February 11, 2017

Ten reasons why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will kick some cosmic butt

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Extraterrestrial Life, Gadgets, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 3:05 pm

Here are ten amazing facts about the JWST that you might not have known.

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope

1. It’s as big as a tennis court

With a sunshield 22 metres (72 feet) in length, the size of a tennis court, and a mirror 6.5 metres (21 feet) wide the JWST, which is due to launch in October 2018, is over twice the size of the Hubble Space Telescope, making it the largest space telescope ever launched.
2. The mirrors are coated in a golf ball’s worth of gold
The JWST’s mirrors are covered in gold to optimise them for infrared light, with the gold further protected by a thin layer of glass. The thickness of this gold coating is 0.00001 centimetres across the 25 square-metre mirror’s surface, and in total the gold weighs 48.25 grams, roughly equivalent to the weight of a golf ball.
3. It’ll be about four times further from Earth than the Moon

The JWST will take about a month to reach a position 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles) from Earth known as Lagrange point 2, or L2. Here the telescope’s observations will be unhindered by Earth and the Moon although, if it malfunctions (as happened with Hubble), we currently have no way to go and fix it.


4. It could see a penny 24 miles away

The angular resolution of the JWST, which is the sharpness of the images, is incredibly precise. It can see at a resolution of 0.1 arc-seconds, which means that it could resolve a penny 24 miles (40 kilometres) away or a football 340 miles (550 kilometres) away.

5. It could find water on exoplanets

One of the JWST’s most notable abilities is that it will be able to detect planets around nearby stars by measuring infrared radiation, and it will even be able to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets by studying the starlight that passes through. By doing this it will be able to determine if an exoplanet has liquid water on its surface.

6. It’s seven times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope

The giant mirror of the JWST is made of 18 individual hexagonal segments composed of lightweight beryllium. It is almost three times the size of Hubble’s mirror, boasting a light-collecting area seven times greater, but both mirrors weigh almost the same owing to the lighter materials used on the JWST’s mirror.

7. It’ll see the first light of the universe

One of the goals of the JWST is to observe the first stars and galaxies that formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, an era of the universe that is not fully understood. The telescope will be sensitive to infrared light, which will enable it to do this.

8. It will unfold to its massive size in space

Many features of the JWST, including its giant mirrors and sunshield, are designed to be launched on a rocket in a smaller payload. The telescope will launch in a compact outfit and will unfold in its full configuration once it reaches space.

9. One side is hotter than Death Valley, the other is colder than Antarctica

The side of the JWST that will always face the Sun, the bottom of the sunshield, will reach temperatures of 85°C (185 °F). The other side, which houses the mirrors and science instruments, will operate at a much nippier -233°C (-388 °F).

10. It could keep working for a decade

The official mission lifespan for the JWST is between five and ten years. The telescope is limited by the amount of fuel it has on board used to maintain its position, which will be enough for a ten-year lifetime. Of course, other factors like budget cuts or malfunctions could end the mission earlier.

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June 23, 2016

NASA reveals the X-57, its electric plane project

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:57 pm

1466451753763Artist’s concept of the X-57. (NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.)


An electric plane project is in the works at NASA, and the new aircraft is called the X-57. It’s an initiative the space agency hopes will demonstrate that electric-powered aviation can be environmentally friendly, quiet, and quick.

Made out of a modified Italian-designed plane, the X-57 will have a skinny wing with a total of 14 battery-powered motors, and because it won’t run on gas, it won’t produce exhaust from burnt fossil fuels. NASA said that having multiple small engines means the X-57 will need less energy to cruise at a speed of 175 mph.

And while traditional fuel-burning airplanes need to cruise slower than their maximum speed to be the most fuel-efficient, the space agency says that that isn’t the case with an electric-powered plane.

Related: Solar Impulse 2 attempts fuel-free trans-Atlantic flight

The “X” designation in the plane’s name places it the tradition of experimental aircraft, with the first, the X-1, the name of the plane that broke the sound barrier in 1947 at the hands of Chuck Yeager.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, said in a statement.

Related: Hang glider aims to break long-distance flight record

The space agency may in fact make more than one aircraft in the program. “As many as five larger transport-scale X-planes also are planned as part of the initiative,” NASA says. The plane is also called Maxwell, named after James Clerk Maxwell, a vanguard in the study of electromagnetism.

