China opens to international collaboration in its space station

Artistic impressione of the possible look of the Chinese Space Station (Source All rights reserved)

Artistic impressione of the possible look of the Chinese Space Station (Source All rights reserved)

At the 27th congress of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) held in Beijing, China, in recent days, one of the topics was the space station that China wants to build in the coming years. The Chinese representatives have stated that their government is interested in cooperating with other nations in scientific research as well as hosting foreign astronauts in their space station.

Updated plans for the construction of the Chinese space station were explained in November 2013 at the conference of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research by Gu Yidong, the president of China Society of Space Research. The first module is scheduled to be launched into orbit in 2018 and the station is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

The ASE congress allowed to understand more about China’s plans to cooperate with other nations. China has already worked with Russia at technological exchanges and in some Chinese space missions they carried out scientific experiments designed along with other nations. Now, however, came an opening to the possibility of hosting foreign astronauts.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut who traveled into space in 2003, stated that China is willing to have a deeper collaboration with other nations. China could train astronauts for other nations and provide space transportation for the crews.

One of the possibilities left open by Yang Liwei is that a foreign spacecraft could dock to the Chinese space station. China uses a docking interface different from other nations but designed adapters that can be applied to the Chinese space modules to solve this problem.

At the ASE congress there were representatives of many nations, including several astronauts and cosmonauts. In Beijing, they could hear the statements of Chinese officials about the possibility of international collaboration. All this is certainly positive, but it will still be a Chinese space station so they will be the owners and decide everything.

One of the problems is the growing rivalry between the USA and China, which so far has prevented any cooperation between the two nations in space programs. China seems to want to offer its space station as an alternative to the International Space Station. This could be a new stimulus for the Americans in the development of their space program.

Posted in Technology | Leave a comment

NASA has chosen Boeing and SpaceX for manned space transport

Artistic concept of the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft near the International Space Station (Image NASA)

Artistic concept of the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft near the International Space Station (Image NASA)

NASA has announced the selection of Boeing and SpaceX projects for the new manned spacecraft development phase. About two years ago, the two companies were among those which received funding in the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), the NASA program that aims to help the development of commercial space transportation. Now the contract called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) is designed to complete the spacecraft with the idea of ​​getting to the transport of astronauts in 2017.

Boeing showed its CST-100 spacecraft in June 2014. The company will receive funding for a total of $4.2 billion. SpaceX presented its Dragon V2 spacecraft, the manned Dragon version at the end of May. The company will receive funding for a total of $2.6 billion.

The contracts provide for NASA  certification of the selected spacecraft. Once the certification is completed, they will be used to send astronauts to the International Space Station and to bring them back to Earth. After the end of the Space Shuttle program, the USA have turned to Russia for these services. The costs are very high and the recent tensions between the two nations make it more necessary than ever to develop an autonomous solution.

The contracts include at least one manned test flight for each company with at least a NASA astronaut on board to check that everything works as required. The system that includes rocket and spacecraft must be able to make the launch, maneuver in orbit, dock with the International Space Station and the internal systems must operate according to the parameters defined by NASA.

Once the test has been completed successfully, each company will perform between two and six manned missions to the International Space Station. The spacecraft will also be used as a potential lifeboat in case of an emergency on board the Station.

From this stage Sierra Nevada Corporation was left out after the company received funding in recent years to develop its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle. The company has expressed its disappointment and obviously now it remains to be seen if it can continue the development of its spaceship.

With this NASA announcement, the development of American spacecraft can proceed with new financing that should enable Boeing and SpaceX to complete their projects by 2017. This may also allow the birth of space tourism because there are companies such as Bigelow Aerospace interested in creating orbital hotels that will require spacecraft for transporting tourists.

NASA has created two videos that show the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft:

Posted in Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Microsoft acquires Minecraft producer for $2.5 billion

Markus "Notch" Persson at GDC 2011

Markus “Notch” Persson at GDC 2011

After many rumors in recent weeks, the official announcement came that Microsoft acquired Mojang, an independent video game developer, known in particular for the famous Minecraft. The terms of the agreement exceed even those already very high from the rumors because Microsoft provides the figure of $2.5 billion. The owner of the majority of the Mojang shares, Markus “Notch” Persson (photo ©Official GDC), decided to leave its creature along with co-founders Carl Manneh and Jakob Porsér.

In a world in which acquisitions happen on a dayly basis with very high figures, this one is really out of the ordinary. The story of Mojang was really special because it was a small company and Notch Persson proudly proclaimed his independence from large companies interested in exploiting the commercial success of Minecraft.

