Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test
By JOHN ANTCZAK
Friday, December 14
MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California’s Mojave Desert on Thursday, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.
The rocket ship hit an altitude of 51 miles (82 kilometers) before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. It landed on a runway minutes later.
“We made it to space!” Palermo exclaimed.
The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there will be more test flights and if all goes well he will take a ride before the public gets its chance.
“I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space,” he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.
Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles (80 kilometers) the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies. That’s different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 62 miles (100 kilometers). Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.
Whitesides said a review of the data from the test flight will last into the new year.
“This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we’ll see what that pathway is,” he said.
At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.
The two test pilots — Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “CJ” Sturckow — will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards said.
“It was a great flight and I can’t wait to do it again,” said Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.
Virgin Galactic’s development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
“People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here,” Branson said. “This day is as much for them as it is for all of us.”
More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below. The spaceship will also be used for research: NASA had science experiments on the test flight.
The endeavor began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.
Funded by the late billionaire Paul G. Allen and created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was created to kick-start private development of rocket ships that would make spaceflight available to the public.
When Branson licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, he envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers by 2007, launching them from a facility in southern New Mexico called Spaceport America.
But there were significant setbacks. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.
Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique “feathering” braking system and it began to deploy. The co-pilot was killed but the injured pilot managed to survive a fall from high altitude with a parachute.
During descent, the craft’s twin tails are designed to rotate upward to slow it down then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.
New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. Its previous test flight reached 32 miles (52 kilometers).
Branson isn’t alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad. SpaceX’s Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.
Bizarre ‘dark fluid’ with negative mass could dominate the universe – what my research suggests
December 5, 2018
Author: Jamie Farnes, Research Associate & Astrophysicist based at Oxford’s e-Research Centre, University of Oxford
Disclosure statement: Jamie Farnes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Oxford provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
It’s embarrassing, but astrophysicists are the first to admit it. Our best theoretical model can only explain 5% of the universe. The remaining 95% is famously made up almost entirely of invisible, unknown material dubbed dark energy and dark matter. So even though there are a billion trillion stars in the observable universe, they are actually extremely rare.
The two mysterious dark substances can only be inferred from gravitational effects. Dark matter may be an invisible material, but it exerts a gravitational force on surrounding matter that we can measure. Dark energy is a repulsive force that makes the universe expand at an accelerating rate. The two have always been treated as separate phenomena. But my new study, published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, suggests they may both be part of the same strange concept – a single, unified “dark fluid” of negative masses.
Negative masses are a hypothetical form of matter that would have a type of negative gravity – repelling all other material around them. Unlike familiar positive mass matter, if a negative mass was pushed, it would accelerate towards you rather than away from you.
Negative masses are not a new idea in cosmology. Just like normal matter, negative mass particles would become more spread out as the universe expands – meaning that their repulsive force would become weaker over time. However, studies have shown that the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe is relentlessly constant. This inconsistency has previously led researchers to abandon this idea. If a dark fluid exists, it should not thin out over time.
In the new study, I propose a modification to Einstein’s theory of general relativity to allow negative masses to not only exist, but to be created continuously. “Matter creation” was already included in an early alternative theory to the Big Bang, known as the Steady State model. The main assumption was that (positive mass) matter was continuously created to replenish material as the universe expands. We now know from observational evidence that this is incorrect. However, that doesn’t mean that negative mass matter can’t be continuously created. I show that this assumed dark fluid is never spread too thinly. Instead it behaves exactly like dark energy.
I also developed a 3D computer model of this hypothetical universe to see if it could also explain the physical nature of dark matter. Dark matter was introduced to explain the fact that galaxies are spinning much faster than our models predict. This implies that some additional invisible matter must be present to prevent them from spinning themselves apart.
My model shows that the surrounding repulsive force from dark fluid can also hold a galaxy together. The gravity from the positive mass galaxy attracts negative masses from all directions, and as the negative mass fluid comes nearer to the galaxy it in turn exerts a stronger repulsive force onto the galaxy that allows it to spin at higher speeds without flying apart. It therefore appears that a simple minus sign may solve one of the longest standing problems in physics.
Is the universe really this weird?
