From The Editors Technology

Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes Thinks It’s Time to Break Up the Company

In an opinion piece, published Thursday (May 9) in The New York Times, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has called for regulators to break up the company.

Hughes blames the company’s slipshod privacy practices, violent rhetoric, fake news, and its lackadaisical response to Russian propaganda for the sharp decline in “Mark’s personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook” in the last couple of years.

Despite the fact that Hughes co-founded Facebook fifteen years ago and hasn’t been a part of the company in any capacity in a decade, he feels “a sense of anger and responsibility” for the way the company has gone about conducting its affairs.

According to Hughes, Zuckerberg’s obsession for growth, even if it came at the expense of security and ethics, led him to misuse the overwhelming influence and unbridled power he wields in the company.

“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” writes Hughes, going on to add that Zuckerberg is the sole deciding authority when it comes to Facebook’s algorithm configurations.

It effectively means that he is the one who determines “what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered.”

“I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders,” he adds.

And the fact that the people around Mark are of the yes-sir-you’re-right-sir kind; a support team that “reinforces his beliefs” rather than question them; is rather worrying, Hughes laments.

Not too long ago, Zuckerberg was under tremendous investor pressure to step down as Facebook chairman after an NYT report accused the company of hiring a Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, to malign its critics and competitors.

According to the report, “Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros.”

The NYT investigation also revealed that Facebook didn’t even spare its business relationships, “lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

The report went on to claim that a Definers affiliate called NTK Network – a conservative news site – ran dozens of articles attacking tech giants Apple and Google for indulging in “unsavory business practices.”

In fact, one particular story went to the extent of calling Apple CEO Tim Cook “hypocritical” for criticizing Facebook over privacy concerns, when the Cupertino-based company itself collects “reams of data from users.”

While an embattled Zuckerberg was still reeling from the NYT assault, another damaging piece by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan came along to add to the man’s miseries.

Calling him an incapable leader of “the broken behemoth that is Facebook,” Sullivan wrote that Zuckerberg hides, denies, blame-shifts and “speaks in the worst kind of fuzzy corporate clichés.”

Citing what she called “two stunning pieces of journalism,” including the NYT story and another by feature writer Eli Saslow in the Washington Post, she said that Facebook is like a “rudderless ship sailing toward the apocalypse — and we’re all along for the ride.”

“A company with Facebook’s massive reach and influence requires robust oversight and that can only be achieved through an independent chair who is empowered to provide critical checks on company leadership,” Facebook investor and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer was quoted by Business Insider as saying, at the time.

All of Facebook’s woes can, essentially, be traced back to the “data breach” scandal involving British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which surfaced in March 2018.

Facebook reportedly harvested the data of some 50 million Facebook users to help Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cambridge Analytica, however, denied any wrongdoing on its part in regard to the alleged breach.

According to Facebook, Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University professor, used an app on its platform to collect information from 270,000 users on the pretext of a “personality test” – which the users volunteered for – and then, in a clear breach of trust, shared the data with Cambridge Analytica.

The consultancy, in turn, used it to unfairly benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign; not only that, Kogan even shared the data of the volunteers’ friends.

Coming back to Thursday’s opinion piece, Hughes has also called for the creation of a dedicated agency to keep a strict vigil on tech companies.

Unhappy with Facebook’s monopolistic approach, and that’s putting it mildly, he suggests that the company should be broken up into multiple companies, and also forced to reverse its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp to create a level playing field.

“First, Facebook should be separated into multiple companies. The F.T.C., in conjunction with the Justice Department, should enforce antitrust laws by undoing the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions and banning future acquisitions for several years,” Hughes suggests.

Citing the antitrust claims against Whole Foods, which it settled by selling off Wild Oats brand and stores, he says that it’s still not too late for the Federal Trade Commission to act.

Hughes’ piece was bound to raise a few hackles in the Menlo Park company, and it did.

In a statement published by CNN’s Hadas Gold, former UK deputy prime minister and the current global affairs head at Facebook, Nick Clegg, said:

“Facebook accepts that success comes accountability. But “But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company.” 

From The Editors Technology

Key Takeaways From Microsoft Build 2019 – the Company’s Annual Developer Conference

The recently concluded Microsoft Build 2019 – the tech giant’s annual conference for developers and IT professionals – was held from May 6 to May 8 at the  Washington State Convention Center in Downtown Seattle, Washington.

More than 6,000 technologists, developers and business leaders, representing thousands of organizations from across the globe, attended the three-day event.

The conference kicked off with an insightful keynote address by CEO Satya Nadella, who touched upon the company’s achievement in its various divisions, including Azure, Cortana, Office 365, Xbox, and Edge, to name a few.

Following the lead of other tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple, the Redmond-based company appeared to be more focussed on discouraging users, including business people, from over-indulgence in screen time.

The new features being built into most of the company’s services is indicative of this new approach, in terms of delivering more user- and developer-friendly products, rather than giving great technology that may not find practicality with many people.

“I do believe Microsoft is making real changes to focus on what I would call ‘technology that solves real problems’ versus staring at the amazement of technology that some may not want,” Moore Insights & Strategy president Patrick Moorhead was quoted by Engadget as having said.

“This is a pragmatic shift and I know goes all the way up to Satya. Apple for consumer markets has been good at this and Google is getting better at this but still has some tech for tech’s sake,” he told the technology blog.

