Tag Archives: World

Curiosity Rover Makes First Foursquare Check-in on Mars

Curiosity-rover-makes-first-foursquare-check-in-on-mars-61d3b7381d

Curiosity is NASA’s most digitally savvy rover yet. She tweets regularly, posts her pictures and now she is the first Foursquare user to ever check in on Mars.

Curiosity’s first check-in was today at the Gale Crater, where she made her first landing on the night of Aug. 5. Located on the equator of Mars, the Gale Crater is home to the 3-mile high Mount Sharp and is Curiosity’s primary target as it holds billions of years of Martian history.

Curiosity will continue to check in and share updates throughout her 23-month expedition.

“Like any great trip, you want to share with your friends back home, so that is why the rover is sharing check-ins and tips from her amazing trip,” says Stephanie L. Smith, who is part of the three-woman team that runs Curiosity’s social media.

Since Curiosity is the first to post from the Red Planet, she will regularly give travel tips for future space tourists.

“Mars is cold, dry and rocky. Extra moisturizer and sturdy shoes would be a good idea, plus oxygen for those of you who breathe,” she posted along with a snapshot of the desert-like landscape.

Curiosity’s next check-in will be from Rocknest, another point within the Gale Crater where the rover will be parked for the next two weeks to conduct various experiments.

“We’ll start getting to more specific locations within the crater,” says Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA. “We may not do daily check-ins for each drive, but we will be able to do check-ins and tips for locations after we name them.”

Curiosity’s Foursquare tips will be a mix of science and humor. “We’re having fun with these tips,” says NASA social media specialist Courtney O’Connor. “We have to consider things like atmosphere, temperature and things we don’t normally think about on Earth. We have to put ourselves into her point of view. You have to get into character.”

So far, the rover has checked in two times today. She only has one more check-in until she becomes mayor of Gale Crater — an honor that, McGregor says, is well-deserved.

“If anyone should be mayor, it’s that rover.”

Bonus: Mars Curiosity’s First Tracks

Building Solar in Spain Instead of Germany Could Save Billions

Building-solar

Building solar and wind projects in the wrong place is wasting billions of dollars in Europe.

Siemens says it would make sense to build solar power plants in sunny countries in Europe rather than in cloudy ones. And wind turbines should be built in windy places.

These blindingly obvious suggestions run contrary to what’s actually happening. For example, a solar panel in Spain generates about twice as much electricity as the same-size solar panel in Germany because the sun shines on it more. But last year nearly half of all solar panels installed in Europe were installed in Germany, and only a small fraction were installed in Spain (see “The Great German Energy Experiment“).

Siemens calculates that if you were to install solar panels and wind turbines where the natural resources are best, and then string power lines to convey the power to where it’s needed, you could save about $60 billion dollars by 2030 because you could install fewer of them. That savings figure accounts for the cost of the power lines (see “Supergrids“).

Europe isn’t the only place where solar is taking off in strange places. One of the major markets for solar power in the U.S. is New Jersey, which gets far less sun than the southwest U.S., but has policies that favor solar power.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Wayne National Forest

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/05/17/building-solar-spain-could-save-billions/

North Korea May Launch Rocket, Photo Shows

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North Korea may be preparing to attempt another rocket launch in the next few weeks, new satellite imagery suggests.

The photo, which was taken Monday (Nov. 26), shows increased activity at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launch Station. The hustle and bustle is similar to that seen before the rogue nation’s failed long-range rocket launch last April, according to satellite operator DigitalGlobe.

“Given the observed level of activity noted of a new tent, trucks, people and numerous portable fuel/oxidizer tanks, should North Korea desire, it could possibly conduct its fifth satellite launch event during the next three weeks (e.g., by mid-December 2012),” DigitalGlobe officials wrote in a statement released with the new image.

Though it has tried numerous times, North Korea has not yet succeeded in placing a satellite in Earth orbit. Last April’s attempted launch of an Earth-observing craft atop the nation’s Unha-3 rocket was just the latest failure, following similar flops in 1998 and 2009.