The power of clean energy in aviation is in the spotlight lately, as the sun-powered aircraft Solar Impulse 2took off from New York’s Kennedy airport at 2:30 a.m. EDT Monday, on a daring trip across the Atlantic Ocean— the latest leg of a record-breaking solar-powered journey around the world meant to showcase the power of renewable energy.


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April 21, 2016

Why a Chip That’s Bad at Math Can Help Computers Tackle Harder Problems

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets — bferrari @ 1:54 pm

DARPA funded the development of a new computer chip that’s hardwired to make simple mistakes but can help computers understand the world.

Your math teacher lied to you. Sometimes getting your sums wrong is a good thing.

This chip can’t get its arithmetic right, but could make computers more efficient at tricky problems like analyzing images.

This chip can’t get its arithmetic right, but could make computers more efficient at tricky problems like analyzing images.

Why a Chip That’s Bad at Math Can Help Computers Tackle Harder Problems
DARPA funded the development of a new computer chip that’s hardwired to make simple mistakes but can help computers understand the world.
by Tom Simonite April 14, 2016
So says Joseph Bates, cofounder and CEO of Singular Computing, a company whose computer chips are hardwired to be incapable of performing mathematical calculations correctly. Ask it to add 1 and 1 and you will get answers like 2.01 or 1.98.

The Pentagon research agency DARPA funded the creation of Singular’s chip because that fuzziness can be an asset when it comes to some of the hardest problems for computers, such as making sense of video or other messy real-world data. “Just because the hardware is sucky doesn’t mean the software’s result has to be,” says Bates.

A chip that can’t guarantee that every calculation is perfect can still get good results on many problems but needs fewer circuits and burns less energy, he says.

Bates has worked with Sandia National Lab, Carnegie Mellon University, the Office of Naval Research, and MIT on tests that used simulations to show how the S1 chip’s inexact operations might make certain tricky computing tasks more efficient. Problems with data that comes with built-in noise from the real world, or where some approximation is needed, are the best fits. Bates reports promising results for applications such as high-resolution radar imaging, extracting 3-D information from stereo photos, and deep learning, a technique that has delivered a recent burst of progress in artificial intelligence.

In a simulated test using software that tracks objects such as cars in video, Singular’s approach was capable of processing frames almost 100 times faster than a conventional processor restricted to doing correct math—while using less than 2 percent as much power.

Bates is not the first to pursue the idea of using hand-wavy hardware to crunch data more efficiently, a notion known as approximate computing (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2008: Probabilistic Chips”). But DARPA’s investment in his chip could give the fuzzy math dream its biggest tryout yet.

Bates is building a batch of error-prone computers that each combine 16 of his chips with a single conventional processor. DARPA will get five such machines sometime this summer and plans to put them online for government and academic researchers to play with. The hope is that they can prove the technology’s potential and lure interest from the chip industry.

DARPA funded Singular’s chip as part of a program called Upside, which is aimed at inventing new, more efficient ways to process video footage. Military drones can collect vast quantities of video, but it can’t always be downloaded during flight, and the computer power needed to process it in the air would be too bulky.

It will take notable feats of software and even cultural engineering for imprecise hardware to take off. It’s not easy for programmers used to the idea that chips are always super-precise to adapt to ones that aren’t, says Christian Enz, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne who has built his own approximate computing chips. New tools will be needed to help them do that, he says.

But Deb Roy, a professor at the MIT Media Lab and Twitter’s chief media scientist, says that recent trends in computing suggest approximate computing may find a readier audience than ever. “There’s a natural resonance if you are processing any kind of data that is noisy by nature,” he says. That’s become more and more common as programmers look to extract information from photos and video or have machines make sense of the world and human behavior, he adds.


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The Curious Link Between the Fly-By Anomaly and the “Impossible” EmDrive Thruster

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Outer Solar System, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 1:47 pm

The same theory that explains the puzzling fly-by anomalies could also explain how the controversial EmDrive produces thrust.

About 10 years ago, a little-known aerospace engineer called Roger Shawyer made an extraordinary claim. Take a truncated cone, he said, bounce microwaves back and forth inside it and the result will be a thrust toward the narrow end of the cone. Voila … a revolutionary thruster capable of sending spacecraft to the planets and beyond. Shawyer called it the EmDrive.




