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Arecibo Observatory seeks $10.5M for cable repairs after accident

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ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 2 (UPI) — The Arecibo Observatory, the world’s most powerful radio space telescope, is seeking $10.5 million to begin repairs after a disastrous cable break in August that damaged the facility in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Observatory managers, based at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., made the funding request recently to the National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory.

The $10.5 million is only the first stage of funding that will be needed, and the request could be more than double that amount to make the facility fully functional again, said Ray Lugo, director of the university’s Florida Space Institute.

“I wouldn’t say the situation is dire, but I would say it’s complicated,” said Lugo, who heads a network of organizations that manage Arecibo. “We still don’t know the root cause of the cable break, which makes things difficult.”

A 3-inch-wide cable that helped support the observatory’s suspended telescope failed in the predawn hours Aug. 10, tearing a 100-foot gash in the observatory’s dish below. The observatory shut all major operations as a result, including crucial efforts to track asteroids that could destroy life on Earth if they hit the planet.

Lugo said a contractor in charge of investigating the accident has determined that the cable slipped out of a socket embedded in a support tower.

Unique failure

“The professionals tell me they’ve never a failure like this before,” Lugo said. “These cables are sealed into the sockets with molten zinc metal, so they should be very secure.

“If it ends up being something like a manufacturing defect, then we have a problem because we have a bunch of cables made around the same time.”

At least “half a dozen” support cables at the observatory are showing similar signs of slipping through their base socket, he said. So, the observatory has ordered a newer, tougher cable to replace the broken one and seeks funding to replace all the cables at risk, he said.

“This may be expensive, but it beats building a new observatory, which would likely run near $1 billion,” Lugo said.

A spokesman for the National Science Foundation said it does not comment on funding requests unless they are approved.

The facility, nestled in rural hills in central Puerto Rico, suffered millions of dollars in damage during Hurricane Maria in 2017. But the facility’s staff reported that it came through a series of earthquakes last winter without major damage.

Cables for the observatory, completed in 1963, were made by legacy cable company Bethlehem Wirerope, which was part of Bethlehem Steel and based in Pennsylvania. A successor, Wire Rope Works, bought the company and still owns it.

Socket examined

Technicians and scientists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida are examining the socket from the failed cable, while staff members at the observatory still seek a safe way to enter the dish area and retrieve the cable, Lugo said. He said the unknown nature of the problem has prevented that retrieval.

“We may try to inspect all the cables, using some type of imaging. But the cables are thick, several inches in diameter, and they are embedded in the sockets. So we don’t really have the technology to look at it,” Lugo said. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this out.”

He said the proposal to the foundation for emergency funding was more than 500 pages.

The reflector dish set in the mountains spans about 18 acres, while the suspended platform above it is about the size of a six-story building, hanging from three towers as big as skyscrapers.

The facility received two grants of more than $14 million for repair and upgrading after Maria. But Arecibo’s annual funding from the National Science Foundation has been slashed.

The structure is known as a film location for such movies as such as 1995’s GoldenEye and Species, and 1997’s Contact. Two scientists using data from the dish have won Nobel Prizes.

Astronomy conducted at Arecibo over the years has included the study of gravitational waves, possible signs of extraterrestrial life, asteroids, the Earth’s ionosphere, pulsars and interstellar hot gas.

Such work led to the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of a binary pulsar by scientists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, which provided the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves, according to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.

Astronomers at the observatory are to be involved in watching the Didymos asteroid in 2022, when NASA’s DART mission will try to hit the asteroid’s small moon with a spacecraft to see how that changes its course.



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Scientists program robot swarm to count penguins

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Oct. 28 (UPI) — Penguins occupy ecosystems increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Tracking their abundance and distribution is vital to the project of tracking global warming’s ecological effects — but counting penguins is difficult work.

To make the task of tallying the size of penguin colonies a bit easier, researchers recruited the assistance of not one robot, but a whole swarm of bots.

“The idea actually grew out of a conversation at my sister-in-law’s wedding,” Mac Schwager, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, told UPI in an email. “I met our co-author Annie Schmidt at the wedding, and learned that she studies penguin populations in Antarctica, and one of their key challenges was counting the penguins.”

“I told her I worked with autonomous groups of drones that could be used to take images for counting the penguins,” Schwager said. “At that point, it was clear that we had a great research synergy.”

Researchers typically use a single drone to conduct aerial surveys of penguin colonies, but the process is slow and requires a lot of time, effort and skill from the drone pilot.

In collaboration with Schmidt and her team of biologists, Schwager and Stanford grad student Kunal Shah programmed a swarm of drones to autonomously survey penguin colonies.

The team of scientists described their novel solution in a new paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

“Our main technical innovation is our path planning algorithm, the computer program that decides where each drone should go and when,” Schwager said. “Existing methods typically plan paths like a lawnmower, or a vacuum cleaner, going back and forth over the survey area.”

“It turns out, other paths can be much more effect, in the sense that they can take the same images while requiring less back-tracking, and while making sure that the drone is close enough to the base camp to make it back safely with the remaining battery life.”

Previously, it took scientists three days to survey Antarctic penguin colonies using a solitary, hand-piloted drone. The robot swarm programmed by Schwager and his colleagues completed surveys in just two to three hours.

Time is precious in Antarctica, where animals are often on the move and weather can quickly take a turn for the worse. But speed isn’t the swarm’s only advantage. The self-piloted robots also offer reliability.