In a rare public admission, North Korean officials acknowledged the Unha-3 failure shortly after the rocket crashed into the sea on April 13. (The nation had maintained that the 1998 and 2009 attempts were successful, though Western analysts are confident that neither one reached orbit.)

North Korea’s past launches have drawn condemnation from the United States, South Korea and other nations, which viewed them as thinly disguised missile tests. The West’s concern stems largely from North Korea’s famous unpredictability, along with its status as a nuclear-armed nation. The country is also highly secretive, making it difficult for Western observers to follow its activities or divine its motives.

North Korean missile technology races its origins to Soviet Scuds, which apparently entered the country via Egypt in the 1970s. Since then, the Hermit Kingdom has been developing bigger and more powerful rockets, some of which may have the potential to reach the West Coast of the United States.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/11/28/north-korea-rocket/

China’s Video Sites Ordered to Censor Content

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If you run a video website in China, you will now be charged with a daunting task: watch all your content and censor out any questionable content before posting.

China’s new online video censorship rules came this week via the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s official broadcast regulation bureau. SARFT made the pre-screening policy known through a statement released to Chinese press that was later reported on by The Register.

Chinese video websites can be held legally liable if they fail to comply with the self-screening and censorship policy.

SARFT claims that the target of the new rules is content which depicts “violence, pornography and some swearing,” adding that the pre-screening policy is a response to pressure from Chinese citizens to “protect young people’s physical and mental health in accordance with the law.”

However, a spokesperson from popular Chinese video site Youku told the BBC that if content is “anti-[Communist] party and anti-society,” it will “definitely… not pass,” a condition which may alarm Internet freedom advocates around the world.

The Chinese government is known for aggressively censoring online content.

Its “Great Firewall of China” blocks Chinese citizens from accessing many foreign websites — including the popular video-sharing platform YouTube.

On top of that, it has a team of hundreds of official censors who actively crawl the Chinese web looking for content the government deems questionable. Those censors often play a game of digital cat-and-mouse with Chinese Internet users, most recently when users were looking for information about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Foreign companies employ a variety of methods to do business in China. Google China, which has a fractious relationship with the Chinese government, houses its servers in Hong Kong, which has a high degree of autonomy from mainland China. The New York Times, which recently opened a Chinese-language platform, also hosts its content outside mainland China.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/07/11/china-censorship-video/

Mashable Weekend Recap: 65 Stories You Might Have Missed

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The weekend started off with a bang, thanks to the dazzling opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. That was spectacular enough to get everyone super-ready for the athletic competition involving our entire planet.

There were plenty of stories about the Olympics, and at the same time, your intrepid Mashable team discovered so much more — happenings in the digital world, tech innovations that felt like they were from a future world, and GIFs, comics and weekend fun that seemed to be from another world entirely.

Best of all, we’ve gathered all those stories here for you, in one big easy-to-peruse package. So take a look at the latest Weekend Recap, where you can catch up with the entire weekend of delightful news and views, right here:

Editor’s Picks

James Bond and the Queen Parachute Into the Olympics [VIDEO]

Please, NBC and IOC, Learn How to Share the Olympics

13 Surprising OS X Mountain Lion Facts [SUNDAY COMICS]

Top 10 Twitter Pics of the Week

Mountain Lion Vs. Windows 8: Which One Is Better?