Shawyer’s announcement was hugely controversial. The system converts one type of energy into kinetic energy, and there are plenty of other systems that do something similar. In that respect it is unremarkable.

The conceptual problems arise with momentum. The system’s total momentum increases as it begins to move. But where does this momentum come from? Shawyer had no convincing explanation, and critics said this was an obvious violation of the law of conservation of momentum.

Shawyer countered with experimental results showing the device worked as he claimed. But his critics were unimpressed. The EmDrive, they said, was equivalent to generating a thrust by standing inside a box and pushing on the sides. In other words, it was snake oil.

Since then, something interesting has happened. Various teams around the world have begun to build their own versions of the EmDrive and put them through their paces. And to everyone’s surprise, they’ve begun to reproduce Shawyer’s results. The EmDrive, it seems, really does produce thrust.
In 2012, a Chinese team said it had measured a thrust produced by its own version of the EmDrive. In 2014, an American scientist built an EmDrive and persuaded NASA to test it with positive results.

And last year, NASA conducted its own tests in a vacuum to rule out movement of air as the origin of the force. NASA, too, confirmed that the EmDrive produces a thrust. In total, six independent experiments have backed Shawyer’s original claims.

That leaves an important puzzle—how to explain the seeming violation of conservation of momentum.

Today we get an answer of sorts thanks to the work of Mike McCulloch at Plymouth University in the U.K. McCulloch’s explanation is based on a new theory of inertia that makes startling predictions about the way objects move under very small accelerations.

First some background. Inertia is the resistance of all massive objects to changes in motion or accelerations. In modern physics, inertia is treated as a fundamental property of massive objects subjected to an acceleration. Indeed, mass can be thought of as a measure of inertia. But why inertia exists at all has puzzled scientists for centuries.

McCulloch’s idea is that inertia arises from an effect predicted by general relativity called Unruh radiation. This is the notion that an accelerating object experiences black body radiation. In other words, the universe warms up when you accelerate.

According to McCulloch, inertia is simply the pressure the Unruh radiation exerts on an accelerating body.

That’s hard to test at the accelerations we normally observe on Earth. But things get interesting when the accelerations involved are smaller and the wavelength of Unruh radiation gets larger.

At very small accelerations, the wavelengths become so large they can no longer fit in the observable universe. When this happens, inertia can take only certain whole-wavelength values and so jumps from one value to the next. In other words, inertia must quantized at small accelerations.

McCulloch says there is observational evidence for this in the form of the famous fly by anomalies. These are the strange jumps in momentum observed in some spacecraft as they fly past Earth toward other planets. That’s exactly what his theory predicts.

Testing this effect more carefully on Earth is hard because the accelerations involved are so small. But one way to make it easier would be to reduce the size of allowed wavelengths of Unruh radiation. “This is what the EmDrive may be doing,” says McCulloch.

The idea is that if photons have an inertial mass, they must experience inertia when they reflect. But the Unruh radiation in this case is tiny. So small in fact that it can interact with its immediate environment. In the case of the EmDrive, this is the truncated cone.

The cone allows Unruh radiation of a certain size at the large end but only a smaller wavelength at the other end. So the inertia of photons inside the cavity must change as they bounce back and forth. And to conserve momentum, this must generate a thrust.

McCulloch puts this theory to the test by using it to predict the forces it must generate. The precise calculations are complex because of the three-dimensional nature of the problem, but his approximate results match the order of magnitude of thrust in all the experiments done so far.

Crucially, McCulloch’s theory makes two testable predictions. The first is that placing a dielectric inside the cavity should enhance the effectiveness of the thruster.

The second is that changing the dimensions of the cavity can reverse the direction of the thrust. That would happen when the Unruh radiation better matches the size of the narrow end than the large end. Changing the frequency of the photons inside the cavity could achieve a similar effect.

McCulloch says there is some evidence that exactly this happens. “This thrust reversal may have been seen in recent NASA experiments,” he says.

That’s an interesting idea. Shawyer’s EmDrive has the potential to revolutionize spaceflight because it requires no propellant, the biggest limiting factor in today’s propulsion systems. But in the absence of any convincing explanation for how it works, scientists and engineers are understandably wary.

