News from Space: First Couple to go to Mars!

marsJane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are a pretty interesting couple. Like most, they plan trips together to new and exciting destinations. But unlike most, they plan to go to Mars, and they just might see their dream come true. Twenty years ago, they founded the private space company Paragon Space Development Corporation, with the aim of finding the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet.

And now, after many years of planning, they may finally get to see it come to fruition. The only problem is, the window for this launch – in 2021 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment – is fast approaching. And a number of technical and logistical issues (i.e. how to shield themselves against deadly radiation, how to store their waste, how much food, water, and air to bring) still need to be resolved.

Inspiration_Mars (2)The mission – called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito – is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings.

But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars. They believe that sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators. Beyond that, and in advance of NASA’s proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, it might just inspire a full-scale colonization effort.

Photograph by John de DiosThe couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome near Tuscon, Arizona called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. For two years (between 1991 and 1993), eight people – including Poynter and MacCallum – lived inside this dome as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments.

This included a jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside. All went relatively smoothly until, 16 months into the experiment, crew members began suffering from severe fatigue and sleep apnea.

Mars_OneThey discovered that the dome’s oxygen content had substantially dropped and, when one member fell into a state of confusion in which he could not add simple numbers, decided to refill the dome with oxygen, breaking the simulation of space-colony self-sufficiency. The project was deemed a failure by many, with Time Magazine going as far as to name it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century.

But the crew persisted for their full two-year trial and, if nothing else, emerged intimately aware of the mental traumas of prolonged isolation—crucial wisdom for anyone seriously considering traveling to another planet. As Poynter described it, the challenges were numerous and varied:

Some of the easier ones to get your head around are things like depression and mood swings—that’s kind of obvious. Weird things are things like food stealing and hoarding.

Mars_simulationThe more severe symptoms were similar to the delusions reported by early 20th century explorers who hallucinated while trekking for months through the featureless white expanse of Antarctica. She describes one instance in which she was standing in the sweet potato field about to harvest greens to feed the Biosphere 2 goats when she suddenly felt as if she had stepped through a time machine:

I came out the other side and was embroiled in a very fervent argument with my much older brother. And what was so disconcerting about it was that it really was hallucinatory. It was like I could smell it, feel it. It was very weird.

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)MacCallum blogged about these plans while still living inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon. After Biosphere 2 project, both began working with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR.

Then in December 2012, Paragon teamed up with another commercial space flight company named Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

near-space_balloon5In short, Poynter and MacCallum have their fingers in just about every commercial space venture currently on the table outside of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, of course. Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today. Their focus is on creative teamwork, hoping to foster the kind of innovative spirit needed to make space missions possible.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to send a human couple to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones is one such person, who said in an interview with WIRED that he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

mars-mission1Originally, Dennis Tito hoped to finance the project entirely independently, using crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy. The original goal was also to get the project off the ground by 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017.

They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support. According to McCallum:

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

During recent hearings with NASA, Tito explained that he would need roughly $1 billion over the next four or five years to develop the space launch system and other aspects of the mission. NASA was not readily willing to agree to this and they put the issue on hold. But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space.

oriontestflightAll of this would be great for NASA, which is beholden to public opinion and still looking to Congress to allocate the money needed to new infrastructure and fund future missions. Ergo, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground. Or as he put it:

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars and did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system – all the things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission.

Poynter_MacCallum_Portrait-330And MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators, much as the Apollo missions inspired the current generation of innovators and astronauts. McCallum turned five on July 20th, 1969 – the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and credits that historic event for inspiring him to take an interest in space and enter the Biosphere 2 project.

And though they hadn’t originally intended to be the couple that would take part in the Inspiration Mars mission, they have indicated that they would be willing to throw their hats into the ring. After all, they meet the basic requirements for the mission, being a physically fit middle-aged couple, and the Biosphere 2 project lent them some experience living in isolation.

