Tag: Science & Technology

Brighter Future For Us All: High-Fidelity Images of Sun’s Atmosphere Tell The Tale

A Southwest Research Institute-led team discovered never-before-detected, fine-grained structures in the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona. The team imaged this critical region in detail using sophisticated software techniques and longer exposures from the COR-2 camera onboard NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A (STEREO-A).

The Sun’s outer corona is the source of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that flow outward from the Sun in all directions. Measured near Earth, the magnetic fields embedded within the solar wind are intertwined and complex.

“Previous images showed the outer corona as a smooth structure, but in deep space, the solar wind is turbulent and gusty,” said SwRI’s Dr. Craig DeForest, a solar physicist and lead author of “The Highly Structured Outer Corona,” an article published by Astrophysical Journal July 18, 2018.

“Using new techniques to improve image fidelity, we realized that the corona is not smooth, but structured and dynamic. Every structure that we thought we understood turns out to be made of smaller ones and to be more dynamic than we thought.”

To understand the corona, DeForest and his colleagues started with extended exposures of STEREO-A’s coronagraph images – pictures of the Sun’s atmosphere produced by a special telescope that blocks out light from the bright solar disk.

The coronagraph is sensitive enough to image the corona in great detail, but in practice its measurements are polluted by noise both from the space environment and the instrument itself. The team’s key innovation was identifying and separating out that noise, boosting the signal-to-noise ratio and revealing the outer corona in unprecedented detail.

“We couldn’t tinker with the instrument itself, so we took a software approach, squeezing out the highest quality data possible by improving the data’s signal-to-noise ratio,” DeForest said. “We developed new filtering algorithms, designed and tested to delineate the true corona from the noisy measurements.”

The algorithms filtered out light and adjusted brightness. But the most challenging obstacle is inherent: blur due to the motion of the solar wind. “This technique adjusted images not just in space, not just in time, but in a moving coordinate system,” DeForest said.

“That allowed us to correct motion blur not just by the speed of the wind, but by how rapidly features changed in the wind.”

With the resulting unprecedented view of the corona, the team made several groundbreaking discoveries. For example, coronal streamers – magnetic loops that can erupt into coronal mass ejections that send blobs of solar material into space – are far more structured than previously thought.

“What we found is that there is no such thing as a single streamer,” DeForest said. “The streamers themselves are composed of myriad fine strands that, together, average to produce a brighter feature.”

Then there’s the theoretical Alfven surface – a proposed surface, or sheet-like layer where the gradually accelerating solar wind reaches a critical speed. But that’s not what DeForest’s team observed.

“What we found is that there isn’t a clean Alfven surface,” DeForest said. “There’s a wide ‘no-man’s land’ or `Alfven zone’ where the solar wind gradually disconnects from the Sun, rather than a single clear boundary.”

And the close look at the coronal structure also raised new questions. Techniques used to estimate the speed of the solar wind revealed that the wind suddenly changes its character at a distance of around 10 solar radii, well within the conventional boundary of the corona itself.

“Some interesting physics is happening around there,” DeForest said. “We don’t know what it is yet, but we do know that it is going to be interesting.”

These first observations will provide key insight for NASA’s upcoming Parker Solar Probe, the first-ever mission to gather measurements from within the outer solar corona.

First Space Tourist Flights Could Come In 2019

The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.

– Moments of weightlessness –

Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.

Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.

The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.

At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.

– Virgin Galactic –

With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.

In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.

In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.

The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.

Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin told AFP.

– Blue Origin –

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.

On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.

From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.

Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.

Company officials were recently quoted as saying the first tests with Blue Origin astronauts would take place “at the end of this year,” with tickets for the public expected to go on sale in 2019.

But in comments to AFP Friday, the company struck a more cautious note.

“We have not set ticket pricing and have had no serious discussions inside of Blue on the topic,” the firm said. “We have a flight test schedule and schedules of those types always have uncertainties and contingencies. Anyone predicting dates is guessing.”

– What’s next? –

SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.

“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, told AFP.

Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.

Supreme Court Hears States Beg For Your Bucks

Online shoppers have gotten used to seeing that line on checkout screens before they click “purchase.” But a case before the Supreme Court could change that.

At issue is a rule stemming from two, decades-old Supreme Court cases: If a business is shipping to a state where it doesn’t have an office, warehouse or other physical presence, it doesn’t have to collect the state’s sales tax.

That means large retailers such as Apple, Macy’s, Target and Walmart, which have brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, generally collect sales tax from customers who buy from them online. But other online sellers, from 1-800 Contacts to home goods site Wayfair, can often sidestep charging the tax.