McCulloch’s theory could help to change that, although it is hardly a mainstream idea. It makes two challenging assumptions. The first is that photons have inertial mass. The second is that the speed of light must change within the cavity. That won’t be easy for many theorists to stomach.

But as more experimental confirmations of Shawyer’s EmDrive emerge, theorists are being forced into a difficult position. If not McCulloch’s explanation, then what?

Ref: : Testing Quantized Inertia on the EmDrive

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February 26, 2016

Explaining EmDrive, the ‘physics-defying’ thruster even NASA is puzzled over

Filed under: Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Outer Solar System, Space Exploration, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 4:45 pm


Even if you don’t keep up with developments in space propulsion technology, you’ve still probably heard about the EmDrive. You’ve probably seen headlines declaring it the key to interstellar travel, and claims that it will drastically reduce travel time across our solar system, making our dreams of people walking on other planets even more of a reality. There have even been claims that this highly controversial technology is the key to creating warp drives.

These are bold claims, and as the great cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” With that in mind, we thought it’d be helpful to break down what we know about the enigmatic EmDrive, and whether it is, in fact, the key to mankind exploring the stars.

So without further ado, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about the world’s most puzzling propulsion device.


What is the EmDrive?

See, the EmDrive is a conundrum. First designed in 2001 by aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer, the technology can be summed up as a propellantless propulsion system, meaning the engine doesn’t use fuel to cause a reaction. Removing the need for fuel makes a craft substantially lighter, and therefore easier to move (and cheaper to make, theoretically). In addition, the hypothetical drive is able to reach extremely high speeds — we’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months.

We’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months. The issue is, the entire concept of a reactionless drive is inconsistent with Newton’s conservation of momentum, which states that within a closed system, linear and angular momentum remain constant regardless of any changes that take place within said system. More plainly: Unless an outside force is applied, an object will not move.


Reactionless drives are named as such because they lack the “reaction” defined in Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” But this goes against our current fundamental understanding of physics: An action (propulsion of a craft) taking place without a reaction (ignition of fuel and expulsion of mass) should be impossible. For such a thing to occur, it would mean an as-yet-undefined phenomenon is taking place — or our understanding of physics is completely wrong.

How does the EmDrive “work?”

Setting aside the potentially physics-breaking improbabilities of the technology, let’s break down in simple terms how the proposed drive operates. The EmDrive is what is called an RF resonant cavity thruster, and is one of several hypothetical machines that use this model. These designs work by having a magnetron push microwaves into a closed truncated cone, then push against the short end of the cone, and propel the craft forward.

This is in contrast to the form of propulsion current spacecraft use, which burn large quantities of fuel to expel a massive amount of energy and mass to rocket the craft into the air. An often-used metaphor for the inefficacy of this is to compare the particles pushing against the enclosure and producing thrust to the act of sitting in a car and pushing a steering wheel to move the car forward.

While tests have been done on experimental versions of the drive — with low energy inputs resulting in a few micronewtons of thrust (about as much force as the weight of a penny) — none of the findings have ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal. That means that any and all purportedly positive test results, and the claims of those who have a vested interest in the technology, should be taken with a very big grain of skepticism-flavored salt. It’s likely that the thrust recorded was due to interference or an unaccounted error with equipment.

Until the tests have been verified through the proper scientific and peer-reviewed processes, one can assume the drive does not yet work. Still, it’s interesting to note the number of people who have tested the drive and reported achieving thrust:

Implications of a working EmDrive

It’s easy to see how many in the scientific community are wary of EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thrusts altogether. But on the other hand, the wealth of studies raises a few questions: Why is there such a interest in the technology, and why do so many people wish to test it? What exactly are the claims being made about the drive that make it such an attractive idea? While everything from atmospheric temperature-controlling satellites, to safer and more efficient automobiles have been drummed up as potential applications for the drive, the real draw of the technology — and the impetus for its creation in the first place — is the implications for space travel.


Spacecraft equipped with a reactionless drive could potentially make it to the moon in just a few hours, Mars in two to three months, and Pluto within two years. These are extremely bold claims, but if the EmDrive does turn out to be a legitimate technology, they may not be all that outlandish. And with no need to pack several tons-worth of fuel, spacecraft become cheaper and easier to produce, and far lighter.
For NASA and other such organizations, including the numerous private space corporations like SpaceX, lightweight, affordable spacecraft that can travel to remote parts of space fast are something of a unicorn. Still, for that to become a reality, the science has to add up.