One may argue that this sounds a little far fetched. But while negative masses are bizarre, they are considerably less strange than you may immediately think. For starters, these effects may only seem peculiar and unfamiliar to us, as we reside in a region dominated by positive mass.
Whether physically real or not, negative masses already have a theoretical role in a vast number of areas. Air bubbles in water can be modeled as having a negative mass. Recent laboratory research has also generated particles that behave exactly as they would if they had negative mass.
And physicists are already comfortable with the concept of negative energy density. According to quantum mechanics, empty space is made up of a field of fluctuating background energy that can be negative in places – giving rise to waves and virtual particles that pop into and out of existence. This can even create a tiny force that can be measured in the lab.
The new study could help solve many problems in modern physics. String theory, which is our best hope for unifying the physics of the quantum world with Einstein’s theory of the cosmos, is currently seen as being incompatible with observational evidence. However, string theory does suggest that the energy in empty space must be negative, which corroborates the theoretical expectations for a negative mass dark fluid.
Moreover, the team behind the groundbreaking discovery of an accelerating universe surprisingly detected evidence for a negative mass cosmology, but took the reasonable precaution of interpreting these controversial findings as “unphysical.”
The theory could also solve the problem of measuring the universe’s expansion. This is explained by the Hubble-Lemaître Law, the observation that more distant galaxies are moving away at a faster rate. The relationship between the speed and the distance of a galaxy is set by the “Hubble constant,” but measurements of it have continued to vary. This has led to a crisis in cosmology. Fortunately, a negative mass cosmology mathematically predicts that the Hubble “constant” should vary over time. Clearly, there is evidence that this weird and unconventional new theory deserves our scientific attention.
Where to go from here
The creator of the field of cosmology, Albert Einstein, did – along with other scientists including Stephen Hawking – consider negative masses. In fact, in 1918 Einstein even wrote that his theory of general relativity may have to be modified to include them.
Despite these efforts, a negative mass cosmology could be wrong. The theory seems to provide answers to so many currently open questions that scientists will – quite rightly – be rather suspicious. However, it is often the out-of-the-box ideas that provide answers to longstanding problems. The strong accumulating evidence has now grown to the point that we must consider this unusual possibility.
The largest telescope to ever be built – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – will measure the distribution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe. I’m planning to use the SKA to compare its observations to theoretical predictions for both a negative mass cosmology and the standard one – helping to ultimately prove whether negative masses exist in our reality.
What is clear is that this new theory generates a wealth of new questions. So as with all scientific discoveries, the adventure does not end here. In fact, the quest to understand the true nature of this beautiful, unified, and – perhaps polarised – universe has only just begun.
Looking for a high-tech gift for a young child? Think playgrounds, not playpens
December 13, 2018
Author: Marina Umaschi Bers, Professor of Child Study and Human Development and Adjunct Professor of Computer Sciences, Tufts University
Disclosure statement: Marina Umaschi Bers owns shares in KinderLab robotics and developed the free ScratchJr programming language. She receives funding from National Science Foundation and the Scratch Foundation.
Partners: Tufts University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Shopping for a new high-tech gift for the child in your life this holiday season? It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the options. Bright boxes, colorful apps and cute plastic robots will promise that learning outcomes will improve if your child plays with x, y or z.
You might be tempted to believe them. Maybe if your child plays with that robot, she’ll learn to code. Maybe if he plays with that computer game or that app, he’ll improve his literacy and math skills.
If you like technology, you probably think it’s a good thing for children to be exposed to it at an early age. After all, studies show that by fifth grade, stereotypes regarding who is good at math and science, technology and engineering are already formed.
It’s important to get in there early to counter the formation of these stereotypes, by piquing everyone’s interest when they are young. That way doors aren’t preemptively closed for them later on, when choosing a field of study or a profession.
But it’s confusing to browse all the tech toys on the market, looking for one that will support a child’s budding STEM knowledge. I coined the metaphor of “playgrounds versus playpens” as a way to understand the best developmentally appropriate experiences with technology. As new gadgets, robots, apps and games are commercially released, going back to this metaphor can guide you beyond the bells and whistles to focus on how a tech toy may support learning and development.
Cozy coddling or exhilarating exploration
In my latest book, “Coding as a Playground,” I invite readers to recall the playground of their childhood. Children were able to run, to explore, to invent new games, to engage in pretend play; to communicate, collaborate and problem-solve with others; and to make their own choices.
