Monthly Archives: July 2017

NASA is about to find out if a supercomputer

On Monday, at 12:31 p.m. Eastern time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on a resupply flight for the International Space Station, and among its cargo, in addition to ice cream, was something else very cool: a supercomputer.

The machine, made by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and called the Spaceborne Computer, is capable of a teraflop worth of computing power, which puts it roughly in line with a late-1990s supercomputer. Made up of two pizza box-shaped machines in a single enclosure, the HPE supercomputer is a part of a year-long experiment to see how an off-the-shelf computer system can fare in space if protected in the right way by software.

Long space missions like a trip to Mars come with considerable communications delays, so equipping astronauts with a powerful supercomputer would allow them to solve complex problems without having to wait for the issue and the solution to be transmitted to and from Earth. But radiation on a trip like that can damage computers, so NASA and HPE are conducting this research to see if software can provide the necessary protection to keep things functioning correctly.

Just like NASA’s famous identical twin experiment—in which Scott Kelly spent a year in space and his brother, Mark Kelly, stayed down on Earth—the supercomputer in space has a brother on this planet, a doppleganger machine located in Wisconsin acting as a control in this experiment.

HPE’s approach with the Spaceborne Computer, a two-node, water-cooled machine, is different from the way a mission-critical computer in space is physically protected (or “hardened,” in space gear speak) from radiation. For example, the chief computer for the Juno spacecraft inhabits a “protective titanium vault with walls about one centimeter thick,” according to BAE systems, which made that processor. Instead of physical protection for the HPE computer, the company is hoping to learn if software can do something similar.

Eng Lim Goh, the HPE project’s principal investigator, says that the “dramatic vision” for the future of this line of research is one in which before an astronaut travels to space, he or she would be able to take a top-of-the-line, off-the-shelf machine with them, and software could make it space-worthy. Then the astronaut could put whatever programs she wanted on the machine, a process that Goh, a computer scientist, compares to having an iPhone in space onto which you’ve preloaded your apps.

In general, Goh says that smart machines on Earth that exercise “self-care” may turn themselves off in the face of dangerous conditions. Another idea is that a machine can intentionally run slowly so that it can handle errors as it goes, as opposed to running at maximum capacity and not having the bandwidth to also cope with problems.

“We will find out what works, what doesn’t,” Goh says. “We have a whole list.”

HPE said in a statement describing the project that the “system software will manage real time throttling of the computer systems based on current conditions and can mitigate environmentally induced errors.” (If you’re wondering what Hewlett Packard Enterprise is, it’s one-half of the old HP, which divided in 2015; the other half is now HP, Inc., which makes personal computers and printers.)

“This system is not planned to replace the [physically] hardened systems,” Goh says. The intention is that something like this could function as a “decision support” tool on a long mission to a place like Mars, and not a primary mission computer.

These are China’s plans for floating nuclear reactors

China is well on its way to becoming a world leader in nuclear power; its 37 reactors are already producing 32.4 gigawatts of electricity, and more than 20 more reactors are currently under construction.

And now China wants to take the lead in building nuclear power plants in open waters. These floating plants could power oil rigs and islands off the coast, or travel to disaster-struck coasts to provide relief.

Bobbing nuclear power plants are often mounted on a broad-beamed hull, and typically have 25 percent the capacity of their larger, land-based brethren. Those floating reactors can be positioned to coastal and offshore areas that quickly need power (such as areas devastated by tsunamis), or rented out to customers who urgently need a ready supply of electricity.China National Nuclear Power (CNNP) is partnering with Chinese shipyards and electric machinery companies to develop a $150 million project. The combination of nuclear reactor suppliers and a shipyard suggests that floating nuclear reactors are going to be the main focus of the joint venture.

The project may later expand to include other nuclear-powered civilian ships, like icebreakers, but right now sights seem to be set on floating reactors. China’s been planning ship-bound nuclear facilities for a while: China General Nuclear Power Group, CNNC’s main domestic competitor, announced in January 2016 that it would build a floating ACPR50S reactor to enter service in 2020, with a thermal output of 200 megawatts and electrical output of 60 megawatts.

Floating reactors can support offshore drilling and production rigs by providing them with large amounts of power, thus reducing the need to store extra fuel on board for power generation. That means a much safer rig.

China Nuclear Group

Vice Director Wang Yiren of the National Defense State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry said that China would prioritize the development of floating nuclear reactors in order to provide offshore oil and gas rigs with power, as well as to operate desalination plants and equipment on remote islands, such as disputed features in the South China Sea.