Shawyer is adamant that there is no need for pseudoscience or quantum theories to explain how EmDrive works. Instead, he believes that current models of Newtonian physics offer an explanation, and has written papers on the subject, one of which is currently being peer reviewed. He expects the paper to be published sometime this year. While in the past Shawyer has been criticized by other scientists for incorrect and inconsistent science, if the paper does indeed get published, it may begin to legitimize the EmDrive and spur more testing and research.

Spacecraft equipped with a reactionless drive could potentially make it to the Moon in just a few hours.

Despite his insistence that the drive behaves within the laws of physics, it hasn’t prevented him from making bold assertions regarding EmDrive. Shawyer has gone on record saying that this new drive produced warp bubbles which allow the drive to move, claiming that this is how NASA’s test results were likely achieved. Assertions such as these have garnered much interest online, but have no clear supporting data and will (at the very least) require extensive testing and debate in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community — the majority of which remain skeptical of Shawyer’s claims.

Colin Johnston of the Armagh Planetarium wrote an extensive critique of the EmDrive and the inconclusive findings of numerous tests. Similarly, Corey S. Powell of Discovery wrote his own indictment of both Shawyer’s EmDrive and Fetta’s Cannae Drive, as well as the recent fervor over NASA’s findings. Both point out the need for greater discretion when reporting on such instances. Professor and mathematical physicist, John C. Baez expressed his exhaustion at the conceptual technology’s persistence in debates and discussions, calling the entire notion of a reactionless drive “baloney.” His impassioned dismissal echoes the sentiments of many others.

Shawyer’s EmDrive has been met with enthusiasm elsewhere, including the website — where information about the most recent Eagleworks’ tests was first posted — and the popular journal New Scientist, which published a favorable and optimistic paper on EmDrive. (The editors later issued a statement that, despite enduring excitement over the idea, they should have shown more tact when writing on the controversial subject.)

Clearly, the EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thruster technology have a lot to prove. There’s no denying that the technology is exciting, and that the number of “successful” tests are interesting, but one must keep in mind the physics preventing the EmDrive from gaining any traction, and the rather curious lack of peer-reviewed studies done on the subject. If the EmDrive is so groundbreaking (and works), surely people like Shawyer would be clamoring for peer-reviewed verification.

A demonstrably working EmDrive could open up exciting possibilities for both space and terrestrial travel — not to mention call into question our entire understanding of physics. However, until that comes to pass, it will remain nothing more than science fiction.

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January 24, 2016

Particles could reveal clues to how Egypt pyramid was built

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Planets, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:29 am
FILE - This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

FILE – This file Aug. 19, 2011 photo shows the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Coralie Carlson, File)

CAIRO — An international team of researchers said Sunday they will soon begin analyzing cosmic particles collected inside Egypt’s Bent Pyramid to search for clues as to how it was built and learn more about the 4,600-year-old structure.

Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, said that plates planted inside the pyramid last month have collected data on radiographic particles known as muons that rain down from the earth’s atmosphere.

The particles pass through empty spaces but can be absorbed or deflected by harder surfaces. By studying particle accumulations, scientists may learn more about the construction of the pyramid, built by the Pharaoh Snefru.

“For the construction of the pyramids, there is no single theory that is 100 percent proven or checked; They are all theories and hypotheses,” said Hany Helal, the institute’s vice president.

“What we are trying to do with the new technology, we would like to either confirm or change or upgrade or modify the hypotheses that we have on how the pyramids were constructed,” he said.

The Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, just outside Cairo, is distinguished by the bent slope of its sides. It is believed to have been ancient Egypt’s first attempt to build a smooth-sided pyramid.

The Scan Pyramids project, which announced in November thermal anomalies in the 4,500 year-old Khufu Pyramid in Giza, is coupling thermal technology with muons analysis to try to unlock secrets to the construction of several ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Tayoubi said the group plans to start preparations for muons testing in a month in Khufu, the largest of the three Giza pyramids, which is known internationally as Cheops.

