Glacial Lava & Artificial Intelligence | SciByte 110

Glacial Lava & Artificial Intelligence | SciByte 110

We take a look at lava under Antarctica, teaching artificial intelligence, neutrino data, greenhouses in the desert, studying the Moon\’s atmosphere, hope for Kepler, Curiosity news, and as always take a peek back into history and up in the sky this week.

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Eyeing Magma Under the Antarctic Ice

  • Marie Byrd Land is a desolate region of Antarctica buried deep beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet now researchers have shown that molten rock still stirs deep underground
  • Lava?
  • Historic eruptions have punctured the ice sheet, creating a chain of volcanoes amid the ice
  • Only the largest eruptions could melt all the ice above them and poke through to the surface, but even smaller eruptions could potentially cause global sea level to rise, although no one knows how big the rise might be
  • The crust is thinned by the West Antarctic Rift System, a series of giant rift valleys beneath the ice sheet
  • \”Data in the Data\”
  • Erupted lava from underground magma chambers has burst through the ice repeatedly over geological history as the plates moved over the top
  • No one knew whether magma was still stirring until seismic monitoring stations were installed on the ice between 2007 and 2010.
  • Researchers built the stations to essentially to weight the ice sheet to help study the shifting crustal blocks of the West Antarctic Rift System
  • One way to do that is to measure how the Earths crust responds to the weight of the ice, and would depend on weather it was hot and fluid or cool and vicious, but seismologist found another use
  • They noticed a series of small earthquakes, mainly occurring during two “seismic swarms” in January and February 2010 and March 2011
  • These earthquakes were unusual: The ground was shaking much more slowly during the quakes (2-4/sec) than one would expect from the plates grinding against each other (10-20/sec)
  • The Earthquakes
  • Researchers looked at two different types of waves that come in-the P wave, which is the primary wave, and the S wave, which is the secondary wave
  • Calculations revealed that the waves had come from 25 to 40 kilometers below Earth\’s surface and were centered approximately at a point that followed a linear trend of volcanoes to the south
  • The exact cause of these deep quakes is not understood, but they are thought to result from the movement of magma deep below active or soon-to-be active volcanoes
  • Other Data
  • The area showed a slightly higher magnetic field than the surrounding area and that there was a bump in the crust-common signals of magmatic activity
  • Radar mapping also indicated a layer of volcanic ash embedded in the ice, probably from an eruption of Mount Waesche about 8000 years ago-very recent geological history
  • There is no evidence of an actual eruption since then, but, because magma is still moving deep under the Earth, an eruption could occur at any time
  • What About Now?
  • The current center of volcanic activity is covered by at least 1 kilometer of ice, and it would take an exceptionally large eruption to melt all this
  • An eruption could make its presence felt in subtler ways. As fresh snow adds to their own mass, ice sheets flow downward into the sea
  • Melting the base of the ice sheet, an eruption could speed up this flow, potentially raising the level of the ocean. No one knows how significant such a rise might be
  • Any effect on the ice sheet above, and thus any effect on the oceans, would probably be quite small; however, a proper study is needed to find out how significant volcanic activity could be to future sea levels
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | S and P waves | Atkinson Physics
  • YouTube | Mount Erebus: clip from BBC\’s Volcano Live | Clive Oppenheimer
  • YouTube | Volcano: Mount Etna erupts for the 16th time this year sending lava 600 metres into the air | ITN
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Wikipedia | Seismic wave | Usefulness of P and S waves in locating an event
  • Magma Boils Beneath Antarctic Ice | Science/AAAS
  • Active Volcano Discovered Under Ice Sheet in West Antarctica


A.I. Common Sense

  • “Researchers are trying to teach common sense to an artificial intelligence by watching the internet”
  • What they are doing is to let the artificial intelligence browse millions of pictures and decide for itself what they all mean
  • Never Ending Image Learning, NEIL
  • The system at Carnegie Mellon University is called NEIL, short for
  • In mid-July, it began searching the Internet for images 24/7 and, in tiny steps, is deciding for itself how those images relate to each other
  • The goal is to recreate what we call common sense-the ability to learn things without being specifically taught
  • In just over four months, the network of 200 processors identified 1,500 objects and 1,200 scenes and has connected the dots to make 2,500 associations
  • NEIL leverages recent advances in computer vision that enable computer programs to identify and label objects in images, to characterize scenes and to recognize attributes, such as colors, lighting and materials, all with a minimum of human supervision
  • Humans vs Computers
  • Having a computer make its own associations is an entirely different type of challenge than programming a supercomputer to do one thing very well, or fast
  • Humans constantly make decisions using \”this huge body of unspoken assumptions,\” while computers don
  • Humans can also quickly respond to some questions that would take a computer longer to figure out
  • \”Could a giraffe fit in your car?\” | Humans can have an answer without having made the precise calculations that a computer would do
  • Some of NEIL\’s Computer-Generated Associations
  • \”Rhino can be a kind of antelope,\”
  • \”Actor can be found in jail cell\”
  • \”News anchor can look similar to Barack Obama.\”
  • Searches and Categorizing
  • The computers have figured out that zebras tend to be found in savannahs and that tigers look somewhat like zebras
  • A search for \”apple\” might return images of fruit as well as laptop computers
  • The team had no idea that a search for F-18 would identify not only images of a fighter jet, but also of F18-class catamarans
  • As its search proceeds, NEIL develops subcategories of objects
  • Tricycles can be for kids, for adults and can be motorized, or cars come in a variety of brands and models
  • It begins to notice associations – that zebras tend to be found in savannahs, for instance, and that stock trading floors are typically crowded
  • The Future
  • In the future, NEIL will analyze vast numbers of YouTube videos to look for connections between objects
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • NEIL: Never Ending Image Learner
  • Carnegie Mellon computer searches web 24/7 to analyze images and teach itself common sense |
  • New research aims to teach computers common sense |


