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NASA released this October-appropriate image of the sun last week, showing active regions that mimic a Jack-O’-Lantern’s toothy grin. It’s just a coincidence, but it’s nice to see old Sol getting in on the Halloween action. NASA/GSFC/SDO
Sunlike stars often come in twos and threes, and astronomers and astrophysicists have long wondered why. Are these pairs and trios born as multiple stars orbiting the same point, or do they meet up when the gravity of one star captures another?
A new analysis out of Harvard and UC-Berkeley suggests that, in fact, nearly all stars are likely born with a twin—including our own sun. The findings, recently accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, are based on observations of newborn stars in a large cloud in the constellation Perseus.
Stars are born inside egg-shaped clouds called dense cores. These dusty gas clouds block the light from the stars inside and behind them. But fortunately for us, radio waves can penetrate through the darkness. The Very Large Array recently used radio waves to map all the young stars in the Perseus nursery, and the researchers drew on this data to understand the relationships between stars of different ages.
They found that binary stars separated by distances of 500 AU or more—that’s 500 times the distance between Earth and the sun—were extremely young stars less than 500,000 years old. In these systems, the two stars tended to be aligned with the long axis of the egg-shaped cloud.
Slightly older stars, between 500,000 and a million years old, tended to be closer together—separated by about 200 AU—and had no particular alignment within the cloud.
The study authors came up with a variety of mathematical models to explain the stars’ distribution, and concluded that the only way it makes sense is if all stars with sunlike masses start off with distant twins. Over the course of a million years or so, about 60 percent of the pairs split up (the authors think) and the rest ease in closer to one another.
The results support computer simulations that previously suggested stars form in twos, as well as observations that younger stars are more likely than older stars to form binary pairs. But the authors caution that the findings need to be checked in other star-forming clouds, and that more work needs to be done to understand the physics of this phenomenon.
If the results can be replicated, they’ll provide new evidence that the sun formed with a (non-identical) twin located 17 times farther away than Neptune. And it might have been an evil twin to boot. Scientists call this long-hypothesized twin “Nemesis“, because they suspect it booted the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs into Earth’s orbit.
“We are saying, yes, there probably was a Nemesis, a long time ago,” co-author Steven Stahler of UC Berkeley said in a statement.
But Nemesis has never been found. If it ever existed, it must have escaped from the gravitational pull of our sun and run off into the Milky Way, never to be seen again. So much for family.
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Another year, another CES in the books. Once again, the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center were filled with folding PCs, helpful smart home gadgets, and futuristic AI dreams. But among all the hype that may or may not ship, we found some truly useful and exciting Android-related things at CES this year:
The Wacom One pen tablet connects to your Android phone.
TCL will be laucnhing its own phones this year, including an affordable 5G model.
Android fans should be familiar with TCL through its BlackBerry and Palm phones as well as Roku-powered smart TVs, but for the first time, the China-based company is going to be making its own smartphones. At CES, the company showed off three models: the 10 Pro, 10L, and 10 5G. The high-end 10 Pro model, which TCL says will sell for less than $500, has an infinity display like the Galaxy S10, four rear cameras, and an in-display fingerprint sensor. The 10L has a rear fingerprint sensor, and the 5G model is powered by a Snapdragon 7 Series processor, likely the upcoming 5G-integrated 765 chip. TCL even demoed a folding phone prototype, one of several the company says it is experimenting with.
We don’t know much in way of availability (frankly we’d be surprised if TCL launched in the U.S.), but consider our interest piqued.
The Razer Kishi controller uses USB-C and promises to be compatible with way more phones than the Junglecat.
We’re not sure why anyone would buy the Junglecat now, and we can’t wait to check out the Kishi when it arrives in a couple of months.
Google AssistantGoogle brought some new Assistant features to CES this year.
Google likes to save its biggest announcements for its own stage, of course, but it always brings something new to CES. This year, it was all about Google Assistant. The biggest news is the obverse addition scheduled actions, which lets you ask Google to turn on the coffee pot on at 6 a.m. the following morning, but there are numerous others, including:
Digital sticky notes for Smart Displays: If you want to remind yourself or someone in your home to do something, you can add a sticky note to your Google Nest Hub display just by asking Google to leave a note. Interpreter mode: Speaking of languages, businesses will now be able to use Google Assistant as a live translator in hotels, airports, sports stadiums, and other places to help bridge language barriers. Privacy: In addition to new commands that let you clear your activity, you’ll be able to say, “Hey Google, that wasn’t for you,” if your phone or speaker accidentally triggers to forget what it heard.
