News From Space: Kepler Finds Many New Worlds!

exoplanets2Late last month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 more exoplanets, nearly doubling the number of planets beyond our Solar System. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems outside of our own, with four of them within their stars habitable zones. It’s the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time, and its all thanks to a new verification technique employed by the Kepler space probe’s scientists.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. What’s more, this latest batch of exoplanets puts the total number of those confirmed from about 1000 to just over 1700 – and increase of 70% that occurred overnight! This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets.

alien-worldJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, had this to say in a press release:

The Kepler team continues to amaze and excite us with their planet hunting results. That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in the same planetary systems. From NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif, the Kepler research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.

Kepler78b1The Kepler space probe observes some 150,000 stars and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate. However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates. Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.

This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses – where the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If more than two large felines are gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.

Kepler-telescope-580x448Jack Lissauer, c0-leader of the Kepler science team at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains the difference this process ushers in:

Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds. We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.

Of these planets, the vast majority are small, boosting the number of known small Earth-sized planets by a factor of 400%. Other jumps include a 600% increase is known Super-Earths (or Mini-Neptunes), a 200% boost for Neptune-sized planets, and just 2% for Jupiter-sized planets. The 305 solar systems are also quite similar to our own, with the planets orbiting along a flat plane in tightly-packed, nearly circular orbits.

kepler_graphAs noted, the Kepler scientists confirmed the existence of four planets situated within their solar system’s habitable zone. They are Kepler-174d, Kepler-296f, Kepler-298d and Kepler-309c, are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, and all orbit around M and K stars. Kepler-296f is especially interesting, in that it orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun, and is either a gaseous planet composed of hydrogen-helium, or a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

In the meantime, NASA has released this animated graph (shown above) to put all the discoveries into context. And while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each discovery brings us one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy. The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal.

Sources: IO9, (2), nasa.gov

Top Stories from CES 2014

CES2014_GooglePlus_BoxThe Consumer Electronics Show has been in full swing for two days now, and already the top spots for most impressive technology of the year has been selected. Granted, opinion is divided, and there are many top contenders, but between displays, gaming, smartphones, and personal devices, there’s been no shortage of technologies to choose from.

And having sifted through some news stories from the front lines, I have decided to compile a list of what I think the most impressive gadgets, displays and devices of this year’s show were. And as usual, they range from the innovative and creative, to the cool and futuristic, with some quirky and fun things holding up the middle. And here they are, in alphabetical order:

celestron_cosmosAs an astronomy enthusiast, and someone who enjoys hearing about new and innovative technologies, Celestron’s Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope was quite the story. Hoping to make astronomy more accessible to the masses, this new telescope is the first that can be controlled by an app over WiFi. Once paired, the system guides stargazers through the cosmos as directions flow from the app to the motorized scope base.

In terms of comuting, Lenovo chose to breathe some new life into the oft-declared dying industry of desktop PCs this year, thanks to the unveiling of their Horizon 2. Its 27-inch touchscreen can go fully horizontal, becoming both a gaming and media table. The large touch display has a novel pairing technique that lets you drop multiple smartphones directly onto the screen, as well as group, share, and edit photos from them.

Lenovo Horizon 2 Aura scanNext up is the latest set of display glasses to the world by storm, courtesy of the Epson Smart Glass project. Ever since Google Glass was unveiled in 2012, other electronics and IT companies have been racing to produce a similar product, one that can make heads-up display tech, WiFi connectivity, internet browsing, and augmented reality portable and wearable.

Epson was already moving in that direction back in 2011 when they released their BT100 augmented reality glasses. And now, with their Moverio BT200, they’ve clearly stepped up their game. In addition to being 60 percent lighter than the previous generation, the system has two parts – consisting of a pair of glasses and a control unit.

moverio-bt200-1The glasses feature a tiny LCD-based projection lens system and optical light guide which project digital content onto a transparent virtual display (960 x 540 resolution) and has a camera for video and stills capture, or AR marker detection. With the incorporation of third-party software, and taking advantage of the internal gyroscope and compass, a user can even create 360 degree panoramic environments.

At the other end, the handheld controller runs on Android 4.0, has a textured touchpad control surface, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for video content streaming, and up to six hours of battery life.