Today’s Microsoft is not the Microsoft we knew of before Satya Nadella took over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in early 2014.

The incoming CEO’s approach was to focus primarily on bringing the company’s products and services to platforms people preferred, rather than trying to force unnecessary technology on them.

This user-driven push was glaringly obvious, and excitingly so, in practically all the new features announced for the company’s various products and services, including Edge, AI, Office 365 and Azure, among others.

After having worked with Chromium open source – the force behind Google Chrome – to enhance the user experience of its proprietary browser Edge, Microsoft is now bringing Internet Explorer to the browser by way of a new tab.

The company is also adding a new privacy feature to the browser by giving users three security options to choose from – Unrestricted, Balanced and Strict – for a more transparent and personalized experience.

Depending on the option chosen, Edge will control how third parties keep a tab on you across the internet.

‘Collections’ is another upcoming feature on Edge that will allow you to collate, share and export content as neatly formatted documents with Office integration.

At Microsoft Ignite last year, the company announced several new AI features for MS Office – one of the most extensively used office suites in the world – including “Ideas.”

Basically, “Ideas” uses AI to make life easier for users trying to create documents in Office applications by suggesting ideas, design changes, and other useful tips, which not only helps in creating the perfect document but speeds up the work as well, thereby increasing employee productivity.

For example, when you’re trying to create a PowerPoint presentation, “Ideas,” which can be accessed with a single click of the mouse, suggests layouts, images you can insert, and other useful tips that are sure to improve the quality of your presentation.

Excel also got the AI boost, allowing it to recommend charts and identify data outliers, thereby helping users with tasks like a virtual assistant.

The company is now bringing this useful feature to Word, which would take it way beyond spell check.

It will suggest grammar corrections, better phrasing, and even more inclusive language, all of which will contribute toward making you a better writer over a period of time.

“For AI features, there has to be a minimum bar of quality for you to trust it,” Malavika Rewari – Senior Product Marketing Manager, Office Intelligence – told Engadget.

She added: “We don’t release something unless it’s meeting that bar.

“And we release it in phases: First we dogfood [test] internally within Microsoft and do a lot of usability studies

“We then go to early adopters, Insider programs and early release programs, where we go to a more diverse data set.

“And then we go to consumers and then commercial users.”

The company is also working on improving the Cortana experience by making it a smarter, more interactive assistant rather than something you shout out standard commands to – thanks to Semantic Machines, a Berkeley, California-based natural language startup Microsoft acquired last year.

“Combining Semantic Machines’ technology with Microsoft’s own AI advances, we aim to deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level,” the company wrote in a May 2018 blog.

If the demo at the conference is anything to go by, the new, more human-like Cortana will allow you to talk to it more conversationally, without having to phrase commands.

“The next generation of intelligent assistant technologies from Microsoft will be able to do this by leveraging breakthroughs in conversational artificial intelligence and machine learning pioneered by Semantic Machines,” says Microsoft.

Another announcement that merits a mention is the Fluid Framework concept that has the potential to revolutionize the way we work with documents.

It will allow you to break down your documents into different components that can be included in other documents.

To give an example, you can take a part of Word document and drop it into another document, and any changes made to it will reflect on the original file in real time.

Developers can have a go at it later this year when Microsoft launches a Fluid Framework software development kit.

While there were many other significant announcements at the show, the point to reiterate is the fact that the company is now working on finding ways to make its products and services more people-centric.

From The Editors Technology

Germany Opens ‘eHighway’ – The Country’s First Electric Autobahn for Hybrid Trucks

In a move to fight emission from diesel-guzzling trucks, Germany has introduced an environment-friendly haulage system, starting with a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) ‘eHighway,’ with overhead electric lines to power its fleet of hybrid trucks.

Using special roof-mounted equipment, the trucks will be able to feed on power from the electrified lines and travel at speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph) on the dedicated stretch of the Autobahn.

Developed by Siemens, Volkswagen, and Swedish truck maker Scania, the system is being tested by a group of logistics companies in the real-world traffic scenario of the A5 between Langen/Mörfelden and Weiterstadt, one of Germany’s busiest sections of the Autobahn, south of Frankfurt in the state of Hesse.

The hybrid diesel-electric trucks developed for the multi-million-euro project are designed to run on an electric motor when traveling on the test stretch of the A5 and switch over to their diesel-powered hybrid engine when the situation demands.

A sensor-fitted pantograph on the roof of the trucks detect the presence of overhead cables and automatically extend upwards to make the all-important connection for the electric motor to take over.

Data collected from the test runs, which started on Tuesday (May 5), will be analyzed before the system can be fine-tuned for a country-wide implementation.

If all goes well, about eight percent of Germany’s Autobahn network could end up as eHighways.

Not only will they provide real-time power to the hybrids, but will also serve as charging areas for these trucks, thereby enabling them to carry on in battery mode even on non-electrified roads until there’s no more juice left in the tank; that’s when the hybrid diesel engine will take over.

The test phase alone has set the Environment Ministry back by a whopping €15 million ($16 million), not including the €14.6 million already spent on infrastructures such as masts, cables and electricity.

Powered by energy from renewable sources, the overhead cables run in both directions on the four-lane test stretch.

According to Siemens, the system is as efficient as electric rail and far more flexible, in that it can be integrated with the existing road infrastructure.

