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System76 prepping updated Darter Pro Linux laptop

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PC & Laptops

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System76 Darter Pro Linux laptop


Trevor Gass

System76 has been producing Linux-based computers for years, succeeding well enough that it could even produce a PC manufactured largely in the United States. Its latest plans are for a refresh of the Darter Pro laptop to answer customers’ requests for improved battery life.

The Darter Pro is a thin and light portable (3.6 pounds, 0.78 inches thick) designed to offer more than just the basics for computing tasks. It will ship with either an Intel Core i58265U or i7-8565U quad-core processor, up to 32GB of RAM, up to 2TB of built-in storage, and a full HD 15.6-inch display. System76 claims that the updated Darter Pro will provide a full workday’s worth of battery life so you don’t need to be chained to a wall outlet by noon.

While a laptop like the Dell XPS 13 can ship with Ubuntu Linux if you choose the Developer Edition, the Darter Pro only ships with a choice of Linux OS: Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, or one of two versions of System76’s own Linux OS, Pop!_OS 18.04 LTS or Pop!_OS 18.10 (64-bit). Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, but offers additional features such as full-disk encryption for the company’s systems.

According to Softpedia News, System76 will begin taking orders for the Darter Pro beginning on February 5. Pricing has not been announced — at least we won’t have to wait too long — though the company’s other laptop lines are generally priced around the $1,000 mark.

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Firefly completes design of Moon mission, aiming for 2023 launch

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Enlarge / An artist’s rendering of Firefly’s Blue Ghost spacecraft landing on the Moon.

Firefly Aerospace

Although Firefly Aerospace is only a few weeks removed from its first-ever launch attempt, the Texas-based space company is already making good progress toward its first mission to land on the Moon.

Firefly said Monday that it has completed the “critical design review” phase of its program to develop a lunar lander. This means the company can now proceed to build and order components for the “Blue Ghost” spacecraft and begin its assembly. Firefly aims to launch the spacecraft as the primary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket in the fall of 2023.

NASA is sponsoring the mission as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program, through which it pays private companies to deliver scientific experiments to the Moon. NASA is paying $93.3 million for this Blue Ghost mission, which will carry 10 payloads down to the Mare Crisium lunar basin in September 2023.

“We got through the critical design review process in eight months, which is a very fast pace for sending something to the surface of the Moon,” William Coogan, Blue Ghost’s chief engineer, told Ars.

The lander is sized like a large person, about 2 meters tall, and capable of carrying 155 kg of payload to the Moon’s surface. From the time that NASA ordered the mission, Firefly will have had about 2.5 years to design and build the lander, Coogan said.

He is most excited about the spacecraft’s potential to stream high-definition video from the surface of the Moon at 10 megabits per second. One camera, at the top of the spacecraft, will be set to track to Earth as it moves over the Moon, and its eclipse as it sets over the horizon. Coogan said he is eager to share such a view of our home planet with the entire world.

To date, NASA has selected six missions as part of the innovative commercial lunar payload program. The first two of these, built separately by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, may launch in 2022. If Blue Ghost holds to its production schedule, it should be the third or fourth private US mission to land on the Moon.

Firefly started as a launch company and attempted its first Alpha rocket launch in early September. The rocket failed after one of its first-stage engines shut off only seconds after launch, but the company is already well on its way toward a second attempt, said CEO Tom Markusic. The company plans to deliver hardware for its second flight to the launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base in December and may attempt a launch as early as January 2022.

The company’s rocket production process is strongly vertically integrated, so developing Blue Ghost has been a challenge in that it relies more heavily on external partners, Markusic said. For example, the spacecraft’s engines are being built by a Ukrainian company, Flight Control. And the supply chain issues that have struck other industries have hit the aerospace sector as well.

The Blue Ghost team is shown in front of actual-size spacecraft models.
Enlarge / The Blue Ghost team is shown in front of actual-size spacecraft models.

Firefly Aerospace

“I’d say the supply chain is my biggest concern, but it’s not a serious concern,” Markusic said about Blue Ghost’s scheduled launch and lunar landing. “The way we’ve mitigated that is we’ve picked good partners and we’ve watched them carefully. Overall I feel good.”

Although he began Firefly to launch rockets, Markusic said he has realized that to scale in the space industry, a company needs to do more than launch. SpaceX, for example, has diversified beyond launch with its Dragon spacecraft and Starlink satellite businesses.

