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Orbiting the Solar System Backwards

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The solar system we're familiar with from elementary school posters and dioramas has nine (now eight) planets and an Asteroid Belt all orbiting the sun rather neatly, chugging along on nearly the same plane. Sure, Pluto was a bit more eccentric, occasionally coming closer to the sun than Neptune, but it got kicked out of the club. But the further you go out into the distant, cold rocks beyond the planets, the better your chances to find something that ventures off the beaten path.

Last year, Brett Gladman, a University of British Columbia astronomer, discovered a 30-mile-wide asteroid, KV42, that actually orbits the sun backwards, but only just barely. Anything with an orbit that is tilted over 90 degrees relative to the orbit of the solar system's planets is considered to have a retrograde, or backwards, orbit, and KV42's orbit is tilted at 104 degrees. The rock was the first of its kind ever to be seen orbiting the sun backwards, and joined a select group of distant objects, including Halley's Comet, that astronomers have ever spotted accomplishing the feat.

When Gladman and his team first spotted the asteroid back in July, he knew it was retrograde, but it wasn't easy to find.

solar_sys2In the grand scheme of space, 30 miles is a piddling girth, and the team was only able to spot it when its irregular orbit brought it within 32 astronomical units of us (one AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth). The scientists nicknamed it "Drac" after Dracula, because vampires could allegedly walk on walls perpendicular to the ground, venturing off the beaten path just like this strange space object.

But where did this weirdo come from? Way, way out there. Between 30 and 50 AU from Earth one enters the Kuiper Belt, which contains a slew of cold, small objects like Pluto. The Oort Cloud, which begins about 50,000 AU away, is the source of most of the comets in our solar system. The region is actually hypothetical; it's far too distant for us to visually confirm its inhabitants. But neither place looks like the probable source of Drac, Gladman says. He thinks it came from the vast swath of space between here and the Oort Cloud that astronomers just don't know that much about. It's probable that a gravitational disturbance knocked Drac into its peculiar course, and that such things occur all the time.

However, while other backwards orbiters are flying around waiting to be seen, there's bad news for fans of of astronomical anomalies, or charting your own course: irregularities like these are hard to come by in our solar system. The gravity of the giant planets keeps things on a tight course, and makes life hard for a free roamer like Drac. Over the course of millions of years, Gladman says, an aberrant orbit like Drac's is unstable because it will make passes close enough to gas giants like Uranus and Neptune that their gravity will pull energy out of its orbit, and someday it will no longer orbit the solar system.

Gladman's team is going to keep look for oddball objects. But the inner solar system, it seems, is a hard place to go rogue—the powers that be are always pushing you around.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.