The floating nuclear reactors could also power Chinese underwater mining operations, in which China has already invested heavily, and deepwater logistical bases for naval usage.

China’s brand new, souped-up tanks

Last week, China’s dominant fighting vehicle manufacturer, China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), displayed a bevy of export armored vehicles as part of its Armor Day celebrations. These festivities, now in their second year, laud the power of Chinese military and offer an occasion to show off to senior foreign military officers, who were likely there as potential buyers.

The day began with a parade of armored fighting vehicles, led by the VT-4 main battle tank, which has already found a repeat buyer in the Royal Thai Army. Spotted: usual suspects like the VT-4 main battle tank, VT-5 light tank, and VN-12 IFV, as well as several new Chinese systems and fighting vehicles.

The star attraction was the GL-5 hard-kill active protection system (APS), which destroyed a guided missile attacking a tank in a live fire exercise. The GL-5 system consists of four radars and fixed projectile launchers, which are attached to a tank turret for 360 degree coverage (each launcher covers a quadrant).

The radars pick up incoming enemy rockets, missiles, and shells, causing the computer to select a munition and fire it. Each munition is capable of destroying incoming munitions at a range of 33-39 feet. The use of fixed-launcher, radar-guided munitions in an APS mirrors the hard-kill portion of the Afghanit APS on the Russian T-14 Armata tank. As the GL-5 is an export-only version, the Chinese military is likely to field a more advanced version to protect its tanks, which could be comparable to the U.S. Quick Kill and Israeli Iron Fist and Trophy systems in terms of coverage, range, and fire volume.

The new VN-17 infantry-fighting vehicle (IFV) uses a heavily modified version of the 33-ton VT-5 light tank’s chassis. It has an unmanned (read: remotely controlled) turret with two large, multi-lens electro-optical and infrared sensors (one each for the gunner and commander). Those sensors come in handy when the system needs to use its 35mm cannon, 7.62mm machine gun, or medium-range HJ-12 anti-tank missiles. The VN-17 is also well protected, with reactive armor on the lower front hull, and significant side-skirt armor alongside its tracks. All this, plus its capacity to carry seven infantry, makes it likely in the 30-35 ton weight class.

It shares some similarity with the People’s Liberation Army’s mysterious new infantry-fighting vehicle, which will reportedly have an unmanned turret, augmented displays for crew helmets, and a hybrid-electrical engine for fuel efficiency and stealth. In terms of armament, protection, and sensors, both the VN-17 and the unnamed PLA IFV compare quite favorably to the U.S. Army’s M2A3 Bradley IFV. But unlike the 35-year-old Bradley, China’s brand new battle taxis have plenty of margin to grow into future upgrades like more advanced armor, better weapons, APS, sensors, and deploying unmanned partners.

Here’s what you need to know about the Samsung Note8 smartphone

It carries on the Note name despite the catastrophic Note7

The first thing to know about the Note8 device is that it exists, and it’s called the Note8. Following the Note7 recall debacle—you know, that whole combusting batterynightmare—it wouldn’t be shocking if the company had decided that it was the end of the line for the Note series. But the Note line endures.

In a statement, DJ Koh, the president of Samsung Mobile, said that they “appreciate the relentless passion of the Note community.” (Would it be safe to call it a burning passion? Sorry.) In short, the company says it continued the Note series because of customer passion for it.

Samsung has already explained why those Note7 batteries exploded and revealed an 8-point battery safety check to make sure that going forward, its lithium-ion batterieswon’t combust.

The battery on this latest device is 3,300 mAh, making it slightly smaller than the Note7, which was 3,500. In addition to the normal battery safety checks that the company does, they say that Underwriters Laboratories, better known as UL, is being even more thorough when testing the battery on the Note8.

The hardware hasn’t changed much

The Note8 will sport an AMOLED Infinity Display screen that’s 6.3 inches on the diagonal, just a tenth of an inch longer than the S8 Plus’s screen, and bigger than the screen on the discontinued Note7. Like other Note devices, it has a stylus that you can use to do things like sign documents and draw. The S Pen, as it’s called, now has a tip that’s just .7 millimeters in diameter, like a ballpoint pen, and the system is more pressure-sensitive.

Like the S8 and S8 Plus, it’s has a Bixby button to summon Samsung’s version of Siri, and it also has the fingerprint sensor on back, near the camera. It also supports face and iris recognition for unlocking the device, and you can charge it wirelessly.