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356But most important to the couple is the idea of being able to call back to students on Earth and describe the experience. As he described it, watching footage of the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet’s drift closer would be the most amazing thing ever for a child to behold:

That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler. And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

Of that, I have little doubt. And even if Inspiration Mars does not get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), it has hardly the only private space venture currently in the works. For example, Elon Musk and his commercial space firm SpaceX has made incredibly progress with the development of the reusable-rocket system. And Mars One, another crowdfunded venture, is still in the works and aiming to send volunteers on a one-way trip by 2024.

No telling how and when the first human beings will walk on the Red Planet. But at this juncture, it seems like a foregone conclusion that not only will it be happening, but within our lifetimes. And while we’re waiting, be sure to check out the Inspiration Mars video below. I can attest to it being quite… inspiring 😉


Source:
wired.com
, paragonsdc.com, inspirationmars.org

Cyberwars: The Heartbleed Bug and Web Security

heartbleed-iconA little over two years ago, a tiny piece of code was introduced to the internet that contained a bug. This bug was known as Heartbleed, and in the two years it has taken for the world to recognize its existence, it has caused quite a few headaches. In addition to allowing cybercriminals to steal passwords and usernames from Yahoo, it has also allowed people to steal from online bank accounts, infiltrate governments institutions (such as Revenue Canada), and generally undermine confidence in the internet.

What’s more, in an age of cyberwarfare and domestic surveillance, its appearance would give conspiracy theorists a field day. And since it was first disclosed a month to the day ago, some rather interesting theories as to how the NSA and China have been exploiting this to spy on people have surfaced. But more on that later. First off, some explanation as to what Heartbleed is, where it came from, and how people can protect themselves from it, seems in order.

cyber_securityFirst off, Heartbleed is not a virus or a type of malware in the traditional sense, though it can be exploited by malware and cybercriminals to achieve similar results. Basically, it is a security bug or programming error in popular versions of OpenSSL, a software code that encrypts and protects the privacy of your password, banking information and any other sensitive data you provide in the course of checking your email or doing a little online banking.

Though it was only made public a month ago, the origins of the bug go back just over two years – to New Year’s Eve 2011, to be exact. It was at this time that Stephen Henson, one of the collaborators on the OpenSSL Project, received the code from Robin Seggelmann – a respected academic who’s an expert in internet protocols. Henson reviewed the code – an update for the OpenSSL internet security protocol — and by the time he and his colleagues were ringing in the New Year, he had added it to a software repository used by sites across the web.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaWhat’s interesting about the bug, which is named for the “heartbeat” part of the code that it affects, is that it is not a virus or piece of malware in the traditional sense. What it does is allow people the ability to read the memory of systems that are protected by the bug-affected code, which accounts for two-thirds of the internet. That way, cybercriminals can get the keys they need to decode and read the encrypted data they want.

The bug was independently discovered recently by Codenomicon – a Finnish web security firm – and Google Security researcher Neel Mehta. Since information about its discovery was disclosed on April 7th, 2014, The official name for the vulnerability is CVE-2014-0160.it is estimated that some 17 percent (around half a million) of the Internet’s secure web servers that were certified by trusted authorities have been made vulnerable.

cyberwarfare1Several institutions have also come forward in that time to declare that they were subject to attack. For instance, The Canada Revenue Agency that they were accessed through the exploit of the bug during a 6-hour period on April 8th and reported the theft of Social Insurance Numbers belonging to 900 taxpayers. When the attack was discovered, the agency shut down its web site and extended the taxpayer filing deadline from April 30 to May 5.

The agency also said it would provide anyone affected with credit protection services at no cost, and it appears that the guilty parties were apprehended. This was announced on April 16, when the RCMP claimed that they had charged an engineering student in relation to the theft with “unauthorized use of a computer” and “mischief in relation to data”. In another incident, the UK parenting site Mumsnet had several user accounts hijacked, and its CEO was impersonated.

nsa_aerialAnother consequence of the bug is the impetus it has given to conspiracy theorists who believe it may be part of a government-sanctioned ploy. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive efforts to eavesdrop on internet activity and engage in cyberwarfare, this is hardly a surprise. Nor would it be the first time, as anyone who recalls the case made for the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng program – a pseudorandom number generator is used extensively in cryptography – acting as a “backdoor” for the NSA to exploit.

