Archive for June, 2006

Your Phone, Your Brain & Your Nose

Friday, June 30th, 2006

There have been some pretty interesting stories circulating about mobile phones this week, and now seems like a good time to encapsulate them all in one place (especially considering the one that landed in my inbox this morning). 

You’ve probably heard about the alleged connection between mobile phones and brain cancer (And who can forget the Canadian University that banned wifi because of health concerns?) Well, the FDA says there’s no clear connection between (pun intended?) the two, but new research from Italy suggests that your cellphone may be stimulating a part of your brain

Cellphone OKDr. Paolo Rossini of Fatebenefratelli hospital in Milan and colleagues used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS to check brain function while people used these phones.

They had 15 young male volunteers use a GSM 900 cell phone for 45 minutes. In 12 of the 15, the cells in the motor cortex adjacent to the cell phone showed excitability during phone use but returned to normal within an hour.

The cortex is the outside layer of the brain and the motor cortex is known as the "excitable area" because magnetic stimulation has been shown to cause a muscle twitch.

The science blogger over at Retrospectacle mentions a Japanese study that yielded similar results, and notes that the motor cortex is affected (and temporarily at that, according to both studies) but not the sensory cortex where the visual, auditory, and olfactory (site, sound, and smell) regions of the brain reside. 

That might be true, but according to another set of researchers chatting on your cellphone while driving (even with hands-free accessories) makes you just as impaired as a drunk driver.  And just as dangerous too.

The researchers used a driving simulation device for their study, published in the summer 2006 issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

They studied 40 volunteers who used a driving simulator four times — while undistracted, using a handheld cell phone, using a hands-free cell phone and while intoxicated to a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level — the average legal level of impairment in the United States — after drinking vodka and orange juice.

Three study participants rear-ended the simulated car in front of them. All were talking on cellphones and none was drunk, the researchers said.

Motorists who talked on either handheld or hands-free cell phones drove slightly more slowly, were 9 percent slower to hit the brakes, and varied their speed more than undistracted drivers.

Drivers with an 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level drove a bit more slowly than both undistracted drivers and telephone users, yet more aggressively.

And if your cellphone isn’t distracting enough when you’re driving, imagine how much more distracting it might be if there were smells coming from your cellphone. I kid you not. Trendhunter led me to this article about some researchers working to turn your cellphone into a smellphone

Engineers have already developed a system that can record smells of various fruits, such as apples, oranges, melons and bananas, on to a system of 15 microchips in a handheld device.

Each microchip is an electronic ‘nose’, containing a chemical sensor which can pick up different traces in the odour.

The Japanese inventors of the system say these sensors can come up with thousands of different combinations.

The proportions of each odour are carefully noted by the microchips and when the ‘recording’ is played back they recreate them from 96 manmade chemicals. 

I can’t help wondering if the scientists involved in this project have really thought this through. There may be an actual use for this, but I can also think of some good reasons not to put the capability of recording and transmitting odors via cellphone into the hands of at least some people. Can’t you?

Oh, Say Can You See

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

The 4th of July in the U.S. is almost always celebrated with a fireworks display, ideally with proper supervision by responsible adults.  Here’s a display up in the sky that’s definitely overseen by responsible rocket scientists, captured via telescope in Betzdorf, Luxembourg.

We recently got word a new satellite has come into service at ASTRA. Launched in April, the ASTRA 1KR satellite underwent a rigorous in-orbit testing before arriving on-station at 19.2° East, which it shares with several other satellites. Ever wonder what that looks like? We’ve got the video.

If you’re an amateur astronomist, you can try this at home. If the skies are dark enough and you have a telescope, you can spot some of the satellites in the Clarke Orbit, a.k.a. the geostationary ring, 36,000 kilometers (23,600 miles) above the Earth.

