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5 Space Missions Under NASA Consideration

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

From our perspective, missions to other worlds just seem to happen. One day Pluto is a cluster of four pixels; the next day it's a teeming world that looks a lot like Mars. We don't see the decades of research, planning, and engineering that to go into every mission, to say nothing of the travel times, in numbers of years that can reach double digits. NASA periodically puts out calls for low-cost mission proposals, some of which move from PowerPoint to the launch pad. Here are five missions that NASA is presently evaluating. At least one of them will eventually visit other worlds. 

1. A MOST METAL MISSION

Asteroid 16-Psyche contains about 1 percent of the mass of the asteroid belt, and is basically Cybertron, home planet of the Transformers. There is no water, no minerals conducive to water—it's just a big chunk of iron in space. Scientists suspect that it is the exposed core of a proto-planet whose crust and mantle were blasted away by a series of collisions. Because we're not likely to dig a hole to our own core any time soon, the value in studying such an object is self-evident. If a proposed mission to the asteroid is chosen by NASA, it will be the first time that humans have explored a world that wasn't made of rock or ice.

2. IN VENUS VERITAS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You have to admire the effort it took to build the acronym VERITAS, which is short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy. VERITAS is a proposed mission to visit Venus and figure out where things went so wrong. Above the clouds, Venus is far more hospitable to humans than Mars. Its temperature and weather aren't all that different from Earth, and scientists have proposed colonizing Venus with a series of airships. Below the clouds, however, Venus is a living hell. With surface temperatures near 900°F, it's hotter than Mercury, and its south pole is consumed by a rapacious, undying superstorm. The questions VERITAS intends to answer involve the state of Venus's geologic activity; its tectonic characteristics in comparison to Earth; and the evidence of past water at its surface.

3. UNDERSTANDING EARTH'S EVIL TWIN

Venus and Earth are a lot alike. We're about the same size and made roughly of the same stuff. But Venus is a horrible hell sphere and Earth is slightly less bad and teeming with life. What happened? The presence of two Venus missions on NASA's shortlist for consideration speaks to the importance of answering that question. DAVINCI—the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigations for Noble Gases, Chemistry, and Imaging entry probe—will spend its one-hour descent to Venus analyzing the atmosphere to determine its origin and evolutionary history. It will collect data relating to Venus's long gone ocean, and take the first high-resolution images of tesserae, which are that planet's mysterious highland areas.  

4. FINDING ASTEROIDS BEFORE THEY FIND US

The good news is that NASA has an Office of Planetary Defense. The bad news is that it has nothing to do with space aliens. As the dinosaurs could attest, the solar system is an unforgiving place, and all it could take to turn anthropology into paleontology is a giant rock. NEOCam—short for Near Earth Object Camera—is a four-year mission designed to study asteroids that pose an existential threat to humanity. It is a space-based infrared telescope that will take a hard look at known dangers, and be on the lookout for new ones.

5. PLANETARY FOSSILS

Jupiter shares its orbit with more than 6000 identified asteroids known as Trojans. We're not quite sure where they came from. Maybe they formed around the same time as Jupiter and were simply caught in its gravity. Maybe they were captured early in the solar system's formation, the result of a destabilized Kuiper Belt. Nobody knows! And while the distinction may seem trivial, it's hugely important to understand the history of the solar system. The Lucy mission—named for the 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton—will do for the solar system what Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis did for humans, filling in the gaps from the primordial record. The Lucy spacecraft will fly out to Jupiter's Trojan asteroids and scan, image, and map five of them. It's the last-known population of objects in the solar system that is wholly unexplored. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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