TiVo Stream 4KJared Newman / IDG
The TiVo Stream 4K runs Android TV and stole out hearts.
Every time we think Android TV is ready for the Google Graveyard, something comes along and gives it new life. At CES that was the TiVo Stream 4K ($50). A massive departure for the DVR pioneer and a bid to reclaim its position as an industry leader, the TiVo Stream 4K is exactly what its name suggests: a media streamer. But while it won’t record your favorite shows or let you skip commercials (at least not yet), it will collect all of your subscribed services into a cohesive menu so you can discover new shows and continue watching the ones you love. It comes with an actual remote with actual buttons, too.
Samsung Selfie TypeSamsung
Samsung’s Selfie Type prototype lets you use your selfie cam to type on an invisible keyboard.
Samsung spent CES dreaming big, but one of the more practical moon shots is something called Selfie Type. As its name suggests, it uses your Galaxy phone’s front camera to “project” a keyboard onto any flat surface and use AI to figure out what you’re trying to type. We’re skeptical, especially because Samsung wouldn’t let anyone actually try it out for themselves, but it’s definitely an intriguing idea. We’re not expecting it to ship on the next Galaxy phone, but if it does, we’ll be stoked.
Aukey Omnia ChargersAukey
The Aukey Omnia chargers come in 61-, 65-, and 100-watt varieties.
Belkin Soundform EliteBelkin
The Belkin Soundform Elite is a high-fi smart speaker with a neat trick: wireless charging.
Smart speakers powered by Google Assistant are a dime a dozen, but the Belkin Soundform Elite ($300) is something different. For one, the audio comes from Devialet, so you’re getting the company’s patented Speaker Active Matching technology that “ensures radically high fidelity so you can experience music as the artist intended.” (That means it sounds good.) For another, you can pair it with any Google Assistant speaker to play multi-room audio. But the best part? It’s also a wireless charger and a fast one (9W for Galaxy phone, 10W for Pixels). Let’s see Apple’s HomePod do that.
Friday morning’s meteor, the largest object to strike Earth in more than a century, took the whole planet by surprise. But maybe it didn’t have to.
There’s a chance the space rock that careened into Earth’s atmosphere over Russia could have been spotted if the right telescope happened to be looking in the right place. That’s happened exactly once before. But it’s highly unlikely it could have been spotted in enough time to sound an alarm–at least not with our planet’s existing warning systems.
International scientists say it’s unrelated to the asteroid 2012 DA14, which flew past Earth today. That rock was found in a ground-based sky survey, but at roughly half a football stadium in width, it is much larger than the meteorite.
2012 DA14 was hard enough to find, but the chances of spotting something like this morning’s meteorite are really dismal, said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and former research director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University.
“The rocks themselves tend to be very dark. Most meteorites reflect only a couple percent of the light that hits them,” she said. “A lot of them are filled with carbonaceous materials, like coal, basically, so they can be very black.”
The unnamed rock packed a gigantic 300-500 kiloton punch when it exploded in the air, blowing out windows, damaging hundreds of buildings and injuring at least 1,200 people. That’s a good 20 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The rock was probably about 50 feet in diameter, an estimate derived from two infrasound stations near the impact, according to Peter Jenniskens, a SETI Institute scientist and principal investigator of the Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He said that although small, this space rock could have been seen, at least in principle.
“This asteroid could have been detected if we would have been searching for it,” he said. “It was not, as far as I know, seen coming in, and there was no prediction that this could happen. But that could have a lot to do with the fact that a survey, at any given time, only covers a small area of sky.”
There is one example in the scientific record of an incoming meteorite being discovered before impacting Earth. In the middle of the night between Oct. 5 and Oct. 6, 2008, Richard Kowalski was manning a 1.5-meter telescope belonging to the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Ariz., when he spotted an object ultimately named 2008 TC3. This space rock was only 7 to 16 feet in diameter, much smaller than the one that hit Russia today, and incredibly faint–a magnitude 19 object. His observation came 20 hours before the rock exploded an estimated 23 miles above Sudan’s Nubian Desert. The explosion created a 1.2 kiloton shock wave, Jenniskens said.
“(Friday’s explosion) was 300 times bigger,” he noted. “We could have seen it. It is quite possible that it did go through someone’s survey field, or maybe an amateur’s telescope.” Astronomers will no doubt be combing their records from the past couple of days–probably the earliest it would have been seen–to check if anything crops up.
Randy Korotev, a meteorite expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said many meteorites are agglomerations of non-reflective material that are too tiny to reflect much light. This helps explain why they disintegrate when they enter Earth’s atmosphere–they’re crumbly.