Best Pics Yet: This Could Be the Real iPhone 5

How to Watch the 2012 Summer Olympics Online

Spoilers: Angry Olympics Fans Tweet Their Protests, NBC Responds

Top 10 Tech This Week [PICS]

News & Opinion

Marissa Mayer Brings Free Food to Yahoo, Eyes Acquisitions [REPORT]

MTV’s ‘Teen Wolf’ Facebook Game Is Feast for Fans in First 5 Weeks

Where to Get Back-to-School Deals on Tablets, Computers

How Dictation Tools Can Help Speed Up Your Workflow [INFOGRAPHIC]

Russian Cargo Spacecraft Docks With Space Station on 2nd Try

Olympic Check-Ins: Hot Foursquare Deals and Badges for London 2012

Record-Setting Electric Plane Flight Almost Didn’t Make It [VIDEO]

Mysterious Billionaire Commissions World’s Largest Yacht [VIDEO]

Twitter Jokester’s ‘Bomb Threat’ Charges Dropped [VIDEO]

Olympic Popularity: Starcount Reveals Which Olympic Athletes Are Trending

Amazon Sales Tax — What it Means for You

Down to the Millisecond: All About Olympics Timing

Trioh! The Flashlight You Can See When The Power Goes Out

On Reddit, Rapists Say They’re Sorry

Latest Apple Ads Take a Turn for the Worse

Why the London 2012 Olympics Is the First Real-Time Games

The 9 Most Important Tablet Mysteries of 2012

Device Turns Eye Movement Into Handwriting

Apple Considered Investing in Twitter [REPORT]

Hidden Genius Project Provides Tech Mentorship for Young Black Men

What Higher Education Will Look Like in 2020 [STUDY]

Why Do We Keep Going Back to Mars?

This Is What the Olympians From 100 Years Ago Looked Like

Shedding Light on Mitt Romney’s Unexplained Twitter Surge

New Leaked Pics May Hint at iPhone 5 Design

Chick-fil-A PR Chief Dies as Company Battles Controversy

Hacking the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Romney Advisor Tweets ‘Follow Friday’ List of Potential VPs

Facebook’s Not the Only One Struggling With Mobile Advertising

Weekend Leisure

This Cute, Cubed Bamboo Speaker Packs Crazy Sound [VIDEO]

9 Nifty Laptop Feet to Keep Your PC Running Cool

Kickstarter Project Is a ‘Smartwatch’ for Your Smartphone

‘Fund Me Maybe’ Is Tech World’s Parody of ‘Call Me Maybe’ [VIDEO]

10 Stylish Onesies for Baby Geeks

12 Pictures of Animals Being Forced to Marry

It’s Official: This Is the Cutest Picture on the Internet

Twitter Doghouse Lets You Temporarily Dump Annoying Tweeps

Top 10 GIFs of the Week

Boys Will Be Boys In This ‘Girls’ Parody [VIDEO]

10 Brits Snubbed from the Olympic Opening Ceremony

You Have Upset The Tetris God [VIDEO]

Sneak Peek: Justin Bieber Teases ‘As Long As You Love Me’ Video

If ‘A Space Odyssey’ Were Remade as a Hollywood Blockbuster

Forget Traditional Tours; Vayable Helps You Discover New Ways to Travel

Listen to Talk Radio on Your iPhone? You’re Probably a Liberal

You’ll Grin and Bear it With This Wild Live Video Stream

Mr. Bean Gets Carried Away During Olympics Appearance

Get a Bird’s-Eye View of 25 Olympic Stadiums

Top 6 Comments on Mashable This Week

Helpful Resources

Everything You Need to Know About Foursquare’s New Merchant Tools

How to Structure Your Daily Job Search to Help Land Your Next Job

50 Digital Media Resources You May Have Missed

6 Key Software Updates You Should Be Doing

The Beginner’s Guide to Socialcam

4 Reasons Why Recruiters Should Stop Accepting Traditional Resumes

The Anatomy of a Killer Content Marketing Strategy

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/07/30/weekend-recap-64/

Curiosity Rover to Broadcast Will.i.am Song Live on Mars

Curiosity-rover-to-broadcast-will-i-am-song-live-on-mars-video--7d16cf36d2

Whether or not you’re a fan of will.i.am‘s songs, his music will soon be out-of-this-world.

NASA‘s Curiosity rover is set to broadcast a new song by the Black Eyed Peas singer live from the surface of Mars on Tuesday, NASA announced. It will take place at 1 p.m. PT (4 p.m. ET) at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Called “Reach for the Stars,” the song is about will.i.am’s passion for science, technology and space exploration, NASA said. Check out the video above for more.

