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Canadian Space Agency

22 Space Agencies that Aren't NASA

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Canadian Space Agency

Sure, everyone knows NASA. They used to send people into space, inspiring millions and performing the kind of scientific exploration that just isn’t possible with long-range remote controlled cars. But after fifty years of increasingly crippling budget cuts imposed by shortsighted, petty bureaucrats, they’ve become the outfit that runs a couple of really neat museums. Thankfully, not all of humanity’s eggs are in one lunar module. Here are 22 space agencies that aren’t NASA.

1. Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, France

France established its space program in 1961. Everything but the CNES’s launches are handled at Toulouse Space Centre. Its spaceport is Centre Spatial Guyanais, located in French Guiana. I could write about France’s contribution to the International Space Station, or its astronauts and satellites, but let’s get to the good stuff: CNES is the only space program in the world with an acknowledged UFO investigation agency. The irony here is that if Independence Day ever became a reality, Bill Pullman would have to give his rousing speech on July 14th—Bastille Day.

2. Lithuanian Space Association

Over the years, hundreds of Lithuanian scientists and engineers have worked with NASA. The first Lithuanian cosmonaut was Aleksey Yeliseyev-Kuraitis, who was part of the 1969 Soyuz mission. Rimantas Stankevičius, another famous Lithuanian cosmonaut, died in Italy in the Salgareda Air Show. He went out a hero. While flying a Su-27 fighter, a loop went wrong and the aircraft went down. He could have bailed, but the plane would have crashed into a crowd of onlookers. Instead, he spent his last moments veering the plane toward relative safety.

3. Space Research and Remote Sensing Organization, Bangladesh

Places you are not likely to find someone from Bangladesh: Space. That said, the country has a capable space research program that has participated in the Landsat program, and works with foreign space agencies to survey its own natural resources and local ecosystem.

4. Sri Lanka Space Agency

In 2015, Sri Lanka will launch a geostationary communications satellite from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. This is the country’s first foray into space, and will mark the culmination of long ambitions for a space program. Its partnership with China is worth noting; China has spent quite some time helping smaller, poorer nations develop their own space programs, using “space diplomacy” as a means of making strategic inroads into South Asia.

5. The Hungarian Space Office

The Hungarian Space Office was founded in 1992 and is part of Hungary’s Ministry of National Development. The general operation of Hungarian space program works something like this: Dr. Előd Both is the HSO’s director, and actually runs the program. He reports to Zsuzsa Németh, the Minister of National Development, who is in turn advised by the Scientific Council on Space Research. The Hungarian Space Board works with the ministry in “strategic cases,” which pretty much means spy satellites and missile defense.

6. Israel Space Agency

The Israel Space Agency was founded in 1983 to organize and implement a space program. The agency found great success, and presently has a robust satellite launch capability. (Israel is the smallest country in the world with its own spaceport.) The first Israeli astronaut was Ilan Ramon, who died tragically on the Space Shuttle Columbia.

7. TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute, Turkey

TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute started out in 1985 as Ankara Electronics Research and Development Institute, and was part of Middle East Technical University. The agency is serious business—it has put a couple of reconnaissance satellites in space. It was recently announced that Turkey plans to construct a spaceport in its territory.

8. United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

UNOOSA, which sounds like a Linux distribution, is the United Nations agency that maintains the registry of objects launched into outer space. That’s a pretty big deal because there’s a lot of stuff up there, and the last thing anyone wants to do is to live out Clint Eastwood’s underrated 2000 film, Space Cowboys. The downside of UNOOSA is that it’s totally against any country building a Death Star, or laying territorial claim to the Moon. (What’s worse: The Moon Treaty or the Khitomer Accords? Discuss.)

9. National Remote Sensing Center, Mongolia

Mongolia has a space program? Yep! The National Remote Sensing Center is Mongolia’s agency to coordinate remote sensing applications with foreign space programs. The big deal about sensors (this also applies to Bangladesh, for example) is that they help governments map their territory and monitor their natural hazards. Things like wildfires and snow cover need good, accurate eye-in-the-sky imagery and long-term studies with data sets of the highest quality.

