Stories submitted via Arthur T Knackerbracket and by NotSanguine about the exoplanet K2-18 b:
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Scientists have discovered methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of K2-18 b, a distant exoplanet that has long piqued the curiosity of astronomers for having the potential to sustain life.
Using data from the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists based at NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) were able to detect the presence of carbon-bearing molecules including methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the planet that is about 8.6 times the Earth’s mass.
The discovery adds to recent studies that suggested the K2-18 b could be what is known as a Hycean exoplanet – one that has the potential to have a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface.
[...] “Our findings underscore the importance of considering diverse habitable environments in the search for life elsewhere,” explained Prof Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the paper announcing these results, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“Traditionally, the search for life on exoplanets has focused primarily on smaller rocky planets, but the larger Hycean worlds are significantly more conducive to atmospheric observations.”
These initial Webb observations also provided a possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulphide, which on Earth is only produced by life – largely emitted by the vast swathes of phytoplankton that inhabit our oceans.
“Upcoming Webb observations should be able to confirm if [dimethyl sulphide] is indeed present in the atmosphere of K2-18 b at significant levels,” added Madhusudhan.
Even though K2-18 b hosts carbon-bearing molecules and lies in the habitable zone based on the distance from its star, this does not mean it can necessarily support life. Scientists said that the planet’s large size means that its interior likely contains a large mantle of high-pressure ice.
And while Hycean worlds are predicted to have oceans of water, it is possible that the ocean is too hot to be habitable or be liquid.
Paper preprint [PDF]
NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has detected carbon-based molecules (methane, carbon dioxide and other organics) in the atmosphere of an exoplanet ~120 light years from Earth.
From the NASA announcement:
A new investigation with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope into K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times as massive as Earth, has revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules including methane and carbon dioxide. Webb's discovery adds to recent studies suggesting that K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet, one which has the potential to possess a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface.
The first insight into the atmospheric properties of this habitable-zone exoplanet came from observations with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which prompted further studies that have since changed our understanding of the system.
K2-18 b orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18 in the habitable zone and lies 120 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. Exoplanets such as K2-18 b, which have sizes between those of Earth and Neptune, are unlike anything in our solar system. This lack of equivalent nearby planets means that these 'sub-Neptunes' are poorly understood, and the nature of their atmospheres is a matter of active debate among astronomers.
The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. These initial Webb observations also provided a possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS). On Earth, this is only produced by life. The bulk of the DMS in Earth's atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments.
The inference of DMS is less robust and requires further validation. "Upcoming Webb observations should be able to confirm if DMS is indeed present in the atmosphere of K2-18 b at significant levels," explained Madhusudhan.
While K2-18 b lies in the habitable zone, and is now known to harbor carbon-bearing molecules, this does not necessarily mean that the planet can support life. The planet's large size — with a radius 2.6 times the radius of Earth — means that the planet's interior likely contains a large mantle of high-pressure ice, like Neptune, but with a thinner hydrogen-rich atmosphere and an ocean surface. Hycean worlds are predicted to have oceans of water. However, it is also possible that the ocean is too hot to be habitable or be liquid.
"Although this kind of planet does not exist in our solar system, sub-Neptunes are the most common type of planet known so far in the galaxy," explained team member Subhajit Sarkar of Cardiff University. "We have obtained the most detailed spectrum of a habitable-zone sub-Neptune to date, and this allowed us to work out the molecules that exist in its atmosphere."
Characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets like K2-18 b — meaning identifying their gases and physical conditions — is a very active area in astronomy. However, these planets are outshone — literally — by the glare of their much larger parent stars, which makes exploring exoplanet atmospheres particularly challenging.
The team sidestepped this challenge by analyzing light from K2-18 b's parent star as it passed through the exoplanet's atmosphere. K2-18 b is a transiting exoplanet, meaning that we can detect a drop in brightness as it passes across the face of its host star. This is how the exoplanet was first discovered in 2015 with NASA's K2 mission. This means that during transits a tiny fraction of starlight will pass through the exoplanet's atmosphere before reaching telescopes like Webb. The starlight's passage through the exoplanet atmosphere leaves traces that astronomers can piece together to determine the gases of the exoplanet's atmosphere.
"This result was only possible because of the extended wavelength range and unprecedented sensitivity of Webb, which enabled robust detection of spectral features with just two transits," said Madhusudhan. "For comparison, one transit observation with Webb provided comparable precision to eight observations with Hubble conducted over a few years and in a relatively narrow wavelength range."
