Space

Astronomers Discovered the Fastest-Growing Black Hole Ever Seen (wral.com) 65

Long-time Slashdot reader Yhcrana shares "some good old fashioned astronomy news." Astronomers have discovered "a black hole 20 billion times the mass of the sun eating the equivalent of a star every two days," reports the New York Times. The black hole is growing so rapidly, said Christian Wolf, of the Australian National University, who led the team that found it in the depths of time, "that it is probably 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in." So bright, that it is dazzling our view and we can't see the galaxy itself. He and his colleagues announced the discovery in a paper to be published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia...

The blaze from material swirling around this newly observed drainpipe into eternity -- known officially as SMSS J215728.21-360215.1 -- is as luminous as 700 trillion suns, according to Wolf and his collaborators. If it were at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, it would be 10 times brighter than the moon and bathe the Earth in so many X-rays that life would be impossible. Luckily it's not anywhere nearby. It is in fact 12 billion light years away, which means it took that long for its light to reach us, so we are glimpsing this cataclysm as it appeared at the dawn of time, only 2 billion years after the Big Bang, when stars and galaxies were furiously forming.

Security

RedDawn Android Malware Is Harvesting Personal Data of North Korean Defectors (theinquirer.net) 20

According to security company McAfee, North Korea uploaded three spying apps to the Google Play Store in January that contained hidden functions designed to steal personal photos, contact lists, text messages, and device information from the phones they were installed on. "Two of the apps purported to be security utilities, while a third provided information about food ingredients," reports The Inquirer. All three of the apps were part of a campaign dubbed "RedDawn" and targeted primarily North Korean defectors. From the report: The apps were promoted to particular targets via Facebook, McAfee claims. However, it adds that the malware was not the work of the well-known Lazarus Group, but another North Korean hacking outfit that has been dubbed Sun Team. The apps were called Food Ingredients Info, Fast AppLock and AppLockFree. "Food Ingredients Info and Fast AppLock secretly steal device information and receive commands and additional executable (.dex) files from a cloud control server. We believe that these apps are multi-staged, with several components."

"AppLockFree is part of the reconnaissance stage, we believe, setting the foundation for the next stage unlike the other two apps. The malwares were spread to friends, asking them to install the apps and offer feedback via a Facebook account with a fake profile promoted Food Ingredients Info," according to McAfee security researcher Jaewon Min. "After infecting a device, the malware uses Dropbox and Yandex to upload data and issue commands, including additional plug-in dex files; this is a similar tactic to earlier Sun Team attacks. From these cloud storage sites, we found information logs from the same test Android devices that Sun Team used for the malware campaign we reported in January. The logs had a similar format and used the same abbreviations for fields as in other Sun Team logs. Furthermore, the email addresses of the new malware's developer are identical to the earlier email addresses associated with the Sun Team."

AI

AI Can't Reason Why (wsj.com) 181

The current data-crunching approach to machine learning misses an essential element of human intelligence. From a report: Amid rapid developments and nagging setbacks, one essential building block of human intelligence has eluded machines for decades: Understanding cause and effect. Put simply, today's machine-learning programs can't tell whether a crowing rooster makes the sun rise, or the other way around. Whatever volumes of data a machine analyzes, it cannot understand what a human gets intuitively. From the time we are infants, we organize our experiences into causes and effects. The questions "Why did this happen?" and "What if I had acted differently?" are at the core of the cognitive advances that made us human, and so far are missing from machines.

Suppose, for example, that a drugstore decides to entrust its pricing to a machine learning program that we'll call Charlie. The program reviews the store's records and sees that past variations of the price of toothpaste haven't correlated with changes in sales volume. So Charlie recommends raising the price to generate more revenue. A month later, the sales of toothpaste have dropped -- along with dental floss, cookies and other items. Where did Charlie go wrong? Charlie didn't understand that the previous (human) manager varied prices only when the competition did. When Charlie unilaterally raised the price, dentally price-conscious customers took their business elsewhere. The example shows that historical data alone tells us nothing about causes -- and that the direction of causation is crucial.