During the pilot phase of the project, which is expected to last until 2022, experts at the Technical University of Darmstadt will study the impact of the electrified Autobahn on regular traffic.

As the hybrid vehicles do not need to reduce speed while making or breaking the overhead connection, they will have no effect on the traffic flow, say the project developers.

The university, which is conveniently located near the test Autobahn, will also be able to determine whether the environmental benefits are substantial enough to justify the investment for an all-out expansion, as concerns over the cost to benefit ratio have been raised by certain quarters.

Hessian Motor Trade Association’s vice president Michael Kraft is not convinced about the economic viability of the system, saying that the vehicles are “only suitable for very specific requirements and will play a minor role in the long term,” reported the Hessenschau.

State secretary at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, is of the opinion that “electrified trucks are particularly efficient solution on the road to carbon-neutral transportation

The Hesse state eHighway project is the first of three pilots announced for the country, including the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg.

While construction of the test track in Schleswig-Holstein is already underway and expected to be completed within the year, work on the Baden-Württemberg track is yet to begin.

From The Editors Science

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Rocket Carries 38 Experimental Payloads to Space and Back

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos got one step closer to realizing his long-time dream of ferrying paying passengers to space when on Thursday his spaceflight company Blue Origin launched and landed its retrievable New Shephard booster and capsule for the fifth consecutive time.

It also marked the Kent-Washington-headquartered company’s eleventh test launch, overall, since April 2015.

The rocket lifted off from the company’s west-Texas launch facility at 9:32 a.m. EDT (1332 GMT; 8:32 a.m. local time) on May 2, carrying 38 experimental payloads to an altitude of 65.5 miles – beyond the internationally recognized Kármán line at 62.13 miles above sea-level.

On reaching its apogee (the highest point in a rocket’s trajectory), the booster separated from the capsule to return back to Earth for a picture-perfect rocket-powered landing, touching down tail first on its designated concrete pad.

The capsule carrying the experimental payloads followed soon after, making a soft touchdown with the help of three parachutes it deployed on re-entry.

The entire sequence, right from launch to separation to landing and recovery of booster and capsule, took just over ten minutes.

“A beautiful, beautiful launch of the booster and capsule today. Incredible,”  said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and orbital sales. “This has been quite the morning.”

According to Blue Origin, the Crew Capsule 2.0 used for the mission boasts “the largest windows in space,” measuring 110 centimeters in height and 73 centimeters in width. The previous version had painted-on windows.

Considering the company’s future plan of carrying paying passengers to space, which could happen as early as next year, the windows bit does make a lot of sense.

As explained on the Blue Origin website, “the New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and kept it away from the public eye until 2006 when he purchased a large tract of land in west Texas to build the infrastructure for launch and test purposes.

The company has been exploring and building technologies to enable humans to get access to space travel by lowering costs and increasing the reliability factor.

While last week’s launch involved the third iteration of the New Shephard launch vehicle (NS3), a fourth version is being built for the intended space tourism flights.

Here’s a quick look at all the eleven launches since April 2015, including the last five involving the third-gen New Shephard booster, the NS3, and the Crew Capsule 2.0.

New Shepard Test Flight 1 (April 19, 2015)

The first New Shepard (NS1) test flight, which saw the unmanned space vehicle reach its intended test apogee of 93.5 km at a top speed of Mach 3 (3675 km/h), was a partial success.

While the company was able to achieve a parachute-aided landing of the capsule, it failed to land the booster, which crashed due to hydraulic failure in the vehicle control system.

New Shepard Test Flight 2 (Nov 23, 2015)

After losing NS1, Blue Horizon built a second New Shephard, the NS2, launching it on Nov 23, 2015.

It went beyond the 100-kilometer mark and, both, booster and capsule returned safely back to Earth, marking Blue Horizon’s first ever successful retrieval of the reusable booster.

New Shepard Test Flight 3 (Jan 22, 2016)

NS2 was used again for the January 22, 2016 mission, effectively demonstrating the re-usability of the booster.

The rocket reached its apogee of 101.7 km, and again, booth booster and capsule returned back to base and were recovered for future use.

New Shepard Test Flight 4 (April 2, 2016)

In its third test flight, the NS2 went beyond the 62.5-mile mark and returned back to Earth without incident, with booster and capsule making their usual powered and parachuted landings, respectively.

New Shepard Test Flight 5 (June 19, 2016)

The fifth New Shepard launch – fourth for NS2 – took place on June 19, 2016, with the same success in terms of altitude reached and booster-capsule retrieval.

New Shepard Test Flight 6 (Oct 5, 2016)

NS2 was retired after its fifth and final test flight on October 5, 2016 – again a success as far as achieving test mission and returning safely back to the planet was concerned.

New Shepard Test Flight 7 (Dec 12, 2017)

In addition to the capsule, there were twelve commercial, research and education payloads on board, along with an “instrumented dummy” inside the capsule, appropriately dubbed Mannequin Skywalker.

After reaching an altitude of 61.75 miles – just shy of the Kármán line – the booster and capsule separated and returned to earth, executing their well-choreographed landing sequences to perfection, with Mannequin Skywalker apparently unharmed inside the ample space of Crew Capsule 2.0.

The seventh New Shepard mission, using a brand new booster and capsule – the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0 – was successfully accomplished on December 12, 2017, with both booster and capsule returning without incident.