So in addition to developing a larger “Beta” rocket and the Blue Ghost lander, Firefly is also working on an in-space utility vehicle. The privately held company completed a round of Series A funding earlier this year and aims to raise an additional $100 million or more by the first quarter of 2023 to fund its ongoing development activities.

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When it comes to solar farms, sheep are great groundskeepers

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Enlarge / Sheep may safely graze.

What makes a good spot for livestock and a good spot for solar farms often overlaps. They’re both large, quite flat, and get a good amount of sun, being free from tall vegetation. As such, solar producers are increasingly leasing farm land for their operations.

The increase in solar production has environmental benefits, but it can come at the price of diminished agriculture production. That’s why there’s a growing interest in finding ways of combining ag and solar production in one place. For Todd Schmit, an associate professor of agribusiness at Cornell University, this means bringing out the sheep.

It’s still a new field (Editor’s note: pun so unintended that Doug didn’t even see it until I asked), but some farmers are partnering with solar producers, the former using the latter’s land for grazing. The solar producers pay farmers to ship their sheep over to their operations, and the sheep chow down on the weeds and other plants that might grow to the point they block the Sun from reaching the panels.

The sheep get fed, the farmers get paid, and the solar producers have their vegetation managed without using mowers and weed whackers—which can sometimes struggle to reach beneath the panels and use fossil fuels—or herbicides. This industry has been expanding in New York state since 2017, according to a report by the American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA). The report notes that the Empire State currently has 900 acres of solar energy-producing land being grazed. But there’s still plenty of room to grow.

Why sheep?

Currently, not much lamb or mutton is produced in the US. According to the USDA, more than half of this meat is imported from New Zealand and Australia. As such, having sheep graze alongside solar panels could be a bit of a growth sector—and not just for meat, as sheep also produce wool and milk. Schmit noted that, although the US doesn’t currently consume much sheep’s meat, the domestic market is growing. Raising the livestock in the US could also bolster local economies.

There are a few reasons sheep are the superior choice for grazing on solar farms. For one, they are shorter than cows and horses. They will also eat most kinds of forage, which helps keep plant growth at bay. Goats, on the other hand, will chew pretty much anything, which is a bit of a risk on solar farms.

“Cows and horses are too big, so they can do damages by rubbing on the panels,” Schmit said. “Goats will eat the wires; sheep won’t. Go figure. Sheep are like the perfect medium for this.”

Sunny disposition

Recently, Schmit received $500,000 in funding (half from Cornell, the other half from the USDA) over three years. The funding is to help expand the solar-sheep practice through the creation of either a business cooperative or producer-owned organization. The project is called “A New Dawn for Shepherds: Grazing Sheep Under Utility-Scale Solar Arrays.” Schmit is partnering with various farmers, solar industry professionals, and the ASGA, which is a nonprofit organization that connects sheep farmers with solar producers. Together, they will determine what form New Dawn will take and what it will offer to farmers either hoping to expand their sheep production on solar farms or get started doing it.

The process will involve interviewing the farmers—both current and prospective—about their common needs and goals as well as their common vision for the organization. Schmit and his team will also speak with solar producers to get a sense of what they would like to see from the organization.

The form the organization will take and what it will provide are still being determined. According to Schmit, generally speaking, solar operations would rather just deal with a single entity rather than multiple farms. So the organization could be a kind of point of contact between them and the shepherds. It could also help the shepherds with contract negotiations, marketing, planning, deliveries, and logistics, among other things. However, reaching a consensus among the farmers will take some time.

“Consensus drives participation,” Schmit told Ars. “Consensus drives investment. Consensus drives more interest in the project.”

Wool they or won’t they?

(Pun completely intended that time.)

Schmit added that, although New Dawn is focused more on New York and the American Northeast, throughout the process, he and his team will be developing tools, guides, financial feasibility templates, etc., that can be used by other groups hoping to start similar organizations elsewhere. “At the end of the day, we want to be able to develop things that industries, farms, developers can use. Not everyone has to start at zero,” he said.

ASGA co-founder Lexie Hain said that the business co-op could potentially establish biosecurity protocols. If sheep from different farms mingle, they could potentially spread diseases, which is an issue that might need addressing. The organization could also potentially bargain for cheaper insurance and help suss out details around transit.