In addition, members of the team that successfully landed Curiosity earlier this month will describe the rover’s mission at the event. They will also explain the technology behind the song’s interplanetary transmission.

Will.i.am announced via Twitter that “Reach for the Stars” will be the first song from Earth ever to be broadcast from another planet.

He then encouraged other celebrity tweeters, including Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber, to “spread the word.”

The event will be streamed on NASA’s website, and broadcast on NASA TV.

Will.i.am, through his i.am.angel Foundation has also partnered with digital-learning company Discovery Education to develop a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics initiative featuring NASA resources, such as Curiosity.

If you could choose a song to be broadcast on Mars, what would it be? Tell us in the comments below.

Video courtesy of i.am.angel Foundation

Image courtesy of Flickr, evarinaldiphotography

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Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/27/curiosity-william-song/

Astronauts Plant Trees in Russia That Tower Above Politics

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Trees line the path of Cosmonaut Grove at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia.
Image: Flickr, Eugene Kaspersky

In their last days on Earth before launching to the International Space Station, astronauts sees the same thing: two rows of trees that punctuate the otherwise austere landscape outside the space launch facility in Baikonur, Russia.

The trees that outline the T-shaped path are mismatched in size, but that’s for a reason. Each one was planted by an astronaut just before he or she launched to space, a tradition that Yuri Gagarin started 50 years ago when he planted the first tree just before he became the first human in space. His tree is the largest.

A fresh three-member crew — Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European astronaut Alexander Gerst — will launch to the ISS on Wednesday. All three astronauts planted their trees last week.

Expedition_40_tree_planting

Expedition 40/41 crew (from left) NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Roscosmos commander Maxim Suraev and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst during the traditional tree-planting ceremony in the run-up to their launch to the ISS on May 28.

Image: European Space Agency

“There’s a whole wealth of Russian traditions,” NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who planted a tree before his mission in 2012, told Mashable. “Some are funny, some are beautiful.”

Marshburn-Hadfield-Tree

t the Cosmonaut Hotel crew quarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Expedition 34 crew members Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (left), Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko (center) and NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn (right) pose for pictures Dec. 13, 2012 at the site of their tree planting.

Image: NASA

Many Russian traditions are based on the success of what a cosmonaut did before. “In a lot of ways, it’s about honoring the person who came before you,” Marshburn said.

The simple ceremony always takes place shortly before launch, no matter the environment. Be it a harsh Russian winter or an even colder political standoff, the tree will be planted.

But given the current political climate between the U.S. and Russia, these trees have a deeper meaning within the space community, which, until very recently, has been able to operate above bureaucratic squabble.

As the U.S. continues to unleash sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, both nations have put targets on the backs of each other’s space programs.

In April, NASA sent a memo to employees stating that it was cutting all ties with Russia, except for when it comes to the space station — as the U.S. depends on Russia to launch its astronauts to the ISS.

At the same time, NASA made a grandiose public statement that it would return spaceflight to the U.S. by 2017, completely nixing the need for Russian involvement at all.

“We’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017,” NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told Mashable in April. “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.”

Although NASA, at the time, said politics wouldn’t make it to the space station, Russia unveiled a different plan just weeks later. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters on May 13 that Moscow would deny U.S. requests to use the ISS after 2020. He also said he would prevent the U.S. from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.

Astronauts, however, have subtly voiced their continued commitment to teamwork — a seemingly passive protest to the two countries’ efforts to drag the ISS into their battle.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who planted his own tree alongside Marshburn, is among the most vocal. In an April interview with RT, the ISS commander condemned weaponizing space.

And just hours after the news broke that Russia wanted to ban the U.S. from the ISS — coincidentally, that was on the same day a crew of both American and Russian astronauts was returning to Earth — Hadfield tweeted this:

And just on day after the U.S. issued its first round of sanctions against Russia, NASA released the photo below before a scheduled launch, showing the two flags together.