Earth

NASA Says Humans Are Causing Massive Changes In Location of Water Around the World (desertsun.com) 99

Using measurements from Earth-observing satellites, NASA scientists have found that humans have dramatically altered the location of water around the world. "The team of researchers analyzed 14 years of data from NASA's twin GRACE satellites and studied regions that have seen large increases or decreases in the total amount of freshwater, including water in lakes and rivers and water stored in underground aquifers, soil, snow and ice," reports The Desert Sun. From the report: The scientists examined precipitation trends and other data to determine the most likely causes of these huge losses and gains of water around the world. Their findings in a new study reveal that of the 34 "hotspots" of water change in places from California to China, the trends in about two-thirds of those areas may be linked to climate change or human activities, such as excessive groundwater pumping in farming regions. In eight of the 34 regions, the researchers said the trends reflect "possible" or "probable" impacts of climate change, including losses of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, precipitation increases in the high latitudes of Eurasia and North America, the retreat of Alaska's glaciers and melting ice fields in Patagonia.

They ascribed changes in 12 regions to natural variability, including a progression from a dry period to a wet period in the northern Great Plains, a drought in eastern Brazil and wetter periods in the Amazon and tropical West Africa. In 14 of the areas -- more than 40 percent of the hotspots -- the scientists associated the water shifts partially or largely with human activity. That included groundwater depletion combined with drought in Southern California and the southern High Plains from Kansas to the Texas Panhandle, as well as in the northern Middle East, northern Africa, southern Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The first-of-its-kind study has been published in the journal Nature.
The Internet

Top-Level Domain .App Is Now Open For General Registration (googleblog.com) 81

Christina Chiou Yeh, writing for Google Registry: On May 1 we announced .app, the newest top-level domain (TLD) from Google Registry. It's now open for general registration so you can register your desired .app name right now. We begin our journey with sitata.app, which provides real-time travel information about events like protests or transit strikes. Looks all clear, so our first stop is the Caribbean, where we use thelocal.app and start exploring. After getting some sun, we fly to the Netherlands, where we're feeling hungry. Luckily, picnic.app delivers groceries, right to our hotel. With our bellies full, it's time to head to India, where we use myra.app to order the medicine, hygiene, and baby products that we forgot to pack. Did we mention this was a business trip? Good thing lola.app helped make such a complex trip stress free. Time to head home now, so we slip on a hoodie we bought on ov.app and enjoy the ride.
Space

Earth's 'Bigger, Older Cousin' Maybe Doesn't Even Exist (npr.org) 52

Ever since astronomers started to detect planets beyond our solar system, they've been trying to find another world just like Earth. And few years ago, they announced that they'd found a planet that was the closest match yet -- Kepler-452b. Trouble is, some astronomers now say it's not possible to know for sure that this planet actually exists. From a report: "There's new information that we can now quantify which tells us something that we didn't know before," says Fergal Mullally, who used to be an astronomer on the science team for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. In 2015, NASA declared that Kepler-452b was the first near-Earth-sized planet orbiting in the "habitable" zone around a star very similar to our sun. The space agency called it Earth's "bigger, older cousin," and scientists were so enthusiastic that one began quoting poetry at a news conference. The original science wasn't shoddy, Mullally says. It's just that, since then, researchers have learned more about the telescope's imperfections.
Space

'Yes, Pluto Is a Planet' (sfgate.com) 301

schwit1 quotes a Washington Post perspective piece by the authors of a new book about Pluto: The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome. At the 2006 IAU conference, which was held in Prague, the few scientists remaining at the very end of the week-long meeting (less than 4 percent of the world's astronomers and even a smaller percentage of the world's planetary scientists) ratified a hastily drawn definition that contains obvious flaws. 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.

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined "planet" in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has "cleared its zone," or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what's worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define "planet" in terms of the other objects that are -- or are not -- orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

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. By and large, astronomers ignore the new definition of "planet" every time they discuss all of the exciting discoveries of planets orbiting other stars.

Earth

Orbits of Jupiter and Venus Affect Earth's Climate, Says Study (usatoday.com) 208

According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gravitational tugs from the planets Jupiter and Venus gradually affect Earth's climate and life forms. The phenomenon occurs every 405,000 years and has been going on for at least 215 million years. USA Today reports: Jupiter and Venus are such strong influences because of their size and proximity. Venus is the nearest planet to us -- at its farthest, only about 162 million miles -- and roughly similar in mass. Jupiter is much farther away, but is the Solar System's largest planet. The study says that every 405,000 years, due to wobbles in our orbit caused by the gravitational pulls of the two planets, seasonal differences here on Earth become more intense. Summers are hotter and winters colder; dry times drier, wet times wetter. At the height of the cycle, more rain falls in the tropics, allowing lakes there to fill up. This compares to the other end of the cycle, when seasonal rains in the tropics "are less and lakes have much less of a tendency to become as full," [study lead author Dennis] Kent said. The results showed that the 405,000-year cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to the Earth's annual turn around the sun, he said. Right now, we are in the middle of the cycle, as the most recent peak was around 200,000 years ago.
Communications