More than 40 states are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that rule in a case being argued Tuesday. They say they’re losing out on “billions of dollars in tax revenue each year, requiring cuts to critical government programs” and that their losses compound as online shopping grows. But small businesses that sell online say the complexity and expense of collecting taxes nationwide could drive them out of business.

Large retailers want all businesses to “be playing by the same set of rules,” said Deborah White, the president of the litigation arm of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents more than 70 of America’s largest retailers.

For years, the issue of whether out-of-state sellers should collect sales tax had to do mostly with one company: Amazon.com. The online giant is said to account for more than 40 percent of U.S. online retail sales. But as Amazon has grown, dotting the country with warehouses, it has had to charge sales tax in more and more places.

President Donald Trump has slammed the company, accusing it of paying “little or no taxes” to state and local governments. But since 2017, Amazon has been collecting sales tax in every state that charges it. Third-party sellers that use Amazon to sell products make their own tax collection decisions, however.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court could affect those third-party Amazon sellers and many other sellers that don’t collect taxes in all states — sellers such as jewelry website Blue Nile, pet products site Chewy.com, clothing retailer L.L. Bean, electronics retailer Newegg and internet retailer Overstock.com. Sellers on eBay and Etsy, which provide platforms for smaller sellers, also don’t collect sales tax nationwide.

States generally require consumers who weren’t charged sales tax on a purchase to pay it themselves, often through self-reporting on their income tax returns. But states have found that only about 1 percent to 2 percent actually pay.

States would capture more of that tax if out-of-state sellers had to collect it, and states say software has made sales tax collection simple.

Out-of-state sellers disagree, calling it costly and extraordinarily complex, with tax rates and rules that vary not only by state but also by city and county. For example, in Illinois, Snickers are taxed at a higher rate than Twix because foods containing flour don’t count as candy. Sellers say free or inexpensive software isn’t accurate, more sophisticated software is expensive and that collecting tax nationwide would also subject them to potentially costly audits.

“For small businesses on tight margins, these costs are going to be fatal in many cases,” said Andy Pincus, who filed a brief on behalf of eBay and small businesses that use its platform.

 

The case now before the Supreme Court involves South Dakota, which has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue. South Dakota’s governor has said the state loses out on an estimated $50 million a year in sales tax that doesn’t get collected by out-of-state sellers.

In 2016 the state passed a law requiring those sellers to collect taxes on sales into the state, a law challenging the Supreme Court precedents. The state, conceding it could win only if the Supreme Court reverses course, has lost in lower courts.

South Dakota says the high court’s previous decisions don’t reflect today’s world. The court first adopted its physical presence rule on sales tax collection in a 1967 case dealing with a catalog retailer. At the time, the court was concerned in part about the burden collecting sales tax would place on the catalog company. The court reaffirmed that ruling in 1992.

It’s unclear how the justices might align on the question this time. But three justices — Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy — have suggested a willingness to rethink those decisions. Kennedy has written that the 1992 case was “questionable even when decided” and “now harms states to a degree far greater than could have been anticipated earlier.”

“Although online businesses may not have a physical presence in some states, the Web has, in many ways, brought the average American closer to most major retailers,” he wrote in suggesting the days of inconsistent sales tax collection may be numbered. “A connection to a shopper’s favorite store is a click away regardless of how close or far the nearest storefront.”

The TED Conference On Big Ideas Is Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth IsIs

The big-idea Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference is now backing up its talk on world-changing innovations with big money.

The organizers of the conference known for deep thinking discussions announced Wednesday it has raised $400 million for projects with “the potential to create massive, global change.”

The new initiative known as the Audacious Project will replace the annual $1 million TED prize awards which have been allocated since 2005, with a hefty bump in funding.

TED organizers say the project will fund “collaborative philanthropy for bold ideas” and announced the first awards to organizations working on innovative ideas for health care, justice, agriculture and the environment.

“In some ways, it’s the most ambitious thing TED has ever been involved with,” TED curator Chris Anderson said before taking to the stage to announce the project in Vancouver.

“It’s like trying to recreate what an IPO does, but instead of investing in shares to make money we are investing in dreams to make change.”

Inside TED, they coined the acronym “APO,” for Audacious Project Offering.

Anderson has encouraged TED’s influential community to act on big ideas that win their hearts or minds at annual conferences.

Each year, the project will identify up to five ideas that stand out as “thrillingly bold” with a credible path to execution.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, took to the TED stage to help unveil the project, saying it could change millions of lives for the better by turning bold ideas for good into action.