“When these things hit the atmosphere, from the point of view of the meteorite, it’s like hitting concrete. It compresses the air so fast,” he said. “Most meteorites can’t stand the internal shock themselves. That’s why, toward the end, they typically fall apart.”
The overwhelming majority of the time, that’s how meteors become visible–by turning into a literal fireball, in Leshin’s words. “They are glowing from fire, because they are going so fast when they come through our atmosphere,” said Leshin. That’s true right at their surfaces, she added–inside, meteorites are still ice cold.
Philipp Heck, assistant curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said a denser network of small ground-based telescopes and sensitive cameras could theoretically detect a small asteroid like the one that became today’s meteor. Or an infrared telescope, which can detect very small items, might be able to spot them.
“A combination of both makes sense. Now, after today, I think people will be more aware of the threats that exist,” he said.
Travelling between the stars has been a dream of humanity for generations. But while our species might not be able to make that trek for a long while, there are some seasoned travelers whizzing around the galaxy, and one of them stopped by our solar system this week.
Astronomer Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy was working with data collected from the university’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on October 19 when he first noticed the strange moving object, and reported it to the Minor Planet Center, which compiles reports of minor planets, moons, natural satellites, and comets from all over the world.
The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope helps NASA identify and track near-Earth objects, like asteroids, which head into Earth’s neighborhood. Until now, all of those objects have originated from our own solar system. But this discovery was different. Instead of staying roughly in the same plane as most of the other planets, this object jetted in almost perpendicular to…basically everything else in the Solar system.
Other telescopes and astronomers around the world made similar observations and sent in reports tracking the movement of the object on its journey. It was decidedly odd, and incredibly exciting.
“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen,” Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) says in a statement. “It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back.”
The object, temporarily called A/2024 U1, is less than a quarter mile long, and when it was entering the solar system it was speeding along at 15 miles per second. At first, people thought it might be a comet, but it doesn’t have a comet’s distinctive tail. Astronomers calculate that it passed closest to the Sun on September 9, passing just inside the orbit of Mercury.
The Sun’s gravity changed its course and speed, sending it hurtling out of our star system and towards the constellation Pegasus. It came closest to Earth on October 14, zipping by just 15 million miles from our planet. To put that in perspective, that’s less than half the distance between Earth and Mars.
We don’t know much about the object, and as it’s moving away from us at about 27 miles per second, astronomers won’t get many more chances to make detailed observations, though there’s a chance the Hubble Space Telescope might be able to catch a glimpse of it as it flies away.
“A/2024 U1 is already faint and fading quickly. We can still use large telescopes to track its position for a month or maybe two,” Farnocchia says in an e-mail. “The object may already be too faint for physical characterization and measuring its size, mass or composition.”
Scientists are poring over the data they do have and trying to get a few last glimpses of the object before it fades from view. The early results are tantalizing. In addition to not being a comet, it seems to have a distinctly reddish color, similar to asteroids in the Kuiper Belt.
Spectrum of A/2024 U1 obtained on Wednesday night with the @INGLaPalma 4.2m WHT. Colour is red like Kuiper Belt Objects, featureless. chúng tôi Alan Fitzsimmons (@FitzsimmonsAlan) October 27, 2023
Even as observations continue to pile up, researchers are thrilled to see evidence of something that had been often discussed and theorized about, but that some astronomers didn’t expect to see in their careers, or at least, in the next few decades.
The observations so far do line up with published theories. In a 2024 paper, astronomers including Darin Ragozzine of Brigham Young University predicted that an interstellar object might initially be considered a Near Earth Object based on how it was moving. That’s what researchers thought A/2024 U1 might be initially, before they got additional glimpses of the object.
As researchers are celebrating the discovery and gathering more information about A/2024 U1, they’re also looking forward to finding other interstellar visitors. The eccentric path of A/2024 U1 tells researchers that it was probably flung out of another, distant solar system long ago.
“Observing ISOs [interstellar objects] in our solar system means we are probing the dynamics and formation of other solar systems! If these objects are getting kicked out of their home systems and into ours, we can learn about their home systems formation histories.” Bonnie Meinke, Deputy Project Scientist of the James Webb Space Telescope says in an e-mail. “This is similar to how planetary scientists learn about Mars by studying the Martian meteorites that hit Earth.”
In the future, the next generation of large telescopes, including the Large Survey Synoptic Telescope, currently under construction in Chile could help researchers like Ragozzine learn more about where those objects are coming from, giving us a better idea about whether they’re zipping in directly from a star that cast them away, or if they’ve wandered the galaxy, roving from star to star for billions of years.