"These results are the product of just two observations of K2-18 b, with many more on the way," explained team member Savvas Constantinou of the University of Cambridge. "This means our work here is but an early demonstration of what Webb can observe in habitable-zone exoplanets."
How Astronomers Detected Water on a Potentially Habitable Exoplanet for the First Time
Water Detected on Super Earth Exoplanet in Habitable Zone
Second "Super-Earth" Found Orbiting K2-18, 111 Light Years Away
Harris Wolobah, a healthy 14-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, tragically died last Friday, hours after eating a single ultra-spicy tortilla chip seasoned with two of the hottest peppers in the world.
The teen's mother, Lois Wolobah, reportedly picked up her son from school that day after getting a call from the nurse that he was sick.
Lois Wolobah believes the chip played a role in the death of her son, who had no known underlying medical conditions.
"I just want there to be an awareness for parents to know that it's not safe," Wolobah told The New York Times in an article published Wednesday. "It needs to be out of the market completely."
On Thursday, the maker of the Paqui chip—Amplify Snack Brands, a subsidiary of the Hershey Company—announced that it was taking the potentially deadly chip off shelves.
The chip was intended only for adults and carried clear warnings, the company said in a statement. It was not intended for "children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or who has food allergies, is pregnant or has underlying health conditions."
The Paqui chip was seasoned with the Carolina Reaper pepper, the current hottest pepper in the world, and the Naga Viper pepper, which was the reigning hottest pepper in 2011 but is now merely among the top 10.
As a group of doctors from the University of Mississippi wrote in a 2020 medical case report:
The content of capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their spicy taste, may be measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). The Carolina Reaper pepper boasts up to 2,200,000 SHU. For reference, standard pepper spray contains around 2,000,000 to 5,000,000 SHU, ghost pepper 1,000,000 SHU, and jalapeno pepper 3,500 SHU.
According to PepperScale, the Carolina Reaper is the 4th hottest pepper in the world. Behind the #1 Pepper X, #2 Apollo Pepper, and #3 Dragon's Breath Pepper. Though, none of those have been verified by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first text-only WWW browser. Then in 1991 four Finnish college students wrote the first graphical web browser, Erwise, but let it drop and that was the end of that. Two years later, Eric Bina and Marc Andreessen released NCSA Mosaic and, importantly, published it to an FTP site.
The very first web browser was the WorldWideWeb of Berners-Lee, but the first popularized web browser was the NCSA Mosaic Internet Web Browser. Previous web browsers were not user friendly; they lacked an intuitive and inviting way to allow people to navigate the then-new World Wide Web.In 1992 two developers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois (Marc Andreessen and Eric Brina) began working on a graphical, user friendly web browser they would later call "Mosaic". The most notable features this computer program had that other browsers lacked were the ability to view pictures directly on the page, its ease of navigation, and the way this browser handled hyperlinks. Previous browsers only showed pictures as separate files available for download that were linked to the page, so no pictures were directly visible from any main web page. Other browsers also lacked a smooth graphical interface to help navigate through the page, to include scrolling and the now-standard "back", "forward", and "refresh" buttons. Finally, the Mosaic browser was the first browser to incorporate clickable hyperlinks. Previous browsers gave reference numbers so users could manually type in the new URL, whereas this new browser allowed users to simply click the link directly to get to the desired page.
-- NCSA Mosaic Internet Web Browser: The Complete History
And from NCSA's site:
"To be sure, Mosaic deserves credit for tackling two problems. First, earlier browsers were troublesome to get up and running, while Mosaic was a lot easier, thanks largely to [NCSA developer Eric] Bina's programming skill. Second, Mosaic was the first published browser that automatically displayed pictures along with text, as in the pages of a magazine layout or an illustrated book. That was important because later on it would be the proliferation of pretty pictures that transformed that Web from the domain of scientists and hackers to a cultural phenomenon that captured the interest of the masses."
-- NCSA Mosaic™
In other words, NCSA Mosaic was released in January, 1993, making it 30 years ago this year.
Which browser did you use back when you first started with the WWW?
What would you revive from the WWW as it was when you started and what would you retain from the current WWW?
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Microsoft has struck a deal with Heirloom Carbon, a startup that has developed a process for using limestone to capture carbon to fight climate change. The technique could contribute to Microsoft's ongoing attempt to become carbon-negative.