Created in 2009, Mojang is best known for Minecraft, the virtual world created by Notch Persson. The game has become more and more popular over the years, so much as to generate profits that in 2013 exceeded $100 million. Today, the game is available for several different platforms, allowing to play under different operating systems on PCs, consoles and mobile devices.

What happened for Notch Persson and his partners to have such a change of heart? In the statement that confirms the acquisition by Microsoft, they explain that basically the company and in particular Minecraft had become too big for them. Persson tried to work on other projects smaller but interesting for him but there was too much pressure on him because of Minecraft.

For this reason, in the end came the decision to sell Mojang. Generally, in these cases, the former owners of a company remain in the buying one with management positions. Instead, Persson and his partners decided to leave to pursue other projects. With the money they’re taking, they can do it as they like!

Mojang’s acquisition by Microsoft immediately raised doubts about Minecraft’s future. The Xbox platform is only a small part of Microsoft’s strategy so it’s likely that the new owner wants to bet on a version for Windows, porting it to Windows Phone given the growth of the mobile market. The fear is that the versions for other platforms will be abandoned.

In its official statement, Microsoft stated that Minecraft will keep on being available for the currently supported platforms. Can we trust Microsoft? This is a company whose history is full of monopolistic practices so many people are not convinced of its statements.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

ESA announced the landing site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the Philae lander

Philae's primary landing site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Image ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Philae’s primary landing site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Image ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

In a press conference held yesterday, ESA announced the choice of the primary site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko where the lander Philae will land, according to the plans on November 11. Among the five sites that were selected as candidates, the one selected was indicated by the letter J and was voted unanimously. As a backup site the one that was indicated by the letter C was selected.

As it was immediately clear when the very irregular shape of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was discovered, the choice wasn’t easy. None of the candidate sites fully satisfied the required criteria and the site J was considered the best solution after an analysis of the images obtained in recent weeks.

The J site offers a good lighting that will allow the lander Philae’s solar panels to be active for most of the time allowing to recharge the batteries. In that area, the slope generally don’t exceed 30°, reducing the danger for Philae to topple over before it can activate the harpoon that will fix it to the ground.

The sites indicated by the letters B and C were examined as backup sites. Eventually, the C site was preferred for its more light and less boulders. The sites A and I were discarded because during new examination didn’t meet several important criteria.

Now that the choice has been made, ESA begins planning the descent of the lander Philae. According to an initial assessment, it will take about seven hours, a duration that doesn’t compromise the observations using too much battery power during that operation. It will still need to be planned in detail.

The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is approaching the Sun so is becoming active with the sublimation of ice that gets heated and turned into steam. This may cause unpredictable movements of the comet changing the position of the Rosetta spacecraft, which is carrying the Philae lander.

The consequence is that the planning of the landing of Philae carries a risk margin. That’s something that has never been attempted before so each phase will be carefully considered but eventually it will have to be programmed and carried out automatically. The date is not yet certain and on September 26 it will be announced for good whether it will be November 11 or another one.

Posted in Astronomy / Astrophysics, Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

John Wyndham omnibus

John Wyndham omnibus

The novel “The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham was published for the first time in 1951.

Bill Masen wakes up in the hospital where he was taken after he was poisoned by a triffid. He’s blindfolded because the poison came into contact with his eyes and the moment should have come to see if there’s any permanent damage but something’s very strange. There seems to be neither nurses nor doctors around and Bill is forced to take off the bandages on his own and when he goes to look for someone he realizes that something really bad happened.

Because of the bandages, Bill couldn’t see the strange meteor shower the night before but soon discovers that it blinded everyone who watched it. In London there’s total chaos with a majority of people who remained blind and a small minority of sighted people. The society disintegrated immediately after the catastrophe and the triffids have already started taking advantage. After meeting Josella, a young writer, Bill tries to organize the survival among many dangers.

“The Day of the Triffids” is the first novel published by John Wyndham with that pen name the one that made ​​him famous. It’s still the best known among his novels, even if the author has written other ones even excellent in subsequent years. This novel has become a cornerstone of the post-apocalyptic genre with a reputation that has gone far beyond the science fiction genre.

In “The Day of the Triffids” the world is hit by a disaster when an out of the ordinary comets shower blinds whoever watched it. It was supposed to be a great show so the vast majority of human beings watched it and got blind, immediately causing chaos.

People react very differently to this disaster: someone is in shock, others seek help and others commit suicide because they see no hope for the future. The few who can see have a big advantage but the new world is in total chaos and there’s a new danger, the triffids.

“The Day of the Triffids” starts with a slow pace because the protagonist Bill Masen, who narrates it in first person, tells his story and especially his work in the field of triffids cultivation. These strange plants of which the origin isn’t clear are the source of an oil with extraordinary properties but also have a poisonous sting that can kill a human being. They’re very dangerous also because they can move around.

