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Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory saved from uncertain fate

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Arecibo Observatory, which is the second-largest radio telescope in the world, is under new management. A group led by the University of Central Florida will take over the operations of the telescope from the National Science Foundation, which was co...
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SpaceX tried to catch its rocket’s nose cone with a giant net — and just missed

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After launching its Falcon 9 rocket from California this morning, SpaceX used a giant net to try to recover the rocket’s nose cone as it fell down in the Pacific Ocean. The first-time experiment failed, however: one of the pieces of the nose cone missed the net, which was attached to a ship, and landed intact on the sea surface instead.

Also known as the payload fairing, the nose cone is an earplug-shaped casing that sits on the top of the rocket, shielding the vehicle’s payload during launch. Once in space, the fairing breaks apart into two pieces and falls back to Earth. Normally, companies don’t recover the pieces of the fairing after a launch, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been eager to find a way to save the hardware. “Imagine you had $6 million in cash in a palette flying through the air, and it’s going to smash into the ocean,” Musk said during a press conference in March 2017. “Would you try to recover that? Yes. Yes, you would.”

SpaceX has become famous for landing its rockets after launch so they can fly again. But the way SpaceX plans to recover its fairing is quite different from how it recovers its rockets. The Falcon 9 boosters essentially reignite their engines as they fall back to Earth, helping to control and slow their descent. A typical rocket fairing doesn’t have any onboard engines, however. So SpaceX has equipped its latest nose cone with a guidance system and thrusters, tiny engines that help guide the pieces through the atmosphere when they break away from the rocket.

Then, as the pieces descend, they deploy thin parachute-like structures known as parafoils to slow their fall. Down at the surface, a SpaceX boat named Mr. Steven (a random name, Musk said) attempts to catch one of the fairing pieces with a giant net attached to large claw-like appendages.

SpaceX has been able to land its fairings in the ocean before, but this was the first time the company deployed Mr. Steven to catch one of the pieces. Musk noted that a fairing half missed the boat by a few hundred meters. However, the company should be able to fix the problem by making the parafoils bigger, he said.

Though the pieces may have landed undamaged in the Pacific, it’s unclear if they can be used again. The possibility seems unlikely, as seawater can cause significant damage to spacecraft without proper shielding. In January, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets somehow managed to survive intact after falling in the Atlantic Ocean, and Musk said the company would attempt to pull it back to shore. But that never happened. “The stage broke apart before we could complete an unplanned recovery effort for this mission,” SpaceX said in a statement.

Still, SpaceX will keep trying to save more nose cones in the months ahead. “My guess is next six months we’ve got fairing recovery figured out,” Musk said during a press conference for the Falcon Heavy launch. He even added that Mr. Steven could be used to catch more than just the fairing. “I think we can do the same thing with Dragon,” he said, referring to the company’s crew and cargo spacecraft.

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SpaceX has an intriguing launch on Wednesday morning

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Enlarge / SpaceX has a sooty booster on the pad in California, ready for a launch Wednesday morning. (credit: SpaceX)

After the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket two weeks ago, going back to launching a single core of a Falcon 9 rocket may seem like something of a letdown. But the next SpaceX launch, presently scheduled for early Wednesday morning, is worth tuning into. The instantaneous launch window opens (and closes) at 9:17am ET Wednesday, and weather conditions forecast for the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, are 90-percent favorable.

The primary mission on Wednesday is the launch of the PAZ satellite to low Earth orbit. This is a synthetic aperture radar satellite that can generate high-resolution images of the Earth's surface, regardless of whether there are clouds covering the ground. The customer is Hisdesat, a Spain-based commercial satellite company.

The Falcon 9 rocket will also carry a second payload of note: two experimental non-geostationary orbit satellites, Microsat-2a and -2b. Those are two satellites that SpaceX has previously said would be used in its first phase of broadband testing as part of an ambitious plan to eventually deliver global satellite Internet. Further satellites will be launched in phases, with SpaceX intending to reach full capacity with more than 4,000 satellites in 2024.