“If one drone fails, the other drones can take up the slack and still finish the survey,” Schwager said.

For now, Schwager’s swarm of drones only take pictures. The counting is done back at base after the survey has been completed and the photographs downloaded onto computers. But in the future, Schwager said the drones could use artificial intelligence to count penguins as they go.

Schwager has previously programmed robotic swarms to track the movement of people and cars on the ground in order to analyze pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns, and he thinks similar algorithms could be adopted to track animal movements.

“The system could also be used to survey forests and other landscapes for wildfire risk, a problem that is very close to home right now for us at Stanford,” he said. “We could also use the drones to survey construction sites, mining sites, agricultural fields, to assess damage after a natural disaster, or to help find lost hikers.”

Biologists and study co-authors Schmidt and Grant Ballard are currently testing the drone aerial survey system in Antarctica. Meanwhile, Schwager and his colleagues at Stanford continue to make tweaks to the system to help the drones make better in-flight decisions and avoid collisions with birds or drones that have gone astray.

“We are passionate about using teams of autonomous drones to help us to understand and take care of the natural environment around us,” Schwager said.



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Fight judges favor aggression over skill, study shows

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Oct. 28 (UPI) — Often to the chagrin of fans and competitors, wrestling matches, boxing bouts, mixed martial arts and other types of combat competitions are frequently decided by judges.

That’s bad news for competitors that rely more on skill than vigor. New research suggests judges are more likely to award victory to aggressive fighters than skilled fighters, all else being equal.

For the study, published this week in the journal Biology Letters, researchers analyzed data collected from 550 men’s and women’s mixed martial arts contests organized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The data included the percentage of strikes that landed firmly and accurately, a measure of skill, as well as the number of strikes attempted per second, a measure of vigor or aggression.

Regardless of the match conclusion, whether decided by knockout or judges’ decision, the data showed the victor was the more vigorous fighter. However, the correlation between vigor and victory was strongest for matches decided by the scores of the judges.

Fighting skillfully wasn’t entirely discounted. The data showed addition of skill enhanced the advantage of vigor, but the research showed vigor was the most important factor for fights decided by the judges.

“MMA is a fast paced sport and one of the suggestions from our research would be that judges may find vigor easier to assess than skill,” lead author Sarah Lane, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth, said in a news release. “That, in turn, leads them to overvalue it when making their decisions, especially in longer fights where one fighter tires more quickly and the disparity in vigor is easier to spot.”

“The advance of technology such as instant replays could potentially counter this, but until they are employed more regularly rate of attack is likely to remain the most important performance trait for victory by decision,” Lane said.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which supports studies focused on the role of skill in animal contests.

Most of Lane’s time is spent studying hermit crab fighting, but the authors of the latest paper suggest their analysis of human fights could have implications for understanding physical competitions among animals.

There aren’t typically knockouts in fights between rival animals. Often, males joust and tussle to demonstrate their physical dominance to would be rivals and mates. Like in boxing, a competitor’s performance is subjective.

“Human combat sports provide a unique scenario in which to explore how performance traits such as skill and vigor are perceived, both by participants and observers,” said study co-author Mark Briffa.

“However, because of the obvious communication issues, very little is known about the accuracy with which fighting animals more widely judge the abilities of their rivals,” said Briffa, a professor of animal behavior at Plymouth.



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Graphene-based memory resistors could pave the way for brain-based computing

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Oct. 29 (UPI) — Researchers have created a new computer component capable of toggling between 16 possible memory states — the kind of computing versatility provided by brain synapses.

The new component, called a graphene field effect transistor, described Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, could pave the way for advances in brain-inspired computing.

Modern computers are exclusively digital, featuring two states: on-off or zero and one. Engineers at Penn State University are working to build a computer that replicates the brain’s analog nature, capable of hosting many different states.

If a digital computer’s information processing components work like a light switch, toggling only between on and off, then an analog computer is like a light dimmer.

Scientists have been investigating the potential of brain-based computing for decades, but analog computers have been overshadowed by the advances in traditional computing power. However, the rise of big data and smart devices like self-driving cars has highlighted the need for more computing efficiency.

“We have powerful computers, no doubt about that, the problem is you have to store the memory in one place and do the computing somewhere else,” lead researcher Saptarshi Das, an assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, said in a news release.

All the movement of information required by the bifurcation of memory to logic in modern computers puts a strain on speed. It also requires more spaces. Das and his research partners estimate that their graphene field effect transistor can help eliminate this bottleneck.

“We are creating artificial neural networks, which seek to emulate the energy and area efficiencies of the brain,” said study first author Thomas Shranghamer.

“The brain is so compact it can fit on top of your shoulders, whereas a modern supercomputer takes up a space the size of two or three tennis courts,” said Shranghamer, a doctoral student in the Das group.

Brain synapses can be quickly reconfigured to create a variety of neural network patterns. Likewise, the new graphene field effect transistor, formed by a one-atomic-thick layer of carbon atoms, can be used to control 16 possible memory states.

Researchers were able to reconfigure the transistor, effectively toggling between memory states, by applying a brief electric field to the graphene layer.

“What we have shown is that we can control a large number of memory states with precision using simple graphene field effect transistors,” Das said.

Das and his research partners are now looking to work with semiconductor companies to attempt to scale-up the production of the new technology.



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