It’s been a busy week for Lenovo, the world’s number 1 maker of PCs. It started the week announcing a refresh of some of its ThinkPad business laptops, and now it ends the week rolling out a bevy of systems designed for consumers’ computing needs.
At an event that jumps the gun on next week’s IFA trade show in Berlin, Lenovo unveiled new IdeaPad laptops, Chromebooks, an all-in-one PC, and its latest budget-priced Android tablets. We received a glimpse of the new Chromebooks earlier in the month when Lenovo released a teaser video about the new C340 and S340 models. The C340 lineup comprises a pair of convertible Chromebooks with 360-degree hinge and touchscreen, one 11 inches (and with pink chassis color option), and the other 15.6 inches that’s big enough to feature a full numeric keypad as part of its keyboard design. The S340 is a traditional 14-inch clamshell design with optional full HD touchscreen and a dark purple color choice option.
The S340 moniker is also used in the IdeaPad family of laptops, though the IdeaPad S340 is a new 13-inch value-priced notebook instead of a 14-inch system. The similarly sized S540’s stepped-up feature set includes double the base RAM and storage of the S340, a RapidCharge feature, and support for Windows Hello biometric login capabilities. Both new IdeaPads can be equipped with Intel’s latest 10-generation Core processors and Nvidia GeForce MX250 graphics and come in a trio of color options.
Lenovo hopes to resuscitate the waning Android tablet market with its Tab M7 and M8 models. Priced under $100, the 7-inch M7 provides basic specs (MediaTek quad-core processor, 1,024×600 display resolution), while the 8-inch M8 updates the processor (MediaTek A22 Tab), doubles the RAM to 2GB, and offers 1,280×800 resolution. Both versions come with Lenovo’s Kid’s Mode 3.0, which logs children under 12 into a special account with child-friendly apps and educational content.
Finally, the one very non-mobile launch is the IdeaCentre A540, a new all-in-one PC design available in 24-inch and 27-inch flavors. Its base doubles as a Qi wireless charging station, and a curved metallic pipe-like connection to the display adds a touch of industrial chic to its design. The A540 is available with either AMD or Intel processors inside, though only the Intel configurations offer AMD Radeon RX 560X graphics as an option. (You otherwise get the Radeon RX 540X as the GPU.) Though the base configs only come with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage, a maximum of 16GB and 1TB, respectively, is available (2TB if you prefer a hard drive to an SSD).
Known starting pricing and availability for Lenovo’s new systems are as follows (per CNET):
Facing intense international pressure and criticism, the World Health Organization has abandoned plans to release a summary report of its investigation into the possible origin of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
Instead, the health agency of the United Nations is skipping the summary report and plans to release a full report the week of March 15. The WHO had previously said it would release a summary report in mid-February.
“By definition, a summary report does not have all the details,” Dr. Ben Embarek, a WHO expert who led the investigation, told The Wall Street Journal. “So since there [is] so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”
In a press conference Friday, the executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, Mike Ryan, echoed the thinking, saying that skipping right to the full report will facilitate discussion given the tremendous demand for the investigation’s findings.
The limited information about the investigation’s findings that has been released so far has already fueled intense criticism and ratcheted up tension between the US and China.
The investigation was conducted by a team of international researchers and WHO experts between mid-January and early February in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic first mushroomed in December of 2019. The WHO team underwent a 14-day quarantine upon their arrival, then spent about 12 days doing field work around the city.
They visited places such as the infamous Huanan seafood market, where many of the first COVID-19 cases were linked, as well as the hospital where the first patients sought treatment. The team also made a trip to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has become the focus of rampant speculation that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab—possibly after it was picked up in the course of research on coronaviruses in bats and/or purposely engineered to infect humans. Though virologists the world over have noted that this explanation is unlikely—a natural spillover event is seen as the most likely origin—they note that it’s impossible to rule it out without more information.