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Windows 10 on ARM limits (briefly) confirmed: No virtualization, no OpenGL

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Enlarge / The Snapdragon 835-powered HP Envy x2. (credit: HP)

As spotted by Paul Thurrott, Microsoft briefly published a document that enumerated the major differences between Windows 10 for ARM processors and Windows 10 for x86 chips. Though the document has now been removed, a cached copy is still available.

Many of the differences are predictable consequences of the different architecture. Windows 10 for ARM is a 64-bit ARM operating system. It can natively run both 32-bit and 64-bit ARM applications (though the SDK for the latter is currently, and temporarily, incomplete). As such, drivers for the operating system need to be 64-bit ARM drivers; existing 32- and 64-bit x86 drivers won't work.

This isn't a surprise; 64-bit x86 Windows can't use 32-bit drivers, either, even though 64-bit Windows can generally run 32-bit applications without even requiring any kind of emulation. This will mean that ARM Windows has limited hardware support relative to x86. It will also pose a problem for some games that use drivers for their copy protection.

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Flight-sim devs say hidden password-dump tool was used to fight pirates

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Enlarge / Installing this airliner in a popular flight-sim seems to have exposed computers to potential malware. (credit: FlightSimLabs)

The usually staid world of professional-grade flight simulations was rocked by controversy over the weekend, with fans accusing mod developer FlightSimLabs (FSLabs) of distributing "malware" with an add-on package for Lockheed Martin's popular Prepar3d simulation. The developer insists the hidden package was intended as an anti-piracy tool but has removed what it now acknowledges was a "heavy-handed" response to the threat of people stealing its add-on.

The controversy started Sunday when Reddit user crankyrecursion noticed that FSLabs' Airbus A320-X add-on package was setting off his antivirus scanner. FSLabs had already recommended users turn off their antivirus protection when installing the add-on, so this wasn't an isolated issue.

The reason for the warning, as crankyrecursion found, was that the installer seemed to be extracting a "test.exe" file that matched a "Chrome Password Dump" tool that can be found online. As the name implies, that tool appears to extract passwords saved in the Chrome Web browser—not something you'd expect to find in a flight-sim add-on. The fact that the installer necessarily needs to run with enhanced permissions increased the security threat from the "Password Dump."

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Silicon Valley made Peter Thiel billions, now he leaves it for LA

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Enlarge / Venture capitalist Peter Thiel of the Founders Fund and other technology executives and leaders attend the inaugural meeting of the American Technology Council in the Indian Treaty Room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House on June 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Peter Thiel, the well-known investor who cofounded data-analysis firm Palantir Technologies and who bankrolled the lawsuit that ultimately drove Gawker out of business, has decided that he has had enough of Silicon Valley. Thiel is moving his home address, investment firm, and foundation 400 miles south to Los Angeles, according to the Wall Street Journal. Thiel has also apparently raised the possibility that he will step down from Facebook’s board of directors.

Thiel rose to political prominence in 2016 when he donated $1.25 million to the Trump campaign and spoke at the Republican National Convention. As a result, his politics have reportedly driven him away from the liberal bastion of the Bay Area, with sources telling the Journal they believe that Thiel now finds the region to be “intolerant” and having “greater risk of regulation.”

The entrepreneur was born in Germany (he retains German citizenship) but spent most of his childhood in South Africa and Namibia before his parents settled in Foster City, California, south of San Francisco. He has since spent the bulk of his professional life in the Bay Area.

The longstanding libertarian recently said at a debate at Stanford University that Silicon Valley is a “one-party state. That’s when you get in trouble politically in our society, when you’re all in one side.”

Thiel, who founded a conservative publication known as The Stanford Review while in college, went on to found or invest in numerous major Silicon Valley companies. Thiel cofounded PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. He founded Palantir in 2003, and invested the paltry sum of $500,000 for a 10.2 percent stake in Facebook in 2004. He has gone on to found a handful of investment firms, including Thiel Capital.

In early 2017, it was revealed that Thiel convinced New Zealand officials to grant him citizenship—he took his citizenship oath at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica, California in 2011—despite the fact that he declared on his own application that he had no intention of living there. Thiel also apparently purchased an $11.5 million home in nearby Los Angeles the following year, above the famed Sunset Strip.

In August 2017, BuzzFeed reported that Thiel may have soured on Trump, even after getting a number of his former associates placed into the new administration.

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