According to Hain, solar grazing is still a young field, but farmers and solar operators are becoming increasingly interested. The ASGA only formally began in 2019, but as of last February, it had 246 members, made up of various solar and sheep industry professionals. “I think there’s a lot of interest in it, and there’s a lot of potential,” she told Ars.

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300-year-old tree rings confirm recent uptick in hurricane-driven rainfall

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Enlarge / Towering longleaf pines in the Green Swamp of North Carolina.

Tropical cyclones like Hurricane Ida can cause severe flooding, producing disruptions, damage, and loss of life. Like many other types of weather, tropical cyclones and hurricanes on the US East Coast have become more extreme over the past several decades. Although there is some controversy over the extent of the increase in intensity, there is evidence that such storms are moving more slowly than in the past. This slower movement causes storms to last longer and produce more rain. However, because conventional weather records only go as far back as 1948, it’s unclear how unusual these slow-moving cyclones are compared to earlier weather patterns. 

A recent study addresses this question by using tree rings to reconstruct hundreds of years of seasonal cyclone precipitation levels. The studied trees, some over 300 years old, show that precipitation extremes have been increasing by 2 to 4 mm per decade, resulting in a cumulative increase in rainfall of as much as 128 mm (five inches) compared to the early 1700s. The greatest increases have occurred in the last 60 years, and recent extremes are unmatched by any prior events. 

Beyond establishing these reconstructed historical records, researchers are working with these data sets to improve forecasts of what this region might expect in the future. 

Good for growth—at least for trees

In an earlier work, Dr. Justin Maxwell and his collaborators found that longleaf pine trees on the East Coast of the US could act as indicators of tropical cyclone precipitation, as measured by the trees’ late season (June to October) growth bands. These smaller, more local studies indicated that recent precipitation levels were far greater than anything the trees had experienced earlier in their lifetimes. 

That’s an unexpected finding, since tree-ring records generally show evidence of extreme weather scattered throughout their history, although the frequency may vary. The discovery prompted the new study, which checked whether this pattern held over a wider area.

“Often, tree-ring reconstructions show us that the extreme climate we have recorded with instruments (weather stations) over the last 120 years was surpassed back in time,” Dr. Justin Maxwell told Ars Technica. “Our past research showed that recent extremes were unmatched in the past—all the highest values are mostly since the 1990s, which was a big surprise, and that encouraged us to sample a broader area to see if this increase was local or present over a larger region.”

Combining existing data sets with two new locations, the researchers included trees from a total of seven sites across North and South Carolina. Within North America, this region receives the most rain from tropical cyclones, and it also has the world’s most complete record of this type of precipitation. 

The new data sets included a selection of samples from 13–36 old-growth trees per site (taken in a way that caused minimal damage to the trees), as well as stumps. The researchers’ next step was to calibrate their model by comparing tree ring patterns to known rainfall measurements from 1948 to the present. 

Reconstructing the past to predict the future

As might be expected, tree rings are more representative of seasonal rainfall than of the frequency or extremity of individual storms. But the growth patterns clearly suggested less cyclone season precipitation in centuries gone by. 

A year with a lot of rain doesn’t necessarily mean a giant storm passed through. “[It] could represent rainfall from one hurricane, or it could’ve been multiple hurricanes,” wrote Maxwell. “What we found in this paper is that this area is receiving more tropical cyclone precipitation for the entire season.” While researchers in the field are still debating the cause, many have suggested that it’s related to the trend of storms moving over the area more slowly. 

Worldwide, cyclones’ translational speeds have decreased by as much as 10 percent in the last 70 years due to weakening global wind currents. “This [increased precipitation] is because hurricanes are hanging around one area longer than they used to,” Maxwell explained.

The team is expanding its historical reconstruction by including samples from across the southeastern US. The study’s co-author, Dr. Joshua Bregy, is also collaborating with other experts to explore whether these reconstructions can be used to help project what we might expect from future cyclone seasons. 

“Based on our current knowledge of the global climate system, in a warmer world, global winds will be weaker, and we are seeing this happen already,” said Maxwell. “If warming continues, as is predicted, these global winds will continue to be weak. Global winds are what steer tropical cyclones, so having weaker winds leads to more meandering storm tracks and stalled storms in one location, producing more rainfall. Therefore, these large seasonal totals of tropical cyclones are likely to continue into the future.” 

PNAS, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2105636118

K.E.D. Coan is a freelance journalist covering climate and environment stories at Ars Technica. She has a PhD in chemistry and chemical biology.

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