In a press conference from Wuhan on February 9, the WHO team all but said they had, indeed, ruled it out. Embarek called the lab origin hypothesis “extremely unlikely” and suggested there was no need to pursue the idea further. Instead, Embarek supported researchers’ earlier thinking, calling the natural spillover hypothesis the “most likely pathway” SARS-CoV-2 took to humans. Chinese scientists, meanwhile, held up the possibility that the virus was imported into the country via frozen freight—an idea seen as unsupported by data and unlikely by international researchers.
When the WHO team members arrived back in their home countries, their conclusions appeared to soften. In a press briefing, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus seemed to walk back Embarek’s earlier comments on the lab origin hypothesis. “Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” Tedros said. “Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies. Some of that work may lie outside the remit and scope of this mission.”
Other scientists and experts criticized the investigation and the comments, saying that the team was not given the necessary unfettered access to critical places and data to come to any conclusions. One of the team’s own members bolstered that criticism. In media interviews, WHO investigation team member Dominic Dwyer reported that Chinese officials withheld key raw data that the team requested on the very first COVID-19 cases identified in Wuhan.
US officials have also expressed skepticism of the integrity of WHO’s investigation. In a February 13 statement, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them. It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government.”
Likewise, in an interview on PBS this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “China has not been fully and effectively transparent either at the start of this crisis, when it mattered most, or even today as investigations are going forward trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”
In final comments in the press conference Friday, Tedros responded to the calls for transparency, saying that everything that happened during the team’s trip to Wuhan will be presented in full in the forthcoming report.
Welcome to Edition 3.35 of the Rocket Report! There is an incredible amount of launch news this week, but I want to start with this: my new book on the origins of SpaceX, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, was published this week. Early reviews have been tremendous, and if you’re at all interested in the company, or just want a rollicking story, please check it out.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Rocket Lab unveils plans for larger rocket. This week, the US rocket company said it had plans to go public, as well as develop a “Neutron” rocket capable of launching as much as 8 tons to low Earth orbit. “Rocket Lab solved small launch with Electron. Now we’re unlocking a new category with Neutron,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO, in a news release. The company plans an initial launch in 2024 but is only now beginning work on a new engine.
Another space SPAC … The company also said it planned to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, with Vector Acquisition Company. The public offering will allow Rocket Lab to raise the funds needed to accelerate its growth plans, including development of the Neutron vehicle. Ars has interviewed Peter Beck about these plans and will go deeper in a forthcoming article. (submitted by EllPeaTea, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)
NASA awards Mars ascent rocket contract. The space agency has awarded the Mars Ascent Propulsion System contract to Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation as part of its efforts to retrieve rock samples from the surface of Mars. The cost-plus, fixed-fee contract has a potential mission services value of $60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $84.5 million, NASA said.
Much work to do … Coupled with the successful touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, this award moves NASA and ESA one step closer to realizing the Mars Sample Return mission. This two-stage rocket will be a critical element in supporting the mission to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth. There’s still a long way to go, and we shouldn’t expect samples to land on Earth before the end of the 2020. But this is a positive step forward.
The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.
Astra nabs NASA contracts for TROPICS missions. NASA said it has selected Astra Space to provide launch services for the agency’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats, or TROPICS mission. Launches of the constellation of six CubeSats will begin as early as next year.
Eye on the storm … The launch service contract for the TROPICS mission is a firm fixed-price contract valued at $7.95 million, and it will be composed of three separate launches of Astra rockets. The CubeSats will provide rapid-refresh microwave measurements that can be used to determine temperature, pressure, and humidity inside hurricanes as they form and evolve. This is a nice contract win for Astra and will likely bolster the confidence of other potential customers in its launch system. Related: Astra reveals its 100-year plan to SpaceNews. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
India launches its first mission of 2021. On Saturday, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle sent Brazil’s Amazonia-1 Earth observation satellite and 18 smaller payloads into orbit. The mission was hailed as the first dedicated commercial mission of NewSpace India Limited, a Government of India company under the Department of Space, SpaceNews reports.