“Even if we find one square meter void somewhere, it will bring new questions and hypotheses and maybe it will help solve the definitive questions,” said Tayoubi.


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December 26, 2015

China Just Flew This Gigantic Airship To the Edge Of Space

Filed under: Gadgets, Life, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 6:54 pm

The technology could have communications and military advantages for China.

China just flew a 250-foot airship to near the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar-powered behemoth can stay airborne for half a year and requires no fuel to get it more than 12 miles into the air—just fill it with helium and let it go; the sun powers it once it reaches its cruising altitude.

Airships predate airplanes, but have been largely supplanted by them. However, they remain superior for pretty much anything that doesn’t require the speed of a jet engine. They can hang around for months, they can carry large payloads, and they can fly way higher than most planes, because an airplane’s wing runs out of air to support it at such high altitudes.

This last property might be the reason China is testing the Yuanmeng airship. During its estimated two-day trial, the airship launched from Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, bristling with communications gear—”data relays, high-definition observation and spatial imaging” equipment—says the Chinese People’s Daily. The sedentary nature of the airship allows it to sit up at the edge of space and watch. It can surveil the ground, and it can also act as a base station to command fleets of military planes. In a pinch, the Yuanmeng airship could act as a stand-in for communications satellites.

Popular Science speculates on China’s plans for the technology:

Operating higher in near space means that the Yuanmeng would have constant line of sight over a hundred thousand square miles—an important requirement for radar and imaging. Increased sensor coverage means increased warning time against stealthy threats such as cruise missiles, giving Chinese forces a greater opportunity to detect and shoot down such threats. It would also be harder for fighters and surface-to-air missiles to attack near space objects.

They’re not perfect though. The People’s Daily spoke to Yu Quan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who told them that “The biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference in the day and night.” Because the airship is so close to space, it experiences space-like extremes of weather as it is baked by the sun and then frozen by the night.

Airships can solve many problems. In much the same way that regular oceangoing ships carry huge loads of goods from continent to continent, airships are also good for transporting goods. Even smaller airships can carry loads of 50 tons. And perhaps they could even replace passenger airplanes as providers of low-cost air travel. They might not be as fast, but they could be a lot more comfortable.

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December 11, 2015

Google and NASA Hope Lightning-Fast Computers Will Unlock the Secrets of Nature

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Life, Military — bferrari @ 12:34 pm

Quantum computers can perform about 100 million times faster than today’s machines.


Google has a lot of computers. By many accounts, it has more computers than any other company in the world. Yet, even with so much horsepower at their disposal, Google’s researchers keep running into barriers when trying to solve certain complex problems, particularly those tied to artificial intelligence. Google, in effect, has been stumped.

“We have already encountered problems we would like to solve that are unfeasible with conventional computers,” John Giannandrea, a vice president for engineering at Google, said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We want to understand the future that may lie ahead of us in non-conventional computing.”

One type of machine Google has increasingly turned to for help is called a quantum computer. Such systems tap into the seemingly magical properties of quantum mechanics, the field of science that deals with how atoms and other tiny particles work. They can be used to solve problems that traditional computers simply can’t handle.

On Tuesday, Google issued its most optimistic statements to date around the technology, declaring that the still-primitive quantum machines will probably evolve into revolutionary systems for the computing industry and perhaps, for mankind. The event was held on the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is teaming with NASA and D-Wave Systems, a maker of quantum computers, to build a computing lab. Their work has been underway for a couple of years, but only recently—thanks to a larger, upgraded D-Wave machine—have the researchers seen truly promising results from experiments.

Google revealed on Tuesday that recent test calculations show that a D-Wave computer can obliterate the work of a standard computer chip in performing some tasks. In one test, the D-Wave machine needed just a single second to process calculations that would have taken a standard machine 10,000 years to solve. Overall, Google said the quantum machines appeared to perform 100 million times faster on certain problems. Such a speedup would be a true rarity in the history of computing.

Some serious caveats surround these accomplishments, however. D-Wave’s computer is far from a general-purpose machine. It can perform only a limited set of quantum calculations, and just a few people know how to shape problems suitably for the computer. As a result, Google has been relegated to running what amount to test operations on the D-Wave system, rather than the code used in the company’s day-to-day operations. “We need to make it easier to take a practical optimization problem as it occurs on some engineer’s desk,” Hartmut Neven, a director of engineering at Google, said at the event. “We need to make the input into the machine easier. That is not there yet.”