10. Institute for Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications & Remote Sensing, Greece

The Institute for Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications & Remote Sensing, in addition to being the best space program to help me meet this article’s word count, is Greece’s space agency for doing all of those things in its name. It is part of the National Observatory of Athens, and is primarily a research institute.

11. Belarus Space Agency

The Belarus Space Agency is mostly interested in sensory applications and satellites, and has plans to build a flight control center next year. Belarus has fielded two astronauts: Pyotr Klimuk and Vladimir Kovalyonok.

12. Canadian Space Agency

Three words: Commander Chris Hadfield.[drops the mic and walks away]

13. UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency was established in 2010 to unify the various research and spacefaring organizations of the United Kingdom. Satellites, research, probes, droids—the usual. Presently, the UKSA is working on establishing a spaceport and space tourism capabilities.

14. China National Space Administration

Now, I’m not saying that China is the future of human space travel, but go ahead and click here to check out their logo. Look familiar? While America is busy investing time and resources into Toddlers & Tiaras, China has built a massive space infrastructure, put men in orbit, mounted a spacewalk, launched a space station, and planned a manned lunar mission with the intention of establishing a base on the moon. Oh, and the moon thing? It’s to prepare them for a Mars expedition.

15. Azerbaijan National Aerospace Agency

The Azerbaijan National Aerospace Agency was founded in 1975. Like most space programs, sensing technology is a primary mission, and it has made great strides in remote analysis and, according to its website, “the study of spectrometric, meteorological and radiation characters of different natural territorial and industrial objects.”

16. Brazilian Space Agency

The Brazilian Space Agency operates both a spaceport and a rocket launch site, which makes it a key player in South American space affairs. The agency launched its first rocket in 2004. Two years later, the first Brazilian astronaut, Marcos Pontes, served on the International Space Station.

17. Croatian Space Agency

Croatia has serious space ambitions. In 2007, it hosted a summit of space travelers, “to inspire the next generation of scientists in Europe and Croatia, and to chart the future role of smaller countries in human spaceflight.” While no Croatian has yet been to space, it is home to the Zagreb Astronomical Observatory. As a prospective member of the European Union, there has been discussion of Croatia eventually joining the European Space Agency.

18. European Space Agency

Twenty member states of Europe comprise the European Space Agency, and each contributes science, research, technology, manpower, and money. (France, for example, brings the Centre Spatial Guyanais spaceport to the table; Italy is responsible for the Vega payload launcher.) The ESA has an astronaut corps of 22, its roster almost indistinguishable from the character names and nationalities of the characters in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six.

19. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (独立行政法人宇宙航空研究開発機構)

In 2005, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency unmanned spacecraft called the Peregrine Falcon landed on 25143 Itokawa, a near-Earth asteroid. It took samples and then returned to Earth. Look, even though we don’t have flying cars, things like that make me think we really are living in the future. JAXA developed solar sails and successfully deployed them in 2010. The current plan is to sail to Jupiter. Remember how I mentioned that China’s working on building a moon colony? Well, so is Japan! That’s impressive, but they’re probably jealous of the sweet museums we made out of our space shuttles.

20. State Space Agency of Ukraine

As any fan of Seinfeld can attest, “you not say Ukraine is weak!” Its space program is focused on research, remote sensing, and telecommunications satellites. In 1997, Leonid K. Kadenyuk became the first and only astronaut to fly into space under the independent Ukranian flag. He served on NASA's STS-87 Space Shuttle mission.

21. National Space Agency, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s National Space Agency focuses on two key areas: monitoring the atmosphere and environment of the Earth from space, and researching space-based materials science. The first Kazakh cosmonaut was Tokhtar Aubakirov. He later became director of the National Space Agency.

22. Korean Committee of Space Technology, North Korea

In 2012, North Korea put the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 observation satellite into orbit—the first such successful launch by North Korea. The general suspicion going into the mission was that it was a test run of a long-range ballistic missile. The North Korean government dismissed such suspicions as lies being told by Western Imperialists. The North Koreans didn’t really help themselves, however, when they proceeded to release a statement which read in part: “We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets, which will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level which will be carried out by it in the upcoming all-out action, a new phase of the anti-U.S. struggle that has lasted century after century, will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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