Limestone naturally absorbs carbon over many years, but Heirloom's method accelerates the process. The company uses a kiln powered by renewable energy to heat crushed limestone to around 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, which separates it into carbon dioxide and calcium oxide. Adding water to the calcium oxide allows it to absorb sufficient amounts of carbon within days, after which Heirloom re-inserts it into the kiln to restart the cycle.
Although the technology is proven, the maximum scale at which it remains cost-effective is unclear. Another issue facing all carbon capture methods is storing the substance.
[...] Regardless of the limestone method's effectiveness, it will likely need to complement other carbon capture technologies that Microsoft is employing to become carbon-negative by 2030. A few years ago, the company also said that by 2050, it wants to remove all of the carbon it has ever emitted since its 1975 founding.
As the second most popular social media platform in the world, YouTube frequently attracts criticism. In particular, critics argue that its algorithmic recommendations facilitate radicalization and extremism by sending users down "rabbit holes" of harmful content.
According to a new study published in Science Advances, however, exposure to alternative and extremist video channels on YouTube is not driven by recommendations. Instead, most consumption of these channels on the platform can be attributed to a small group of users high in gender and racial resentment and who subscribe to these channels and follow links to their videos.
The study authors caution that these findings do not exonerate the platform. "YouTube's algorithms may not be recommending alternative and extremist content to nonsubscribers very often, but they are nonetheless hosting it for free and funneling it to subscribers in ways that are of great concern," says co-author Brendan Nyhan, the James O. Freedman Presidential Professor at Dartmouth.
[...] In 2019, YouTube announced that changes to its algorithms had reduced watch time of harmful content by 50%, with a 70% decline in watch time by nonsubscribers. These reports had not been independently verified, so the research team set out to determine who is watching this type of content and evaluate what recommendations are offered by YouTube's algorithm.
[...] Given the challenges of trying to characterize the content of every single video viewed, the researchers focused on the type of YouTube channels people watched. They compiled lists of channels that had been identified as alternative or extreme by journalists and academics and then examined how often a participant visited videos from those channels.
[...] A majority of viewers of the potentially harmful channels were subscribers to the type of channel in question: 61% subscribers for alternative channels and 55% for extremist channels. Almost all subscribed either to the channel in question or another one like it: 93% for alternative channels and 85% for extremist channels.
Viewing time data showed that a tiny percentage of people were responsible for most of the time participants spent watching potentially harmful channels. Specifically, 1.7% of participants were responsible for 80% of time spent on alternative channels while only 0.6% of participants were responsible for 80% of the time spent on extremist channels.
The researchers also found that people who scored high in hostile sexism and racial resentment were more likely to visit videos from alternative and extremist channels.
[...] "What really stands out is the correlation between content subscribers' prior levels of hostile sexism and more time spent watching videos from alternative and extremist channels," says Nyhan. "We interpret that relationship as suggesting that people are seeking this content out."
By contrast, the researchers found that recommendations to alternative and extremist channel videos were very rare and that "rabbit hole"-type events were only observed a handful of times during the study period.
Annie Y. Chen, Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, et al., Subscriptions and external links help drive resentful users to alternative and extremist YouTube channels, Sci. Adv., Vol. 9, No. 35 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.add8080
Since its release in 1993, id Software's DOOM franchise has become one of modern gaming's most easily recognizable IPs. The series has sold more than 10 million copies to date and spawned myriad RPG spinoffs, film adaptations and even a couple tabletop board games. But the first game's debut turned out to be a close thing, id Software cofounder John Romero describes in an excerpt from his new book DOOM GUY: Life in First Person. With a mere month before DOOM was scheduled for release in December 1993, the iD team found itself still polishing and tweaking lead programmer John Carmack's novel peer-to-peer multiplayer architecture, ironing out level designs — at a time when the studio's programmers were also its QA team — and introducing everybody's favorite killer synonym to the gamer lexicon.
On Tuesday, the US Copyright Office Review Board rejected copyright protection for an AI-generated artwork that won a Colorado State Fair art contest last year because it lacks human authorship required for registration, Reuters reports. The win, which was widely covered in the press at the time, ignited controversy over the ethics of AI-generated artwork.
In August 2022, Artist Jason M. Allen created the piece in question, titled Theatre D'opera Spatial, using the Midjourney image synthesis service, which was relatively new at the time. The image depicting a futuristic royal scene won top prize in the fair's "Digital Arts/Digitally Manipulated Photography" category.