Google is using the tough optimization calculations in some of its advanced AI technology that everyday people touch. (Its photo-search tools and voice-recognition technology are among the most obvious examples.) But those calculations are done on thousands of interlinked traditional computers. The hope is that Google could someday turn to quantum computers to complement its standard systems and come up with more breakthroughs on as-of-yet unsolvable problems. “It may be several years before this kind of work makes a difference to Google products,” said Giannandrea.

The D-Wave machine, which is also being used by NASA with hopes of improving its simulation and encryption technology, relies on what are known as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike a typical binary digit that must be either a 1 or a zero, a qubit can be a 1, zero, or a state somewhere in between at any moment. It helps to have a degree or two in physics to fully understand how quantum computers work, but the upshot of the technology is that the machines can simultaneously consider an incredible number of possible solutions to a problem. This makes quantum computers well-suited for optimization problems, in which, for example, someone might be trying to find out the best way to route the traffic of thousands of planes going into and out of an airport. It so happens that much of today’s cutting-edge AI software relies on crunching similar sets of these tricky optimization problems.

Neven has spent the most time of any Google employee working with D-Wave machines, and he sees promise for them in areas such as improving battery technology, desalinization machines, and solar cells. The unique qualities of qubits may lend them to uncovering properties about materials, which could result in much more efficient industrial machines. “Because the operating system of nature, as far as we understand it, is quantum physics, you need a process that acts on quantum physics to describe parts of the universe,” Neven said. “Sooner or later, quantum computers will be the tool of choice to solve these problems.”



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November 16, 2015

Hypersonic rocket engine could ‘revolutionize’ air travel

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships, Uncategorized — bferrari @ 6:08 pm


British aerospace giant BAE Systems is betting big on hypersonic travel — something its potential new partner says could be a reality within two decades.

BAE is planning to invest £20.6 million ($31.8 million) in a 20% stake of Reaction Engines, a UK-based engineering firm which has developed what it calls “breakthrough” aerospace engine technology, which could potentially be used for a new generation of reusable space vehicles and, as a commercial offshoot, could revolutionize air travel.

An announcement on BAE’s website states that the partnership will allow collaboration on Reaction Engines’ SABRE technology — “a new aerospace engine class that combines both jet and rocket technologies with the potential to revolutionize hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.”

Along with hypersonic air travel, Mark Thomas, Reaction Engines’ managing director, told CNN’s Richard Quest that a reusable space plane that takes off and lands like an aircraft is “one of the concepts that could be made possible by this engine.”


Five times the speed of sound
SABRE, which stands for Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, is an air-breathing engine, which uses ultra-lightweight heat exchangers to cool very hot air streams — such as those encountered at hypersonic speeds.

The technology will “enable aircraft to operate easily at speeds of up to five times the speed of sound or fly directly into Earth orbit,” Reaction Engines says in a press release on its website.

Through its ability to use atmospheric oxygen for propulsion, the engine’s design negates the need for heavy fuel reserves on board, drastically reducing the weight of a SABRE-powered vehicle.

BAE’s statement says that SABRE can also “transition” to a rocket mode, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity — or 25 times the speed of sound.

Thomas describes the design as an “absolutely revolutionary… visionary concept.”

He explains that SABRE is, at heart, a rocket engine but can breathe air when in the atmosphere “so you don’t need to carry so much liquid oxygen on board your vehicle, it massively reduces the weight, and you can put that into vehicle design capability or payload.”

The company’s advanced heat exchanger, which can reduce hypersonic air temperature by over a thousand degrees in a hundredth of a second, is fundamental to the engine’s design.

“If you’re doing hypersonic speed the air is around 1000˚C (1832˚F) which is more typical of the air coming out the back of the engine than goes in the front,” he explains. “So you have to be able to cool that down really quickly.”

Breaking boundaries

The company is focusing on developing the engine and Thomas says BAE will help translate its potential into a range of workable applications.

“I think we’re two decades away from a passenger carrying vehicle but a (reusable) space access vehicle within ten to 15 years.”

BAE’s proposed 20% investment is pending the approval of Reaction Engines’ shareholders.

