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The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow – TechCrunch

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Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.



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Apple invests $45 million more in Gorilla Glass-maker Corning

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Apple has invested an additional $45 million in US-based Corning Incorporated, the maker of Gorilla Glass, the companies announced today.

A news release from Apple says the investment will help “expand Corning’s manufacturing capacity in the US” and “drive research and development into innovative new technologies that support durability and long-lasting product life.”

The investment will come out of Apple’s $5 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which was established in 2017 to invest in manufacturing jobs and infrastructure in the United States related to Apple’s products like the iPhone.

Up to this point, Corning has received $450 million from that fund. The prior cash influx played a role in the development of the ceramic shield, a new screen material that made the new iPhone 12 lineup more drop-resistant than prior iPhone models.

Apple describes the technology, its use, and the process behind it this way:

The new material was enabled by a high-temperature crystallization step which forms nano-crystals within the glass matrix. Those specialized crystals are kept small enough that the material is transparent. The resulting material makes up the revolutionary Ceramic Shield, which Apple used to fashion the new front cover featured on iPhone in the iPhone 12 lineup. Prior to Ceramic Shield, embedded crystals have traditionally affected the material’s transparency, a crucial factor for the front cover of iPhone because so many features, including the display, the camera, and sensors for Face ID, need optical clarity to function.

Apple’s relationship with Corning goes back to the very first iPhone, when a last-minute change to that product before launch replaced a scratch-prone plastic screen with a brand-new kind of comparatively scratch-resistant glass called Gorilla Glass from Corning.

Gorilla Glass has since been refined to be more durable, and it appears not just in iPhones but in numerous other mobile products from Samsung and others.

Apple hasn’t said how Corning will use this new investment. Corning is known to be working on new forms of durable, bendable glass that could be suitable to a hypothetical future foldable iPhone, but there’s no guarantee that’s what’s going on here.

We also don’t know if whatever Corning will develop with these funds will be exclusive to Apple’s products. It is likely, however, that the investment will lead to at least some new jobs at Corning, probably in the US state of Kentucky, where glass for Apple products is manufactured.

Listing image by Apple

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Google: We put YouTube TV in the main YouTube app. What now, Roku?

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Enlarge / Google tells users where they can find YouTube TV now: inside the regular YouTube app.

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Previously on Google versus Roku: Roku and Google needed to renew the contract for YouTube TV, Google’s $65-per-month cable TV replacement, on Roku’s TV platform. The two companies weren’t able to come to an agreement on the new contract, resulting in YouTube TV being pulled from the Roku store. Oh no! While existing customers could still use the YouTube TV app they had already installed, new users couldn’t sign up. Will the two companies ever be able to settle their differences, or is their friendship ruined forever?

The next exciting episode in this saga aired on Friday, when Google announced in a blog post that it was just going to run an end-around on Roku and stick the YouTube TV app in the YouTube app. YouTube and YouTube TV exist as separate apps, and while the YouTube TV contract expired and the app was taken off the Roku store, the YouTube contract does not expire until December.

Since the YouTube app is still running, Google was able to quickly shove YouTube TV functionality into it. On the side navigation menu, the last link in the list reads, “Go to YouTube TV.” This is not unprecedented—it’s actually the way YouTube Music works, too, with a sort of app-within-an-app interface.

Google says it is “still working to come to an agreement with Roku to ensure continued access to YouTube TV for our mutual customers.” But Google threatened Roku with another escalation, saying, “We’re also in discussions with other partners to secure free streaming devices in case YouTube TV members face any access issues on Roku.”

A few weeks ago, Google offered to “renew the YouTube TV deal under the existing reasonable terms” with Roku, so Roku seems to be the current aggressor. In response to this latest move, Roku sent the following statement to The Verge.