New Shepard Test Flight 8 (April 29, 2018)

The NS3 booster and Crew Capsule 2.0 were deployed for a second time for the Apr 2018 mission, reaching an apogee of about 67 miles before separating for the return journey.

New Shepard Test Flight 9 (July 18, 2018)

This was the third mission involving the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0, which saw the booster and capsule separate at a 73.8-mile apogee.

New Shepard Test Flight 10 (Jan 23, 2019)

Earlier scheduled for Dec 18, 2018, the fourth test flight mission of the new booster-capsule combo carried eight experimental payloads provided by NASA to an altitude of about 67 miles.

New Shepard Test Flight 11 (May 2, 2019)

Last week’s mission, discussed earlier, was the 11th overall and the fifth for NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0

From The Editors Technology

Google Employees Worldwide Stage Sit-in to Protest Retaliation at Workplace

Google employees held a #NotOKGoogle sit-in on Monday (May 1) at offices around the world to protest against the so-called “culture of retaliation” being pursued by the company against workers for staging a #GoogleWalkout last year.

“From being told to go on sick leave when you’re not sick, to having your reports taken away, we’re sick of retaliation,” organizers of the ‘Google Walkout For Real Change’ tweeted. “Six months ago, we walked out. This time, we’re sitting in. 11am tomorrow.”

“Today, Googlers from around the world are gathering at 11 am local time to sit together and show retaliation is #NotOkGoogle,” the organizers said in another tweet.

“The stories we’ve been collecting will be shared, our demands will be read, and all will be in solidarity with those withstanding this chilling practice.”

The sit-in comes a week after the organizers released a letter, accusing the Sundar Pichai-led company of pursuing a “culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities.”

Signed by Meredith Whittaker, Claire Stapleton, and 10 others, the letter goes on to say: “Retaliation isn’t always obvious. It’s often confusing and drawn out, consisting of icy conversations, gaslighting, project cancellations, transition rejections, or demotions.”

Whittaker is the head of Google’s Open Research Group and the Google Measurement Lab, while Stapleton is the marketing manager at YouTube.

The Mountain View tech giant, however, declined to comment on the sit-in when approached by Tech Crunch and Fox News other than give a standard scripted statement, which said:

“We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation.”

Last year, more than 20,000 Google employees around the world staged a walk-out, following a damaging New York Times report on the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software.

The en-masse walk-out was also a protest against pay inequality and abuse of power to victimize employees that did not tow the company line.

“We were disgusted by the details of the recent New York Times article, which provided the latest example of a culture of complicity, dismissiveness, and support for perpetrators in the face of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse of power,” the #GoogleWalkout organizers told Fox News at the time.

“Sadly, this is part of a longstanding problem, one further amplified by systemic racism. We know this culture well,” the statement said.

Both Whittaker and Stapleton have allegedly been victimized for organizing the #GoogleWalkout, leaving them with no option but to call for the #NotOKGoogle sit-in to protest the injustices meted out to them and others, since.

In fact, last month, Whittaker posted a message to a number of internal Google mailing lists, accusing the company of disbanding its external AI ethics council earlier in the month.

She was allegedly told that she would lose her job if she didn’t “abandon” her role at AI Now Institute and her work on AI ethics.

Stapleton said she was threatened with demotion two months after the walk-out and faced even more retaliation when she brought the matter to the notice of Human Resources.

“My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote

Although the company was forced to conduct an investigation and reverse the demotion decision after she hired a lawyer, the environment remained “hostile.”

“While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day,” she wrote.

Employee protests at Google appear to have become a recurrent feature of late, as there was another protest between the #GoogleWalkout and the #NotOkGoogle that comes to mind.

About a month after the #GoogleWalkOut, an employee backlash over the company’s clandestine ‘Dragonfly’ search engine project in China snowballed into near- unmanageable proportions for the tech giant.

Ever since the company’s secret and highly questionable project in China was exposed in August, the search engine titan had faced fierce criticism from investigative journalists and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, in addition to mounting dissent among its own workforce.

An open letter demanding the immediate scrapping of the controversial tailored-version of Google’s popular search engine for China was published online late last year.

What started off as a 10-signatory letter entitled “We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly,” was later backed by hundreds of signatories, which kept growing as murkier details continued to emerge.

The  letter started with a categorical demand to halt Dragonfly, calling the project “Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance.”

“We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months,” read the letter.

“International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project,” it continued. “So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.”

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” the letter read.

“After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”

From The Editors Science

Threat From Asteroid Strikes is Not Only about Movies; It’s for Real, Says NASA Chief

In his keynote address at the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland, USA, on Monday (April 29), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that the threat to Earth from asteroid strikes was as real as it gets.

He urged the international space community to create awareness among people that devastation from asteroid strikes was not only about what Hollywood shows us but about defending Earth – the only habitat we know of.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine was quoted by as having said at the conference.

“This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth,” said the NASA head.

As part of the  “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” announced in June last year, this gathering of NASA, FEMA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the International Asteroid Warning Network representatives, among others, will conclude on May 3.

The five-day event will see the participants conduct an “asteroid impact exercise,” playing out mock impact scenarios to enhance preparedness for the real thing if, or should we say when, it does happen.

