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With Ataribox, the legend returns — powered by Linux




Have you played Atari today? Once a jingle’s catchphrase as well as a legitimate query, a resurrected version of the brand is hoping you’ll soon be asking that question again with the forthcoming Ataribox.

Available to pre-order on Thursday for a special price via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the Ataribox is shaping up to be an amalgam of retro gaming console and living room PC. Details are mostly sketchy at this point, but we do know that it will be powered by some variant of Linux OS and will include over 100 Atari classic games pre-installed.

Unfortunately for retro gaming fans, the full list of games isn’t known yet, nor do we know other key information like the Ataribox’s shipping date or its pricing (though VentureBeat reports it will sell somewhere between $250 and $300). Atari Interactive has been leaking dribs and drabs through social media, such as the inclusion of titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Breakout.

The company has updated the design for its console while retaining touches from the vintage 2600 — in addition to an option with black trim and red glowing Atari logo, you can get the Ataribox with the faux wood trim of the original. The joystick also resembles the 2600’s, but with a revamped look that’s more 2017 than 1980.

But by choosing to build the Ataribox as a Linux-running mini PC, Atari is giving itself the opportunity to stay current with new games, unlike many of the plug-and-play retro consoles. Though we don’t know the precise configuration, we’ve been promised a system with an AMD processor customized for the console and the ability to play mid-range games.

Will the Ataribox be a hit like Nintendo’s SNES Classic mini was? Or will it fizzle out like many other living room PCs that came before it, despite the retro trappings? The price will clearly be an issue — even if it’s technically a PC, it could winding up costing as much as some versions of the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, not to mention that many potential buyers would only want it to play the old Atari games. We’ll get a better idea starting on December 14, as the Indiegogo campaign kicks off and Atari will see how just many people will rush to open their wallets to grab an Ataribox.


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Nintendo may have learned lessons from the NES Classic mini, but it still can’t fulfill demand for its latest throwback. That’s provided opportunities for other serving the classic videogames market.

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Can you name this vintage tech?

From early calculators to WWII cryptography machines, if you can name this old hardware, software and storage media, you really know your stuff.

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A once-quiet battle to replace the space station suddenly is red hot



Enlarge / Backdropped against clouds, the Russian Zarya module approaches Space Shuttle Endeavour and NASA’s Unity Module in 1998.

The sprawling International Space Station—so long a beacon of hope, unity, and technological achievement; so gleaming and bright it can be seen from a city’s downtown as it passes overhead—is nearer the end of its life than the beginning. And time is running out to replace the station before it’s gone.

Its first component, the Russian-built Zarya power and propulsion module, launched in 1998, and the other core pieces of the station were all sent spaceward by 2001. The backbone of the International Space Station, therefore, has spent two decades in space—a harsh environment of wild temperature swings, micrometeoroid impacts, torsional strains, and more.

In recent years, signs of aging have become more apparent, particularly with cracks spreading across the Zarya module. And more than the hardware is coming apart. The political forces that drove the formation of the space station partnership, principally the desire of the United States and Russia to work together after the Soviet breakup, have given way to a zealous anti-Americanism in Moscow and suspicions in Washington, DC. The partnership remains intact for now, thanks to healthy working relationships among astronauts, cosmonauts, and engineers. But politically, the rhetoric is at times toxic.

Although nothing has been formalized, a general consensus has emerged among the international partners that the International Space Station can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030. But after that? NASA realizes it needs a succession plan.

Politicians and policymakers have started employing the spectre of the dreaded “g” word, saying NASA must avoid a “gap” in flying a low-Earth-orbit space station. This has become especially urgent with China’s recent, successful launch of its own Tiangong space station in April. In response to these concerns, NASA has hatched a plan. Recognizing the maturing US commercial space industry, NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” of one or more privately developed space stations.

“We’re seeing a slow buildup to something significant,” said Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks. “We’re entering an era when there will be private space stations. It’s clear the political stars have aligned. Congress has realized that the ISS is coming to an end at some point, and we have to prepare so there is no space station gap.”

The Russian Soyuz TM-31 mission launched the first crew to the ISS in October 2000.
Enlarge / The Russian Soyuz TM-31 mission launched the first crew to the ISS in October 2000.


Now, we’re finally getting a glimpse of what such a future might look like and how fierce the competition may be. A Houston-based company called Axiom Space has been most public about its intentions, talking for a few years now about developing the world’s “first commercial space station.” But this week, two other options emerged for NASA: Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their intent to build a space station called “Starlab,” and another team led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space revealed plans to construct an “Orbital Reef.”

There will likely be more bidders soon offering private station concepts as well. For the first time, Congress looks like it will appropriate significant funding for what NASA calls “Commercial LEO Destinations.” And the government money may eventually get much, much bigger.