Getting back on track … The launch is India’s first of a 2021, following a 2020 severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Satish Dhawan Space Center carried out its first (and only) 2020 mission in November with the launch of the EOS-1 Earth observation satellite and nine smaller payloads. India is expected to launch a number of missions in the coming months including the flight of the country’s first geostationary Earth observation satellite. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX wins hypersonics heat shield contract. The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded SpaceX an $8.5 million contract to investigate advanced materials and manufacturing techniques for heat shields that protect hypersonic vehicles in flight, SpaceNews reports. An AFRL spokesman said this was a competitive program with multiple bidders.
Re-entry gets hot … Heat protection is a critical technology to shield hypersonic vehicles from the intense heat experienced when flying at more than five times the speed of sound. SpaceX has previously developed advanced heat-shielding systems to protect the Dragon human spaceflight capsule and its next-generation Starship space exploration vehicle. (submitted by Rendgrish)
Starliner launch slips to indefinite. Recently, NASA announced that it was delaying the launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, on an Atlas V rocket, from March 25 to April 2. Now, the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission has been delayed again, with no new date set. In a news release, NASA attributed to the delay to “winter storms in Houston and the recent replacement of avionics boxes.” This set the program back about two weeks.
Launch a couple of months away … The winter storms were no picnic (trust me), but power was restored to most homes and businesses that lost electricity after about three days. NASA cited other factors it is weighing in setting a new date, including “the volume of verification and validation analysis required prior to the test flight and the visiting vehicle schedule at the International Space Station.” Sources said the launch was now likely to occur no earlier than late May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity Space plans Falcon 9 competitor. Relativity Space, the 3D-printing rocket builder, is making another big bet: developing a fully reusable rocket, designed to match the power and capability of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. Called Terran R, the reusable rocket is “really an obvious evolution” from the company’s Terran 1 rocket, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC.
Not skipping Terran 1 … “I’ve always been a huge fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it, even with 3D printing, and dropping the cost, and [increasing the] automation of a launch vehicle, making it reusable has got to be part of that future,” Ellis added. The company said it is still committed to developing the smaller Terran 1 rocket, which is scheduled for its first flight later this year. (submitted by gavron and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX updates on Falcon 9 landing failure. On February 16, during its sixth mission to orbit, a Falcon 9 rocket first stage successfully delivered its payload of 60 satellites into low Earth orbit. However the booster then failed to make a safe landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Watch out for boot holes … This week, during a news conference for the upcoming Crew-2 mission, SpaceX’s Benji Reed provided an update on what happened. A Merlin rocket engine boot developed a hole and sent hot gas to “where it wasn’t supposed to be,” Reed said, and shut down during first stage flight. There was therefore not enough thrust for landing. The company continues to investigate. (submitted by Ken the Bin, platykurtic, and JohnCarter17)
Cape Canaveral assessing launch weather rules. Spaceflight Now has an interesting article this week on the lengths that US Space Force officials are going to work with companies like SpaceX to accommodate their launch windows and cope with weather. This includes strategies to prepare for two different launch windows on a given day to guard against weather delays.
Some fine forecasting … In an interview with the publication, SpaceX advisor Hans Koenigsmann praised the Space Force officials. He said the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which tracks launch weather conditions at Cape Canaveral, is “absolutely amazing.” “The level of detail that we get is remarkable, how good the forecast is,” Koenigsmann said. “There are launches where we work the entire time with the weather officer and try to find the right time.” All of this is being done to increase the number of launches the Cape can conduct in a given year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next OneWeb launch on track. This week, Roscosmos said the next launch of OneWeb satellites, due to occur later this month, will be the second fully commercial launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. It is being conducted by European launch-service supplier Arianespace for OneWeb, using the Soyuz launch vehicle.
