Since 2010, the United States military has been operating a pair of small reusable spaceplanes that conduct secretive long-duration flights in low Earth orbit. Now officially operating under the auspices of the newly formed Space Force, the X-37Bs allow the military to conduct in-house research on new hardware and technology with limited involvement from outside agencies. The spaceplane still needs to hitch a ride to space on a commercial rocket like the Atlas V or the Falcon 9, but once it’s separated from the booster, the remainder of the X-37B’s mission is a military affair.
So naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know about the USSF-7 mission that launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 17th. The duration of the mission and a complete manifest of the experiments aboard are classified, so nobody outside the Department of Defense truly knows what the robotic spacecraft is up to. But from previous missions we know the craft will likely remain in orbit for a minimum of two years, and there’s enough public information to piece together at least some of the investigations it will be conducting.
Certainly one the most interesting among them is an experiment from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that will study converting solar power into a narrow microwave beam; a concept that has long been considered the key to unlocking the nearly unlimited energy potential offered by an orbital solar array. Even on a smaller scale, a safe and reliable way to transmit power over the air would have many possible applications. For example it could be used to keep unmanned aerial vehicles airborne indefinitely, or provide additional power for electric aircraft as they take-off.
Performing an orbital test of this technology is a serious commitment, and shows that all involved parties must have a fairly high confidence level in the hardware. Unfortunately, there isn’t much public information available about the power beaming experiment currently aboard the X-37B. There’s not even an indication of when it will be performed, much less when we should expect to see any kind of report on how it went. But we can make some educated guesses based on the work that the Naval Research Laboratory has already done in this field.
In the surreal world of a pandemic lockdown, we are surrounded by news stories that defy satire. The idea that 5G cellular networks are to blame for the COVID-19 outbreak and a myriad other ills has the more paranoid corners of social media abuzz with concerned citizens leaping upon random pieces of street furniture as potential 5G infrastructure.
The unanimous advice of the world’s scientists, doctors, and engineers that it is inconceivable for a phone technology to cause a viral outbreak. Amusingly, 5G has not yet been rolled out to some of the places where this is happening. But with conspiracy theory, fact denial only serves to reinforce the idea, however misguided. Here at Hackaday we have already ventured into the technical and scientific side of the story, but there is another side to it that leaves the pandemic behind and reaches back over the decades. Fear of new technology and in particular radio is nothing new, it stretches back almost as long as the public has had access to it.
If you haven’t heard from other websites yet, earlier this year a leak of various Nintendo intellectual properties surfaced on the Internet. This included prototype software dating back to the Game Boy, as well as Verilog files for systems up to the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii. This leak seems to have originated from a breach in the BroadOn servers, a small hardware company Nintendo had contracted to make, among other things, the China-only iQue Player.
So, that’s the gist of it out of the way, but what does it all mean? What is the iQue Player? Surely now that a company’s goodies are out in the open, enthusiasts can make use of it and improve their projects, right? Well, no. A lot of things prevent that, and there’s more than enough precedent for it that, to the emulation scene, this was just another Tuesday.
You may have heard about a new bill working its way through the US congress, the EARN IT act. That’s the “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020”. (What does that mean? It means someone really wanted their initials to spell out “EARN IT”.)
EARN IT is a bipartisan bill that claims to be an effort to put a dent in child exploitation online. It’s also managed to catch the attention of the EFF, Schneier, and a variety of news outlets. The overwhelming opinion has been that EARN IT is a terrible idea, will make implementing end-to-end encryption impossible, and violates the First and Fourth Amendments. How does a bill intended to combat child pornography and sex trafficking end up on the EFF bad list? It’s complicated.
The Apollo program proved that humans could land on the Moon and do useful work, but due to logistical and technical limitations, individual missions were kept short. For the $28 billion ($283 billion adjusted) spent on the entire program, astronauts only clocked in around 16 days total on the lunar surface. For comparison, the International Space Station has cost an estimated $150 billion to build, and has remained continuously occupied since November 2000. Apollo was an incredible technical achievement, but not a particularly cost-effective way to explore our nearest celestial neighbor.
Leveraging lessons learned from the Apollo program, modern technology, and cooperation with international and commercial partners, NASA has recently published their plans to establish a sustained presence on the Moon within the next decade. The Artemis program, named for the twin sister of Apollo, won’t just be a series of one-off missions. Fully realized, it would consist not only of a permanent outpost where astronauts will work and live on the surface of the Moon for months at a time, but a space station in lunar orbit that provides logistical support and offers a proving ground for the deep-space technologies that will eventually be required for a human mission to Mars.
It’s an ambitious program on a short timeline, but NASA believes it reflects the incredible technological strides that have been made since humans last left the relative safety of low Earth orbit. Operating the International Space Station for 20 years has given the countries involved practical experience in assembling and maintaining a large orbital complex, and decades of robotic missions have honed the technology required for precision powered landings. By combining all of the knowledge gained since the end of Apollo, the Artemis program hopes to finally establish a continuous human presence on and around the Moon.
As the world pulls back from the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it enters what will be perhaps a more challenging time: managing the long-term presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. In the roughly two-century history of modern vaccination practices, we’ve gotten pretty good at finding ways to protect ourselves from infectious diseases, and there’s little doubt that we’ll do the same for SARS-CoV-2. But developing a vaccine against any virus or bacterium takes time, and in a pandemic situation, time is exactly what’s at a premium.
In an effort to create an effective vaccine against this latest viral threat, scientists and physicians around the world have been taking a different approach to inoculation. Rather than stimulating the immune system in the usual way with a weakened sample of the virus, they’re trying to use the genetic material of the virus to stimulate an immune response. These RNA vaccines are a novel approach to a novel infection, and understanding how they work will be key to deciding whether they’ll be the right way to attack this pandemic.
Saying that it was finally time for the community to bid a “fond but firm farewell to Python 2”, core developer Benjamin Peterson marked the release of Python 2.7.18 on April 20th; officially ending support for the 2.x branch of the popular programming language. It was hardly a snap decision. Python 3.0 was released all the way back in December 2008, and it was never a secret that the newer branch was not only incompatible with the earlier version, but that it would eventually superseded it to become the standard.
But migrating the incredible amount of Python code in the wild over to the latest and greatest was easier said than done. Millions upon millions of lines of code used in everything from Linux distributions to virtually every major web service needed to be reviewed and migrated over to Python 3. In many cases the changes were relatively minor, but when code is being used in mission critical applications, even the smallest of changes are often avoided unless it’s absolutely necessary. The voluntary migration took far longer than expected, and the end-of-life (EOL) for Python 2 was pushed back by years to accommodate developers who hadn’t made the necessary changes yet.
Given the somewhat fluid nature of the Python 2 EOL date, it seems fitting that this last final release would come several months after the “official” January 2020 deadline. The intention was for it to coincide with PyCon 2020, but just like so many of the events planned for the first half of the year, the in-person conference had to be canceled in favor of a virtual one due to the COVID-19 epidemic. That might have stymied the celebration somewhat, but the release of Python 2.7.18 will still be looked on as a special moment for everyone involved.