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NASA confirms mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its icy oceans

NASA confirms mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its icy oceans

August 20, 2019

NASA has confirmed a mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, will indeed happen. The mission was initially explored starting in 2017, with the space agency looking for reports on how it might proceed, and now NASA has said it will go ahead and move to the key step of finalizing mission design, which will then lead to actually building the spacecraft that will make the trip, and the science payload it’ll carry on board.

The goal of the mission, which is codenamed “Europa Clipper,” is to find out whether the icy natural satellite orbiting Jupiter could sustain life, and also explore whether it might be colonizable or habitable. Plus, we’ll definitely learn a lot more about Europa with an up-close-and-personal exploration.

Europa is one of 79 known moons orbiting the gas giant, and is the sixth largest in the entire solar system. It’s a bit smaller than our own, and has a crust that is composed primarily of water ice. Some scientists believe that it could have a water ocean just underneath that ice crust, and that if said ocean exists, it might be among the likelier places in our solar system to find life.

NASA’s goal for this mission is to launch as early as 2023, though it’ll need its SLS launch system to be ready to make that happen. The extended timeline allows for a launch-ready state by 2025, which seems a bit more realistic given the current state of affairs.

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SpaceX’s spacefaring Tesla Roadster has made a full trip around the Sun

SpaceX’s spacefaring Tesla Roadster has made a full trip around the Sun

August 20, 2019


Somewhere in space, a mannequin wearing a SpaceX spacesuit and driving a cherry red original Tesla Roadster that once belonged to Elon Musk is celebrating its first trip around the Sun. The absurd “Starman” and Roadster combo was launched last year aboard the first Falcon Heavy test flight from Kennedy Space Center, and has now completed a full orbit of the Sun, based on tracking info monitored by the site whereisroadster.com (via Space.com).

The Roadster and its fake driver were selected by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk as the payload for the Falcon Heavy’s first flight in part because there was more than a decent chance that whatever was sent up on that first trip was going to end up little more than ash or fiery debris, but the launch actually went very smoothly — despite warnings to the contrary by Musk himself.

When it left Earth’s orbit, the Roadster’s radio was playing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” set on repeat, and on-boards cameras were broadcasting via internal power (you can check out the recorded version of the live stream below to see how that went).

In case you were wondering about the Roadster’s maintenance information, it’s now out of warranty more than 21,000 times over based on miles traveled, and it’s gone far enough to have traveled the entire world 33.9 times. Take that, range anxiety.

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NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

August 17, 2019

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.

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Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse

Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse

August 16, 2019

As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of physiological data.

Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.

The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smartwatches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.

Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.

The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.

The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. …

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These robo-shorts are the precursor to a true soft exoskeleton

These robo-shorts are the precursor to a true soft exoskeleton

August 15, 2019

When someone says “robotic exoskeleton,” the power loaders from Aliens are what come to mind for most people (or at least me), but the real things will be much different: softer, smarter and used for much more ordinary tasks. The latest such exo from Harvard is so low-profile you could wear it around the house.

Designed by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute (in collaboration with several other institutions), which focuses on soft robotics and bio-inspired mechanisms, the exosuit isn’t for heavy lifting or combating xenomorphs, but simply walking and running a little bit more easily.

The suit, which is really more of a pair of shorts with a mechanism attached at the lower back and cables going to straps on the legs, is intended to simply assist the leg in its hip-extension movement, common to most forms of locomotion.

An onboard computer (and neural network, naturally) detects the movements of the wearer’s body and determines both the type of gait (walking or running) and what phase of that gait the leg is currently in. It gives the leg making the movement a little boost, making it just that much easier to do it.

In testing, the suit reduced the metabolic load of walking by 9.3% and running by 4%. That might not sound like much, but they weren’t looking to create an Olympic-quality cyborg — just show reliable gains from a soft, portable exosuit.

“While the metabolic reductions we found are modest, our study demonstrates that it is possible to have a portable wearable robot assist more than just a single activity, helping to pave the way for these systems to become ubiquitous in our lives,” said lead study author Conor Walsh in a news release.

The whole idea, then, is to leave behind the idea of an exosuit …

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Elysium and the quest to bottle the fountain of youth

Elysium and the quest to bottle the fountain of youth

August 15, 2019

In the latest episode of Flux podcast, I sit down with Eric Marcotulli, the co-founder of Elysium, a life sciences company developing consumer-facing health products based on aging research. The company’s first product is Basis, a supplement that combines compounds designed to increase NAD levels and activate sirtuins, boosting cellular health and longevity.

In this conversation we discuss why precursor companies failed, including Cambridge-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was bought for $720 million in 2008. Eric explains how Elysium is a platform-based company that will sell a host of products and diagnostics, why he believes direct to consumer is the best market strategy, and what the current user base looks like. The company just announced a new clinical trial this week. Eric gets into the importance of bringing academic rigor and peer review to the supplement category, how he plans to build consumer trust and ultimately pull it into the mainstream. He shares why he believes in open source research, how cellular senescence is a particular area of interest right now, what his personal health routine is and how he thinks about the singularity.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full transcript on Medium.

Eric Marcotulli — Bottling the Fountain of Youth

ALG: Welcome everyone to the latest episode of Flux. I’m excited to have Eric Marcotulli here today. He is the co-founder and CEO of Elysium Health a company that is rethinking healthcare whose first product is a

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Google details AI work behind Project Euphonia’s more inclusive speech recognition

Google details AI work behind Project Euphonia’s more inclusive speech recognition

August 13, 2019

As part of new efforts toward accessibility, Google announced Project Euphonia at I/O in May: An attempt to make speech recognition capable of understanding people with non-standard speaking voices or impediments. The company has just published a post and its paper explaining some of the AI work enabling the new capability.