This is not the first time the Copyright Office has rejected AI-generated artwork. In February, it revoked copyright protection for images made by artist Kris Kashtanova using Midjourney for the graphic novel Zarya of the Dawn but allowed copyrighting the human-arranged portions of the work.
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X, the social media company previously known as Twitter, is suing the state of California over a law that requires companies to disclose details about their content moderation practices. The law, known as AB 587, requires social media companies to publish information about their handling of hate speech, extremism, misinformation and other issues, as well as details about internal moderation processes.
Lawyers for X argue that the law is unconstitutional and will lead to censorship. It “has both the purpose and likely effect of pressuring companies such as X Corp. to remove, demonetize, or deprioritize constitutionally-protected speech,” the company wrote in the lawsuit. “The true intent of AB 587 is to pressure social media platforms to ‘eliminate’ certain constitutionally-protected content viewed by the State as problematic.”
[...] At the same time, AB 587's backers have said it’s necessary to increase the transparency of major platforms. “If @X has nothing to hide, then they should have no objection to this bill,” Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, who wrote AB 587, said in response to X’s lawsuit.
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X, the company formerly known as Twitter, may not be labeling its ads properly, putting it at risk of — once again — running afoul of the FTC. There have been numerous reports over the last several days of ads appearing in users’ timelines without being labeled as such, according to TechCrunch, which was first to report on the stealth ads.
[...] While the unlabeled ads have irked users, who may mistakenly believe the platform is showing posts from accounts they don’t follow in their following timeline, the issue also risks stirring up more regulatory trouble with the FTC. Nandini Jammi, co-founder of watchdog group Check My Ads, has been sharing examples on her Twitter account over the past couple days. The nonprofit group is tracking the issue and encouraging X users to report any examples they find.
It’s unclear if the unlabeled ads are the result of a bug or an intentional change by the company. X, which no longer has a functioning communications department, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Last week, OpenAI published tips for educators in a promotional blog post that shows how some teachers are using ChatGPT as an educational aid, along with suggested prompts to get started. In a related FAQ, they also officially admit what we already know: AI writing detectors don't work, despite frequently being used to punish students with false positives.
In a section of the FAQ titled "Do AI detectors work?", OpenAI writes, "In short, no. While some (including OpenAI) have released tools that purport to detect AI-generated content, none of these have proven to reliably distinguish between AI-generated and human-generated content."
In July, we covered in depth why AI writing detectors such as GPTZero don't work, with experts calling them "mostly snake oil."
That same month, OpenAI discontinued its AI Classifier, which was an experimental tool designed to detect AI-written text. It had an abysmal 26 percent accuracy rate.
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Thirty years after the first flight of a pioneering reusable rocket ship known as the Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X, a commercial venture is aiming to bring its legacy to life in the Seattle area. Even its name — New Frontier Aerospace — is a callback to the earlier days of America’s space effort, going back to John F. Kennedy references to outer space as part of his “New Frontier.”
“We’re sort of like the grandson of DC-X,” New Frontier’s co-founder and CEO, Bill “Burners” Bruner, said at the startup’s headquarters in Tukwila.
But he doesn’t see New Frontier as a space launch venture in the strictest sense of the word. “We’re not doing the squat, or cylindrical or conical shapes that we were talking about in those days,” he told GeekWire. “We’re proposing to combine the hypersonic research of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and some of those geometries, with reusable rockets to attack the trillion-dollar air transportation market instead of the $11 billion space launch market.”
[...] The startup is one of several companies whose prospects are on the rise partly because of the U.S. military’s interest in hypersonic aerial vehicles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound. Like Stratolaunch — a company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen more than a decade ago — New Frontier aims to help the Pentagon counter hypersonic threats from Russia and China.
Bruner said New Frontier is taking a step-by-step approach, starting with the Pathfinder, a hypersonic vehicle that could be used for weapons testing or suborbital point-to-point cargo transport. The company has been awarded $2.25 million to develop the craft’s 3D-printed Mjölnir rocket engine, which is named after the hammer wielded by Thor in Norse mythology (and in Marvel movies). In June, New Frontier received an additional $150,000 from NASA for Mjölnir development.
[...] The company aims to leverage several innovations that weren’t around when the DC-X flew. For example, the engine as well as the airframe would make use of 3D printing — a technology pioneered by Relativity Space, another aerospace startup with Seattle roots.