In that, and this latest bout of speculation, it is believed that the vulnerability in the encryption itself may have been intentionally created to allow spy agencies to steal the private keys that vulnerable web sites use to encrypt your traffic to them. And cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.

Edward-Snowden-660x367According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time; and in 2010, there was documentation that suggested that they might have succeeded. Although this was two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it does serve to highlight the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.

For some time now, security experts have speculated about whether the NSA cracked SSL communications; and if so, how the agency might have accomplished the feat. But now, the existence of Heartbleed raises the possibility that in some cases, the NSA might not have needed to crack SSL at all. Instead, it’s possible the agency simply used the vulnerability to obtain the private keys of web-based companies to decrypt their traffic.

hackers_securityThough security vulnerabilities come and go, this one is deemed catastrophic because it’s at the core of SSL, the encryption protocol trusted by so many to protect their data. And beyond abuse by government sources, the bug is also worrisome because it could possibly be used by hackers to steal usernames and passwords for sensitive services like banking, ecommerce, and email. In short, it empowers individual troublemakers everywhere by ensuring that the locks on our information can be exploited by anyone who knows how to do it.

Matt Blaze, a cryptographer and computer security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that “It really is the worst and most widespread vulnerability in SSL that has come out.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, and Bruce Schneier all deemed the Heartbleed bug “catastrophic”, and Forbes cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg event went as far as to say that:

Some might argue that [Heartbleed] is the worst vulnerability found (at least in terms of its potential impact) since commercial traffic began to flow on the Internet.

opensslRegardless, Heartbleed does point to a much larger problem with the design of the internet. Some of its most important pieces are controlled by just a handful of people, many of whom aren’t paid well — or aren’t paid at all. In short, Heartbleed has shown that more oversight is needed to protect the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And the sad truth is that open source software — which underpins vast swathes of the net — has a serious sustainability problem.

Another problem is money, in that important projects just aren’t getting enough of it. Whereas well-known projects such as Linux, Mozilla, and the Apache web server enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding, projects like the OpenSSL Software Foundation – which are forced to raise money for the project’s software development – have never raised more than $1 million in a year. To top it all off, there are issues when it comes to the open source ecosystem itself.

Cyber-WarTypically, projects start when developers need to fix a particular problem; and when they open source their solution, it’s instantly available to everyone. If the problem they address is common, the software can become wildly popular overnight. As a result, some projects never get the full attention from developers they deserve. Steve Marquess, one of the OpenSSL foundation’s partners, believes that part of the problem is that whereas people can see and touch their web browsers and Linux, they are out of touch with the cryptographic library.

In the end, the only real solutions is in informing the public. Since internet security affects us all, and the processes by which we secure our information is entrusted to too few hands, then the immediate solution is to widen the scope of inquiry and involvement. It also wouldn’t hurt to commit additional resources to the process of monitoring and securing the web, thereby ensuring that spy agencies and private individuals are not exercising too much or control over it, or able to do clandestine things with it.

In the meantime, the researchers from Codenomicon have set up a website with more detailed information. Click here to access it and see what you can do to protect yourself.

Sources: cbc.ca, wired.com, (2), heartbleed.com

The Future of Building: Superefficient Nanomaterials

carbon-nanotubeToday, we are on the verge of a fabrication revolution. Thanks to developments in nanofabrication and miniaturization, where materials can be fashioned down the cellular (or even atomic) level, the option of making bigger and stronger structures that happen to weight less is becoming a reality. This is the goal of materials scientist Julia Greer and her research lab at Caltech.

