Too much of a good thing is generally a bad thing, but a surfeit of asteroid material is probably a valid exception to that rule. Such was NASA’s plight as it started to unpack the sample return capsule recently dropped off by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it flew by Earth, only to discover it was packed to overflowing with samples of asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft, which arrived at Bennu in 2018 and spent a good long time mapping the near-Earth asteroid, apparently approached its carefully selected landing site a bit too energetically and really packed the sample container full of BennuBits™ — so much so that they could actually see sample shedding off into space before stowing it for the long trip back to Earth. The container is now safely in the hands of the sample analysis team, who noted that everything in the TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Module), even the avionics deck, is covered with black particles, each precious one of which needs to be collected and cataloged. The black stuff is especially interesting to planetary scientists, as it might be exactly what they were after when they selected Bennu, which may have broken off a much larger carbon-rich asteroid a billion or so years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if these interplanetary hitchhikers have anything to tell us about the origin of life in the solar system.
At the risk of offending pretty much everyone, we’re just going to state the obvious: cats are jerks. Even the cat lovers out there have to admit that everything your fur-babies do is designed to show humans what they really think of our slavish devotion to their needs. You only have to watch a cat gently nudging an unattended glass of water ever closer to the edge of a table to know that. Or, be a sysadmin whose cat walked across the keyboard and deleted a server cluster. That’s apparently the story behind a four-hour interruption in services at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, at least according to someone who was on a teleconference review of the incident in September. It’s completely plausible, of course; anyone with a cat is familiar with their many “Pay attention to me NOW!” ploys, and a fair number of readers have probably lost work as a result of one of their strolls across the keyboard. Strangely, the VA doesn’t acknowledge the feline faux pas in its statement on the outage, instead blaming “an inadvertent deletion of server profiles.” We’d say that’s a poor decision; not mentioning the cat leaves too much to the imagination, but leaning into the story is something everyone can understand.
In this week’s “Dystopia Minute,” we came across a story that seems to suggest that those adorable food delivery robots may actually be tools of the surveillance state. Emails between Serve Robotics, which plans to operate up to 2,000 of the cooler-on-wheels food-bots in Los Angeles, and the LAPD concern an attempted grand larceny where two men allegedly tried to steal one of the company’s robots in February of 2023. The company provided the LAPD with raw camera footage from the target robot, which was used as evidence to arrest and convict the suspects. Cooperation with police seems entirely appropriate in this case; these are expensive machines that are the primary asset of the company, and they have every right to protect them by sharing whatever data they produce. But a simple review of the video captured by the bot shows just how rich a data set it represents, and raises questions about what else might be captured unintentionally. In a way, these bots are like a mobile network of Ring doorbell cameras, wandering the streets and slurping up video of everything they see. It’s hard not to see how law enforcement would look at that for the goldmine of free surveillance that it is, if the company and others in this space can be persuaded to cooperate. Just remember that the next time you see one of these friendly robots, they might not just be delivering your burritos.
Bad news, fellow Star Trek fans: looks like those cool antigravity handlers Kirk used to dispose of Nomad after talking it into committing suicide are going to have to a remain sci-fi trope, because there’s no such thing as antigravity. This might seem intuitive, but the possibility of a repulsive equivalent of the attractive force we (and our cats) know and love so well has been an open question with physicists for decades. To see if antigravity actually happens, they used a device called ALPHA-g, which traps and accumulates several thousand antihydrogen atoms produced by smashing antiprotons and positrons together. They release these into the middle of a vertical vacuum chamber and watch for annihilation events at the top and the bottom of the chamber. Surprise, there are way more events at the bottom detector, meaning that regular gravity acts on antimatter the same way it does on regular matter. There’s a lot more detail in the paper that’s far beyond our grasp, but the most interesting bit is that we can create and manipulate antimatter pretty much at will. So we’ve got that going for us, at least.
And finally, do you think you can tell a programming language developer from a serial killer? Don’t be too sure; unless you’ve spent a lot of time going through the lore of either field of endeavor, judging a book by its cover is tougher than it seems. Is that a photo of a brooding criminal with dead eyes, or just a really bad photo from a university ID card? And surely that sweet little old lady would be baking cookies and putting out ribbon candy between coding sessions rather than killing people off for their Social Security benefits, right?