Google’s actions are the clear conduct of an unchecked monopolist bent on crushing fair competition and harming consumer choice. The bundling announcement by YouTube highlights the kind of predatory business practices used by Google that Congress, Attorney Generals and regulatory bodies around the world are investigating. Roku has not asked for one additional dollar in financial value from YouTubeTV. We have simply asked Google to stop their anticompetitive behavior of manipulating user search results to their unique financial benefit and to stop demanding access to sensitive data that no other partner on our platform receives today. In response, Google has continued its practice of blatantly leveraging its YouTube monopoly to force an independent company into an agreement that is both bad for consumers and bad for fair competition.

These are the same claims Roku has made before, and Google has already responded to them, saying, “To be clear, we have never, as they have alleged, made any requests to access user data or interfere with search results. This claim is baseless and false.”

The real reason for the rift between the two companies seems to be over Google’s AV1 video codec requirements for YouTube (presumably only for new devices), and it seems these requirements would start in December, when the mainline YouTube app contract expires.

AV1 is a cutting-edge, royalty-free video codec that will likely be the next de facto video standard, since it’s backed by Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, Facebook, Arm, Hulu, and a ton of other companies. AV1 would save on bandwidth for streaming companies and customers, but it requires hardware decode support on cheaper devices like a Roku box. Google wants to make AV1 a requirement for YouTube, but that requires new chips, which are probably more expensive than the older chips Roku would prefer to use.

Google says, “Separately, we are also in ongoing, long-term conversations with Roku to certify that new devices meet our technical requirements. This certification process exists to ensure a consistent and high-quality YouTube experience across different devices, including Google’s own—so you know how to navigate the app and what to expect. We’ll continue our conversations with Roku on certification, in good faith, with the goal of advocating for our mutual customers.”

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Security researcher successfully jailbreaks an Apple AirTag

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This weekend, German security researcher stacksmashing declared success at breaking into, dumping, and reflashing the microcontroller of Apple’s new AirTag object-location product.

Breaking into the microcontroller essentially meant being able both to research how the devices function (by analyzing the dumped firmware) and to reprogram them to do unexpected things. Stacksmashing demonstrated this by reprogramming an AirTag to pass a non-Apple URL while in Lost Mode.

Lost Mode gets a little more lost

When an AirTag is set to Lost Mode, tapping any NFC-enabled smartphone to the tag brings up a notification with a link to found.apple.com. The link allows whoever found the lost object to contact its owner, hopefully resulting in the lost object finding its way home.

After breaching the microcontroller, stacksmashing was able to replace the found.apple.com URL with any other URL. In the demonstration above, the modified URL leads to stacksmashing.net. By itself, this is pretty innocuous—but it could lead to an additional minor avenue toward targeted malware attacks.

Tapping the AirTag won’t open the referenced website directly—the owner of the phone would need to see the notification, see the URL it leads to, and elect to open it anyway. An advanced attacker might still use this avenue to convince a specific high-value target to open a custom malware site—think of this as similar to the well-known “seed the parking lot with flash drives” technique used by penetration testers.

AirTag’s privacy problems just got worse

AirTags already have a significant privacy problem, even when running stock firmware. The devices report their location rapidly enough—thanks to using detection by any nearby iDevices, regardless of owner—to have significant potential as a stalker’s tool.

It’s not immediately clear how far hacking the firmware might change this threat landscape—but an attacker might, for instance, look for ways to disable the “foreign AirTag” notification to nearby iPhones.

When a standard AirTag travels near an iPhone it doesn’t belong to for several hours, that iPhone gets a notification about the nearby tag. This hopefully reduces the viability of AirTags as a stalking tool—at least if the target carries an iPhone. Android users don’t get any notifications if a foreign AirTag is traveling with them, regardless of the length of time.

After about three days, a lost AirTag will begin making audible noise—which would alert a stalking target to the presence of the tracking device. A stalker might modify the firmware of an AirTag to remain silent instead, extending the viability window of the hacked tag as a way to track a victim.

Now that the first AirTag has been “jailbroken,” it seems likely that Apple will respond with server-side efforts to block nonstandard AirTags from its network. Without access to Apple’s network, the utility of an AirTag—either for its intended purpose or as a tool for stalking an unwitting victim—would become essentially nil.

Listing image by stacksmashing

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