Neutrinos Spotted

Desert Farming

  • A pilot plant built by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) produced 75 kilograms of vegetables per square meter in three crops annually, comparable to commercial farms in Europe, while consuming only sunlight and seawater
  • This is not particularly a recent publication but was recently found by me and I thought it was interesting
  • The Plant
  • The heart of the SFP concept is a specially designed greenhouse. At one end, salt water is trickled over a grid like curtain so that the prevailing wind blows the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside
  • This cooling effect allowed the facility to grow three crops per year, even in the scorching summer
  • At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them
  • Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water
  • The third key element of the SFP facility is a concentrated solar power plant
  • This uses mirrors in the shape of a parabolic trough to heat a fluid flowing through a pipe at its focus. The heated fluid then boils water, and the steam drives a turbine to generate power
  • The plant has electricity to run its control systems and pumps and can use any excess to desalinate water for irrigating the plants
  • Bonus Effects
  • One of the surprising side effects of such a seawater greenhouse, seen during early experiments, is that cool moist air leaking out of it encourages other plants to grow spontaneously outside
  • Qatar plant took advantage of that effect to grow crops around the greenhouse, including barley and salad rocket (arugula), as well as useful desert plants
  • The pilot plant accentuated this exterior cooling with more “evaporative hedges” that reduced air temperatures by up to 10°C.
  • The Future
  • The fact that this small greenhouse produced such good yields, suggests that a commercial plant-with possibly four crops a year-could do even better
  • Much larger greenhouses are being looked at to test whether or not this could be a long term solution and how much it would take to grow nearly or as much as the imported foods that could be grown there
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | Feeding 9 Billion: Turning the Desert Green – Qatar |Journeyman Pictures
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Desert Farming Experiment Yields First Results | Science/AAAS


LADEE Starts to Study the Lunar Atmosphere

  • NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) has descended to its planned low altitude orbit and begun capturing science data on the Moon’s ultra tenuous atmosphere and dust
  • The purpose of LADEE is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface
  • The Mission
  • The approximately 100 day long mission length is dictated by the residual fuel available for thruster firings.
  • By circling in a very low altitude equatorial orbit, the washing machine sized probe will make frequent passes crossing from lunar day to lunar night
  • This will enable it to precisely measure changes and processes occurring within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere while simultaneously sniffing for uplifted lunar dust in the lunar sky
  • These data will lead to a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond
  • Maybe Solving a Mystery
  • By studying the raised dust, scientists also hope to solve a 40 year old mystery
  • Why did the Apollo astronauts and early unmanned landers see a glow of rays and streamers at the moon’s horizon stretching high into the lunar sky
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube | NASA Ames LADEE Mission Animation: Science Collection / Orbital Variation / Lunar Atmosphere |NASA Ames Research Center
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • NASA\’s LADEE Probe Starts Science Study of Thin Lunar Atmosphere and Dusty Mystery |

The Return of Kepler?

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  • The Kepler Space telescope may soon start searching the sky again.
  • A new mission concept, dubbed K2, would continue Kepler\’s search for other worlds, and introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae
  • Last Time on SciByte
  • SciByte 94 | Kepler & Ancient Water | Kepler’s Last Dance? – May 21, 2013
  • The Original Mission
  • For four years, the space telescope simultaneously and continuously monitored the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, recording a measurement every 30 minutes.
  • In May, the Kepler spacecraft lost the second of four gyroscope-like reaction wheels, which are used to precisely point the spacecraft,
  • Gyroscope Problems
  • The loss of the additional gyroscope ended new data collection for the original mission, which required three functioning wheels to maintain the precision pointing necessary to detect the signal of small Earth-sized exoplanets
  • With the failure of a second reaction wheel, the spacecraft can no longer precisely point at the mission\’s original field of view. The culprit is none other than our own sun which pushes the spacecraft around
  • Pressure is exerted when the photons of sunlight strike the spacecraft
  • Without a third wheel to help counteract the solar pressure, the spacecraft\’s ultra-precise pointing capability cannot be controlled in all directions.
  • A Possible Solution
  • Kepler mission and Ball Aerospace engineers have developed an innovative way of recovering pointing stability by maneuvering the spacecraft so that the solar pressure is evenly distributed across the surfaces of the spacecraft
  • To achieve this level of stability, the orientation of the spacecraft must be nearly parallel to its orbital path around the sun
  • This technique of using the sun as the \’third wheel\’ to control pointing is currently being tested on the spacecraft and early results are already coming in
  • Initial Test
  • During a pointing performance test in late October, a full frame image of the space telescope\’s full field of view was captured showing part of the constellation Sagittarius
  • Photons of light from a distant star field were collected over a 30-minute period and produced an image quality within five percent of the primary mission image quality
  • Additional testing is underway to demonstrate the ability to maintain this level of pointing control for days and weeks.
  • The Future
  • A decision to proceed to the 2014 Senior Review – a biannual assessment of operating missions – and propose for budget to fly K2 is expected by the end of 2013
  • The K2 mission concept has been presented to NASA Headquarters
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • A Sunny Outlook for NASA Kepler\’s Second Light | NASA


