking for the right things.

At the workshop, where the agenda featured events about detecting megastructures and how signs of alien technology might be found in big data, NASA outlined four broad goals for its participants:

  • Define the current state of the technosignature field, identifying past projects and current limitations
  • Identify near-term advances in the field, noting current projects and tools that could have a future impact
  • Look at the longer-term potential of the technosignature field, identifying needed tools and experiments
  • Find ways NASA can work with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to advance technosignature research

LIFE SIGNS

On Reddit, workshop speaker Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center, said that if NASA does identify alien life, it will exercise caution.

“There are no plans to attempt communication — our technosignature searches are looking and listening,” he said.

Whether the efforts lead to the discovery of intelligent life or not, we’ll at least know that we left no stone unturned in the hunt.

READ MORE: NASA Is Taking a New Look at Searching for Life Beyond Earth [NASA]

More on technosignatures: Astronomer: Instead of Alien Life, Should We Be Searching for Signs of Alien Tech?

This Week in Tech: Sept 22-28

Would you be OK with a caterpillar robot crawling all over your insides, even if it meant it would deliver helpful medications in the process? That might be a choice you have to make in the future. To glimpse what else we’ve seen in our crystal ball, read on.

Scientists Want to Put a Horrifying Caterpillar Robot Inside Your Body. Researchers in Hong Kong have invented a robot that looks like a caterpillar. It’s designed to travel through your body and release drugs.

Should Coma Patients Live or Die? Machine Learning Will Help Decide. An algorithm is helping Chinese researchers determine if a coma patient will wake up again.

This “Flying Sports Car” Is Like a Giant Drone You Can Ride In. This week, Philippine inventor Kyxz Mendiola took his Koncepto Milenya, a flying sports car prototype, out for its first public test flight.

These Robots Weave Super Durable Fiberglass Structures So Humans Don’t Have To. MIT researchers have created Fiberbots, autonomous robots that can weave fiberglass into tall tubes that we could one day use for construction projects.

Spotify Will Make a Playlist Based on Your DNA. Provide the results of your AncestryDNA test, and Spotify will provide a “mix of music, inspired by your origins.” It’s a cute idea, but nah.

Robots Are Coming for Service Jobs. Automation is eating into food and hospitality jobs. Unions are demanding measures that will protect staff from being replaced by robots.

More on tech: This Week in Tech: Sept 15-21

This Week in Science: Sept 22-28

This week, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) landed a pair of tiny hopping robots to the asteroid called Ryugu, and they’ve got the mind-blowing photos to prove it. Meanwhile, SpaceX is officially gearing up to send a Japanese rover to the surface of the Moon around 2020. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto.

Here Are the First Photos Japan’s Robot Landers Sent Back From an Asteroid. Japan’s asteroid-exploring robots have officially landed on Ryugu and are now transmitting data and photos of the rocky small planet.

Scientists Just Took A “Spectacular Step” Towards Lab-Grown Human Egg Cells. Researchers have come closer than ever before to producing lab-grown human egg cells using just the blood of a person.

Electrical Stimulation Helped A Man With Paralyzed Legs Walk Again. With the help of electrical stimulation and physical therapy, a 29-year-old man diagnosed with total lower body paralysis can now take steps on his own.

SpaceX Will Send Another Company’s Robots to the Moon in 2021. Japanese space exploration company ispace is teaming up with SpaceX on two lunar missions, one in mid-2020 and the other in mid-2021.

Pet Store Puppies Are Spreading Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. CDC officials have traced an outbreak of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria Campylobacter jejuni to pet-store puppies unnecessarily prescribed antibiotics.

Nuclear Power Used to Seem Like the Future. Now Its Fate in the US Is in Question. If we still need nuclear plants as a stopgap to moving away from fossil fuels, fine. But overall, atomic power no longer feels like the future.

More on science: This Week in Science: Sept 15-21

Reports: Elon Musk Turned Down an SEC Settlement

NO DEAL

Before the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against Elon Musk for alleged fraud yesterday, the Tesla CEO reportedly turned down a settlement offer.

That’s according to the Wall Street Journal, which spoke to sources who said the settlement for an undisclosed amount was approved by the SEC’s commissioners. But after Musk’s lawyers turned it down Thursday, the sources said, the agency “rushed to pull together” the complaint they filed that afternoon.

TWEET TROUBLES

Musk’s troubles with the SEC stem from an August 7 tweet in which he said he was considering taking Tesla private for $420 per share — a corporate buyout the SEC says he had no way of financing.

Sources who talked to CNBC offered more details about the no-deal settlement, reporting that the enigmatic CEO “refused to sign the deal because he felt that by settling he would not be truthful to himself.” In other words, Musk wouldn’t take the settlement because that would imply that he did something wrong, and he doesn’t think he did.

Musk had a way to avoid going to court, and he didn’t take it. That means he’s prepared to fight.

READ MORE: SEC Sues Elon Musk for Fraud, Seeks Removal From Tesla [Wall Street Journal]

More on the SEC investigation: Ludicrous Mode: SEC Sues Elon Musk, Causing a Quick Drop in Tesla Stock

Planes Kill Huge Numbers of Birds. LEDs Could Save Their Lives.

THE BIRDS AND THE B52S

Each year thousands of birds collide with airplanes, dying in the process. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to figure out an effective way to help the animals survive alongside humans in the not-so-friendly skies.

That may be changing, though. A team from Purdue University has uncovered a simple solution to the problem of bird collisions, at least for one species: adding red or blue LEDs to planes.

BIRD’S EYE

The Purdue team described their experiment in a study published this week in the journal PeerJ. They cut two holes in a large board, one on the left side and one on the right, and positioned a large LED light next to each. Each LED could shine in five different wavelengths of light: ultraviolet, blue, green, red, and white.

Then they let a brown-headed cowbird go and observed which hole it chose to fly through, given various choices of LED lights. They chose the species because it is commonly involved in plane collisions and has a visual system well-suited to this kind of experimentation.

They found that the birds consistently avoided a hole if it was lit by an LED that appears blue or red to the human eye — a clue that those colors could be used to deter birds from flying toward airplanes.

FLOCK TOGETHER

Planes aren’t the only man-made objects birds collide with while flying — they also slam into buildings, wind turbines, power lines, cars, and more.

As our urban areas sprawl to encroach on areas inhabited by wildlife, placing more of these animals in harm’s way. If we want to ensure our structures don’t diminish bird populations, we’ll need a better way to deter the animals from approaching them, and LEDs look like they could be a viable option.

READ MORE: Millions of Birds Die in Collisions Each Year, but Lights Could Change That [Purdue University]

More on bird collisions: These Robots Chase Birds Away From Airports