As an example, Greer offers the The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. The former is 174 meters tall and weighs 10 megatons while the latter is over twice that height, but at five and half kilotons is one-tenth the mass. It all comes down to the “elements of architecture”, which allowed the Eiffel Tower to be stronger and more lightweight while using far less materials.

carbon_nanotube2Whereas the pyramids are four solid walls, the Eiffel Tower is skeletal, and vastly more efficient as a result. Greer and her colleagues are trying to make the same sort of leap on a nano scale, engineering hollow materials that are fantastically lightweight while remaining every bit as stiff and strong. Carbon nanotubes are one such example, but the range of possibilities are immense and due to explode in the near future.

The applications for this “Hierarchical Design” are also myriad, but its impact could be profound. For one, these ultralight wonders offer a chance to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, allowing us to make familiar goods with less raw stuff. But they also could also expand our idea of what’s possible with material science, opening doors to designs that are inconceivable today.

It’s all here on this video, where Greer explains Hierarchical Design and the possibilities it offers below:


Source: wired.com

Crypto Wars: The Tech World vs. the NSA

cyber_securitySix years ago, something interesting took place at Microsoft’s Windows annual Crypto conference in Santa Barbara. In the course of the presentations, two members of the company’s security group (Dan Shumow and Niels Ferguson) gave a talk that dealt with internet security and the possibility that major systems could be hacked.

They called their presentation “On the Possibility of a Back Door in the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng”. That’s a name few people outside of the techy community would recognize, as it refers to a pseudorandom number generating program that is used extensively in cryptography. And thought the presentation was only nine slides and a few minutes long, they managed to capture the attention of the crowd with some rather stark observations.

cyber_security1Basically, they laid out a case showing that the new encryption standard, given a stamp of approval by the U.S. government, possessed a glaring weakness that made one of the program’s algorithms susceptible to cracking. But the weakness they described wasn’t just an average vulnerability, it had the kind of properties one would want if one were intentionally inserting a backdoor to make the algorithm susceptible to cracking by design.

At the time, no one thought much of it. But today, that’s all changed, thanks to Edward Snowden. Apparently, cryptographers and journalists are seeing a connection between the talk given by Shumow and Ferguson and the classified NSA documents Snowden leaked. Apparently, some of that information confirms that the weakness in the Dual_EC_DRBG algorithm might be indeed a backdoor.

nsa_aerialEarlier this month, an article appeared in the New York Times that implied that the backdoor was intentionally put there by the NSA as part of a $250-million, decade-long covert operation by the agency to weaken and undermine the integrity of a number of encryption systems used by millions of people around the world.

Naturally, these allegations not only stoked the fires over the NSA’s long history of spying on databases, both domestic and foreign, it has also raised questions over the integrity of the rather byzantine process that produces security standards in the first place. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) approved Dual_EC_DRBG and the standard, is now facing criticism alongside the NSA.

nist_aerialbigAnd while NIST has since been forced to re-open the program to examination and public discussion, security and crypto firms around the world are scrambling to unravel just how deeply the suspect algorithm infiltrated their code, if at all. Some even went so far as to publicly denounce it, such as corporate giant RSA Security.

But of course, a number of crypto experts have noted that the Times hasn’t released the memos that purport to prove the existence of a backdoor. What’s more, the paper’s direct quotes from the classified documents don’t mention a backdoor or efforts by the NSA to weaken it or the standard, only the efforts of the agency to push the standard through NIST’s committees for approval.

nsasecurity_primary-100041064-largeOne such person is Jon Callas, the CTO of Silent Circle – a company that offers encrypted phone communication. Having attended the Crypto conference in 2007 and heard the presentation by Shumow, he believes that the real problem may lie in the fact that the algorithm was poorly made:

If [the NSA] spent $250 million weakening the standard and this is the best that they could do, then we have nothing to fear from them. Because this was really ham-fisted. When you put on your conspiratorial hat about what the NSA would be doing, you would expect something more devious, Machiavellian … and this thing is just laughably bad. This is Boris and Natasha sort of stuff.

