Cape Canaveral, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — NASA is trying one last time to contact its record-setting Mars rover Opportunity, before calling it quits.
The rover has been silent for eight months, victim of one of the most intense dust storms in decades. Thick dust darkened the sky last summer and, for months, blocked sunlight from the spacecraft's solar panels.
NASA said Tuesday it will issue a final series of recovery commands, on top of more than 1,000 already sent. If there's no response by Wednesday — which NASA suspects will be the case — Opportunity will be declared dead, 15 years after arriving at the red planet.
Team members are already looking back at Opportunity's achievements, including confirmation water once flowed on Mars. Opportunity was, by far, the longest-lasting lander on Mars. Besides endurance, the six-wheeled rover set a roaming record of 28 miles (45 kilometers.)
Its identical twin, Spirit, was pronounced dead in 2011, a year after it got stuck in sand and communication ceased.
Both outlived and outperformed expectations, on opposite sides of Mars. The golf cart-size rovers were designed to operate as geologists for just three months, after bouncing onto our planetary neighbor inside cushioning air bags in January 2004. They rocketed from Cape Canaveral a month apart in 2003.
It's no easier saying goodbye now to Opportunity, than it was to Spirit, project manager John Callas told The Associated Press.
"It's just like a loved one who's gone missing, and you keep holding out hope that they will show up and that they're healthy," he said. "But each passing day that diminishes, and at some point you have to say 'enough' and move on with your life."
Deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman was a 16-year-old high school student when Opportunity landed on Mars; she was inside the control center as part of an outreach program. Inspired, Fraeman went on to become a planetary scientist, joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and ended up deputy project scientist for Opportunity.
"It gives you an idea just how long this mission has lasted," she said. "Opportunity's just been a workhorse ... it's really a testament, I think, to how well the mission was designed and how careful the team was in operating the vehicle."
Rather than viewing the dust storm as bad luck, Callas considers it "good luck that we skirted so many possible storms' over the years. Global dust storms typically kick up every few years, and "we had gone a long time without one." Unlike NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover still chugging along on Mars, Opportunity and Spirit were never designed to endure such severe weather.
Cornell University's Steve Squyres, lead scientist for both Opportunity and Spirit, considers succumbing to a ferocious storm an "honorable way" for the mission to end.
"You could have lost a lot of money over the years betting against Opportunity," Squyres told the AP Tuesday.
The rovers' greatest gift, according to Squyres, was providing a geologic record at two distinct places where water once flowed on Mars, and describing the conditions there that may have supported possible ancient life.
NASA last heard from Opportunity on June 10. Flight controllers tried to awaken the rover, devising and sending command after command, month after month. The Martian skies eventually cleared enough for sunlight to reach the rover's solar panels, but there was still no response. Now it's getting colder and darker at Mars, further dimming prospects.
Engineers speculate the rover's internal clock may have become scrambled during the prolonged outage, disrupting the rover's sleep cycle and draining on-board batteries. It's especially frustrating, according to Callas, not knowing precisely why Opportunity — or Spirit — failed.
Now it's up to Curiosity and the newly arrived InSight lander to carry on the legacy, he noted, along with spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
As for Opportunity, "It has given us a larger world," Callas said. "Mars is now part of our neighborhood."
Cape Canaveral, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — The faraway space snowman visited by NASA last month has a surprisingly flat — not round — behind.
New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. The two-lobed object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is actually flatter on the backside than originally thought, according to scientists.
Pictures released late last week — taken shortly after closest approach on New Year's Day — provide an outline of the side not illuminated by the sun.
When viewed from the front, Ultima Thule still resembles a two-ball snowman. But from the side , the snowman looks squashed, sort of like a lemon and pie stuck together, end to end.
"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view," Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist, said in a statement. "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun."
Project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, home to New Horizons flight control center, said the finding should spark new theories on how such primitive objects formed early in the solar system.
Ultima Thule — considered a contact binary — is the most distant world ever explored. New Horizons zipped past it at high speed, after becoming the first visitor to Pluto in 2015. Mission managers hope to target an even more distant celestial object in this so-called Kuiper Belt, on the frozen fringes of the solar system, if the spacecraft remains healthy.
New Horizons is already 32 million miles (52 million kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule. It will take another 1 ½ years to beam back all the flyby data.
The spacecraft rocketed from Florida in 2006.
Cape Canaveral, Feb (AP/UNB) — It turns out our Milky Way galaxy is truly warped, at least around the far edges.
Scientists in China and Australia released an updated 3D map of the Milky Way on Tuesday. They used 1,339 pulsating stars — young, newly catalogued stars bigger and brighter than our sun — to map the galaxy's shape.
The farther from the center, the more warping, or twisting, there is in the Milky Way's outer hydrogen gas disc. Researchers say the warped, spiral pattern is likely caused by the spinning force of the massive inner disc of stars.