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May 17, 2015

NASA says EmDrive does work and it may have also created a Star Trek warp drive

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets — bferrari @ 8:07 pm

Nasa has been testing a highly controversial electromagnetic space propulsion technology called EmDrive and has found evidence that it may indeed work, and along the way, might even have made a sci-fi concept possible.

The EmDrive is a technology that could make it much cheaper to launch satellites into space and could be key to solving the energy crisis, if solar power could be harnessed off the satellites and sent back to Earth.

It was thought up and developed by a British scientist called Roger Shawyer, who spent years having his technology ridiculed by the international space community even though Boeing licensed it and the UK government was satisfied it worked.

Update: EmDrive and ‘warp drive’ are two different things – Nasa’s still working on EmDrive

Read More: Roger Shawyer’s exclusive interview with IBTimes UK in response to news of Nasa’s experiments with EmDrive

Nasa has been testing the technology for a while and it confirmed on 29 April that researchers at the Johnson Space Center have successfully tested an electromagnetic propulsion drive in a vacuum, and although it did not seem possible, the technology actually works.

“Thrust measurements of the EmDrive defy classical physics’ expectations that such a closed [microwave] cavity should be unusable for space propulsion because of the law of conservation of momentum,” Nasa’s José Rodal, Jeremiah Mullikin and Noel Munson wrote in a Nasa Spaceflight blog.

What is EmDrive?

EmDrive is based on the theory of special relativity that it is possible to convert electrical energy into thrust without the need to expel any form of repellent.

Shawyer’s critics say according to the law of conservation of momentum, his theory cannot work as in order for a thruster to be propelled forwards, something must be pushed out of the back of it in the opposite direction.

However, EmDrive does preserve the conservation of momentum and energy – to put it simply, electricity converts into microwaves within the cavity that push against the inside of the device, causing the thruster to accelerate in the opposite direction.

Shawyer proved that if you had a 100kg spacecraft, the thrust would be in a clockwise direction and the spacecraft would then accelerate in an anti-clockwise direction.

NASA says it works when tested in a vacuum

The researchers explain that the reason why Shawyer’s EmDrive models and EmDrive experiments carried out by Chinese researchers had been criticised in the past was because none of the tests had been carried out in a vacuum.

Physics says particles in the quantum vacuum cannot be ionised, so therefore you cannot push against it, but Nasa says Shawyer’s theory does indeed work.

“Nasa has successfully tested their EmDrive in a hard vacuum – the first time any organisation has reported such a successful test. To this end, Nasa Eagleworks has now nullified the prevailing hypothesis that thrust measurements were due to thermal convection,” the researchers wrote.

Nasa says its researchers joined forces with a large community of enthusiasts, engineers, and scientists on several continents to discuss EmDrive theories on the EmDrive forum, and “despite considerable effort within the forum to dismiss the reported thrust as an artefact, the EmDrive results have yet to be falsified”.

At least now Shawyer’s work is being validated and he continues to work on a souped-up second generation version of the EmDrive that uses super conductors and an asymmetrical cavity to increase the thrust by up to five orders of magnitude.

In an interview with IBTimes UK in August 2014, Shawyer said: “There was an element of not wanting to disrupt the industry, but also a total ignorance in the laws of physics. They did make life difficult for me for a while.

“”The space industry doesn’t want to know about it as it’s very disruptive. If the customer will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on launching a satellite, why would you want to make something that could do it cheaper?

“This technology is a quantum leap – it would enable vertical take-off and landing for airplanes, it’s quiet and it uses liquid hydrogen as a fuel, so it’s green too.”

Star Trek warp drive might also now be possible

Apart from the excitement over EmDrive possibly being a real thing, internet users also noticed Nasa could possibly have accidentally invented the warp drive – a faster-than-light propulsion system that enables spacecraft to travel at speeds that are greatly faster than light in sci-fi movies such as Star Trek.

Nasa researchers posted on the Nasa Spaceflight forum that when lasers were fired into the EmDrive’s resonance chamber, some of the laser beams had travelled faster than the speed of light, which would mean the EmDrive could have produced a warp bubble.

A post by another user analysing the EmDrive experiment said “the math behind the warp bubble apparently matches the interference pattern found in the EmDrive”.

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