Asteroid expert Andrew Rivkin – a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email that “exercises like this have been run at several conferences over the years, and government agencies have also ​had them.”

“It’s definitely worth doing, if only so people are aware of the issues and how complex some of them are,” he wrote.

Comparing the exercise to a fire drill, Rivkin said that the aftermath of a major asteroid hit would be catastrophic if what happened to the dinosaurs is anything to go by.

He was, obviously, referring to the six-mile-wide asteroid that hit our planet some 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs from the face of the Earth – or, so it is believed.

But. we need not end up like the dinosaurs, or the other species that went with them, because we have the necessary resources at our disposal; we just have to make the most of them.

“We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program. But we do, and we need to use it,” Bridenstine said.

But, why go so far back in time to emphasize the threat we’re exposed to, when the recent Chelyabinsk Event is scary enough to justify all the good things, including the ongoing conference, being done to minimize the probabilities of a repeat.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that at least 1,500 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

“I wish I could tell you that these events are exceptionally unique, but they are not,” Bridenstine said about the Chelyabinsk Event.

“These events are not rare — they happen. It’s up to us to make sure that we are characterizing, detecting, tracking all of the near-Earth objects that could be a threat to the world,” he added.

The aforementioned Federal ‘preparedness strategy and action plan’ notwithstanding, there’s a lot that still needs to be done in terms of increased monitoring systems across the globe, for which international cooperation is the need of the hour, says Bridenstine.

“We’re only about a third of the way there,” he said, adding: “We want more international partners that can join us in this effort.

“We want more systems on the face of the Earth that can detect and track these objects, and we want to be able to feed all of that data into one single operating system so that ultimately, we have the best, most accurate data that we can possibly get.”

NASA knows that merely chasing these potential threats is not going to save Earth from another mass extinction and, probably, thousands of years of ice-age, should one of them slam into us.

The good news is that the agency has been working on a planetary-defense mission called DART, an acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to save us from exactly such an eventuality.

DART is essentially an impactor spacecraft that NASA plans to crash into an asteroid satellite at 13,500 miles per hour in an effort to change its course.

The idea is to find out how much the car-sized impactor can change the trajectory of the target space rock and whether it’s enough to redirect an Earth-bound asteroid safely away from us.

The space rock that NASA has in its crosshairs for the planned Oct 2022 hit is, in fact, a satellite moonlet nicknamed Didymoon, about seven million miles away from Earth.

Measuring 150 meters across, the moonlet orbits an 800-meter-wide asteroid called Didymos, from where it derives its nickname.

While Didymoon is not on a collision course with Earth and poses no threat to us whatsoever, a detailed study of the space object, and then slamming into it to bump it off its bearings, should provide the DART team with useful data that can come in handy in averting a real asteroid threat, if ever it came to that.

Not only will ground telescopes track the new course of the twin objects post-impact, but an Italian Space Agency CubeSat called ‘Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids’ will accompany the mission to keep an eye on proceedings.

Additionally, as part of an international Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch two CubeSats, APEX (Asteroid Prospection Explorer) and Juventas, onboard the agency’s Hera spacecraft, in time to reach the binary asteroid system sometime in 2026 to record the effects of the DART collision, according to NASA.

To test potential techniques in “deflecting” an asteroid – one of the preferred methods for mitigating a threat – DART will travel to the Didymos binary asteroid system via its a xenon-based electric propulsion system, steering with an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software,” says NASA.

DART is expected to send back a close-up shot of the Didymoon surface – its last transmission to Earth – just before it is pulverized into space dust.

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

Among the 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun is a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

For all we know, Bennu might just turn out be the asteroid that NASA has to knock off-course to save the planet in the future; that’s when the knowledge gained from the DART mission will come in handy – unless the 500-meter rock, or some other NEO, hits us sooner.

Honestly, that’s unlikely, but time will tell.

From The Editors Science

Should Pluto’s Planet Status Be Reinstated? The Debate Still Rages in the Astronomical Community

Pluto, the icy body in the outer reaches of the solar system, was considered the ninth planet in the system from the time it was discovered in 1930 up until 2006, when it was controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global authority for naming and designating celestial objects.

The IAU has since been at the receiving end by many scientists and astronomers who disagree with the union’s decision and have fiercely advocated for Pluto’s planetary status to be reinstated.

The contentious decision was based on the definition of a planet, which many scientists argue has been inconsistently applied in the case of Pluto.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Icarus in September last year, a group of scientists, led by the study’s main author Philip Metzger – a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida – maintain that the IAU’s definition of a planet is not in the interest of science and, hence, should be revisited.

“What we’re doing is fact-checking,” Metzger, was quoted by NBC News as having said.

“There are 120 examples I found of scientists in the recently published literature violating the IAU definition, calling something a planet even though the IAU definition says it’s not a planet,” he said.

“The reason planetary scientists do this is because the IAU definition is not useful for science,” Metzger added.

Pluto’s planetary status came into question in 2005 when astronomers at the California Institute of Astronomy (Caltech) –  a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California – discovered a Pluto-like celestial object in the distant solar system.

The object, which came to be known as Eres, was touted as a new addition to the planetary line-up at the time, but when more such objects were discovered in the Kuiper-belt neighborhood, the astronomical community was in a quandary over the definition of a planet.