NASA Successfully Tests New Nuclear Reactor For Future Space Travelers (npr.org) 178

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy say they have successfully tested a new type of nuclear reactor that could one day provide juice to colonies on other worlds. The reactor can power several homes and appears able to operate in harsh environments. The new reactor uses more-conventional uranium fuel. Using a "core" about the size of a paper towel roll, the reactor can turn pistons that can run a generator. The generator can put out about 10 kilowatts of electrical power -- enough to run a few small homes. Scientists believe it could run continuously for a decade or so, making deep space travel a lot simpler. They also gave it a catchy acronym: KRUSTY, which stands for Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY.

To see if it actually worked, scientists tested KRUSTY out in the Nevada desert on America's old nuclear test range. They put KRUSTY through its paces, culminating in a 28-hour test at full power. The team also simulated failures in KRUSTY's reactor components to show it wouldn't result in a meltdown on Mars. KRUSTY may find its way onto future space probes. Researchers say they might use an ensemble of four or five of the reactors to power colonies on the moon (which has 14-day nights, when the sun isn't available) or Mars.

NASA

NASA To Send 1 Million People's Names To the Sun (theatlantic.com) 76

An anonymous reader shares a report: This summer, a NASA spacecraft will launch into space from the coast of Florida, headed for the sun. After making several flybys of Venus to slow itself down, the Parker Solar Probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun's scorching surface, closer than any spacecraft in history.

NASA is never one to miss an opportunity to drum up publicity for upcoming space missions, especially the less flashy ones. Sending something to study the star we see every day may sound less thrilling, for example, than launching a mission to find exoplanets around 200,000 stars. So in March, the space agency announced a little campaign to promote the Parker Solar Probe: Send us your names and we'll put them on a microchip inside a spacecraft bound for the sun. (They even got Star Trek actor William Shatner to help promote it.)

The call for names, which closed at the end of last week, received more than 1.1 million submissions, according to a spokesperson at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which designed and built the Parker Solar Probe. On the surface, the campaign was little more than a quirky act to get the public interested in space exploration. But considered more deeply, it represents the human desire to find ways to outlive ourselves and our bodies, to be remembered once our time here on Earth is up.

Space

ESA Releases Largest Star Map Ever Online (gizmodo.com) 26

S810 writes: The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a treasure trove of data from its Gaia Spacecraft; totaling around 1.7 billion stars. This star map is the largest of its kind to date. In addition to the star map, the data also contains motion and color data of 1.3 billion stars relative to the Sun. Furthermore, it includes "radial velocities, amount of dust, and surface temperatures of lots of stars, and a catalogue of over 14,000 Solar System objects, including asteroids," reports Gizmodo. You can view the data here, and view a guide for what the data contains and how to use it here.
Medicine

FDA Approves First Contact Lenses That Turn Dark In Bright Sunlight (interestingengineering.com) 104

The first photochromic contact lenses have been approved by the FDA. "A unique additive will automatically darken the lenses when they're exposed to bright light," reports Interesting Engineering, citing a FDA statement. "The lenses will clear up whenever they're back in normal or darker lighting conditions." From the report: "This contact lens is the first of its kind to incorporate the same technology that is used in eyeglasses that automatically darken in the sun," said Malvina Eydelman. Eydelman serves as director of the division of ophthalmic, and ear, nose and throat devices at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. The FDA approved the technology after extensive trials and clinical studies. One study had 24 wearers use the contacts while driving in both daytime and nighttime settings. The FDA found that there were no problems with driving performance or issues with vision while wearing those contact lenses. In total, over 1,000 patients were involved in the various studies conducted by the FDA. According to current plans, these photochromic lenses should be available for those needing them by the first half of 2019.
Earth