The BT-200 smart glasses are currently being demonstrated at Epson’s CES booth, where visitors can experience a table-top virtual fighting game with AR characters, a medical imaging system that allows wearers to see through a person’s skin, and an AR assistance app to help perform unfamiliar tasks .

This year’s CES also featured a ridiculous amount of curved screens. Samsung seemed particularly proud of its garish, curved LCD TV’s, and even booked headliners like Mark Cuban and Michael Bay to promote them. In the latter case, this didn’t go so well. However, one curved screen device actually seemed appropriate – the LG G Flex 6-inch smartphone.

LG_G_GlexWhen it comes to massive curved screens, only one person can benefit from the sweet spot of the display – that focal point in the center where they feel enveloped. But in the case of the LG G Flex-6, the subtle bend in the screen allows for less light intrusion from the sides, and it distorts your own reflection just enough to obscure any distracting glare. Granted, its not exactly the flexible tech I was hoping to see, but its something!

In the world of gaming, two contributions made a rather big splash this year. These included the Playstation Now, a game streaming service just unveiled by Sony that lets gamers instantly play their games from a PS3, PS4, or PS Vita without downloading and always in the most updated version. Plus, it gives users the ability to rent titles they’re interested in, rather than buying the full copy.

maingear_sparkThen there was the Maingear Spark, a gaming desktop designed to run Valve’s gaming-centric SteamOS (and Windows) that measures just five inches square and weighs less than a pound. This is a big boon for gamers who usually have to deal gaming desktops that are bulky, heavy, and don’t fit well on an entertainment stand next to other gaming devices, an HD box, and anything else you might have there.

Next up, there is a device that helps consumers navigate the complex world of iris identification that is becoming all the rage. It’s known as the Myris Eyelock, a simple, straightforward gadget that takes a quick video of your eyeball, has you log in to your various accounts, and then automatically signs you in, without you ever having to type in your password.

myris_eyelockSo basically, you can utilize this new biometric ID system by having your retinal scan on your person wherever you go. And then, rather than go through the process of remembering multiple (and no doubt, complicated passwords, as identity theft is becoming increasingly problematic), you can upload a marker that leaves no doubt as to your identity. And at less than $300, it’s an affordable option, too.

And what would an electronics show be without showcasing a little drone technology? And the Parrot MiniDrone was this year’s crowd pleaser: a palm-sized, camera-equipped, remotely-piloted quad-rotor. However, this model has the added feature of two six-inch wheels, which affords it the ability to zip across floors, climb walls, and even move across ceilings! A truly versatile personal drone.

 

scanaduAnother very interesting display this year was the Scanadu Scout, the world’s first real-life tricorder. First unveiled back in May of 2013, the Scout represents the culmination of years of work by the NASA Ames Research Center to produce the world’s first, non-invasive medical scanner. And this year, they chose to showcase it at CES and let people test it out on themselves and each other.

All told, the Scanadu Scout can measure a person’s vital signs – including their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature – without ever touching them. All that’s needed is to place the scanner above your skin, wait a moment, and voila! Instant vitals. The sensor will begin a pilot program with 10,000 users this spring, the first key step toward FDA approval.

wowwee_mip_sg_4And of course, no CES would be complete without a toy robot or two. This year, it was the WowWee MiP (Mobile Inverted Pendulum) that put on a big show. Basically, it is an eight-inch bot that balances itself on dual wheels (like a Segway), is controllable by hand gestures, a Bluetooth-conncted phone, or can autonomously roll around.

Its sensitivity to commands and its ability to balance while zooming across the floor are super impressive. While on display, many were shown carrying a tray around (sometimes with another MiP on a tray). And, a real crowd pleaser, the MiP can even dance. Always got to throw in something for the retro 80’s crowd, the people who grew up with the SICO robot, Jinx, and other friendly automatons!

iOptikBut perhaps most impressive of all, at least in my humble opinion, is the display of the prototype for the iOptik AR Contact Lens. While most of the focus on high-tech eyewear has been focused on wearables like Google Glass of late, other developers have been steadily working towards display devices that are small enough to worse over your pupil.