“We must dream alongside and amplify those voices,” she told the TED audience.

TED said pledges for the project came from Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, Dalio Foundation, The Bridgespan Group and others.

– Oceans to Heavens –

The slate of those being backed by the project consisted of The Environmental Defense Fund; The Bail Project; GirlTrek; Sightsavers, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

US-based Bail Project will manage a nationwide fund to help people post bond to get out of jail while their guilt or innocence is determined.

The Environmental Defense Fund wants to track methane pollution from space with a network of satellites.

“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the fastest thing we can do right now to put the brakes on climate change,” said EDF president Fred Krupp.

The Woods Hole institution plans to uncover the secrets of a mysterious layer of ocean some 200 to 1,000 meters (600 to 3,000 feet) deep considered integral to the marine food ecosystem and the earth’s climate.

GirlTrek in the US will train activists to improve the health of black women by getting them walking more.

Sightsavers aims to eliminate trachoma, a treatable disease that can blind people and remains a bane in low-income communities.

“We are in a moment where humans more than ever what to change the future,” Anderson said.

“The money is out there; people want to spend it on good ideas.”

– Daring to dream –

Anyone in the world is free to pitch their dreams online at an audaciousproject.org website with a handful picked annually, according to TED.

“We are looking for projects that are capable of impacting at least millions of lives in some way, or at a planetary scale,” Anderson said.

“Almost the single biggest hope is that this process unlocks dreams that entrepreneurs never dared put forward before.”

Since starting as an intimate gathering on the California coast 34 years ago, TED has grown into a global media platform with a stated devotion to “ideas worth spreading.”

TED has a massive following for its trademark presentations in which speakers strive to give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes.

The theme of the annual TED conference this week in Vancouver is “Age of Amazement,” but with a keen eye on unintended consequences.

SpaceX Set To Launch Planet Hunter TESS On Monday

With the crippled Kepler orbital equipment almost out of fuel, NASA is preparing the launch of its newest planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS.

TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will be carried into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on April 16. With a little help from the moon’s gravity, the satellite will achieve a high Earth orbit, offering the probe wide, unobstructed views of the night sky. The probe will orbit Earth twice for every one lunar orbit.

While TESS’s scientific mission is largely the same as Kepler’s — image transiting exoplanets — the probe will use a different approach. Whereas Kepler focused on small fields of view for long periods of time, TESS will take a wider, more comprehensive view.

“TESS is designed to image almost all of the night sky — using four wide angle cameras — in long vertical strips called sectors,” Natalia Guerrero, MIT scientist and researcher on the TESS mission, told UPI.

TESS scientists have divided the sky into long strips called sectors. Each hemisphere contains 13 sectors, and over the next three years, TESS will survey, sector by sector, the Southern Hemisphere and then the Northern Hemisphere.

During each sector scan, TESS’s four cameras will capture 30-minute exposures. The four images will be stacked on top of each other by the satellite’s computer and transmitted back to Earth.

In addition to organizing the sky into sectors, TESS scientists have identified 200,000 especially bright stars likely to host transiting exoplanets. Each stellar target is highlighted by a so-called postage stamp.

Exposures of each postage stamp will be stacked on top of each other every two minutes and beamed back to Earth. These postage stamp observations are expected to identify planetary systems located much closer to Earth than those found by Kepler.

Data captured by TESS will go through the same image-processing pipeline used for Kepler observations. Basic algorithms will process images and identify the dimming patterns created when exoplanets pass across the face of their host star.

Scientists will review the transit events identified via computer analysis and highlight targets for follow-up observations.

“From the depth of the transit and the frequency light curve, we can back out the size of the planet and distance from its host star,” Guerrero said.

But, like Kepler, TESS is designed to survey the sky, not carry out in-depth investigations. Scientists will rely on other telescopes, both ground and space-based, to observe transiting objects in greater detail. Through follow-up investigations, astronomers will be able to estimate an exoplanet’s mass and the composition of its atmosphere, as well as its habitability.

TESS scientists will focus much of their analysis on the two-minute cadence of images of postage stamped targets, but the satellite’s biggest surprises may be more likely to be revealed by the full frame images. In addition to capturing transits, the full-frame images will record observations of thousands of stars.

“The full frame images will serve as really rich repositories of data,” Guerrero said. “They will be made public and will be a wonderful opportunity for the astronomical community and really any interested parties.”

“We’re very excited about the citizen science efforts that will be inspired by these images,” Guerrero said.