"We usually think of spiral galaxies as being quite flat, like Andromeda, which you can easily see through a telescope," Macquarie University's Richard de Grijs, who took part in the study, said in a statement from Sydney.
Lead researcher Xiaodian Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said it's difficult to determine distances from the sun to the Milky Way's fringes, "without having a clear idea of what that disc actually looks like." The stars on which his team's map is based — known as classical Cepheids — provided substantial measuring accuracy.
At least a dozen other galaxies appear to have warped edges in a similar spiral pattern, so in that respect, we're hardly unique.
The study appears in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Beijing, Jan 24 (AP/UNB) — Chinese tech giant Huawei announced plans Wednesday for a next-generation smartphone that will use its own technology instead of U.S. components, maneuvering to gain a competitive edge and sidestep complaints it is a security risk.
The leading supplier of network switching gear for phone companies, Huawei Technologies Ltd. is spending heavily to develop its own chips, an area where the U.S. dominates. That can reduce Huawei's multibillion-dollar annual components bill and help insulate it against possible supply disruptions when U.S.-Chinese relations are strained.
The handset, billed by Huawei as the first foldable fifth-generation smartphone, will be unveiled next month at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the industry's biggest annual event, said Richard Yu, CEO of the company's consumer unit.
The phone is based on Huawei's own Kirin 980 chipset and Balong 5000 modem. The company says the Kirin 980, released in August, performs on a par with Qualcomm Inc.'s widely used Snapdragon 845.
Sales of Huawei smartphones and other consumer products rose more than 50 percent last year over 2017, showing "no influence" from Western security warnings, Yu told reporters. He said the consumer unit's sales topped $52 billion, or more than half of the $100 billion in annual revenue the company has forecast. Huawei has yet to release 2018 results for the whole company.
"In this complicated political environment, we still maintain strong growth," Yu said.
Chinese companies are trying to develop technology to better compete with Western suppliers in telecoms, solar power, electric cars, biotechnology and other fields.
The ruling Communist Party's plans for state-led development of such industries, along with robotics and artificial intelligence, helped trigger a trade war with President Donald Trump.
Both sides have raised tariffs on tens of billions of dollars of each other's goods in the dispute over American complaints Beijing steals or pressures foreign companies to hand over technology. Washington also says Chinese technology plans violate Beijing's market-opening obligations.
Huawei surpassed Apple as the No. 2 global smartphone brand behind Samsung in mid-2018. It uses Qualcomm in its high-end fourth-generation smartphones and earlier Kirin versions in lower-end models. The company, based in the southern city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong, also has developed chips for servers and mobile devices.
Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Ltd. already make their own chips.
Qualcomm has far more smartphone chip technology but Huawei is catching up, said Xi Wang of IDC.
"Generally speaking, Huawei's chips are equal to Qualcomm chips in performance," Wang said. "Not only at the mid-level but at the high end, Huawei can compete with Qualcomm."
Huawei, founded in 1987 by a former military engineer, has rejected accusations it is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or modifies its equipment to allow eavesdropping.
Its U.S. market evaporated after a congressional panel labeled Huawei and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE Corp. security risks in 2012 and told phone companies to avoid dealing with them.
ZTE was nearly driven into bankruptcy last year after the Washington cut off access to U.S. technology over its exports to Iran and North Korea. President Donald Trump restored access after ZTE paid a $1 billion fine and agreed to replace its executive team and install U.S.-chosen compliance officers.
Australia, Japan and some other governments also have imposed curbs on use of Huawei technology.
The company has stepped up efforts to mollify security fears after its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada on Dec. 1 on U.S. charges she lied to banks about trade with Iran.
Huawei's founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei, is Meng's father. In a rare public appearance, he told foreign reporters in a 2½-hour interview on Jan. 15 that he would reject requests from Chinese authorities for confidential information about its customers.
Yu said that despite "political noise" in some countries, Huawei sales outside the United States haven't suffered due to security concerns. The company says it serves 45 of the 50 biggest global phone companies and has signed contracts with 30 carriers to test 5G technology.
"Worldwide, all the carriers love us," said Yu.
Yu repeated Ren's assurances that Huawei has never received an official request for confidential information about customers.
"At Huawei, we never do these kinds of things," he said. "We always protect our customer."
New York, Jan 24 (AP/UNB) — Amazon is bringing delivery robots to the streets of a Seattle suburb.
The online shopping giant says it started to test self-driving robots in Snohomish County, Washington, Wednesday that can bring Amazon packages to shoppers' doorsteps.
The robots are light blue, about the size of a Labrador, have six wheels and the Amazon smile logo stamped on its side, according to Amazon photos . Six of them will be roaming the sidewalks and streets of the neighborhood.
Amazon says a worker will accompany the robots at first, but it didn't provide additional details of how the service would work. The company did not respond to questions about the test.
Several companies have been testing similar delivery robots on college campuses that deliver fast food or snacks to students.
Amazon says its robot, which it is calling Scout, can navigate around pets and pedestrians.