Bruner said the engine is designed to run on renewable natural gas, which makes use of the smelly gases produced by decomposition at landfills and water treatment plants, or by defecation in livestock facilities. “Renewable liquid natural gas is net carbon-negative, because you’re removing the methane that would otherwise have been dumped into the atmosphere,” he explained.
New Frontier could also take advantage of the work that’s being done to foster the return of commercial supersonic flight — including Boom Supersonic’s development of a new faster-than-sound passenger jet and NASA’s efforts to turn down the volume on sonic booms.
If New Frontier’s vision becomes a reality, its hypersonic aircraft could be used not only for weapons systems and cargo delivery, but for intercontinental passenger travel as well. Bruner has already called dibs on his preferred term for what New Frontier plans to build. “Just like in the ’50s — when everybody said, ‘Well, that’s a jetliner’ — people will call these ‘rocketliners,'” he said. “And on the chance that that happens, I trademarked it.”
When NASA astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the Apollo 17 mission departed the lunar surface on December 14, 1972, they left a few things behind — including a US flag, a Moon buggy, and the lunar module's descent stage.
A new study by researchers from the California University of Technology has revealed that the latter regularly causes extra, tiny "moonquakes" which shake the lunar surface.
This finding comes, ironically, thanks to another thing Cernan and Schmitt left near their landing site — an array of four geophones used to conduct seismic experiments.
Reactivated between October 1976 and May 1977 for passive listening, these seismometers recorded thousands of subtle tremors on the Moon, the result of daily temperature variations.
Until now, however, the poor quality of the data had made a comprehensive analysis difficult — hiding the fact that some of the moonquakes were not quite what they initially seemed.
[...] In their study, geophysicist Professor Allen Husker of the California University of Technology and his colleagues used techniques not available in the seventies — like machine learning — to clean up the Apollo 17 passive seismic data and undertake a more robust analysis.
The team found that thermal moonquakes occur with the regularity of clockwork, every morning and afternoon. The latter are the result of the Sun leaving its peak position in the sky, allowing the lunar surface to begin to cool off.
However, the team's artificial intelligence model revealed that the seismic activity detected in the morning has a different profile — and are not regular thermal moonquakes at all.
Using the data from the seismometer array to triangulate the source of the morning quakes, Husker and his team found that they were coming from the left-behind descent stage of the Apollo 17 lunar module.
[...] Seismological studies of the Moon are — as on Earth — also a great way to get a glimpse of the structure beneath the surface. This is because seismic waves travel at different speeds.
As Husker adds, using moonquakes, "we will hopefully be able to map out the subsurface cratering and to look for deposits."
[...] Husker continued: "There are also certain regions in craters at the Moon's South Pole that never see sunlight; they are permanently shadowed.
"If we could put up a few seismometers there, we could look for water ice that may be trapped in the subsurface. Seismic waves travel slower through water."
F. Civilini, R. Weber, A. Husker, Thermal Moonquake Characterization and Cataloging Using Frequency-Based Algorithms and Stochastic Gradient Descent, JGR Planets, 2023. DOI: 10.1029/2022JE007704
Spotify used to launder drug money?
On a series of articles gang members, criminals and investigators from the police tell how Spotify is used to launder drug money.
"I can say with 100 percent certainty that this goes on. I have been involved in it myself," SvD quoted one anonymous gang member as saying.
He said his gang began using the music streaming giant Spotify for money laundering in 2019, around the time Swedish gangster rap became popular in the country and started winning music awards.
"We have paid people who have done this for us systematically," he said.
Describing the process, he said the gangs would convert their dirty cash to bitcoin, then used the cryptocurrency to pay people who sold fake streams on Spotify, which is a Swedish company.
Spotify is feigning ignorance. They somehow missed that this has been going on for at least four years.
Do other entertainment services have the same problems in the modern digital world?
Researchers at Iowa State University found a simple intervention could help. During a two-week experiment with 230 college students, half were asked to limit their social media usage to 30 minutes a day and received automated, daily reminders. They scored significantly lower for anxiety, depression, loneliness and fear of missing out at the end of the experiment compared to the control group.
They also scored higher for "positive affect," which the researchers describe as "the tendency to experience positive emotions described with words such as 'excited' and 'proud.'" Essentially, they had a brighter outlook on life.
"It surprised me to find that participants' well-being did not only improve in one dimension but in all of them. I was excited to learn that such a simple intervention of sending a daily reminder can motivate people to change their behavior and improve their social media habits." says Ella Faulhaber, a Ph.D. student in human-computer interaction and lead author of the paper.