Presently, NASA spends about $4 billion annually for its low-Earth-orbit program. This includes maintenance of the space station itself, cargo and crew transportation, space communications, and more. No one expects NASA to spend this much on commercial space stations, but it will need to spend a sizable fraction of its current ISS budget if any of these commercial stations are to be fully realized.

With this week’s announcements, the food fight for that funding is now well and truly underway.

Axiom Space

Axiom was founded in 2016 with the express purpose of building a commercial space station as a follow-on to the International Space Station.

Michael Suffredini, NASA’s longtime manager of the ISS program, brought decades of expertise to the company. The other co-founder is space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian, who provided the startup funding to get the venture off the ground five years ago.

“There were all these companies building rockets to go to space,” Ghaffarian told Ars in an interview. “So we didn’t want to be in the ride business. We wanted to be in a destination business. We wanted to create a new ecosystem in low Earth orbit.”

Axiom has identified a number of potential markets for a commercial space station. Ghaffarian said the company envisions using its station for private and government astronauts, manufacturing and 3D printing, satellite servicing, and perhaps even a space-based data center.

“I feel like we’re in the early days of the Internet, in terms of the potential of all the things that we can accomplish,” he said.

As a first step toward its goal of increasing access to low Earth orbit, Axiom is taking private citizens to the International Space Station for short visits. Working with NASA and SpaceX, these once- or even twice-yearly missions will begin with the Ax-1 flight now scheduled for launch in February 2022.

In one respect, Axiom has a head start over its rivals in working toward commercial space stations. In February 2020, following a competitive procurement process, the company won a $140 million contract from NASA to develop a habitable commercial module for the International Space Station. The award gives Axiom the right to attach its module to the station’s Nore 2 forward point.

With this award, the company plans to launch its first privately built module to the space station in 2024. This will both validate its modular technology—Axiom has partnered with Thales Alenia Space to construct its habitats—and provide quarters for its visiting private astronauts. Future modules will follow in the 2020s, as early as 2028, before the Axiom space station will separate and become its own free-flying entity.

The other space station companies will have to develop “free flying” space stations, complete with all the power and other consumables they need to function, from the outset. Axiom, by contrast, will benefit from having some basic services (like power) from the International Space Station at the beginning.

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Mystery of deadly US infections solved; aromatherapy spray at Walmart to blame



Enlarge / Burkholderia pseudomallei grown on sheep blood agar for 24 hours. B. pseudomallei is a Gram-negative aerobic bacteria, and it’s the causative agent of melioidosis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday confirmed that an aromatherapy gemstone spray sold at Walmart is linked to four mysterious bacterial infections in four different states. The infections left two dead, including a child.

On Friday, the CDC announced a break in the months-long mystery: A bottle of aromatherapy room spray in the home of a Georgia patient who died was contaminated with the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei. The dangerous microbe is typically found in soil and water in tropical and subtropical climates, such as South Asia. When the bacterium is consumed or inhaled or enters a skin wound, it can cause a life-threatening but difficult-to-diagnose infection called melioidosis.

As soon as the CDC identified the contaminated spray, Walmart and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced a recall of the product, the Better Homes & Gardens Lavender & Chamomile Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones, which is manufactured in India. Walmart is offering customers a $20 gift card for the safe return of the dangerous spray bottles.

On Tuesday, the CDC confirmed that the strain of B. pseudomallei found in the spray genetically matched the strain infecting the deceased Georgia patient and three other people.

There are often a handful of melioidosis cases in the US each year, but they’re usually linked to recent travel to areas where the bacteria are naturally found. The four puzzling cases this year—in Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, and Georgia—had no links to travel. But CDC investigators quickly realized that the cases were associated somehow.

The first case was identified in March in a Kansas adult and ended up being fatal. On June 30, the CDC released a health alert after officials identified two additional melioidosis cases that were not travel-related: an adult in Minnesota and a 4-year-old in Texas. Both people reportedly survived. In early August, the CDC released an update saying that a fourth case—the fatal case in Georgia—was identified in a post-mortem analysis in late July. The CPSC recall notes that one of the two deaths, presumably the Georgia case, was in a child.

“The proverbial needle in the haystack”

According to the CDC, whole-genome sequencing of the bacteria conducted previously by the agency found that that B. pseudomallei strains in each of the four cases closely matched each other and most closely matched strains found in Asia, particularly South Asia. CDC investigators quickly began hunting for a common source, sampling soil, water, and various products from in and around the four patients’ homes.

“Our hearts go out to the families that have been impacted by this situation,” said Inger Damon, director of CDC’s Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, which manages melioidosis. Alarmed by the puzzling cluster of cases, the CDC raced to find the source before someone else fell ill. In a follow-up statement after confirming the link Tuesday, Dr. Damon noted how difficult it was—and how relieved she and her colleagues were—to identify the source.