Russia-US-Space

The flags of the countries representing the crew members of Soyuz TMA-12M are seen at the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, Russia on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Image: NASA

“Living in space really does break down barriers,” Marshburn said. “It is a family up there. We have to survive.”

Even NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in March — around the time Russia invaded Crimea — that the space station has been the cornerstone of peaceful relations.

During a press conference, Bolden, who commanded the first U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994, told the story of flying with Russian cosmonauts only a few years after the Cold War. The men talked of their families and of their aspirations for the world over dinner.

“I found that our relationship with the Russians in the space program has been the same ever since,” Bolden said. “We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies.”

For his part, Marshburn, who is currently training in Houston for a future ISS mission, said he will continue to work as though the next trip will be with Russia. He’ll still study Russian, and he’ll work with Russian cosmonaut colleagues on site.

“We are well padded from the political goings on,” said Marshburn. “So, I just don’t think about it because who knows where it’s going to go.”

And as long as NASA astronauts climb into a Russian spacecraft, they’ll continue to add their tree to the growing grove around the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well.

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Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/05/28/nasa-russia-tree-cosmodrome/

Hubble Snaps Photo of ‘Christmas Ornament’ Nebula

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It’s the time of year when even the scientists at NASA get into the holiday spirit. Last year, the space agency’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer snapped an image of a cosmic Christmas wreath for the holiday season.

Not be outdone, the venerable Hubble Space Telescope delivered holiday cheer in the form of this image of NGC 5189, a nebula that — if you’re brimming over with holiday cheer or just squinting a little — resembles a very merry Christmas ornament wrapped in a festive ribbon.

You can take a trip through the cosmos to zoom in on the nebula just like the Hubble did in the short video below.

Is the “ornament” interpretation meeting astronomers — and we suspect NASA’s PR wonks — more than halfway? Yeah, probably a little more than half, but come on — ’tis the season. You can afford to be that generous, right?

Either way, we can all agree that the beauty of the image on its own is enough to make you smile.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at Geekosystem
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/12/19/christmas-ornament-nebula/

Microsoft May Be Making a Smartphone for China

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The latest reports from Asia have resurrected a popular rumor: that Microsoft is planning to launch its own Windows Phone smartphone and initially sell it in China, where smartphone use is exploding. However, with a delicate ecosystem of hardware partners to balance, and huge competition in China, it could be an uphill task for the software giant.

Ever since Microsoft announced its landmark Windows Phone agreement with Nokia, there have been mutterings that the company is thinking about producing its own smartphone. Earlier this month came the clearest sign yet, when the Wall Street Journal quoted officials at Microsoft parts suppliers in Asia as saying that testing had already begun.

Add to this the recent launch of the Microsoft Surface tablet—which showcases the touch-screen capabilities of Windows 8 and RT operating systems—and CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent speculation that the Redmond, Washington–based firm would “obviously” make more hardware, and the case becomes even more compelling.

China is likely to be a key battleground for smartphone makers. IDC recently pegged it as the world’s largest smartphone market, and, unlike the U.S. market, it is still growing. Canalys stats put Q2 shipments at 27% of the world’s total, ahead of the U.S. at 16%. China and Asia have for some years also led in smartphone production—which accounts for Microsoft’s reported testing of the new phone with Asian suppliers.

A low-cost, high-spec smartphone from Microsoft could be popular in China. But the success of such a device will likely depend on how well the American giant partners with local firms to tailor a device for the domestic market.

Microsoft has already failed with a previous smartphone launch, the ill-fated Kin, and its only hardware success to date has been Xbox. Nonetheless, Ovum analyst Tony Cripps argues that it’s quite possible Microsoft is taking the same strategy with the smartphone that it took with its recently launched Surface tablet. “While there were risks involved, Microsoft created Surface, and it made sense to do so. Why not do it again?” he says. “It’s about staying relevant.”