Sources at Microsoft agree. In addition to the presenters – who never mention the NSA in their presentation and went out of their way to avoid accusing NIST of any wrongdoing – a manager who spoke with WIRED on condition of anonymity believes the reporters at the Times saw the classified documents dealing with the program, read about the 2007 talk, and assumed their was a connection.

cryptographyBut Paul Kocher, president and chief scientist of Cryptography Research, says that regardless of the lack of evidence in the Times story, he discounts the “bad cryptography” explanation for the weakness, in favor of the backdoor one:

Bad cryptography happens through laziness and ignorance. But in this case, a great deal of effort went into creating this and choosing a structure that happens to be amenable to attack.

Personally, I find it interesting that the NSA would be so committed to making sure a program passed inspection. Especially one that had a fatal flaw that, when exploited properly, could be used to give someone who knew about it access to encrypted information. But of course, it’s not like the NSA has been known to invade people’s privacy, right? RIGHT?

Clearly, all there is at this point is speculation. One thing is certain though. In the coming weeks and months, the NSA is going to be the recipient of even more flak over its monitoring and cryptographic activities. Whether this effects any change in policy remains to be seen, but I doubt anyone will be holding their breaths.

Sources: wired.com, nytimes.com

Drone Wars: New Revelations and Broken Promises

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????People concerned about the use of drones might remember fondly how President Obama, in a speech held late last month, promised that the “drone surge” was effectively at an end. As it turns out, it took the President and his administration only eight days to break that promise. In a new strike, which killed four people it has been made clear that the clandestine war continues.

In Obama’s speech, he contended that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaida and its associated forces, and even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained.” Among those constraints are the use of detainment instead of execution, and “respect for state sovereignty”. Perhaps most importantly, Obama underscored the drones will for now on only target “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)To clarify this point, the White House even released a fact sheet clarifying whom it will and will not kill in the future. It stated that:

[T]he United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.

However, this latest strike, which took out Wali ur-Rehman – the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban – and three other members shows that this is anything but the case. Rehman and his ilk are not members of Al-Qaeda, nor do they represent a terrorist group that is targeting the US and its citizens. Most importantly, they are not operating inside Afghanistan.

talibanFact is, Rehman and his compatriots pose a threat to only Pakistan, which is involved in an ongoing war with fundamentalist factions in its western provinces. They are the enemies of the Pakistani state, which is a nominal ally in the war on terror and with the war in Afghanistan. This makes his execution at the hands of the US a matter of protecting political and strategic interests, not anti-terrorism.

What’s more, there are indications that this strike may have been counterproductive for Pakistan. Pakistani military sources told Reuters in December that Rehman was “a more pragmatic” leader than incumbent Hakimullah Mehsud, with whom Rehman was said to be feuding. While Rehman was said to pursue reconciliation with the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military officers speculated that his rise “might lead to more attacks across the border in Afghanistan” on U.S.-led forces.

drone_warSo any way you slice it, this latest drone strike was a clandestine operation made by a government that claimed to be finished with such things. Lucky for us, there may be a way to gleam the truth about the secret history of the drone war and their ongoing use as tools of government policy.

As it turns out, there are ways to hack and record drone video feeds to see what they see right before they unleash death and destruction. And in an ironic twist, much of the credit for this revelation may go to a group of Iraqi insurgents. In 2008, U.S. troops in Iraq declared that Shi’ite insurgents had figured out how to tap and record video feeds from overhead American drones.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaBuilding on this, Josh Begley, a 28-year-old NYU grad student, is creating a software application that will allow anyone with basic coding skills to organize, analyze and visualize drone-strike data from Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia dating back to 2002. Based on information collected by the U.K. Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Applicable Programing Interface (API) can be used to create interactive Websites that elaborate on the information and give it context.