  • Operations Temporarily Suspended
  • Science observations by NASA\’s Mars rover Curiosity were suspended for a few days while engineers ran tests to check possible causes of a voltage change detected on Nov. 17
  • \”The vehicle is safe and stable, fully capable of operating in its present condition, but we are taking the precaution of investigating what may be a soft short,\” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager
  • The electrical issue did not cause the rover to enter a safe-mode status, in which most activities automatically cease pending further instructions, and there is no indication the issue is related to a computer reboot that triggered a \”safe-mode\” earlier this month
  • \”Soft Short\”
  • The team detected a change in the voltage difference between the chassis and the 32-volt power bus that distributes electricity to systems throughout the rover, from about 11 volts to about 4
  • The rover\’s electrical system is designed with the flexibility to work properly throughout that range and more, \”floating bus.\”
  • A soft short can cause such a voltage change
  • A \”soft\” short is a leak through something that\’s partially conductive of electricity, rather than a hard short such as one electrical wire contacting another
  • Soft shorts reduce the level of robustness for tolerating other shorts in the future, and they can indicate a possible problem in whichever component is the site of the short
  • Curiosity had already experienced one soft short on landing day in August 2012, that one was related to explosive-release devices used for deployments shortly before and after the landing
  • It lowered the bus-to-chassis voltage from about 16 volts to about 11 volts but has not affected subsequent rover operations
  • Diagnosis and the Cause
  • Analysis determined that the change appeared intermittently three times during the hours before it became persistent
  • The work to determine the cause of the voltage change gained an advantage from an automated response by the rover\’s onboard software when it detected the voltage change
  • The rover stepped up the rate at which it recorded electrical variables, to eight times per second from the usual once per minute, and transmitted that engineering data in its next communication with Earth
  • The likely cause is an internal short in Curiosity\’s power source, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator
  • The short does not affect operation of the power source or the rover
  • Similar generators on other spacecraft, including NASA\’s Cassini at Saturn, have experienced shorts with no loss of capability
  • Testing of another Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator over many years found no loss of capability in the presence of these types of internal shorts
  • In subsequent days, the rover performed diagnostic activities commanded by the team, such as powering on some backup hardware to rule out the possibility of short circuits in certain sensors
  • Early Nov. 23 the rover had returned to its pre-Nov. 17 voltage level, this reversal is consistent with their diagnosis of an internal short in the generator on Nov. 17, and the voltage could change again
  • Return to Science
  • Science operations were suspended for six days while this analysis took priority when the team made a list of potential causes, and then eliminated the possible causes one by one
  • The decision to resume science activities resulted from the success of work to diagnose the likely root cause of the Nov. 17 change in voltage
  • Activities after analysis resumed included the use of Curiosity\’s robotic arm to deliver portions of powdered rock to a laboratory inside the rover
  • The powder has been stored in the arm since the rover collected it by drilling into the target rock \”Cumberland\” six months ago
  • Several portions of the powder have already been analyzed. The laboratory has flexibility for examining duplicate samples in different ways
  • Multimedia
  • Image Galleries at JPL and Curiosity Mulimedia
  • Social Media
  • Curiosity Rover @MarsCuriosity
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity Resumes Science After Analysis of Voltage Issue |
  • Mars Science Laboratory: Rover Team Working to Diagnose Electrical Issue |
  • Mars Rover Curiosity Sidelined by Electrical Glitch |


Looking back

  • Dec 03, 1732 : 281 years ago : Artificial respiration : James Blair was rescued from a fire in a coal mine. William Tossach, a Scottish surgeon, found that “there was not the least pulse in either heart or arteries, and not the least breathing could be observed: So that he was in all appearance dead. I applied my mouth close to his, and blowed my breath as strong as I could… I blew again my breath as strong as I could, raising his chest fully with it; and immediately I felt six or seven very quick beats of the heart.”This appears to be the first recorded use of the ventilation technique since it was commented upon by 16th century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who investigated the effect on an animal upon which he had performed a tracheotomy and related ventilation to heart function
  • The technique is believed to have been in use from ancient times, so Tossach was probably not the first to utilize expired air ventilation. However, he left what appear to be the first clinical description of the procedure in the medical literature, which he wrote twelve years later.

Looking up this week

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