However, IDC analyst Melissa Chau cautions that Redmond could find its options limited by the need to avoid upsetting existing hardware partners, just as Google’s options with its Android-based Motorola phones have been limited. Partners including Acer were somewhat hostile to its Surface launch, and Microsoft cannot afford to alienate the Windows Phone partner ecosystem.

Chau argues that Microsoft‘s testing of the device might be aimed not at a product release but at showing partners the direction it envisions for Windows Phone devices. It’s also possible the device could be kept in reserve as a ”Plan B” in case Nokia’s hardware offerings fail to capture the popular imagination and drive the platform forward, she says.

In any case, Microsoft’s biggest problem is Android. IDC’s preliminary Q3 stats put Android shipments for the period at a record-breaking 136 million units, 75% of all smartphones. Apple’s iOS came in second with 26 million units (14.9%), and Windows Phone shipments totalled 3.6 million units and just 2% of the market. It’s still early days for Microsoft, but with HTC and Samsung both more committed to Android than Windows Phone, only Nokia is left to blaze the trail. Android also has a 77% share of China’s smartphone market, according to Beijing-based analyst Analysys International.

Chau explains that China has the “fastest adoption of high-end specs at cheaper prices.” The most popular devices are slick quad core devices with screen sizes around the 13 cm mark. In the past six months alone, we’ve seen the launch of Huawei’s 11 cm Honor II, at 1,888 yuan ($305); the Xiaomi Phone 2 at 1,999 yuan ($310); ZTE’s U950 at 999 yuan ($160); and Meizu’s MX 4-core, which now retails at 2,399 yuan ($380). “They’re not innovating, but there’s an appetite for this type of hardware we don’t see in other countries,” she explains.

Local handset makers—both big brands and the huge number of smaller, low-margin “white box” producers—are also targeting the sub-1,000 yuan ($160) market with gusto, aware that the huge installed base of feature-phone users in countries like China and India will soon be looking to upgrade to a smartphone.

Canalys reckons that by 2015 almost half of Chinese smartphones will be handsets under $200. The Lenovo A65 recently came down from around 1,000 yuan ($160) in Q4 2011 to around 700 yuan ($112) in the first quarter of this year, for example.

What these handsets and more high-end devices have in common, in China at least, is that the user interface and services preloaded onto them are localized for the Chinese market. When it comes to Web services, the Chinese government’s rigorous approach to online censorship has meant that some sites Western users take for granted, like Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, are virtually pointless to have on a smartphone.

Chinese users need Youku instead of YouTube, Sina Weibo instead of Twitter, RenRen instead of Facebook and Taobao instead of eBay—and Baidu, not Google, is favored by around 80% of the search market, even on Android devices.

Some Chinese handset makers, Web companies, and mobile operators have gone a step further and built their own mobile operating systems, although success has been limited so far. Baidu (with its Yi platform), e-commerce giant Alibaba (Aliyun), Xiaomi (MIUI), and others hope that their operating systems will drive more users to their services and “build fences and drive stakes into the ground” in the country’s fast-growing mobile market, according to a recent IDC report.

Although big names including Motorola, Huawei, HTC and Samsung have plants in countries such as Vietnam, India and Malaysia, and while Foxconn recently unveiled plans for a huge factory in Indonesia, the majority of smartphone production remains in China. Most of the big Taiwanese companies, including Foxconn, Pegatron, Wistron and Compal, have plants producing for most of the world’s biggest tech brands, including Apple, HP, Samsung, Dell, Nokia and, of course, Microsoft.

Thanks to government subsidies, low wages, good infrastructure and, most important, a centralized supply chain, China remains the No. 1 location for smartphone manufacturing, with the focus having spread from the historical center of the tech world, in the Pearl River Delta around Shenzhen, to new hubs in Chengdu, Chongqing, Henan province, and elsewhere as more local governments offer financial incentives.

In the end, whatever Microsoft’s plans are in the smartphone space, it and every other Western tech giant needs to get used to a new reality—if you want to succeed in the 21st-century global smartphone market, you need to pivot towards Asia.