Several definitions were considered and reconsidered before IAU called a press conference in Prague, in 2006, to give a new meaning to the term “planet,” thereby stripping Pluto of its planetary status and downgrading it to a “dwarf planet.”

The new resolution stated that in order for a solar system object in to qualify as a planet, it needed to meet three conditions:

  • It has to orbit the sun
  • It has to be rounded by its own gravity, for which it has to be large enough to allow its gravitation pull to shape it into a sphere
  • It has to be pretty much the only object in its orbit, meaning it has to be gravitationally dominant-enough to have evicted most objects in its orbital vicinity.

While Pluto meets the first two criteria hands down, it falls short of qualifying as a planet when it comes to the third condition, because its orbit is littered with other icy bodies exerting their own gravitational forces.

Although thirteen years have passed since that eventful September day when Pluto ceased to be a planet and became a “dwarf planet,” the debate over the controversial definition and Pluto’s standing in the planetary hierarchy still rages on in the astronomical community.

NASA’s principal investigator for New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and other like-minded scientists have rubbished the revised definition, saying that it is flawed and needs to be reversed.

Writing in The Washington Post in May 2018, Stern and co-author of the article, David Grinspoon – an American astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona – stated that the IAU’s definition of a planet was “deeply flawed.”

“The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome,” wrote Stern and Grinspoon.

“For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets,” they said.

“To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that “a dwarf planet is not a planet.” This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire — for whatever reason — to ensure that Pluto was “demoted” by the new definition,” they wrote.

In fact, Stern was scheduled to debate Ron Ekers – former IAU president (2003 to 2006) – at the Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club on the definition of a planet and Pluto’s classification in our solar system in Washington, DC, on Monday.

Kuiper Belt

Kuiper Belt is the ring-shaped accumulation of matter made up gas, dust, planetesimals, asteroids, or collision debris – also known as the circumstellar disk – in the far reaches of the solar system.

It is home to three known dwarf planets, including Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake, in addition to other icy objects.

Ultima Thule is the latest Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by as recently as New Year’s Day this year.

When it was thirty-three minutes past midnight in New York; when the ball had already dropped in Times Square to usher in 2019; when parties were in full swing across the city; history was made four billion miles out in space.

Technically, history happened in the blink of an eye, as NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the tiny KBO at a lusty speed of 32,280 miles per hour – that’s 9 miles in a second, to put things in perspective.

However, confirmation of the historic flyby came only after an agonizing wait of six hours and eight minutes – that’s how long it took the radio signal from the robotic craft to travel through the void of space before it was plucked from the air by a NASA deep space radio dish in Madrid.

Coming back to the Pluto debate, Stern and Grinspoon summed it up extremely well when they wrote:

“The word “planet” predates and transcends science. Language is malleable and responsive to culture. Words are not defined by voting. Neither is scientific paradigm.”

From The Editors Science

New Study Says Our Universe is Expanding Much Faster Than Expected

A new study, published on April 25 in the Astrophysical Journal, has revealed that our universe is expanding alarmingly faster than expected, effectively raising more questions about one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy than answering them

Although astronomers have known all along that the universe has been expanding ever since the big bang more than 13 billion years ago, the fact that it is growing about nine percent faster than earlier predictions, as the new Hubble measurements suggest, calls for new theories to better understand the forces that have shaped the cosmos.

The difference in the expansion rate of the modern universe and the measurements of the early universe (based on estimates from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite), has been the subject of many a scientific paper over the last several years.

However, the disparity reflected this time around is far too significant to pass it off as a fluke or blame it on different measurement techniques.
Hubble constant, or the rate at which the universe is expanding, is prone to discrepancies, depending on the method used by scientists to measure it, but the latest findings have reduced the probability of the disparity being a fluke from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 100,000.

“The Hubble tension between the early and late universe may be the most exciting development in cosmology in decades,” said Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.

This mismatch has been growing and has now reached a point that is really impossible to dismiss as a fluke. This disparity could not plausibly occur just by chance,” Reiss, who is also the lead researcher of the study, added.

The Planck technique measures the expansion at around 67 kilometers (41.6 miles) per second per megaparsec, which means for every 3.26 million light-years farther away a galaxy is from us, the expansion of the universe is causing it to move 67 kilometers per second faster.

The technique involves mapping of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), or the condition of the universe as it was 380, 000 years after the big bang – “a relic afterglow” as NASA describes it.

The Hubble method calculated the Hubble constant at 74 kilometers (46 miles) per second per megaparsec – the difference between the two measurements being the nine percent disparity in question.

The Hubble Space Telescope method of calculating the Hubble constant involves three basic steps, all of which require building a “cosmic distance ladder.”

To start with, accurate distances to neighboring galaxies are measured, moving farther and farther away to distant galaxies, building the so-called “cosmic distance ladder” in the process.

“This “ladder” is a series of measurements of different kinds of astronomical objects with an intrinsic brightness that researchers can use to calculate distances,” explains NASA.

“Among the most reliable for shorter distances are Cepheid variables, stars that pulsate at predictable rates that indicate their intrinsic brightness,” says the space agency.

New observations of 70 Cepheid variables in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy, allowed the astronomers to compare the measurements of these Cepheid variables to those in more distant galaxies, including exploding stars called Type Ia supernovas.

Since supernovas are much brighter than Cepheids, astronomers use them as “milepost markers” to calculate the distance to galaxies that are farther away in the outer reaches of the universe.