Most geostationary satellites are really geosynchronous. For radio and television broadcasting, this is essential. With mean motions between 0.9 to 1.1 revolutions per day, these satellites drift across a 45-square-kilometer “box” before corrections are made by spacecraft controllers on the ground via on-board thrusters. Anomalies in the Earth’s gravitational field causes this “drift,” as atmospheric drag is irrelevent at this altitude. The Moon’s gravitational pull provides an out-of-plane force as well, gradually increasing the orbital inclination towards that of the Moon around the Earth (which itself varies between 18 and 29 degrees).

So the satellite’s track tends to resemble a figure-eight track. In the ASTRA 1KR video, we get to see a small portion of this eventual figure-eight. Allowed to go on unchecked, a satellite’s orbit becomes more inclined. Some satellites are purposefully directed towards an inclined orbit, thus providing better coverage of the polar regions. Antarctic research stations rely on these satellites for communications.

Unlike objects in low Earth orbit, geostationary satellites are visible throughout every night of the year, entering the Earth’s shadow for up to 70 minutes per day. During the same period the satellite tends to brighten over several days, twice a year (equinox, +/- one week), when the satellites’ orientation toward the Sun causes “flares,” the most spectacular of which comprise the Iridium system (check this site for predictions). Two line elements can be obtained for nearly all these satellites via Dr. T.S. Kelso’s site.

Verizon Airfone Grounded

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Earlier this month, I blogged about JetBlue getting into the in-flight internet/phone business. Now, before the month is quite over, it looks like Verizon is getting out of the in-flight phone business.

Verizon Airfone will exit the in-flight phone business by the end of the year, a company spokesman confirmed Friday.

Airfone’s parent company, Verizon Communications, plans to focus its efforts more on its core business, said Jim Pilcher, a spokesman for Verizon Airfone.

Verizon was initially the favorite to win the FCC auction for the 800MHz spectrum for supplying broadband and phone services in-flight, but dropped out of the running early, which lead to the AirCell — a subsidiary of JetBlue — getting the license to use the spectrum.

Robot Roach Patrol

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Forget Raid. Forget Orkin. When you’re facing an infestation of pests, in this case roaches, your best bet might be a robot. This isn’t a new story, from what I can tell, but it’s popped back up in the last couple of days. And it’s an interesting one. Given that you can now have a robot keeping your house clean, why not have one keeping it roach-free?

In a breakthrough for the battle against mankind’s most diehard enemy – the cockroach – European scientists have hoodwinked a group of them into congregating in a place where they can be stamped on easily.

The kick in the mandibles comes from a Belgian-led team who spent three years developing a mini robot that can convince cockroaches to creep out of dark holes and gather in light places. The InsBot looks more like a pencil sharpener than a household pest, but it smells like a cockroach. Most importantly, the InsBot can pass for a Periplaneta Americana (American cockroach).

OK. Maybe you should keep the insecticide handy, since this model apparently just herds the roaches together for easier spraying/stamping. Still, as Technovelgy points out, it has interesting implications for creating more innovative forms of artificial intelligence. Technovelgy also has an interesting post up about a roach-controlled robot. And for good measure, here’s a link to the project itself.

UFO Threatens Space Station

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

How’s that for a hyperbolic headline? It’s rooted in fact:

MOSCOW – An unknown floating object close to the International Space Station ISS has concerned ground control, according to reports from the US Space Agency NASA on Tuesday.

The object is approximately 2.8 kilometres away from the International Space Station, said the Russian flight control centre in Moscow, citing a NASA source.

The situation… does not yet require a dodge manoeuvre…..

“The object has no number in the list of space debris,” Kireyev said, according to reports from the Russian Itar-Tass agency.

“It is however probably an old piece of space exploration equipment.”

If the object gets any closer to the ISS, astronauts Jeff Williams and Pavel Vinogradov would have to take the precaution of moving to the rescue space shuttle Soyuz TM.

A dodge manoeuvre could cause difficulties for the docking of the US space ship “Discovery”, due to be launched on July 1.