Scrambling to catch up … The satellites have already arrived at the spaceport for integration with the rocket. The mission will add 36 satellites to the existing OneWeb constellation of 110 satellite. OneWeb is seeking to accelerate the implementation of its satellite Internet service as SpaceX continues launching about 120 Starlink internet satellites a month.
Starship makes its third high-altitude test flight. The Starship prototype dubbed SN10 landed this time, after the previous two flights had failed. For about 10 minutes, it stood there. Suddenly, the vehicle briefly rose upward in a violent explosion and crashed back into the pad. This landing was unquestionably a step forward, as SpaceX engineers seem to have figured out the vexing issues with propellant and Raptor relighting that had scuttled the two previous landing attempts.
But is it enough forward progress? … What we don’t know is how NASA will see this, Ars reports. Will it be deemed a positive? Or as a negative, with the third destruction of a Starship in three flights? This matters as the agency gets closer to a down-select next month for its Human Landing System contract that could see billions of dollars flow to SpaceX for its Starship program—or not. NASA may decide to go with more conventional landers under development by teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.
NASA vet George Abbey says SLS rocket should be reconsidered. In a policy brief for the Biden administration, Abbey—the former director of Johnson Space Center and an influential, long-time human spaceflight leader—offered an overview of the Space Launch System rocket. The goal of the document was to provide decision-makers “relevant and effective ideas” for supporting to nation’s policy goals.
Launch costs should matter … “In view of the current availability of a significant number of commercial launch vehicles with proven payload capabilities, as well as the industry’s progress in providing a launch vehicle with significantly greater lift capabilities, the Biden administration should reconsider the need for the SLS during its annual budget review,” writes Abbey, who is now a senior fellow in space policy for Rice University.
Some explanation on why New Glenn was delayed. Ars provides a behind-the-scenes report on why New Glenn is now unlikely to launch before 2023 at least. The biggest takeaway is that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos made the critical decision to leap directly from New Shepard to New Glenn, without an interim step in between. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one source noted.
Step-by-step, but not always? … The story also discusses the management style of Bob Smith, who became CEO of Blue Origin in 2017 and has been trying to implement a culture transformation from hobby shop to major aerospace corporation. Some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly. Another factor in the delay is that Blue Origin simply has higher priorities right now, particularly finishing the BE-4 engine for United Launch Alliance and competing for the Human Landing System contract from NASA.
Next three launches
March 8: Falcon 9 | Starlink-20 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 03:41 UTC
March 12: Long March 7A | XJY-06 02 | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China | 13:34 UTC
March 20: Soyuz 2.1a | Ride-share mission including Astroscale ELSA-d mission | Baikonur Cosmodrome | TBD
Entropy (aka the second law of thermodynamics) is a harsh mistress. If you think of the universe as a cosmic casino, the laws of thermodynamics amount to the house edge: you can’t win, you can’t break even, and—barring opening a portal to an alternate universe with different physical laws—you can’t get out of the game. You just have to keep playing, and hopefully come up with successful strategies to minimize your losses as much as possible—and maybe even come out ahead occasionally, at least in the short term.
That’s the essence of a new paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, updating a classic 19th century thought experiment known as Maxwell’s demon, which provides a potential loophole to subvert the second law—at least temporarily. Now physicists have proposed a gambling version of the demon playing a slot machine, unable to control when the machine pays out (in terms of free energy available for work), but able to choose when to stop playing to maximize its “winnings.” The research might one day lead to improved efficiency of microscopic heat engines and motors.
As we’ve reported previously, around 1870, James Clerk Maxwell envisioned a tiny imp capable of creating order out of disorder in a closed container filled with gas. The imp accomplished this by making heat flow from a cold compartment to a hot one in apparent violation of the second law. The two compartments would be separated by a wall with a shutter covering a pinhole just large enough for a gas molecule to pass through.