Developed by the Washington-based company Innovega with support from DARPA, the iOptik is a heads-up display built into a set of contact lenses. And this year, the first fully-functioning prototypes are being showcased at CES. Acting as a micro-display, the glasses project a picture onto the contact lens, which works as a filter to separate the real-world from the digital environment and then interlaces them into the one image.

ioptik_contact_lenses-7Embedded in the contact lenses are micro-components that enable the user to focus on near-eye images. Light projected by the display (built into a set of glasses) passes through the center of the pupil and then works with the eye’s regular optics to focus the display on the retina, while light from the real-life environment reaches the retina via an outer filter.

This creates two separate images on the retina which are then superimposed to create one integrated image, or augmented reality. It also offers an alternative solution to traditional near-eye displays which create the illusion of an object in the distance so as not to hinder regular vision. At present, still requires clearance from the FDA before it becomes commercially available, which may come in late 2014 or early 2015.


Well, its certainly been an interesting year, once again, in the world of electronics, robotics, personal devices, and wearable technology. And it manages to capture the pace of change that is increasingly coming to characterize our lives. And according to the tech site Mashable, this year’s show was characterized by televisions with 4K pixel resolution, wearables, biometrics, the internet of personalized and data-driven things, and of course, 3-D printing and imaging.

And as always, there were plenty of videos showcasing tons of interesting concepts and devices that were featured this year. Here are a few that I managed to find and thought were worthy of passing on:

Internet of Things Highlights:


Motion Tech Highlights:


Wearable Tech Highlights:


Sources: popsci.com, (2), cesweb, mashable, (2), gizmag, (2), news.cnet

The Future is Here: The Real-Life Tricorder

medical_tricorderIt was only a matter of time, I guess. But we really should have known that with all the improvements being made in biometrics and biotechnology – giving patients and doctors the means to monitor their vitals, blood pressure, glucose levels and the like with tiny devices – and all the talk of how it looked like something out of science fiction that it wouldn’t be long before someone took it upon themselves to build a device right out of Star Trek.

It’s known as a the Scanadu Scout, a non-invasive medical device that is capable of measuring your vitals simply by being held up to your temple for a mere 10 seconds. The people responsible for its creation are a startup named Scanadu, a group of research and medtech enthusiasts who are based at the NASA Ames Research Center. For the past two years, they have been seeking to create the world’s first handheld medical scanner, and with the production of the Scout, they have their prototype!

scanaduAll told, the device is able to track pulse transit time (to measure blood pressure), temperature, ECG, oximetry, heart rate, and the breathing rate of a patient or subject. A 10 second scan of a person’s temple yields data that has a 99% accuracy rate, which can then be transmitted automatically via Bluetooth to the user’s smartphone, tablet or mobile device.

The device has since been upgraded from its original version and runs at a rate of 32 bits (up from the original 8). And interestingly enough, the Scouts now runs on Micrium, the operation system that NASA uses for Mars sample analysis on the Curiosity rover. The upgrade became necessary when Scanadu co-founder Walter De Brouwer, decided to add an extra feature: the ability to remotely trigger new algorithms and plug in new sensors (like a spectrometer).

medtechOne would think that working with NASA is effecting his thinking. But as Brouwer points out, the more information the machine is capable of collecting, the better is will be at monitoring your health:

If we find new algorithms to find relationships between several readings, we can use more of the sensors than we would first activate. If you know a couple of the variables, you could statistically predict that something is going to happen. The more data we have, the more we can also predict, because we’re using data mining at the same time as statistics.

One of the Scout’s cornerstone algorithms, for example, allows it to read blood pressure without the inflating cuff that we’ve all come to know and find so uncomfortable. In the future, Scanadu could discover an algorithm that connects, age, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate with some other variable, and then be able to make recommendations.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicEveryone who pre-orders a Scout has their data sent to a cloud service, where Scanadu will collect it in a big file for the FDA. Anyone who opts-in will also gain access to the data of other users who have also elected to share their vitals. Brouwer explains that this is part of the products early mission to test the parameters of information sharing and cloud-medical computing:

It’s going to be a consumer product in the future, but right now we are positioning it as a research tool so that it can be used to finalize the design and collect data to eventually gain regulatory approval. In the end, you have to prove how people are going to use the device, how many times a day, and how they are going to react to the information.