“NASA has been searching for hazardous asteroids for about twenty years now, so a simple extrapolation would say one ISO discovery every twenty years, possibly more frequently as new surveys with more powerful telescopes come online in the future,” Farnocchia says. ”But we only have one discovery so far, too few to do any statistics, and so it’s not easy to reliably predict the rate at which new interstellar objects visit the solar system and we can discover them.”
“The Defenders” by Will McIntosh
This is an excerpt from Popular Science’s special issue, Dispatches From The Future_. Visit iTunes to download the edition onto your iPad, or return to our list of excerpts._
In an eyeblink, Lila lost all contact with the rest of the world. The silence was shocking, the sense of isolation unnerving, partly because she knew it meant the jet had penetrated the Defenders’ cloak and entered Australian airspace. For a moment she stared blankly at the stray tufts of gray hair visible over the seat back in front of her. That would be Gayatri Nadal, the Ambassador from India. Then she thought to look out the window
There was nothing to see yet; they were still above the smoky cloud-cover. It was hard to believe Australia was down there. Over the past twenty-eight years it had taken on almost mythical dimensions in Lila’s mind, and knowing she would see it any moment, see what it had become, set her heart pounding.
The Spanish ambassador, in the seat next to Lila, turned, as if noticing her for the first time. “Nervous?”
She nodded. The word didn’t begin to describe the shades and layers of what Lila was feeling, but it would do as a rough approximation.
The Spaniard’s white eyebrows pinched. “Were you even alive when the Luyten invaded?” Bolibar: His name came to her as he spoke. “Have you ever seen a Defender?”
Lila laughed, not sure if he was trying to flatter her, or if he really thought she was still in her twenties. “Oh, I’ve seen Defenders. And Luyten.” She closed her mouth. That was all she wanted to say on that topic. The last thing she wanted, given that she was the youngest ambassador on the plane, was to seem immature by getting upset on the flight in.
“Ah. I’m sorry,” he said, reading her face. “You were a young girl? I’m sorry.”
The second apology was for bringing up the painful topic, no doubt. It was impolite to bring up the Luyten invasion if you weren’t sure the person you were speaking to was amenable to the topic.
“No worries. Who doesn’t have invasion memories?” She forced a smile, turned back to the window, but it was too late. As they surged toward Australia, and humanity’s first contact with their saviors in twenty-eight years, Lila’s memories reeled out. She saw the Luyten, like enormous starfish falling from the sky, twirling in one direction and then the other, deadly flashes bursting from the tips of their five or six or seven stunted appendages. Lila squeezed the armrest, trying to let the memory be, let it play out if it needed to. She’d learned that if she resisted it would only pull her in deeper, turn into a full-fledged flashback, and if she went into PTSD mode the embassy might just pull her at the first opportunity.
She focused on her breathing, kept it smooth and even as she saw her seven-year-old self rushing into the shelter of the high school as the ground shook from explosions and the air crackled with the Luytens’ electric fire, which stank like burning sweat.
Where are they? Where are the Defenders? someone had said as they huddled in the cafeteria, watching human soldiers set up defenses outside. The soldiers had pointed their weapons this way and that, knowing that no matter what they did the Luyten would be one step ahead of them.
Then, that first glimpse of a Luyten up close: Much bigger than Lila had expected, galloping out of the trees on three arms, barreling over swings and slides, its free arms pointed forward; the blinding flash, the screams of burning soldiers who’d mostly been facing the other way, because how do you fight an enemy who knows your every thought?
Lila had squeezed her eyes shut as a half-dozen more Luyten broke from the woods. She’d tried to think of something happy–The Mermaid Frolly Show, her favorite television program. She’d resolved to keep her eyes closed and think only of the show until it was over.
Then: Her father, rushing outside with other parents to fight the Luyten, because the soldiers were all dead and the Luyten were coming. The parents trying to reach the makeshift bunker where the dead soldiers’ weapons lay amidst their toasted bodies. She remembered Mr. Suchy, her social studies teacher, swinging a fire ax at a charging Luyten, who cut him in two at the chest with a whip of its cilia.
Then: The warm wash of pee down her thighs when that watery voice—that impossible accent—called from outside: Over soon. Think of Mermaid Frolly. All over soon.
Lila’s mother covering her eyes, her trembling fingers not doing a thorough enough job, because Lila saw between the slats of Mommy’s fingers, saw Daddy’s shoulder socket when the Luyten pulled his arm off. Their stubby, fingerless appendages were deceptive, because the cilia on the end worked like long, powerful fingers.