The triffids must be enclosed within sturdy fences by their growers to prevent them from becoming dangerous but after the disaster there’s no one watch over them and almost immediately they start finding their way out. Over time, they become a huge danger and the many blind people are helpless if no one can warn them that a triffid is approaching.

The triffids’ history isn’t just meant to give us some information about their origins and their characteristics but there’s also a deeper message. John Wyndham explains that through Bill Masen that the triffids were created artificially, it seems in the USSR, but spread out in the world because someone wanted to exploit them for their own greed and a smuggling attempt gone bad allowed them to start growing out of control.

The disaster that caused the blindness of most of human remains without a clear explanation but from some information that Bill Masen collects one possibility is that a military satellite fell down causing the unexpected use of a weapon that hit the world. In essence, for John Wyndham everything that happened is because of human beings with their arms race and their greed.

In this scenario, the mortality rate increases rapidly and the survivors must adapt. John Wyndham explores various possibilities for rebuilding the society and he does it very critically. Some people seek to build groups based on authoritarian ideas, of a religious or ideological type. There are some sighted people who believe it’s their duty to help the blind and they even kidnap other sighted people to force them to do so. There are some blind people who try to capture sighted people to enslave them and use them as eyes in order to survive.

In the course of the novel, various characters often discuss about the best way to build a new society in that situation, with a majority of blind people. John Wyndham’s ideas are very pragmatic so one of the few ideas that may work is based on the abandonment of old traditions to build a society that goes beyond the old gender roles and stereotypes and even beyond the old morality.

The novel alternates between episodes of action in which groups of humans fight other or have to defend themselves against the triffids with other episodes in which they try to organize themselves. The latter ones deal with the social aspects but also the practical aspects of survival. A key point is the restoration of food production because scavenging canned food from old cities can only work temporarily and is dangerous.

These ethical, moral and also practical elements make “The Day of the Triffids” much more than a post-apocalyptic adventure giving great depth to the novel. Even if they slow down the pace, they make the story much more interesting. Although it’s narrated in the first person, John Wyndham manages to make a lot of characters at least credible through Bill Masen’s eyes and this increases the involvement of the reader, which that way is also emotional.

Over the years, “The Day of the Triffids” was adapted for a movie, for various radio productions and a couple of TV shows. A tribute to this novel, with a protagonist who wakes up in a hospital at the beginning and finds out that there has been a catastrophe, is contained in the recent post-apocalyptic works “28 Days Later” and “The Walking Dead”.

For all these reasons, after more than 60 years, “The Day of the Triffids” remains a truly extraordinary novel that is considered John Wyndham’s greatest masterpiece. I think it’s a must-read novel, and not just for science fiction fans.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mayo Clinic will use the IBM Watson system for medical research

IBM Watson Solutions VP Stephen Gold interacts with the system (Photo courtesy IBM. All rights reserved)

IBM Watson Solutions VP Stephen Gold interacts with the system (Photo courtesy IBM. All rights reserved)

IBM and Mayo Clinic have announced a project to use the Watson cognitive computing system in medical research in order to find more quickly the most appropriate clinical trials, especially for cancer patients. Those tests that provide patients suffering from various forms of cancer access to new types of treatments. The use of Watson is also expected to be extended to clinical trials concerning other types of diseases.

Mayo Clinic is an American non-profit organization that has been providing medical services for 150 years and has become one of the most important organizations in medical research. In July 2014, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, was ranked in the first place among American hospitals in a study carried out by the magazine “US News & World Report” from a total of nearly 5,000 hospitals considering various medical specialties.

Mayo Clinic has very high standards of quality and a way to improve clinical trials will consist of using the IBM Watson artificial intelligence system. At the beginning of 2013 tests of use of Watson were already carried out at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in decisions regarding the treatment of lung cancer. In the last month, IBM announced Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud service that uses the Watson artificial intelligence system technology devoted to research.

IBM and Mayo Clinic started a proof-of-concept phase in which a version of Watson will be designed for Mayo Clinic’s specific needs. Watson will learn everything about the matching process of clinical trials to patients. This research concerns treatments against cancers but also other diseases and the hope is to use Watson for clinical trials on rare diseases.

Medical research are long and complex, making it difficult to find patients available. Many clinical trials are not completed because there are not enough patients. The assistance of a system such as Watson, capable of analyzing huge amounts of data in a very short time, can allow to offer patients the most appropriate treatments much more quickly. In this way, Mayo Clinic hopes to significantly increase the number of patients available for clinical trials offering them better hopes.

After a period of training, Watson is scheduled to start supporting medical researchers in clinical trials at the beginning of 2015. It’s another long term project but in a few years it could already revolutionize medical research.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment