October 31, 2010

Most Massive Galaxy Cluster of Early Universe Discovered

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets — bferrari @ 3:26 pm
Most Massive Galaxy Cluster ever

An infrared/optical representative-color image of a massive galaxy cluster located 7 billion light-years from Earth. This cluster weighs as much as 800 trillion suns. Galaxies with "old" stellar populations, like modern-day ellipticals, are circled in yellow; galaxies with "young" stellar populations, like modern-day spirals, are circled in blue. Images taken with the Infrared Array Camera on the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Mosaic-II camera on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Credit: Infrared Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Brodwin (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA) Optical Image: CTIO Blanco 4-m telescope/J. Mohr (LMU Munich)

The most massive conglomeration of galaxies ever spotted in the early universe has been found, astronomers say.

This behemoth galaxy cluster contains about 800 trillion suns packed inside hundreds of galaxies. And it’s not even finished growing.

The newfound cluster, called SPT-CL J0546-5345, is about 7 billion light-years from Earth, meaning that its light has taken that long to reach us. Thus, astronomers are seeing this clump as it was 7 billion years ago.

By now, it likely will have quadrupled in size, researchers said. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old. [Photo of the new galaxy cluster]

“This galaxy cluster wins the heavyweight title,” astronomer Mark Brodwin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement. “It’s among the most massive clusters ever found at this distance.”

While there are some heavier clusters in the near universe, if we could see this cluster as it is today, it would likely rank among the most massive clusters of all, the researchers said.

Brodwin and colleagues reported the discovery in a recent edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Dark energy

The discovery could help scientists piece together the early history of our universe, as well as how strange stuff called dark energy played a role.

Seven billion years ago, our solar system – which is about 4.5 billion years old – was not yet born. This cluster must have formed relatively soon after the Big Bang to have amassed such a girth so early, scientists said.

“This cluster is full of ‘old’ galaxies, meaning that it had to come together very early in the universe’s history — within the first 2 billion years,” Brodwin said.

These days, new galaxy clusters cannot form because of the universe’s accelerating rate of expansion – each galaxy is flying apart from all others at ever-increasing speeds. This is thought to be caused by a mysterious force scientists have named dark energy.

Scientists think dark energy is behind the universe’s mysteriously accelerating expansion, but they can’t establish for sure that this force exists.

Weighing massive clusters like SPT-CL J0546-5345 could help astrophysicists  pin down the nature of this odd quantity.

South Pole vision

The galaxy cluster was spotted by a new, huge 33-foot (10-meter) telescope at the South Pole, where the observatory benefits from an exceptionally clear, dry and stable atmosphere that enables extremely crisp high-resolution photos.

The so-called South Pole Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation and run by scientists at more than a dozen international institutions, is finishing up its first survey of a huge swath of the sky in relatively long-wavelength, low-frequency submillimeter light.

Once the survey is complete, the researchers hope to find many more previously unknown giant galaxy clusters.

“After many years of effort, these early successes are very exciting,” Brodwin said. “The full SPT survey, to be completed next year, will rewrite the book on the most massive clusters in the early universe.”




October 20, 2010

Astronomers say they’ve found oldest galaxy so far

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:19 pm
In the center of this Jan. 5, 2010 NASA handout image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a hard-to-see galaxy that European astronomers say is the oldest seen in the universe so far. They used this image to focus a Chilean telescope to look for unique light signatures.

In the center of this Jan. 5, 2010 NASA handout image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a hard-to-see galaxy that European astronomers say is the oldest seen in the universe so far. They used this image to focus a Chilean telescope to look for unique light signatures.

WASHINGTON – Astronomers believe they’ve found the oldest thing they’ve ever seen in the universe: It’s a galaxy far, far away from a time long, long ago.

Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That’s a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far.

By now the galaxy is so ancient it probably doesn’t exist in its earlier form and has already merged into bigger neighbors, said Matthew Lehnert of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“We’re looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age,” said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis, who wasn’t part of the discovery team. “In human terms, we’re looking at a 4-year-old boy in the life span of an adult.”

While Ellis finds the basis for the study “pretty good,” there have been other claims about the age of distant space objects that have not held up to scrutiny. And some experts have questions about this one. But even the skeptics praised the study as important and interesting.