Diamonds in Sudan Meteorite 'Are Remnants of Lost Planet' (theguardian.com) 43

Diamonds found in a meteorite that exploded over the Nubian desert in Sudan a decade ago were formed deep inside a "lost planet" that once circled the sun in the early solar system, scientists say. From a report: Microscopic analyses of the meteorite's tiny diamonds revealed they contain compounds that are produced under intense pressure, suggesting the diamonds formed far beneath the surface of a planet. In this case, the mysterious world was calculated to be somewhere between Mercury and Mars in size. Astronomers have long hypothesised that dozens of fledgling planets, ranging in size from the moon to Mars, formed in the first 10m years of the solar system and were broken apart and repackaged in violent collisions that ultimately created the terrestrial planets that orbit the sun today.
Power

Your Future Home Might Be Powered By Car Batteries (bloomberg.com) 319

Increasingly utilities and automakers are wondering if they could use the batteries inside electric cars as storage for the entire public power grid. An anonymous reader shares a report: The idea, known as "vehicle-to-grid," is to someday have millions of drivers become mini electricity traders, charging up when rates are cheap and pumping energy back into the grid during peak hours or when the sun simply isn't shining. If it works -- and it's a big if -- renewable energy could get much cheaper and more widely used. "We really, really need storage in order to make better use of wind and solar power, and electric cars could provide it," said Daniel Brenden, an analyst who studies the electricity market at BMI Research in London. "The potential is so huge." Today, fewer than one percent of the world's vehicles are electric, but by 2040 more than half of all new cars will run on the same juice as televisions, computers and hair dryers, according to estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Once cars and everything else are fed from the same source, they can share the same plumbing.
Space

An Up-Close Look At the Parker Solar Probe -- the Spacecraft That Will Skim the Sun's Surface (arstechnica.com) 121

schwit1 shares a report from Ars Technica, offering an up-close look at the Parker Solar Probe: This summer, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, an impressively heat-resistant spacecraft destined to glide closer to the surface of the Sun than any spacecraft before it. It will fly within about 6 million kilometers of the searing surface, more than seven times closer than earlier craft. If all goes to plan, the craft will be hurtling at 724,205 km per hour and have its one-of-a-kind heat shield perfectly facing the surface as it makes those closest approaches. In about seven years, it will complete 24 orbits around the Sun and pass by Venus seven times. All the while, the Parker probe will collect a constellation of data to help answer scientists' burning questions -- and solve some sizzling mysteries -- about the orb of hot plasma that lights up our Solar System. Namely, it will try to help us finally understand why the Sun's atmosphere is 300 times hotter than its surface, which itself is a balmy 5,727C. This fact defies basic physics and to this day is unexplained. One of the leading hypotheses to account for the heat shift comes from famed physicist Eugene Parker, after whom the probe is named. In the mid-1950s, Parker theorized that the Sun's super-heated corona could be explained by a complex system of plasma, magnetic fields, and energetic particles that spark solar explosions called "nanoflares." Scientists are thirsty for close-up data on those potential explosions as well as the cascade of energy called solar wind. With that data, they can put their hypotheses to the test. And in addition to helping us understand coronal heat, data on these sunny phenomena could help clear up poorly understood space weather, which can wreak havoc on satellites and power lines here on Earth.
Data Storage

Wind and Solar Can Power Most of the United States, Says Study (theguardian.com) 417

An anonymous reader writes: The Guardian reports of a recent paper, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, that helps explain how wind and solar energy can power most of the United States: "The authors analyzed 36 years of hourly weather data (1980-2015) in the U.S. They calculated the available wind and solar power over this time period and also included the electrical demand in the U.S. and its variation throughout the year. With this information, the researchers considered two scenarios. In scenario 1, they imagined wind and solar installations that would be sufficient to supply 100% of the U.S. electrical needs. In the second scenario, the installations would be over-designed; capable of providing 150% of the total U.S. electrical need. But the authors recognize that just because a solar panel or a wind turbine can provide all our energy, it doesn't mean that will happen in reality. It goes back to the prior discussion that sometimes the wind just doesn't blow, and sometimes the sun isn't shining. With these two scenarios, the authors then considered different mixes of power, from all solar to all wind. They also included the effect of aggregation area, that is, what sized regions are used to generate power. Is your power coming from wind and solar in your neighborhood, your city, your state or your region?

The authors found that with 100% power capacity and no mechanism to store energy, a wind-heavy portfolio is best (about 75% wind, 25% solar) and using large aggregate regions is optimal. It is possible to supply about 75-80% of U.S. electrical needs. If the system were designed with excess capacity (the 150% case), the U.S. could meet about 90% of its needs with wind and solar power. The authors modified their study to allow up to 12 hours of US energy storage. They then found that the 100% capacity system fared even better (about 90% of the country's energy) and the optimal balance was now more solar (approximately 70% solar and 30% wind). For the over-capacity system, the authors found that virtually all the country's power needs could be met with wind, solar, and storage."