[...] Many of the participants in the ISU study commented that the first few days of cutting back were challenging. But after the initial push, one student felt more productive and in tune with life. Others shared that they were getting better sleep or spending more time with people in person.
[...] "We live in an age of anxiety. Lots of indicators show that anxiety, depression, loneliness are all getting worse, and that can make us feel helpless. But there are things we can do to manage our mental health and well-being," says Gentile.
Paying more attention to how much time we spend on social media and setting measurable goals can help.
Faulhaber, M. E., Lee, J. E., & Gentile, D. A. (2023). The Effect of Self-Monitoring Limited Social Media Use on Psychological Well-Being. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 4(2: Summer 2023). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000111
Just over a year ago, Bungie went to court to try to stop a serial Destiny 2 cheater who had evaded multiple account bans and started publicly threatening Bungie employees. Now, that player has been ordered to pay $500,000 in copyright-based damages and cannot buy, play, or stream Bungie games in the future.
In a consent judgment that has apparently been agreed to by both sides of the lawsuit (as dug up by TorrentFreak), district court judge Richard Jones agrees with Bungie's claim that defendant Luca Leone's use of cheat software constitutes "copyright infringement" of Destiny 2.
[...] Leone also created new accounts to get around multiple ban attempts by Bungie and tried to "opt out" of the game's license agreement as a minor in an attempt to do a legal end run around Bungie's multiple account bans.
[...] While a judge dismissed one such case against cheat maker AimJunkies last year, Bungie has since been awarded $12 million, $13.5 million, $6.7 million, and $16.2 million in damages in four separate copyright-based judgments against cheat makers.
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The crewless spacecraft has traveled 4.4 billion miles through space over the past seven years on a quest to visit a near-Earth asteroid. The robot reached its destination, Bennu, and collected gravel — perhaps about a cup's worth — in October 2020.
Now that the spacecraft is closing in on Earth, the team will attempt to bring that sample all the way home by dropping the capsule 63,000 miles above the planet — about one-third the distance from Earth to the moon. The ground target is just 250 square miles, in a high mountain desert of Utah.
"It's the equivalent of throwing a dart across the length of a basketball court and hitting the bulls-eye," said Rich Burns, NASA's project manager.
If it works, OSIRIS-Rex will be the first U.S. mission to return an asteroid sample.
[...] Not since the Apollo moon rocks, collected between 1969 and 1972, has NASA brought back space souvenirs of this magnitude. Japan's space agency, JAXA, on the other hand, has retrieved smaller asteroid samples twice already, from Itokawa and Ryugu.
[...] Bennu earned the nickname "the trickster asteroid" because it has baffled the team throughout the mission. Scientists believed that when the spacecraft touched down to collect the sample three years ago, it would encounter a solid surface. Instead, the asteroid responded to the spacecraft more like a fluid, or a child's ball pit.
[...] By probing a sample of Bennu, the team is poised to chip away at big questions, like how do organic materials originate, and why did life emerge on Earth? Scientists still don't fully grasp how to get from simple carbon molecules, like the natural gas methane, to complex ones, such as amino acids that make proteins and nucleic acid that makes up genetic material, Lauretta said.
[...] The cup of Bennu gravel will return in a capsule shortly after reentry, at 10:42 a.m. ET Sept. 24. But four hours before the package pierces Earth's atmosphere, flight controllers will make a decision about whether to proceed with the separation of the capsule from its spacecraft, based on human safety, capsule survivability, and landing accuracy criteria.
After the spacecraft releases the capsule about 63,000 miles from Earth, it will travel through space for about 20 minutes before firing its thrusters to avoid Earth. At that point, it will begin its extended mission to another asteroid. If all goes well, the spacecraft will reach Apophis in 2029.
If for some reason flight controllers poll "no-go" for the landing, the capsule will remain with the spacecraft as it flies past Earth. In two years, the team could have another opportunity to drop off the package.
[...] Parachutes will slow the capsule from 27,650 to 11 miles per hour before it hits the ground. At its highest speed, the capsule, protected with a heat shield, will be surrounded by a ball of fire. The Air Force will use radar and cameras to determine its precise location for the recovery team.
[...] But viewers will be able to watch some of the activity from home. NASA plans to broadcast live coverage of OSIRIS-Rex's return on its website and Youtube starting at 10 a.m. ET (or 7 a.m. MST, the local time in Utah) Sept. 24. The capsule is expected to enter Earth's atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. ET and land about 13 minutes later.