Now, think of a playpen. These safe, confined spaces are in stark contrast with playgrounds. The playpen conveys a lack of freedom to experiment, lack of autonomy for exploration, lack of creative opportunities and lack of risks. It’s a place where a child can be stowed to pass the time.
While playgrounds are open-ended, playpens are limited. The playground promotes while the playpen hinders important aspects of human development.
Unfortunately, from a developmental perspective, many of today’s technologies for young children are playpens and not playgrounds.
Of course, computer games, like playpens, deprive children of physical activity. But the metaphor goes further than that. Some computer games are marketed as educational because they promote academic skills and teach about shapes, colors, letters, sounds and numbers. Most software provides tasks with right and wrong answers and thus doesn’t encourage problem solving and logical thinking or exploration and creativity. Most robots provide prepackaged challenges for children to complete, and in the process, learn to code. These are all examples of high-tech playpens – they’re limited and do not tap into many important dimensions of healthy positive development in children.
Six C’s to look for
Over two decades of research, I’ve developed a theoretical framework called Positive Technological Development to guide parents, educators and researchers in distinguishing high-tech playgrounds from playpens.
This framework focuses on six positive behaviors that can be promoted through the use of technological playgrounds. These behaviors involve:
- content creation
- choices of conduct
- community building
These six C’s can be fostered in real-world playgrounds and can also be supported by robotic platforms, virtual worlds, programming languages, apps, games and storytelling systems for children.
But it’s not enough to read the label on the box. It’s important to understand the kind of experiences children will have when interacting with the technology.
Search out technologies that engage children as producers, not consumers. That means robotic kits, apps or computer games that let them be makers, artists, coders and designers. Try to avoid prepackaged solutions that target a specific skill set and promise to help children improve their academics. Remember that technological playgrounds need to also be fun!
At the DevTech research group that I direct at Tufts University, we focus on a particular kind of technological playground: programming environments for young children between 4 and 7 years old. Our research shows that by learning how to code, children take on the role of producers and not merely consumers. They’re able to engage with all six C’s.
For example, we created the free ScratchJr coding app, in collaboration with Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Lab. ScratchJr is a playground in that it promotes problem-solving, imagination, cognitive challenges, social interactions, motor skills development, emotional exploration and making different choices. Crucially, we make explicit the connection between the activity of coding and the playfulness of the experience.
At the playground, children can visit the sandbox, the swing or the slide, or just run around. Similarly, you want to find tech toys that let children engage in lots of different creative and expressive activities. For example, beyond coding, an app might let them create and modify characters and record and play their own voices and sounds. A playpen, instead, might let them move up across levels only when they solve a particular problem or select the right number or letter.
Caregivers don’t exclusively take children to the playground. There are other places to visit and other skills to develop. But, when getting new technologies for young children, you’re looking for a tech playground and not a playpen.
How the absence of blow flies overturned a wrongful conviction
December 9, 2018
Author: Gail Anderson, Professor of Criminology, Undergraduate Director, Simon Fraser University
Disclosure statement: Gail Anderson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Simon Fraser University provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA. Simon Fraser University provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA-FR.
On Jan. 2, 2018, Kirstin Blaise Lobato, who was charged and convicted of murder, walked free from a Nevada prison due entirely to forensic entomology.
Forensic entomologists study the insects colonizing a dead body to estimate how long they have been active on the body and infer time of death. What was so unusual in Lobato’s case was not the presence of insects, but rather the absence of insects on the body.
Yet neither defence nor prosecution lawyers queried this absence, an oversight that led to Lobato’s 16-year incarceration.
It was only after I was contacted in 2009 to assess the forensic entomology evidence, or rather the lack of it, that it became clear there was forensic evidence that could prove her innocence.
Violent, gruesome murder in Las Vegas
Seventeen years earlier, at 10:15 p.m. on July 8, 2001, a homeless man was found brutally murdered in an outside trash area behind the Las Vegas strip.
He had been stabbed and slashed multiple times. His rectum had been cut open and his penis cut off. His body was found lying in pools of blood.
Lobato was identified as a suspect only because, a month earlier, a different man had attempted to rape her. She had defended herself with a small pocket knife and had slashed at her assailant’s genitals. She did not cut off his penis, but left him “crying.”