In the future, De Brouwer imagines this kind of shared information could be used for population scanning, kind of like Google Flu Trends does, except with data being provided directly from individuals. The focus will also be much more local, with people using the Scout’s stats to able to see if their child, who suddenly has flu symptoms, is alone of ir other kids at their school are also sick. Pandemics and the outbreaks of fatal diseases could also be tracked in the same way and people forewarned.

medical-technologyNaturally, this raises some additional questions. With it now possible to share and communicate medical information so easily between devices, from people to their doctors, and stored within databases of varying accessibility, there is the ongoing issue of privacy. If in fact medical information can be actively shared in real-time or with the touch of a button, how hard will it be for third parties to gain access to them?

The upsides are clear: a society where health information is easily accessible is likely to avoid outbreaks of infectious disease and be able to contain pandemics with greater ease. But on the flip side, hackers are likely to find ways to access and abuse this information, since it will be in a public place where people can get at it. And naturally, there are plenty of people who will feel squeamish or downright terrified about the FDA having access to up-to-the-moment medical info on them.

It’s the age of cloud computing, wireless communications, and information sharing my friends. And much as people feel guarded about their personal information now, this is likely to take on extra dimensions when their personal medical info is added to the mix. Not a simple or comfortable subject.

But while I’ve still got you’re here, no doubt contemplating the future of medicine, take a look at this video of the Scanadu Scout in action:


Source:
fastcoexist.com, google.org/flutrends/

Big News in Quantum Computing!

^For many years, scientists have looked at the field of quantum machinery as the next big wave in computing. Whereas conventional computing involves sending information via a series of particles (electrons), quantum computing relies on the process of beaming the states of these particles from one location to the next. This process, which occurs faster than the speed of light since no movement takes place, would make computers exponentially faster and more efficient, and lead to an explosion in machine intelligence. And while the technology has yet to be realized, every day brings us one step closer…

One important step happened earlier this month with the installment of the D-Wave Two over at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab (QAIL) at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, NASA has announced that this is precisely what they intend to pursue. Not surprisingly, the ARC is only the second lab in the world to have a quantum computer.  The only other lab to possess the 512-qubit, cryogenically cooled machine is the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which upgraded to a D-Wave Two in 2011.

D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip
D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip

And while there are still some who question the categorization of the a D-Wave Two as a true quantum computer, most critics have acquiesced since many of its components function in accordance with the basic principle. And NASA, Google, and the people at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) even ran some tests to confirm that the quantum computer offered a speed boost over conventional supercomputers — and it passed.

The new lab, which will be situated at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Center, will be operated by NASA, Google, and the USRA. NASA and Google will each get 40% of the system’s computing time, with the remaining 20% being divvied up by the USRA to researchers at various American universities. NASA and Google will primarily use the quantum computer to advance a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, which is tasked with developing algorithms that optimize themselves with experience.

nasa-ames-research-center-partyAs for what specific machine learning tasks NASA and Google actually have in mind, we can only guess. But it’s a fair bet that NASA will be interested in optimizing flight paths to other planets, or devising a safer/better/faster landing procedure for the next Mars rover. As for Google, the smart money says they will be using their time to develop complex AI algorithms for their self-driving cars, as well optimizing their search engines, and Google+.

But in the end, its the long-range possibilities that offer the most excitement here. With NASA and Google now firmly in command of a quantum processor, some of best and brightest minds in the world will now be working to forward the field of artificial intelligence, space flight, and high-tech. It will be quite exciting to see what they produce…

photon_laserAnother important step took place back in March, when researchers at Yale University announced that they had developed a new way to change the quantum state of photons, the elementary particles researchers hope to use for quantum memory. This is good news, because it effectively demonstrated that true quantum computing – the kind that utilizes qubits for all of its processes – has continually eluded scientists and researchers in recent years.

To break it down, today’s computers are restricted in that they store information as bits – where each bit holds either a “1″ or a “0.” But a quantum computer is built around qubits (quantum bits) that can store a 1, a 0 or any combination of both at the same time. And while the qubits would make up the equivalent of a processor in a quantum computer, some sort of quantum Random Access Memory (RAM) is also needed.