Maxwell’s hypothetical imp would perch atop the dividing wall and open and close the shutter at will. Gas molecules would generally be highly disordered (high entropy), in the sense that they have roughly the same average speed and temperature, and would therefore be close to equilibrium. So there would not be much energy available for “work”—defined in physics as the force over a given distance (W=fd).
Because the atoms that make up the molecules are constantly in motion, there will be small fluctuations over time. Whenever the demon spots a molecule moving a bit faster near the pinhole in the right (cold) compartment, it will open the shutter and let it pass through to the left (hot) compartment. It does the same for any slow-moving gas molecules in the left compartment, allowing them to pass into the colder right compartment. So the molecules in the left compartment get hotter and hotter, while the ones in the right get colder and colder, in an apparent reversal of entropy. Once you have that temperature difference, you basically have a heat pump capable of performing useful work.
Statistically, of course, it’s well nigh impossible to sort and separate billions of single molecules by speed or temperature. In principle, a huge amount of additional energy would be required. Maxwell’s demon supplies that extra energy, so the thought experiment is not a truly closed system, and there’s no violation of the second law.
Physicists have come up with some pretty clever experiments to bring some version of the demon to the laboratory. For instance, Scottish scientists devised an “information ratchet” in 2007 to create a temperature difference in chemical systems that would otherwise be in thermal equilibrium. The following year, University of Oregon researchers devised an ingenious version using laser light to create a box, with two other lasers to serve as a trapdoor barrier and a sorting “demon,” respectively.
Japanese physicists figured out how to coax a nanoscale bead up a spiral staircase in a 2010 paper in Nature, based on the concept of Szilard’s engine. In 2013, German scientists built an experimental equivalent of Maxwell’s demon out of a pair of interacting quantum dots (tiny bits of semiconductors just a few nanometers wide). And in 2018, Penn State physicists rearranged a random array of atoms into organized blocks to create a quantum equivalent of Maxwell’s Demon.
For this latest paper, co-author Gonzalo Manzano of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, and his colleagues wondered if they could devise a strategy that didn’t require the high level of control of the original thought experiment, while still allowing the demon to create that all-important asymmetry to harvest energy for work. In this new version, the microscale demon can only passively observe as the shutter opens and closes automatically—and unpredictably. Depending on whether hot and cold particles are successfully being separated with each opening and closing of the shutter, the demon must choose whether to continue to “play” the game, or stop and start over.
In essence, the demon is gambling on the outcome of a molecular-scale slot machine, deciding after each spin whether to keep playing, or to stop. Each turn incurs a cost in work, akin to the cost of each spin. The gambling demon must determine the best strategy to eke out a temporary net gain in its energy winnings, by exploiting the occasional random fluctuations in the motion of the particles. “One way to develop successful strategies is to stop when things are somehow ‘getting bad’ to avoid major losses,” Manzano told APS Physics.
Manzano et al. found that there was no single successful strategy: some “stopping” strategies were successful, and others were not, and even the successful ones only worked in the short term. Play the game long enough, and entropy always wins out in the end. The authors found that the key to getting a temporary net energy gain for any given run is to ensure that the sequence of opening and closing the shutter breaks time-reversal symmetry (in keeping with the arrow of time that governs our macroscale existence).
This was born out by an experimental nanoelectronic device that the team set up with the help of Aalto University physicist Jukka Pekola, in which single electrons tunnel into a metallic island. As Philip Ball wrote at APS Physics:
[The device] consists of electrodes separated from a metallic island by a gap. When cooled to a fraction of a degree kelvin, individual electrons can jump between the island and the electrodes. A voltage applied to the island controls the chances of jumping and thus acts like a trapdoor. When an electron jumps onto the island, heat extracted from the electrode can be converted into work; conversely, when an electron jumps from the island to an electrode, heat is dissipated.
An approach like the gambling demon might one day improve the performance of micromotors like thermal ratchets. The researchers maintain that their gambling demon should also function in the quantum realm, raising the possibility of quantum devices that can temporarily beat the second law to extract work from random quantum jumps.