“When you think about the thousands of things people come in contact with around their homes, it’s remarkable we were able to identify the source and confirm it in the lab,” Damon said. “CDC scientists and our partners found the proverbial needle in the haystack.”

According to the notice, Walmart is recalling about 3,900 bottles of Better Homes & Gardens Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones, which come in six different scents. All scents are being recalled. The 5-ounce pump-spray bottles were only sold at about 55 Walmart stores nationwide (here’s a list of the stores) and online at from February 2021 through October 2021. They sold for about $4.

The CDC says that it has contacted the spray’s manufacturer in India to determine if ingredients from the contaminated products were used in any other products. CDC scientists are also doing more testing on the sprays to assess the extent of contamination and whether the other scents are contaminated. On Tuesday, the agency noted that an additional bottle of the spray tested positive for B. pseudomallei.

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X-rays may have revealed the first planet outside our galaxy



Enlarge / The site of the X-ray source in the Whirlpool Galaxy.

It’s become clear that the Milky Way is full of planets. And the Milky Way is unremarkable compared to many other galaxies, which, in all likelihood, are also rich with planets.

But there’s a big difference between “likely” and having evidence that planets exist outside of our galaxy. And the methods that have allowed us to spot planets in the Milky Way simply won’t work at such huge distances. But this week, researchers announced that a method they’d proposed may have turned up the first indication of a planet in another galaxy. The data was sitting in the archives of a couple of X-ray telescopes.

Long-distance eclipse

Almost every planet we know about was identified by one of two methods: either by watching a planet’s gravitational influence on the wavelengths of light produced by a star, or by watching the reduction in light as it passes between us and its host star. At the moment, we simply don’t have hardware with the resolution needed for these methods to work well with other galaxies, which generally appear as collections of stars so dense that distinguishing one star from another is nearly impossible.

In 2018, Nia Imara and Rosanne Di Stefano proposed a variation on existing techniques that might work with distant galaxies. The trick is that it won’t work with visible wavelengths of light.

Consistent X-ray sources in galaxies are relatively rare, meaning that we can point X-ray telescopes at a galaxy and resolve individual sources. Many of these sources are also compact, allowing a planet to obscure them, even if the planet is orbiting at a significant distance. They’re generally composed of the remains of a star, such as a neutron star or black hole, that’s powering X-ray emissions by stealing matter off a nearby companion. The process of feeding on this matter is steady enough that these sources tend to emit steadily for long periods of time.

So, if the X-ray source were to suddenly wink out and return, Imara and Di Stefano concluded, then this was likely due to an object blocking it along the line-of-sight from Earth. While there are a number of potential candidates for that object, including the star it is drawing matter from, one of them is an exoplanet.

From hypothesis to data

A few years later, Imara and Di Stefano are back as part of a larger team that suggests this method seems to work. The data comes from observations of the galaxy M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. One of the brightest X-ray sources in that galaxy, called M51-ULS-1, is exactly the type of X-ray-emitting binary system that the initial proposal had in mind. It’s composed of an unidentified compact object that appears to be orbiting close to a blue supergiant star. That supergiant appears to be losing matter to the compact object in a way that powers a steady stream of X-rays.

Back in 2012, M51-ULS-1 was in the field of view of the Chandra X-ray Observatory when it suddenly went quiet. Before and after the event, Chandra had been detecting an average of about 15 photons per thousand seconds coming from M51-ULS-1. Then there was a sudden decline and, for over a half-hour, absolutely no photons were detected. About a half-hour later, things were indistinguishable from how they’d been prior to the dip.

The source's X-ray emissions went from a steady stream to zero and then back again.
Enlarge / The source’s X-ray emissions went from a steady stream to zero and then back again.

Di Stefano et. al.

There’s often a lot of variability in X-ray sources since the inflowing material that powers them can vary and can even obscure the source of the X-rays at times. But those events don’t look like this. If an X-ray source goes quiet (or comes back on), it usually occurs very gradually. And intervening matter will tend to block some wavelengths more efficiently than others, leading to a change in the “color” of the light without eliminating the light entirely.

So, this was most likely a body that passed between Earth and the X-ray source. If it were a planet orbiting a nearby star, then watching to see if it passes in front again might make sense. But that’s not a viable solution here, since any planet is likely to be quite a distance from the compact object, which was probably formed by the explosion of a massive star.

To get a sense of what they might be looking at, the team tested a variety of models that varied the orbit and size of the object to see which ones could produce the sort of X-ray dropout seen here. These models suggest that the most probable cause is an object that’s roughly the sizes of Saturn. That makes it too small to be a star or brown dwarf. White dwarfs could potentially be within the appropriate size range but are massive enough to cause gravitational lensing effects, which weren’t apparent here.

The challenge with this result is that Saturn-sized objects are typically gas giants, and the environment near the X-ray source is probably sufficient to boil away a planet’s atmosphere. So, it’s fair to say that even the best solution is probably not ideal at this point.

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