Then: Cheering, as two Defenders leaped from the roof of the school, impossibly tall on three knobby, bone-white legs, their automatic weapons blasting the Luyten with bullets the size of cannonballs, their razor sharp exoskeletons slashing the Luyton wide open as they grappled, spilling their steaming green goo insides onto the playground. The cheering redoubled when the surviving Luyton fled, with the Defenders in pursuit.
Lila took a deep, sighing breath. It had been four or five years since her last full-blown flashback, but it was inevitable. Seeing Defenders, actually standing before the massive things and talking to them, was bound to bring the memories back. It was worth it, though, to be one of the first to see how the Defenders lived, to see what sort of society they had built, and to have the opportunity to finally thank them personally.
To keep reading, visit iTunes and download our _Dispatches From The Future_ special issue_ onto your iPad._
Google Assistant will likely always have the edge on search, and Amazon has a massive array of skills and third-party integrations already.
Cortana vs the competitionThe thing with digital assistants housed in speakers is that, like most things in life, it’s essentially what’s inside that counts. No one really buys a virtual assistant speaker based on looks. If they did, Google wouldn’t stand a chance (air freshener burn!). But Google Home still has a very good chance at being the dominant speaker in years to come, because Google. That is, until Apple releases some overpriced home AI product.
But if you were to ask me for a gut-reaction to which virtual assistant is best, I wouldn’t put Cortana at the top of the list, but it probably wouldn’t be at the bottom either. Of course, depending on what you use your digital assistant for, your mileage may vary: everyone has their preferred digital assistant for their own particular reasons.
Hardware optionsLet’s face it, as important as the virtual assistant inside the product is, the hardware in which it is encased also matters. But not necessarily just for what it looks or sounds like, but also for what choices it offers. Microsoft, perhaps recognizing Cortana’s current weaknesses, has wisely identified that limiting Cortana’s home-assistant life to one product would put it in a very tough position.
Not only would it have to have better (or at least comparable) software abilities when compared to Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, it would also have to be a better speaker than both of them. Partnering with Harmon Kardon certainly gives Microsoft’s first swing at bat a much better chance of outdoing the competition on audio quality. But why stop there?
This is where Microsoft diverges from the competition. That is because the speaker teased in the video isn’t a Microsoft product per se. It is a Harmon Kardon product that runs Cortana, much like a Dell PC running Windows. This is a critical difference.
Microsoft will only have third-party products running Cortana: the same approach it traditionally took to getting Windows on PCs.
Microsoft won’t make hardwareWhile Amazon and Google have released their own branded speakers running their own digital assistants, Microsoft will come out of the gate with only third-party products. This is the same way it traditionally approached hardware and software for computers (before the Surface, that is). These new products won’t just be relegated to speakers either: a recently-leaked Microsoft slide shows Cortana will live inside a wide range of household consumer products next year.
Of course, there are already third-party Alexa-powered devices available, but they tend to be less fully-featured when compared to Amazon’s own hardware (requiring a tap before speaking commands for example). They also tend to be cheaper and nastier than Amazon’s offerings, clearly pitching them beneath Amazon’s own products. And as far as I’m aware, there isn’t an Alexa-powered fridge in the pipeline.
By opening up the Cortana Devices SDK to anyone that wants to include Cortana in their connected products, Microsoft is taking a two-pronged approach: get an uncrippled version of Cortana into as many products as possible, and remove itself from the hardware side of things as much as possible. This is important, because as mentioned above, Microsoft is going to need all the help it can get.
To get an idea of how Microsoft’s approach might pan out, just think of the distribution model of iOS vs Android. With Home, Echo and Dot, Google and Amazon released their own device running their own software with very little choice for consumers. This is Apple’s approach with the iPhone. It’s essentially take it or leave it.
Microsoft’s edgeFor Microsoft to really compete against the cheap, third party-friendly and very capable Alexa products, Microsoft needs Cortana-powered products at the high and low end of the scale. Fortunately, Microsoft won’t cannibalize its own sales by doing so as it is strictly focused on getting Cortana out there. But if Microsoft wants to compete against the power of Google Assistant it really needs to beef up its software.
This is the crux of the software issue: Microsoft can’t just settle on letting manufacturers slap Cortana inside their products and hope for the best thanks to greater numbers. After all, Apple successfully proved one iPhone was enough to compete with the multitude of Android options.
Google Assistant commands: Here are the ones you need to know
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