The European astronomers calculated the age after 16 hours of observations from a telescope in Chile that looked at light signatures of cooling hydrogen gas.

Earlier this year, astronomers had made a general estimate of 600 to 800 million years after the Big Bang for the most distant fuzzy points of light in the Hubble photograph, which was presented at an astronomy meeting back in January.

In the new study, researchers focused on a single galaxy in their analysis of hydrogen’s light signature, further pinpointing the age. Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was the scientist behind the Hubble image, said it provides confirmation for the age using a different method, something he called amazing “for such faint objects.”

The new galaxy doesn’t have a name — just a series of letters and numbers. So Lehnert said he and colleagues have called it “the high red-shift blob. “Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young — maybe even as young as 100 million years old — Lehnert said. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars, he said.

What’s most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them.

“We’re looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects,” Ellis said. “One hundred million years to a human seems an awful long time, but in astronomical time periods, that’s nothing compared to the life of the stars.”

October 18, 2010

The Future Today: Robot Jetpacks in the Works

Filed under: Gadgets, Military — bferrari @ 12:41 pm
The Martin Skyhook on a test flight over the company's facilities in Australia. Martin CEO Richard Lauder told he has this picture set as the desktop on his laptop computer.

The Martin Skyhook on a test flight over the company's facilities in Australia. Martin CEO Richard Lauder told he has this picture set as the desktop on his laptop computer.

Jetpacks are so last year. The real vehicles of the future are robotic jetpacks. And the future has arrived.

The Martin Aircraft Company, makers of the world’s only commercial jetpack, has built an unmanned version of the device that can be launched from the back of a pickup truck, ferry supplies to troops, monitor a battlefield, and even scan a war zone for improvised explosive devices.

It sounds and looks like a far-future idea ripped from a 1950s comic book — but it’s very much a reality, company CEO Richard Lauder told

“With the potential to reach heights of up to 10,000 feet or more, and lift loads of up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) — while taking off and landing vertically — the potential applications for the unmanned version are large and varied,” Lauder said in an interview with

It’s called the Martin Skyhook UAV, and it could be a missing piece in the military’s unmanned arsenal, resupplying troops on the front lines — or maybe dropping bombs on the the enemy. The Skyhook, remote-control operated from the ground, boasts the same specifications as the manned version of Martin’s jetpack: Lift is generated by two turbofans driven by a 2-liter, 200-horsepower engine that can theoretically take the craft as high as 8,000 feet. It boasts a range of 31 miles and a maximum speed of 63 miles per hour, and it runs on ordinary gasoline, not jet or rocket fuel.

“We have a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, so you don’t need a runway, and you can take off from the back of a Hummer if you wanted to,” Lauder told

But supply is just one area in which Martin Aircraft hopes its robot jetpack may prove useful. “In certain areas of the world, say Afghanistan, where the U.S. wants a mobile telephone network and they don’t have one, they could effectively fly one in,” Lauder said. “Another very interesting application that has been discussed is flying a jetpack ahead of a convoy with ground-penetrating radar to detect IEDs — bombs in the road.”

And these ideas aren’t pie-in-the-sky; Martin says it is in discussions with four different parties in Europe and the U.S. on the Skyhook UAV. Spokesmen for the Army and Navy declined to comment on programs that they do not directly support, but Richard Mason, an engineer with the Rand Corp. and an expert in military technology, said it sounds like something that would appeal to the military.

“DARPA has a program called Transformer,” said Mason, who developed three robotic ground vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “They want something that can both drive around as a car and fly — which sounds goofy, but forget that part. What they’re trying to get at is something that’s as easy to drive as a car yet can fly. So an automated thing that would fly things around? The military is definitely interested in that.”

And oddly, the product was inevitable.

“It’s something we had to develop anyway as part of our testing program,” Lauder explained. With its tiny budget and only a few test vehicles, Martin didn’t want to risk an engineer’s life just to push the test envelope.

“If we say, look, we want to go 40 kilometers per hour now, then somebody has to agree to do that,” he said.

Thus the Martin Skyhook was born, using the same on-board remote control electronics as the popular Predator drone, controls developed by military supply company Rockwell Collins.

The Skyhook’s range seems limiting at first; most current unmanned vehicles, such as the Predator or the unmanned Blackhawk helicopter currently under development, are intended for long-range surveillance or as weapons. Few short range items sit in the middle, Lauder said, which means the Skyhook could open up new options.