Each marker represents a rung in the “cosmic distance ladder,” which can be extended by adding more reliable markers, thereby enabling astronomers to reach farther and farther away to far-flung galaxies.

The distances to these markers are then compared to measurements of the reddish glow emanating from an entire galaxy, the redness increasing with distance – a result of the uniform expansion of the universe.

Astronomers can then work out the rate at which the universe is expanding.

“When Hubble uses precise pointing by locking onto guide stars, it can only observe one Cepheid per each 90-minute Hubble orbit around Earth. So, it would be very costly for the telescope to observe each Cepheid,” said Stefano Casertano, one of the co-authors of the study – also from STScI and Johns Hopkins.

“Instead, we searched for groups of Cepheids close enough to each other that we could move between them without recalibrating the telescope pointing,” he explained.

“These Cepheids are so bright, we only need to observe them for two seconds,” Casertano said, adding that the technique was allowing the team “to observe a dozen Cepheids for the duration of one orbit.”

As to why the universe is expanding at such a rapid pace is still a burning question for the astronomers which requires further research.

There are, however, a few “dark” theories, including the “early dark energy”, the “dark radiation” and the “dark matter” theories, that attempt to explain the disparity.

NASA’s April 25 article states:

“Astronomers have already hypothesized that dark energy existed during the first seconds after the big bang and pushed matter throughout space, starting the initial expansion.

“Dark energy may also be the reason for the universe’s accelerated expansion today. The new theory suggests that there was a third dark-energy episode not long after the big bang, which expanded the universe faster than astronomers had predicted.

“The existence of this “early dark energy” could account for the tension between the two Hubble constant values, Riess said.”

The other explanation for the mismatch is the presence of a new subatomic particle in space which travels close to the speed of light; collectively, these fast-moving particles are known as “dark radiation.”

Previously known particles, including neutrinos, (created in nuclear reactions and radioactive decays) are also part of this dark radiation.

As for “dark matter,” although it exists only in theory, scientists strongly believe that it is an all-pervasive reality in galaxy clusters, accounting for 85 percent of all matter in the known and unknown universe.

Their conviction is based on astrophysical observations such as unexplained gravitational forces, which, obviously, can’t come from anything.

Meaning, while they can see the powerful gravitational effects of the so-called dark matter, they can’t really see the matter itself; hence, the name.

A recent study, however, claims to have found a way to track the dark matter.

Using deep-space imagery captured by the Hubble Telescope, astronomers Mireia Montes (School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Australia) and Ignacio Trujillo (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain) were able to see the invisible matter in an unprecedented light, literally.

From The Editors Science

FCC Allows SpaceX to Launch its Starlink Internet Satellites in a Lower Earth Orbit

A major regulatory hurdle in the way of Elon Musk’s Starlink project – his ambitious plan to launch broadband services from space – has finally been overcome.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved his spaceflight company SpaceX’s application to modify its original approval, which allowed the company to operate 4,425 satellites at an orbital of altitude 1,150 km.

The revised application requested the Commission to let SpaceX reduce the number of its Starlink constellation of satellites to 4,409 and re-position 1,584 of them to a lower orbital altitude of 550 km.

Now that the modification request has got the FCC nod, SpaceX is expected to start launching its internet-beaming, non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites from Florida, sometime next month.

Welcoming the FCC decision, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: “This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service.”

The approval came despite apprehensions raised by companies like OneWeb and Kepler Communications – SpaceX’s competition in space broadband services – arguing that the Starlink satellites would interfere with their own satellites if allowed to fly at a reduced altitude.

However, the Commission overruled their petitions, noting in its approval that the proposed changes did not pose any interference threat to other satellites and that it was in the public interest.

In response to objections raised about collision risks, FCC said that SpaceX had provided the commission a detailed statement, explaining that the Starlink satellites were equipped with propulsion systems and had the maneuverability to avoid collisions.

“We find no reason to defer action on SpaceX’s modification request as requested by certain commenters,” the Commission wrote in clause 22 of the approval.

“Our rules do not prohibit SpaceX’s selection of an orbital regime that is also used by other satellite operators, but SpaceX must provide a detailed discussion of how it will avoid potential collisions,” the approval read.

“SpaceX has done so in this instance. SpaceX has stated that its satellites have propulsion and SpaceX will maintain the ability to maneuver the satellites to avoid collisions.”

Elon Musk’s foray into yet another business frontier got a major boost back in February last year when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his nod of approval to SpaceX’s plan of providing broadband services using space technologies.

Pai urged his fellow commissioners to give their consent to the company’s application, highlighting the space internet technology’s potential to provide broadband services to rural America and remote parts of the country.

He said that innovative technologies were needed to “bridge America’s digital divide,” and that satellite technology could “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans,” Pai had said in a statement at the time.

“If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” he said.

Pai’s words of encouragement came at the most opportune time for the Hawthorne, California-based company, as it was preparing to launch its first set of prototype satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, in about a week’s time.

The prototypes were launched on Feb 22, 2018, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Nicknamed Tintin A and Tintin B for the mission, the satellites ultimately reached an altitude of 1,125 kilometers where they were supposed to the groundwork, or should we say spacework, for the Starlink constellation.

As a matter of fact, the decision to reduce the orbital altitude of 1,584 satellites was based on input provided by the two test satellites.

