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11 Things You Might Not Know About the International Space Station

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While fact checking the film Gravity, Neil deGrasse Tyson made an especially trenchant point with respect to the space program: “Mysteries of #Gravity: Why we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.” That you’re not reading this from a colony on Mars is a testament to humanity’s failure of imagination. The engineering required to strap three guys to a missile and fire it at the Moon is one step shy of impossible, but NASA did it. Two years later we had guys playing golf up there. Today? NASA’s forced to hitch rides with the Russians while everyone collectively hopes that Elon Musk pulls off a miracle.

(Not to belabor the point, but for the cost of the F-35 stealth fighter program, which is not stealth and not especially aerodynamic and a decade behind schedule, we could buy 588 space shuttles, a craft that isn’t stealthy or aerodynamic either. Or we could conceive, design, build, test, and launch an entire manned Mars program 10 times over. All I’m saying is if we really wanted to get serious about space, the money is there.)

Anyway, the Russians don’t mind giving us rides as long as we kick in some gas money, so that’s something, I guess. (Fun fact: the reason their shuttle looks so much like ours did is because the Soviets stole our design in the first known case of cyber-espionage.) But where is that shuttle (and this article) going? To the International Space Station, which is the bee’s knees if you want to do the kind of microgravity research necessary to send astronauts to Mars.

We all know what the ISS looks like. Thanks to Gravity, we even know what it looks like when it’s destroyed. But here are 11 things you might not know.

1. It’s fast.

If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you probably imagine things in space to be slow, and to move at the same tempo as the Blue Danube. Not so for the ISS, which is zipping around at 5 miles per second and orbiting the Earth every 92 minutes.

2. It’s slow.

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Because of something called time dilation, time moves slower on the International Space Station. Not by much—astronauts don’t get there and find out that we suddenly have flying cars and jet packs back on Earth—but it is measurable. Astronaut Ed Lu, who served on the ISS as science officer for Expedition 7, got curious and attempted to measure time dilation directly, because when you’re on the ISS and are also a genius, that’s just the kind of thing you do. He writes about it here. The upshot is that at the end of his 6 month stay, he was 0.007 seconds younger than those of us stuck on this mudball.

3. It’s big.

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The thing about space photography is that it’s difficult to work out the scale of celestial objects. For comparison’s sake, for example, if the Earth were the size of a basketball, the Moon would be the size of a tennis ball. (How this worked out by coincidence is probably worthy of a healthy philosophical discussion.) To scale, the distance between your basketball and tennis ball would be 24 feet. There are no sporting equipment comparisons for the Sun; in its occupied space, you could fit 1.3 million Earths. The International Space Station is 357.5 feet (119.167 yards) long—a hair under the width of a football field, including end zones.

4. It has the same mundane IT issues as we Earthlings.

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Computers on the ISS have been infected by viruses more than once. The first reported virus was W32.Gammima.AG, which, according to Symantec, “is a worm that spread by copying itself to removable media. It also steals passwords to various online games.”

5. It runs Linux.

Last year, the ISS dumped Windows and Scientific Linux in favor of Debian 6 for its network of laptops. According to Keith Chuvala, who manages Space Operations Computing for NASA, "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable—one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could." To ensure stability, they plan to run one version behind whatever is the latest version of the operating system.

6. It’s busy.

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The ISS has a lot more traffic than you might expect. Two days ago, Progress M-21M departed the station. Next week Cygnus CRS Orb-2 is scheduled to arrive (the second Cygnus resupply mission since its successful test docking last year). At present there are three spacecraft docked there: Soyuz TMA-12M, Progress M-23M, and Soyuz TMA-13M. SpaceX has a resupply mission scheduled for August and a new crew will arrive in September. The complete flight schedule can be found here. Every couple of weeks from now through the end of the year, something is slated to arrive or depart, making it more Deep Space Nine than Empok Nor.

7. Astronauts there can smell space.

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Mike Hopkins, an astronaut who returned to Earth earlier this year after spending 166 days at the ISS, recently participated in a Reddit AMA. He was asked what surprised him about space, and offered this intriguing answer: “Space has a smell. And I don't mean inside the space station. When a visiting vehicle docks with the space station, there is 'space' between the two vehicles. Once the pressure is equalized and the hatch is opened, you have this metallic ionization-type smell. It's quite unique and very distinct.”

8. You can watch it.

The ISS is the third brightest object in the sky, and can be seen with the naked eye. (It looks like a slow-moving airplane.) NASA has a service called Spot the Station which allows you to sign up for text messages telling you when to look up, and where. (When the crew is on duty, you can watch a live internal video feed of the ISS here.)

9. It can watch you.

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Here is a live map that shows the exact ground point of the ISS. It will help orient you for the High Definition Earth Viewing experiment, in which HD cameras mounted to the outside of the Columbus module of the station send back a live video feed of the Earth. The experiment is intended to test how space affects cameras and video quality so that future cameras (say, ones going to Mars) can be designed to better sustain the punishment of the final frontier.

10. The astronauts there are doing science. Lots and lots of science.

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The ISS is an orbiting research laboratory. Experiments currently underway on the ISS include building a better Terminator; studying the effects of space on sperm; figuring out how our circadian rhythms are affected by the absence of a 24-hour cycle of light and dark; testing how best to grow plants in a microgravity environment; and how to build a faster Space Internet.

11. It won’t be around forever…

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...but it’s not entirely clear that it will be deorbited in 2020 as originally planned. Engineering tests suggest that the Zarya module (the first and oldest module of the ISS) and the Unity node (the first U.S. component of the ISS) are good through at least 2028, meaning the station might possibly be around that long. When it does reach the end of its life, the Russians have already announced their intentions to disconnect their nodes from the station and add them to a planned Russian station called the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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