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 News.com 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.

Success!

SpaceShipOne and its pilot (now astronaut) Mike Melvill succeeded in reaching space and have returned to Earth. This goes into the record books as the first piloted private mission into space. Burt Rutan, chief of Scaled Composites is already planning to send a pilot into Earth orbit, after they attempt to win the Ansari X-Prize sometime by the end of this year.

Historic Flight in Progress

CNN and other news outlets are now (around 7:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time) showing live the flight of Scaled Composites’ White Knight and SpaceShipOne in its attempt at sending the first piloted private spacecraft into space. White Knight, the carrier jet, is currently heading up to 50,000 feet where it will release the SpaceShipOne space craft. Then SpaceShipOne will fire its rocket to take it up to 62 miles, the start of space above the Earth’s atmosphere. The pilot, Michael Melvill, is expected to spend about three minutes in weightlessness before gliding back down to earth.

UA Researchers Discuss Cassini-Huygens Mission

Researchers discussed the upcoming Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and preliminary composition results for Saturn’s tiny moon Phoebe at the University of Arizona this past Saturday. The public was invited to view informational displays, listen to speakers, and take part in a cake cutting ceremony.

Dr. Michael Drake, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Head of the Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona, opened the speaking session with an introduction to the spacecraft and planned science at Saturn. Professor Robert Brown followed with an introduction to the VIMS Instrument for which he is principle investigator. The device has determined that Phoebe is composed primarily of water ice but it also found indications of frozen carbon dioxide as well. The instrument has detected other materials that have not yet been identified.

The Huygens probe now piggybacking on Cassini will be released on December 25, 2004 toward Titan. Titan is a mysterious moon shrouded in clouds. The probe will parachute through the moon’s atmosphere and take images and other measurements on its way to the surface. Professor Jonathan Lunine provided information about what is presently known about Titan and current theories regarding the thick presence of methane in the atmosphere and possible lakes of ethane and methane on the surface.

The final speaker of the evening was Professor Marty Tomasko, Principal Investigator for the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) on the Huygens probe. This state-of-the-art device will peak out at the moon from the side of the probe during descent and snap up to 700 images. Professor Tomasko demonstrated his team’s ability to create panoramic images and video from these individual snapshots. These practice images and video were made from images taken near Tucson, Arizona using working duplicates of the equipment on Huygens.