Space

A Star Grazed Our Solar System 70,000 Years Ago, Early Humans Likely Saw It (space.com) 164

schwit1 shares a report from Space.com: Some distant objects in our solar system bear the gravitational imprint of a small star's close flyby 70,000 years ago, when modern humans were already walking the Earth, a new study suggests. In 2015, a team of researchers announced that a red dwarf called Scholzs star apparently grazed the solar system 70,000 years ago, coming closer than 1 light-year to the sun. For perspective, the suns nearest stellar neighbor these days, Proxima Centauri, lies about 4.2 light-years away. The astronomers came to this conclusion by measuring the motion and velocity of Scholzs star -- which zooms through space with a smaller companion, a brown dwarf or "failed star" -- and extrapolating backward in time. Scholz's star passed by the solar system at a time when early humans and Neanderthals shared the Earth. The star likely appeared as a faint reddish light to anyone looking up at the time, researchers with the new study said. The study has been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.
Businesses

US Utilities Have Finally Realized Electric Cars May Save Them (qz.com) 297

Pity the utility company. For decades, electricity demand just went up and up, as surely as the sun rose in the east. Power companies could plan ahead with confidence. No longer. From a report: This year, the Tennessee Valley Authority scrapped its 20-year projections through 2035, since it was clear they had drastically underestimated the extent to which renewable energy would depress demand for electricity from the grid. But there is a bright spot for utilities: electric vehicles (EV), which make up 1% of the US car market.

For years, that market barely registered on utilities' radar. As EVs find growing success, utilities are building charging infrastructure and arranging generous rebates. Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, and New Jersey's PSE&G have partnered with carmakers to offer thousands of dollars in rebates for BMW, Nissan, and other brands. Now utilities are asking Congress for help as they attempt to keep tapping into EV demand. A collection of 36 of the nation's largest utilities wrote a letter (PDF) to congressional leadership on March 13, asking for a lift on the cap on EV tax credits. The signatories' include California's Pacific Gas & Electric, New York's Consolidated Edison, the southeast's Duke Energy Company, and others covering almost every state. At the moment, Americans who buy electric vehicles receive a $7,500 federal tax credit (along with some state incentives) for each vehicle.

NASA

NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope Is Running Out of Fuel (mashable.com) 84

Charlie Sobeck, the system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, said in a NASA statement that Kepler is running low on gas. According to Sobekc, it only has "several months" before it reaches the end of the its life. Mashable reports: NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy for nearly a decade. It has spotted over 2,500 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars, and over 2,500 more possible worlds are waiting to be confirmed. Thirty of these confirmed planets live inside their host stars' habitable zones, places where liquid water could exist like it does on Earth. NASA placed the Kepler telescope 94 million miles away from Earth, in an orbit around the sun. This way, Earth's gravity and reflected light don't interfere with Kepler's precise measurements of distant planets. Out there, in the void, it's extremely unlikely that Kepler will become a threatening piece of space junk that could pose collision hazards to other satellites. Although Kepler will soon be spent and left to its long, lonely orbit in space, the spacecraft will soon be replaced by another exoplanet-hunting space telescope, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is set to launch into space on April 16.
Earth

Media Reports About a Massive Geomagnetic Storm Hitting Earth on March 18 Are Inaccurate, NOAA Says (newsweek.com) 50

Several news outlets this week are reporting that Earth is expecting a "massive magnetic storm" on March 18. Yeah, so that's not happening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Newsweek and other outlets. From a report: And they would know: Not only does NOAA help people build forecasts for weather here on Earth, they also predict space weather events like geomagnetic storms. "This story is not plausible in any way, shape or form," Bob Rutledge, who leads NOAA's Space Weather Forecast Center, told Newsweek via e-mail. "Things are all quiet for space weather, and the sun is essentially spotless." The magnetic storm's "imminent" arrival was one of Monday morning's top science news stories, according to Google News. But most coverage appeared to be based on a misinterpretation of a chart posted on Russia's Lebedev Institute's website showing a minor uptick in geomagnetic activity on the 18th. That elevated activity is expected to be a minor storm at most.

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