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During the First Lunar Landing, the Soviets Crashed Into the Moon

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While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were concluding humanity's first Moonwalk, the Soviets made an oopsie: their Luna 15 probe crashed into the Moon. The crash site was about 530 miles from the Sea of Tranquility.

On July 21, 1969, people around the world were glued to TV images of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon. But space specialists were also tracking the Soviet Luna 15 probe, which had launched three days before the Apollo mission. Luna 15 was just one in a long line of Soviet probes that had made it to the Moon—Luna 2 was the first human-made object to crash into the Moon way back in August 1959 (other Luna missions included the first lunar flybys, first photographs of the far side of the Moon, and so on).

Robots and Radios

Luna 15's primary mission, although the Soviets didn't admit it at the time, was to land, collect samples of the lunar surface, and then return the sample via a small capsule. If that had worked, the sample would have been the first robotic return of lunar material, scoring a PR victory for the Soviet space program. Of course, that didn't work out.

Frank Borman on the Apollo 8 mission. Image courtesy of NASA. 

The timing of the Luna 15 mission was a little freaky for NASA, as it would orbit the Moon at the same time as Apollo 11, and both would be transmitting radio signals to Earth. NASA enlisted Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman to get some intelligence on Luna 15's flight plan; Borman was friendly with the Soviets, and had just returned from a trip to the USSR (indeed, he was the first astronaut to do so). NASA's concern was that Luna 15 might introduce radio interference if its orbit was too close to that of Apollo 11. Borman's info from the Soviets confirmed that it wouldn't be a problem, and a worldwide sigh of relief followed.

Luna 16 image courtesy of NASA.

The Luna 16 mission (pictured above) later succeeded where Luna 15 had failed. Luna 16 was the first robotic probe to land on the Moon and return a sample to Earth; the sample came back on September 24, 1970. It brought home 101 grams of lunar regolith. (The Apollo 11 astronauts brought back well over 20 kilograms of material, though it was a dramatically larger and more expensive mission. It's notable that in 1970, the Soviets had robots capable of doing this work—that's a huge achievement.)

Drama of the Highest Order

There is an audio recording of scientists monitoring the Luna 15 mission (spanning July 19-21, 1969). The audio was released in 2009 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing. The audio is from British scientists at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, and features astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell and others who were listening in to both American and Soviet radio transmissions via the Lovell radio telescope.

The recordings span various sessions, with the first drama being a Luna 15 course change on Sunday, July 20.  That course change brought it closer to the landing site of Apollo, which was a bit of a shocker given the Soviet flight plan previously provided. The next dramatic moment came on July 21 when the probe began to descend; it suddenly became clear to Lovell's team that Luna 15 was designed to land, not just take orbital photos as the Soviets had indicated. This surprised everyone in the listening room, and you can hear them discuss a rumor from a source in Moscow suggesting that the probe was designed to return a sample.  The team proceeds to listen as the probe lands, exclaiming "It's landing!" and "Phew!"  The very last line is classic: "I say, this has really been drama of the highest order!"

See Also: The Russians Didn't "Just Use a Pencil" in Space

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]