At the time, Telesat Canada and Kepler Communications, also a Canadian company, were slightly ahead in the race in so far as demo satellites were concerned, both having launched prototypes in January 2018.

While Telesat deployed its 168-kilogram smallsat with the help of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Kepler launched its smaller Cubesat atop a Chinese Long March 11 carrier rocket.

OneWeb, on the other hand, was supposed to launch its first ten operational satellites in May 2018, bypassing demo launches altogether.

The launch, however, happened on February 27 this year, and instead of ten, the Arlington, Virginia-based company put six satellites into orbit aboard a  Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

According to OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, the company should have its next-gen constellation in place by 2021, ready to provide five times as much speed to consumers at 2.5 Gbps

As for the Starlink constellation, SpaceX is hopeful of making the space broadband service operational by 2025.

From The Editors Technology

Tesla Set to Launch Right-Hand Drive Version of Model 3 in the UK, Next Week

In a Thursday tweet (Apr 25), Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed his company’s plan to launch the RHD version of its latest and, relatively, more affordable electric vehicle, the Tesla Model 3, in the UK next week.

The UK order page goes live “around May 1 or 2,” followed shortly by Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, while deliveries are expected to begin sometime in the latter half of 2019.

Also, if Musk’s tweet is anything to go by, the company is “hoping to cover all of Eastern Europe this year,” as well.

The billionaire entrepreneur did not offer any timelines, though; however, with his penchant for taking to Twitter at the drop of a hat, we can rest assured there’ll be more from him on that.

Meanwhile, keeping in mind Musk’s reputation of over-committing at times, there is always the possibility that the UK launch may not happen as early as he promises.

But again, with Electrek reporting that an RHD version of the Model 3 was spotted on the I-280 in California, last month, it appears his company is ready to meet the deadline, this time around.

As for pricing for the UK market, there hasn’t been a formal announcement, so far, but Musk did say last month that with country-specific taxes & import duties, we can expect a 25% hike on the US price of $35,000, which would mean a starting price of around £33,900 across the Atlantic.

It goes without saying, that with the UK launch and subsequent launches in other RHD countries, Tesla is looking to offset the loss of $702 million ($4.02 per share) it suffered in the first quarter of 2019 – largely, a consequence of low delivery numbers and issues with costs and pricing adjustments.

Although a loss was on the cards, nobody was expecting it to be as huge as it turned out to be, as Kelley Blue Book’s executive publisher Karl Brauer pointed out in an emailed statement, according to Tech Crunch.

“Everyone expected a first-quarter loss for Tesla, but nobody expected it to be this big,” he wrote. “What’s interesting is how there really isn’t a single, substantial factor driving this.”

According to Brauer, the contributing factors include tax rebate loss, increasing competition, and the saturation of the “initial rush” for the Model 3, not to mention competition from within from other Tesla alternatives.

However, he is hopeful that Tesla would somehow ride the tide and see this lean phase through.

“This is the new normal for Tesla,” he told Tech Crunch.

As for Musk, he’s happy to blame the 37 percent revenue loss in QI on the season, saying that people were disinclined to buying cars in winter.

Is he suggesting that all automakers experience a drop in sales revenue during the winter season? Or is it just Tesla cars they don’t like buying in winter?

Musk has, however, said that the company would change its production and delivery strategy to avoid a repeat of Q1.

“We don’t want a situation again like we had in Q1, where essentially, all the cars were arriving to customers worldwide, all at the same time,” Musk said.

“So it just makes sense to plan production according to demand moving forward,” he added.

As for the Model 3 variants being made available in the UK, your guess is as good as mine!

Will the company offer RHD versions of the two new Model 3 variants it announced last year?

In a series of tweets in mid-2018, Musk announced two new variants of the Model 3 – the dual-motor, all-wheel drive (AWD) Model 3 and the Performance version, which Musk said was capable of zero to 60mph in just 3.5 seconds

While the single motor rear-wheel-drive base model option remains, US buyers can opt for an upgraded version at an additional $5,000, which would not only give them AWD, but also an improved range of 310 miles and a zero to 60mph time of 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 140mph.

To put that in perspective, the base Model 3 has a maximum range of 220 miles and its stationary to sixty miles per hour time is 5.6 seconds.

The $78,000 Performance version is not only good enough to give the BMW M3 a run for its money – in terms of speed and handling – but it can also “beat anything in its class on the track,” claims Musk – a tall claim, indeed, considering the fact that the M3 is quite a gladiator in the sports sedan arena.

As mentioned, the Performance is capable of zero to sixty in a mere 3.5 seconds, in addition to having a top speed of 155 mph, with a maximum range of 310 miles on a fully juiced-up battery.

The two-motor configuration in the AWD Model 3, including Performance, is conceptualized along the lines of the Model S, with the front motor optimized for range and the one on the back built for power.

Musk claims the car is capable of safely taking you to your destination on any one engine, should the other break down.

If you don’t already know, the all-wheel-drive system in an electric vehicle works differently from that of a petrol or a diesel car where the front and back axles are mechanically connected via a driveshaft so that power is transferred from a single source to all four wheels.

Tesla makes the Model 3 an all-wheel drive by putting another motor up front to power the front wheels, which in effect means that the only connection between the two axles is the surface it drives on, referred to as “through-the-road” system.