“With a UAV you could be up there for an hour,” drop off water or other supplies to the front lines, and return to resupply.

But Mason says the Skyhook is not that distinctive from a lot of UAVs on the market. And there are quite a few.

“There’s a constellation of UAVs out there, something like 600,” he told “Although it may be a little bit different, I don’t know that the space is totally unexplored.”

While interest has been very high, the company’s research and development program, as with any fledgling company, has been constrained by the lack of funds. “We are seeking a cornerstone investor to help fund the final development phase and to enable the company to get the first aircraft to market.

“With a little more funding on board, we believe we could start field trials for specific commercial applications for the Martin Skyhook UAV as quickly as the end of 2011.”

“We think we could have it in field trials in nine months,” he said.


October 11, 2010

World-Changing Awesome Aside, How Will The Self-Driving Google Car Make Money?

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Global Warming — bferrari @ 9:26 pm
Minority Report?

Minority Report?

Google made a stunning revelation this morning: the existence of a secret self-driving car project. Even more amazing: it has been in testing for months, on actual roads across California, and things seem to be running smoothly. Fans of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Knight Rider are hyperventilating at the prospects. And while the technology is likely still a long way from being widely implemented (The New York Times piece on it suggests eight years), there is one big question: why?

Google’s answer seems to be a “betterment of society” one. “We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today,” Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, who spearheaded the project (and also runs Stanford’s AI Labs, and co-invented Street View), writes today.

That’s great. But Google is still a public company in the business of making money for its shareholders. So one can’t help but wonder what, if any, money-making prospects there are here?

The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments,” according to the NYT. Further, they quote Thrun as saying that this project is an example of Google’s “willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years.”

We know Google has a history of idealism — co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, in particular — but this project cannot come cheap. And the fact is that Google remains basically a one-trick-pony when it comes to making money. They are so reliant on search advertising revenues, that if something suddenly happened to the market, they’d be totally screwed. Android may prove to be their second trick, but it’s not there yet.

But there may be more to these automated cars than just an awesomely cool concept. At our TechCrunch Disrupt event a couple weeks ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave a speech about “an augmented version of humanity.” He noted that the future is about getting computers to do the things we’re not good at. One of those things is driving cars, Schmidt slyly said at the time. “Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense,” he noted. “It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

If your car can drive itself, a lot of commuters would be freed up to do other things in the car — such as surf the web. One of Google’s stated goals for this project is to “free up people’s time”. That matched with Schmidt’s vision of mobile devices being with us all the time every day, likely will translate into more usage of Google.

That may sound silly and not worth all the R&D an undertaking as huge as this will require, but don’t underestimate Google. This is a company who cares deeply about shaving fractions of a second off of each search query so that you can do more of them in your waking hours. Imagine if you suddenly had an hour or more a day in your car to do whatever you wanted because you no longer had to focus on driving? Yeah. Cha-ching.


Or imagine if your on-board maps where showing you Google ads. Or you were watching Google TV in your car since you didn’t have to drive. Or you were listening to Google Music with Google ads. It’s all the same. This automated driving technology would free you up to use more Google products — which in turn make them more money. Make no mistake, Google will enter your car in a big way. And automated driving would up their return in a big way.

And, of course, none of this speaks to what, if anything, Google would actually charge for such technology implementation. You would have to believe that if and when it’s available, this automated driving tech would be built-in to cars. Would car manufacturers pay Google for it and pass off some of the costs to customers? Or would this all be subsidized by the above ideas?

It’s way too early to get into that, I’m sure. And in 8 years, there will be things out there that we can’t even imagine right now. But it’s interesting to think about. The Google Car.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have little doubt Google is being sincere in their broader hopes for such a technology. Here’s their key blurb on that:

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new “highway trains of tomorrow.” These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.

That first part is awesome. If we could halve the number of traffic deaths each year, it would be world-changing. And if energy consumption could be cut, it could re-shape economies and save our future. But again, don’t gloss over the last part. Freeing up those 52 minutes a day to be productive — that’s a lot of potential money for Google.

And that’s great too. If Google can spend the time and money working on such amazing technology they should be rewarded for it. There’s no rule that says you shouldn’t be able to make money by changing the world. And Google can’t be praised enough for trying.

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