Image courtesy of Flickr, okalkavan

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/11/13/microsoft-smartphone-china/

How NASA Keeps Earth’s Germs Out of Space

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In 1967, the United States joined the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in signing the “Outer Space Treaty,” which remains the closest thing the world has to “space law.” It stipulates, among other things, that as countries explore space they should avoid contaminating it with the microbial life of Earth.

So while we may talk, with a mixture of fantasy and inevitability, about the colonization of other planets by humans, NASA takes great pains to avoid colonizing those bodies with life of a different variety: bacteria and spores that might hitchhike their way through the galaxy via American spacecraft.

But keeping space free of earthly critters is a difficult task. In fact, it’s an effectively impossible one. Curiosity, for example, was not completely sterile at its launch; rather, the rover was built to ensure that it would “carry a total of no more than 300,000 bacterial spores on any surface from which the spores could get into the Martian environment.”

In that way, Curiosity is like the Mars landers that preceded it: just a tiny bit dirty. “When we clean these things, it’s virtually impossible to get them completely, totally, 100% clean, without any organic material at all,” says Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration.

Instead, he says the agency enforces “allowable limits” — a kind of controlled biological chaos — that aims to mitigate, rather than eliminate, microbial life on its vehicles. The margins here are extraordinarily slim: When you’re talking about microorganisms, 300,000 across the entire spacecraft is actually a remarkably low number. (A human adult, after all, can play host to a href=”http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/04-trillions-microbes-call-us-home-help-keep-healthy” target=”_blank”>as many as 200 trillion microorganisms. Trillion, with a T.)

To keep the Mars Science Laboratory mission within its 300,0000-critter range, the technicians who built Curiosity regularly cleaned the rover’s surfaces — and those of the spacecraft that delivered it to Mars — by wiping them with an alcohol solution.

They baked the mechanical components that could tolerate high heats to kill the microbes that remained. And they sealed off Curiosity’s core box, which contains its main computer and other key electronics, to prevent any traveling microbes from escaping its confines.

Pictured in the video below, the clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is where Curiosity spent much of its pre-Martian existence. Note the bunny suits worn by the technicians, the better to ensure that human microbes wouldn’t be transferred to NASA’s now-rove-ready rover.

For its standard antibiotic regimen, Lavery says NASA has three main goals. First, of course, there’s scientific accuracy — since, for many of the agency’s missions, the subtext if not the stated objective is to learn about the life that might exist beyond our atmosphere. “If we’ve taken Earth bugs with us, it defeats the entire purpose,” he says.

Second, there’s the Outer Space Treaty and the desire to be a good steward of space — by avoiding contamination of the world beyond Earth’s borders. Third, there’s protecting Earth itself — not just by preventing the passage of earthly life into space, but also by preventing any extraterrestrial life from coming back. (Hence those amazing photos of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins hanging out in their decontamination module after completing the Apollo 11 mission.)

Planetary protection has been one of the protocols that has unified NASA’s missions since they started as missions in the first place. It’s been a priority, Lavery notes, “since the very beginning of the space program.”

And yet sterilization, just like other NASA protocols, varies significantly by mission. The particulars are determined by two broad considerations: where a mission is going and what kind of spacecraft it’s using to get there. There’s an overall cleanliness standard that’s in place for every mission, Lavery notes — no earth bugs being the general goal — but beyond that, there’s a procedural spectrum NASA employs to determine its approach to decontamination.

For vehicles like the Voyager crafts, wandering the void of space with no planetary destination in mind, standards can be (relatively) less stringent. For a lander like Curiosity, however — or like the lunar modules that brought human life to the moon during the Apollo missions — the sterilization standards are stricter. Because, harsh as those environments may be to earthly life, large or small, there’s a far greater chance that life would find a way to survive in those environments than elsewhere.