When police found that the dead man’s penis had been removed they searched for anyone in town who had cut a penis. They found Lobato, who was only 18 years old at the time, and charged her with the crime.
Estimating time of death
The pathologist originally stated that death had occurred just before the body was discovered at 10:15 p.m. Lobato had an unbreakable alibi for most of that day. However, the pathologist then changed his mind, determining death had occurred one to 12 hours before discovery. During the 2002 trial, he changed his opinion again — to as much as 24 hours before discovery.
Lobato was convicted of first-degree murder and sexual penetration of a dead body, despite any physical evidence tying her to the murder scene.
This trial, however, was overturned due to errors and Lobato was retried in 2006, at which time the pathologist again changed his time of death and stated that the murder occurred eight to 14 hours before discovery.
This time, Lobato was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sexual penetration of a dead body. This latter charge was based on the rectum slashing, because it was claimed that this had occurred after death, despite the fact that pathologists stated it occurred while the victim was alive.
This is an important distinction because it resulted in Lobato’s registration as a sex offender for the rest of her life.
No insect evidence was present
In December 2009, Hans Sherrer, editor and publisher of Justice Denied, a magazine dedicated to the wrongfully convicted, contacted me regarding Lobato’s case. He said he had photographs of the body and scene and asked if I could I do anything.
Normally, the answer to that is “no,” because a forensic entomologist cannot just “look” at a maggot. We need to study the insects under a microscope in order to see specific features. However, when Sherrer described the state of the body and the state’s case, I agreed to take a look.
Insects, in particular blow flies, are the first witnesses to a crime. They are attracted to a body immediately after death if the conditions are appropriate.
They are attracted to lay their eggs close to wounds or orifices so that newly hatched first instar or first stage larvae can feed on liquid protein because, at this stage, they are unable to break an adult human’s dry skin. This means the female adults are very good at locating wound sites so their offspring can feed on blood.
Blow flies will lay large clumps of eggs on the body that are clearly visible; they look a bit like a small clump of grated Parmesan cheese. Even single eggs are one to two millimetres long, so they can easily be seen in a photograph. In this case, absolutely no insect evidence was present on the body.
Blow flies indicate time of death
Adult blow flies usually arrive within minutes, or even seconds, of death if conditions are appropriate, such as season, temperature, accessibility and time of day.
The insect season is generally from spring to fall in most of North America, so a death that occurs in mid-winter will not attract insects. Insects are cold-blooded, so their development and activities are governed by ambient temperature and they generally become inactive below around 10 to 12C.
They also need to be able to reach the corpse, so if it is well-wrapped in garbage bags or inside a house, they will be delayed. Finally, blow flies are diurnal, which means they are active during the day and they rest at night. If a person dies in the night, they will not be colonized until the following morning.
In Lobato’s case, almost all circumstances were perfect for insect colonization: the season was summer, the weather was hot and the body was exposed outdoors with only a few pieces of trash covering him, which would not have impeded insects. The body was covered in wounds and very bloody so it would have been extremely attractive.
The only explanation for the lack of eggs on the body was that the victim died after sunset on the night his body was discovered.
Determining death after sunset
In December 2009, I submitted an affidavit stating that, in my opinion, the man had died after sunset on July 8, when Lobato had an air-tight alibi.
A writ of habeas corpus — indicating that Lobato was falsely imprisoned — was submitted in early 2010 but was denied in 2011. A reply brief was filed in October 2012, but there was no response until September 2014, almost two years later. A further two years elapsed before Lobato was granted a hearing in 2017 when the Innocence Project became involved — an organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully committed.
I, and two other forensic entomologists whom I recommended, testified in front of a judge in October 2017. We all stated that insects would have been attracted to this body very rapidly and the lack of eggs suggested that death had occurred after sunset. Prosecution brought in a fourth entomologist who said you could not be absolutely sure.
Two months later the court granted Lobato’s writ of habeas corpus and ordered a new trial based on our evidence, stating that Lobato’s lawyers were ineffective in not consulting an entomologist in the original trial.
Ten days later, the court vacated Lobato’s conviction and dismissed all charges against her. Lobato was released “with prejudice,” meaning she cannot be retried.