Photon_follow8Gerhard Kirchmair, one of Yale researchers, explained in a recent interview with Nature magazine that photons are a good choice for this because they can retain a quantum state for a long time over a long distance. But you’ll want to change the quantum information stored in the photons from time to time. What the Yale team has developed is essentially a way to temporarily make the photons used for memory “writeable,” and then switch them back into a more stable state.

To do this, Kirchmair and his associates took advantage of what’s known as a “Kerr medium”, a law that states how certain mediums will refract light in a different ways depending on the amount shined on it. This is different from normal material materials that refract light and any other form of electromagnetic field the same regardless of how much they are exposed to.

Higgs-bosonThus, by exposing photons to a microwave field in a Kerr medium, they were able to manipulate the quantum states of photons, making them the perfect means for quantum memory storage. At the same time, they knew that storing these memory photons in a Kerr medium would prove unstable, so they added a vacuum filled aluminum resonator to act as a coupler. When the resonator is decoupled, the photons are stable. When resonator is coupled, the photons are “writeable”, allowing a user to input information and store it effectively.

This is not the first or only instance of researchers finding ways to toy with the state of photons, but it is currently the most stable and effective. And coupled with other efforts, such as the development of photonic transistors and other such components, or new ways to create photons seemingly out of thin air, we could be just a few years away from the first full and bona fide quantum processor!

Sources: Extremetech.com, Wired.com, Nature.com

Manned Mars Mission Update!

Mars_landerMillionaire and space enthusiast Dennis Tito surprised the world with his announcement that he plans to fund a couple’s expedition to Mars. Apparently, the trip is planned to take place in 2018 during a conjunction of our planet with Mars, will take 501 days, and will involve sending a married couple in a capsule roughly the size of a Winnebago. But as time goes on, more news is trickling out of the “Inspiration Mars” program, and some of it is raising eyebrows.

For example, there’s the news that the Mars capsule will involve a rather interesting form of radiation shielding… made of feces. You read that right, the capsule will contain shielding composed of human feces (among other things) that will shield the couple inside from harmful cosmic radiation. But before people begin visualizing some ugly, creepy concoction, let me assure them that this concept is not as unusual as it sounds.

tito-mars-mission-conceptWhen it comes right down to it, this is the greatest health threat the people who go will face, followed shortly thereafter by muscle atrophy, boredom and cramped conditions. And rather than line the capsule with expensive and heavy metals, such as lead, the engineers designing the Inspiration Mars capsule thought they might kill two birds with one stone.

According to Taber MacCallum, co-founder and CEO of the Paragon Space Development Corporation and member of the Inspiration Mars team, explained that the idea had to do with waste recycling and storage. Since the couple will be eating, drinking and defecating within the capsule for a full 501 days, the waste has to go somewhere.

Mars_orbitThe proposed solution? Put it in the walls, along with food and liquid waste, and then desiccate it all to recycle the water. Or, as MacCallum put it:

It’s a little queasy sounding, but there’s no place for that material to go, and it makes great radiation shielding… Dehydrate them as much as possible, because we need to get the water back. Those solid waste products get put into a bag, put right back against the wall.

But to be fair, this proposal is not exactly new. In fact, the idea was mentioned back in 2011 by Michael Flynn, a life support engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, who proposed using urine and feces to shield space stations. Packing for Mars author Mary Roach The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxyalso mentioned it in a 2011 edition of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is also working out the nuts and bolts of this concept under the name of “Water Walls Architecture”.

Source_croppedWater, MacCallum explained, is the key ingredient here, since it serves as a better radiation shield than metal. It’s the nuclei of atoms that block the radiation you see, and water contains more atoms (and therefore more nuclei) per volume than metal does. Food and waste also provide good radiation shielding, and because the food blocks rather than absorbs the radiation, it will remain safe to eat.

Naturally, McCallum was sure to note that they are still working out some of the logistical problems. For one, they still need to figure out how best to keep the Mars-bound couple from experiencing too many nasty sights and smells on their journey.

Gotta admit, this isn’t something you think about when you hear the word “space travel” do you? But then again, you have to account for things like this. Until people can survive without consuming food and water, and expelling waste, long-term space missions will have to figure out what to do about all the dirty, ugly business people get into!

Sources: newscientist.com, IO9