Perhaps the astronauts should practice on this game.

Laptop Go Boom!

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

We can’t vouch for the veracity of this, but it amused us to no end:

 AN INQUIRER READER attending a conference in Japan was sat just feet away from a laptop computer that suddenly exploded into flames, in what could have been a deadly accident.

Gaston, our astonished reader reports: "The damn thing was on fire and produced several explosions for more than five minutes"….

"It is only a matter of time until such an incident breaks out on a plane," he suggests.

Our witness managed to catch all the action in these amazing pictures.

"Fire extinguishers leave a mess on your suit and belongings; pack your stuff (if you can) and leave, leave, leave!" he advises.

We don’t have any further details of the model of the computer in question. In light of the evidence, however, we’d suggest you avoid actually using a laptop on your lap. 



The after-photo:


New Satellite Service By 2012?

Monday, June 26th, 2006

The FCC has proposed allowing new satellite service in the 17 and 24 gigahertz band spectrum — a proposal which, if passed, could add new competition to satellite radio and other emerging broadcast industries, Billboard Radio Monitor reports:

 In an email exchange with Billboard Radio Monitor, one high-level engineering source wrote that “the ‘Ka-Band’ frequencies (18 GHZ to 40 GHZ) usually suffer from extreme susceptibility to rain-out and fog failure conditions. On the plus side, the satellite antennas (up in orbit) can send more spot-area signals to different parts of the [continental U.S.], potentially creating individual market coverage signals, which can’t effectively be done at 2.3 GHZ.”

Radio Monitor sources and industry observers estimate that the shortest possible timetable for a new satellite service to make its way through the FCC, onto the launch pad and into space would be five or six years.

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for establishing a new satellite service was originally going to be part of the commission’s Open Meeting agenda but it was deleted at the last minute. Instead, the FCC’s commissioners handled the vote later in the day, with all five commissioners approving the NPRM.

An FCC press release about the Notice says the service “holds the potential of bringing a new generation of innovative satellite services to American consumers—providing a mix of video, audio, data and multimedia services to residential and business subscribers.”


Nix and Hyrda

Monday, June 26th, 2006

In other Hubble news (see the post below), a pair of small moons orbiting Pluto, first photgraphed by the Hubble Telescope in 2005, now have official names: Nix and Hyrdra.

"Nix and Hydra are roughly 5,000 times fainter than Pluto and are about two to three times farther from Pluto than its large moon, Charon, which was discovered in 1978," according to the official Hubble website.

Hubble’s ACS Camera Offline

Monday, June 26th, 2006

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) has been offline since June 19, reports:

ngineers have yet to figure out what caused the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to go into "safe mode," essentially a sleep state that prevents normal operations. But the outlook is bright.

"We’re very optimistic" that the camera will be fixed, said Ed Ruitberg, associate program manager for Hubble at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Ruitberg told that some potential causes have been ruled out and that the problem is likely with a low-voltage power supply interface, something between the batteries and a camera component. If that’s the case, then redundant electronics can be relied on to bypass the problem area.

"We’re still investigating the problem and working on all sorts of contingencies," said Max Mutchler at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, where Hubble’s science operations are run. "We’re hoping for the best but preparing for other contingencies."

Space Daily also reports on Hubble’s troubles. 

We’ll keep you updated on the efforts to "wake up" the camera….

Mitex Launches Successfully

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

UPI files the report:

The Delta II rocket launched Wednesday at Cape Canaveral carried a pair of small satellites for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Micro-Satellite Technology Experiment. The program looks into new spacecraft technologies that could be applied to future military space projects.

Boeing and its crew of subcontractors reported Thursday that the Delta II in its 7925-9.5 configuration performed flawlessly with the payload deploying some 30 minutes after launch in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator….

The rocket was equipped with nine GEM-40 solid-fuel booster rockets that augmented liftoff thrust to 850,000 pounds to which another 450,000 pounds was added three minutes downrange.