The drone API, which is actually Begley’s master’s thesis, is not his first foray into capturing robot-attack data. His @dronestream Twitter feed documents all reported UAV attacks. Last year Begley created an iPhone app that tracks drone strikes, but Apple rejected it. Other developers have jumped on the bandwagon, too. London-based artist James Bridle runs a Tumblr blog that matches overhead satellite imagery to reports of drone attacks.

drone_target_1In an interview with Wired’s Danger Room, Begley explained that the purpose behind this software is the desire to bridge the “empathy gap” between Western audiences and drone-attack victims:

To Americans like me, what may have previously been blank spots on the map all of a sudden have complex stories, voices of their own. From 30,000 feet it might just be cars and buildings. But there are people in them. People who live under the drones we fly.

The public release of Begley’s API, which took five months to complete, is timed to coincide with the White House-promoted National Day of Civic Hacking on June 1. Hacking Day aims to “liberate government data for coders and entrepreneurs.” The ACLU, for one, is commemorating the event with an API linked to the group’s vast database of documents related to U.S.-sanctioned torture of terror suspects.

drone_map1After twelve years of drone strikes and promises that don’t appear to be being honored, the arrival of this app might just be what the public needs. And even though software giants like Apple may not be interested in developing it further, there are no shortages of talented individuals, professional hackers and hobby labs that will take up the cause.

It wouldn’t be too farfetched to think that a plethora of websites will begin to emerge that can track, monitor, and record all drone strikes, perhaps even as they happen. And combined with recent revelations about state-run data mining operations and software that is being designed to combat it, private citizens may be able to truly fight back against clandestine operations and government surveillance.

Sources: Wired.com, (2)

Curiosity Prepares to Drill

curiosity_rocksMore news from Mars! Or more specifically, from Yellowknife Bay, a place that shows extensive evidence of flowing water. After relocating to the region and performing a preliminary search, Curiosity has located the rock it will drill in order to gain an understanding of its composition and search for organics molecules. The rock has been dubbed “John Klein”, and this will be the first time engineers have drilled into the surface of another planet.

Already, Curiosity has determined that at one time, the Gale Crater was once the site of flowing water. But in its current location, they are able to assess the geological history and have stumbled upon a number of interesting features. In the course of descending from the plateau region where it landed into the relative depression that is Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity has observed many layers of rock that are increasingly older, effectively taking it backwards into the planet’s history.

Curiosity-Yellowknife-Bay-Sol-125_2c_Ken-Kremer-580x151Geologists are finding a lot of different rock types, indicating that many different geologic processes took place here over time, all of which confirm that water passed through the region at one time. For example, some of the minerals are sedimentary, which suggests that flowing water moved small grains around and deposited them. Other samples are cracked and filled with veins of material such as calcium sulfate, which were formed when water percolated through the cracks and deposited the mineral.

terraformingAll these investigations suggest if you could go deep into Mars’ past and stand at the same spot as the rover, you’d probably see a river of flowing water with small underwater dunes along the riverbed. And since these rivers left traces behind, drilling into the rocks will reveal what else they carried, which could very well include the building blocks of life!

Already, Curiosity brushed some of these rocks to remove their dust covering and then examined them with its high-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The next step will be to drill 5 centimeter holes into some of these rocks and veins to definitively determine their composition. Geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech said that the team will search for aqueous minerals, isotope ratios that could indicate the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in the past, and possibly organic material.

curiosity_drillingThe drilling will probably take place within two weeks, though NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact date. But, says Richard Cook, Curiosity’s project manager, the procedure will be “the most significant engineering thing we’ve done since landing,” and will require several trial runs, equipment warm-ups, and drilling a couple test holes to make sure everything works. The team wants to take things as slowly as possible to correct for any problems that may arise, such as potential electrical shorts and excessive shaking of the rover.

And of course, this time around they are likely to be much more tight-lipped and reserved when it comes to announcing their findings. Should they uncover evidence of life at one time in Mars’ deep past, they will certainly need to be sure. Such a finding is likely to be… “Earthshaking”! I admit, that’s getting old. I’ll stop now…

Source: Wired.com