We already know, for example, about the space-surviving skills of the tardigrade. And just recently, scientists discovered a species of bacteria able to survive in a lava tube, gleaning energy from a chemical reaction with the iron from basalt rock — precisely the kind of rock abundant on Mars.

Given all that, NASA ranks its missions into five general Planetary Protection categories:

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So why not simply give every mission, by default, the highest cleanliness standard, just to be safe? Because sterilization, like pretty much every protocol NASA goes through, isn’t cheap. It’s budgetary concerns, ultimately — and resource concerns more generally — that make decontamination a matter of calculated risk.

Because of that, NASA’s attempts at preventing cross-planet contamination have relied not just on antibiotic practices, but also on a near-universal feature of earthly life: its fragility. Catherine Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer, last year told Becca Rosen about the slim likelihood of biological commerce between Earth and Mars.

While Conley suspects NASA has transported things like bacteria and pollen spores and other pieces of life inside its spacecraft, there’s been a big caveat to the potential of contamination: “The surface conditions on Mars are pretty hostile to Earth life,” Conley says. Which means that “it’s not very likely that those organisms could actually reproduce, or even survive if they came off the spacecraft.”

Curiosity relies on the same slim odds. And the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, with a roving lander as its vehicle, is ranked as a Category IV. There are subclasses within that category, Lavery points out, based on the different environments Curiosity will be exploring within Mars itself. Just like on Earth, some areas of Mars are more (potentially) hospitable to life than others.

But protocols can also evolve. For Curiosity, the process of selecting exploration sites on Mars took place simultaneously with the process of its design — meaning that a shift in one led to a shift in the other. The Mars Science Laboratory mission started out as a Category IVa — the most stringent possible for landers and probes. (“We wanted to give ourselves as much leeway as we could,” Lavery explains.)

But when the Gale Crater was chosen as Curiosity’s landing site, NASA engineers realized that the IVa classification was “a little bit of overkill,” Lavery says, and downgraded the category — since, given the crater’s aridity, there was virtually no chance that Curiosity would encounter water or ice or anything else that could potentially foster life.

At the same time, engineers at JPL began to rethink the strategy they’d built for the rover’s drill bits. Growing increasingly concerned that a rough landing could damage the rover and the drill mechanism it would rely on so heavily to do much of its work on Mars, the engineers decided to open its previously sterilized box to add a new drill bit to Curiosity’s suite — thus ensuring that, even if one got damaged, another would remain to carry out the mission.

This switch-up, which wasn’t communicated until later to NASA’s planetary protection staff, is the subject of a recent Los Angeles Times article about the “rift” between microbiologists and engineers at the agency.

The notion of a strong divide at NASA might have been a bit overblown, though. The changes made to Curiosity, being not immediately communicated to Conley, were indeed a bureaucratic “slip-up.”

But, beyond that, not only did the implemented changes follow NASA procedure, Lavery says; they were also standard practice — part of the normal evolution of spacecraft design as it accounts for changes made to mission objectives. The mission changed; the vehicle changed along with it. And there’s always that magic 300,000-critter standard. Before Curiosity was launched, “We were able to do an assay that said we were well under that number,” Lavery says. “And we were good to go.”

The question remains, though: What if Curiosity does find water? Probabilistically, that’s unlikely. But Martian water — or Martian ice — is certainly not an impossibility. Particularly given the fact that Curiosity’s work involves drilling into the Martian crust. If the rover does encounter water, any earth-borne microbes lingering on its drill might simply perish in the harsh temperatures and atmosphere of the Red Planet. On the other hand, though … they could survive.

NASA will deal with that possibility when — and, more likely, if — it comes. There are procedures for that circumstance, too. As Lavery points out, those procedures would include NASA’s mission operators, its scientists and its planetary protection officers in a discussion about the best way to move forward. Procedures meant to avoid terraforming of the unintentional variety — procedures meant to ensure that, as we explore Mars, we don’t end up colonizing it, as well.”

This article originally published at The Atlantic
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Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/11/nasa-space-germs/