Cassini Arrives at Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens descent probe should be in orbit around Saturn now after Cassini completed a 96-minute engine burn to slow down and allow itself to be caught. Because of the nearly one and one half hour speed of light time lag between Saturn and the Earth, we are only now getting signals from the spacecraft as it passes over Saturn’s rings. Confirmation of orbit should arrive sometimes around 9:15 pm Pacific Standard Time.

While passing through one of the wide divisions in the ring system, Cassini will snap images of the planet and its rings far superior to anything previously obtained. This data should arrive sometime early in the morning on July 1 and NASA is hoping to release images to the public around 5:00 am Pacific Standard Time.

Cassini will spend the next four years orbiting Saturn and gathering data about the planet and its rings and moons. In January 2005 the Huygens probe will parachute through Titan’s thick red atmosphere.

South Korea: The Most Technologically Advanced Society in History

CNET is running a series of articles this week exploring the technological rise of South Korea. The small country is now considered to be the most technologically advanced society in the world. Broadband reaches 71 percent of the country at speeds ten times faster than broadband in the United States. This infrastructure has brought rapid economic growth and lifestyle changes to a country that in 1997 plummeted into financial disaster.

Advanced technologies such as robotics, wearable computers, system on a chip, wireless communications, digital data convergence in cell phones, networked homes, are all progressing rapidly in South Korea. South Korean company Mostitech has shocked the robotics industry by introducing a security bot nearly twenty times cheaper than competing products from other countries. Researchers in the country also successfully cloned a human embryo earlier this year.

With all this progress, South Korea is seen as a test bed for societal changes brought on by advanced technology. Observing Korean society now may give us an early view of changes coming to the rest of the world soon.

Wetware Rising

Subjectively, analog representations of reality, such as an LP of music played on a record player, are considered to be “warm” by purists, as opposed to the “cold” digital playback of MP3 and other audio codices. In all things digital, reality is translated into binary code using only 1 and 0 (or off and on). The Digital Revolution has obviously succeeded beyond all expectations because the massive amount of 1’s and 0’s used creates such a fine-scale representation of reality that human senses cannot tell the difference. The best audio technology today is now almost undistinguishable by humans from analog formats. The digital Ultra High Definition video currently in laboratories is reportedly so effective at representing reality that human viewers feel motion sickness.

One current drawback of digital technology to create artificial retinas and other sensory replacements is the enormous amounts of data required to emulate reality. Current artificial visual systems require dedicated computer systems and result in only a visible grid of white and black areas that represent open areas and boundaries. While this technology is a huge step forward for the blind, the full-color, widescreen, three-dimensional representation of the world enjoyed by most sighted people seems a long shot.

Enter analog technology. Analog technology detects the continuum of data between two set points bounded only by its capabilities. For example, the human biological eye is an analog device that can perceive the degrees of color wavelengths bounded by the visible light slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. New audio technology from Akustica embeds a membrane-based device on a microchip. Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a microchip with a chemical delivery system for the same neurotransmitters that the biological eye uses to transmit visual data into the brain for processing. This merging of analog mechanical devices with electronics is called Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology.

The Analog and Digital Revolutions currently underway are merging into “wetware” (the perceived “wetness” of biological systems combined with the “dry” logic of digital hardware and software).

SETI@home Begins Transition to BOINC

SETI@home is one of the original peer-to-peer success stories, using the idle times of millions of private computers to crunch data looking for alien signals in radio waves from space. The application that enables this virtual supercomputer has gotten a high tech upgrade by moving to the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform. This new platform helps simplify the process for creating and managing distributed computing projects like SETI@home. This allows a participant to participate in multiple projects and may help protect against fraudulent data being sent back to project servers.

The screensaver feature of SETI@home also gets an upgrade. The original two-dimensional window that included work unit information along with an animation of the work unit in progress now floats as a 3D object against an animated star field.

NASA Holds Phoebe Press Conference

NASA held a press conference today regarding the latest analysis of data received from the Cassini spacecraft flyby of Saturn’s moon Phoebe. The data suggests that Phoebe is a captured object that originated in the Kuiper Belt rather than the Asteroid Belt. It appears to be composed mostly of water ice and rock, with some surface organic materials, carbon dioxide, and possibly hydrocarbons. Scientist hope further review of the data can help them confirm or deny their theories regarding the origination and formation of the solar system.

Futuristic Cancer Treatment Undergoes Initial Trials

Researchers have initiated animal trials for a potential cancer treatment using nanotechnology. The early results are promising. In the experiment, nanoshells built to heat up under a specific near-infrared frequency were injected into groups of mice with cancerous tumors in their tissues. After a few hours the skin above the tumors were irradiated with a near-infrared laser. The nanoshells apparently migrated to diseased tumor cells rather than healthy cells and killed these cells as they heated up. The healthy tissue around the tumors was unaffected.

Human Cloning Around the World

Human cloning for therapeutic purposes is winning governmental approval in Britain and Japan, among other countries. This new support contrasts with past debate that resulted in the ban of federal funding for such research in the United States. Despite this ban, researchers in the United States early this year reportedly cloned a human embryo and were able to obtain stem cells (the prized so-called “fountain of youth” cells from which most cells in the body differentiate). A team in South Korea also reported similar success.

Progress in stem cell research and cloning has accelerated in recent months, laying the foundation for a technology that could lead to new treatments and cures for many biological ills. This foundation could also lead to human cloning for reproductive purposes, leading to renewed calls for a ban of the technology. While ethical considerations should always be considered, it is doubtful that any such ban would be effective. As expertise and confidence grows, a new competitive atmosphere (among governments as well as researchers) will no doubt ensure continued progress, for good or ill.