The problem is simple to observe: The speaking voices of those with motor impairments, such as those produced by degenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), simply are not understood by existing natural language processing systems.

You can see it in action in the following video of Google research scientist Dimitri Kanevsky, who himself has impaired speech, attempting to interact with one of the company’s own products (and eventually doing so with the help of related work Parrotron):

The research team describes it as following:

ASR [automatic speech recognition] systems are most often trained from ‘typical’ speech, which means that underrepresented groups, such as those with speech impairments or heavy accents, don’t experience the same degree of utility.

…Current state-of-the-art ASR models can yield high word error rates (WER) for speakers with only a moderate speech impairment from ALS, effectively barring access to ASR reliant technologies.

It’s notable that they at least partly blame the training set. That’s one of those implicit biases we find in AI models that can lead to high error rates in other places, like facial recognition or even noticing that a person is present. While failing to include major groups like people with dark skin isn’t a mistake comparable in scale to building a system not inclusive of those with impacted speech, they can both be addressed by more inclusive source data.

For Google’s researchers, that meant collecting dozens of hours of spoken audio from people with ALS. As you might expect, …

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$600M Cray supercomputer will tower above the rest — to build better nukes

$600M Cray supercomputer will tower above the rest — to build better nukes

August 13, 2019

Cray has been commissioned by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to create a supercomputer head and shoulders above all the rest, with the contract valued at some $600 million. Disappointingly, El Capitan, as the system will be called, will be more or less solely dedicated to redesigning our nuclear armament.

El Capitan will be the third “exascale” computer being built by Cray for the U.S. government, the other two being Aurora for Argonne National Lab and Frontier for Oak Ridge. These computers are built on a whole new architecture called Shasta, in which Cray intends to combine the speed and scale of high-performance computing with the easy administration of cloud-based enterprise tools.

Due for delivery in 2022, El Capitan will be operating on the order of 1.5 exaflops, or floating point operations per second, a measure of calculation often used to track supercomputer performance. Exa denotes a quintillion of something.

Right now the top dog is already at Oak Ridge: an IBM-built system called Frontier. At about 1.5 petaflops, it’s about 1/10th the power of Aurora — of course, the former is operational and the latter is theoretical right now, but you get the idea.

One wonders exactly what all this computing power is needed for. There are in fact countless domains of science that could be advanced by access to a system like El Capitan — simulations of atmospheric and geological processes, for instance, could be simulated in 3D at a larger scale and higher fidelity than ever before.

So it was a bit disheartening to learn that El Capitan will, once fully operational, be dedicated almost solely to classified nuclear weaponry design.

To be clear, that doesn’t just mean bigger and more lethal bombs. The contract is …

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Biotech researchers venture into the wild to start their own business

Biotech researchers venture into the wild to start their own business

August 9, 2019

Much of Silicon Valley mythology is centered on the founder-as-hero narrative. But historically, scientific founders leading the charge for bio companies have been far less common.

Developing new drugs is slow, risky and expensive. Big clinical failures are all too common. As such, bio requires incredibly specialized knowledge and experience. But at the same time, the potential for value creation is enormous today more than ever with breakthrough new medicines like engineered cell, gene and digital therapies.

What these breakthroughs are bringing along with them are entirely new models — of founders, of company creation, of the businesses themselves — that will require scientists, entrepreneurs and investors to reimagine and reinvent how they create bio companies.

In the past, biotech VC firms handled this combination of specialized knowledge + binary risk + outsized opportunity with a unique “company creation” model. In this model, there are scientific founders, yes; but the VC firm essentially founded and built the company itself — all the way from matching a scientific advance with an unmet medical need, to licensing IP, to having partners take on key roles such as CEO in the early stages, to then recruiting a seasoned management team to execute on the vision.

Image: PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

You could call this the startup equivalent of being born and bred in captivity — where great care and feeding early in life helps ensure that the company is able to thrive. Here the scientific founders tend to play more of an advisory role (usually keeping day jobs in academia to create new knowledge and frontiers), while experienced “drug hunters” operate the machinery of …

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Quantum computing is coming to TC Sessions: Enterprise on Sept. 5

Quantum computing is coming to TC Sessions: Enterprise on Sept. 5

August 6, 2019

Here at TechCrunch, we like to think about what’s next, and there are few technologies quite as exotic and futuristic as quantum computing. After what felt like decades of being “almost there,” we now have working quantum computers that are able to run basic algorithms, even if only for a very short time. As those times increase, we’ll slowly but surely get to the point where we can realize the full potential of quantum computing.

For our TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5, we’re bringing together some of the sharpest minds from some of the leading companies in quantum computing to talk about what this technology will mean for enterprises (p.s. early-bird ticket sales end this Friday). This could, after all, be one of those technologies where early movers will gain a massive advantage over their competitors. But how do you prepare yourself for this future today, while many aspects of quantum computing are still in development?

IBM’s quantum computer demonstrated at Disrupt SF 2018

Joining us onstage will be Microsoft’s Krysta Svore, who leads the company’s Quantum efforts; IBM’s Jay Gambetta, the principal theoretical scientist behind IBM’s quantum computing effort; and Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel Labs.

That’s pretty much a Who’s Who of the current state of quantum computing, even though all of these companies are at different stages of their quantum journey. IBM already has working quantum computers, Intel has built a quantum processor and is investing heavily into the technology and Microsoft is trying a very different approach to the technology that may lead to a breakthrough in the long run but that is currently keeping it from having a working machine. In return, though, Microsoft has invested heavily into building the software tools for building …

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