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Euro space boffins hatch comms satellite hijack plan to save Earth from extinction • The Register

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Space calamity boffins at Airbus and the European Space Agency (ESA) have come up with a new take on that old “massive, rogue impactor striking the Earth and wiping out all life on the planet” chestnut.

Rather than sending teams of astronauts, cosmonauts, and unlikely groups of oil workers to destroy the incoming rock with nuclear weapons, the European rocket scientists reckon they could knock it off course by pelting it with hijacked communications satellites.

The Airbus/ESA whitecoats felt that if humanity detected a possible asteroid impactor early enough to give us three years’ warning, given the time it would take for any solution to get to the point of impact, it still might not give us enough time to create, build, and launch a suitable defence.

This means that if we were going to try and deflect the asteroid (a proposal which is probably easier and more predictable in its results than trying to blow it up, as depicted in the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact), we would ideally need something that is big, heavy, steerable, and numerous.

Fortunately for us, we already have an ample supply of such resources. Modern comms satellites are chunky beasts that can weigh between four and six tonnes. They normally live on geostationary orbits around the Earth’s equator, in a band 22,236 miles (35,786km) from the planet’s surface. They also have engines to keep them on station and aligned with the relevant transmitters on Earth.

And there are also a lot of them, with 15 such satellites being ordered in 2019 alone. This means that during any given year, there will normally be more than a dozen comms satellites at various stages of construction.

The Airbus/ESA plan – known as the Fast Kinetic impactor Deflection mission, or FastKD – is to “hijack” the production of those satellites at whatever stage they are at, remove the communications equipment, install a new kinetic deflector (KD) pack incorporating more engines and control gear, load it on a rocket, and launch it at our potential incoming doom.

Although the six-tonne interceptors would be tiny in comparison to the 1000-ft (304.8m) diameter asteroid projected in the FastKD study*, if the world was able to get them launched quickly enough to hit the rock far enough away, the tiny changes in trajectory caused would hopefully be enough to nudge it away from its collision course.

The speed of the project is therefore key. Given a time of three years between detection and projected Earth impact, the FastKD timeline allows only six months for political decision-making and the commandeering, adaptation and testing of under-construction satellites. It also allows only a one-month window to launch all of the necessary vehicles, in order to have them hit the incoming asteroid in quick succession for maximum effect.

Despite the difficult timeframe, Albert Falke, the project lead at Airbus, thinks it is possible.

“These telecommunication platforms, in addition to being large and heavy, are also built with quite a high frequency,” he said in an interview with Space.com. “That means we can expect them to be available readily in the integration facilities. That’s something we can take for granted.”

With a prospective extinction-level impact on the cards, you’d hope so. Having the birds ready to be hijacked is not the only possible problem, though.

“The bottleneck will be the rockets,” Falke added. “[But] we think we could expect about 10 to 15 launches available within one month around the entire globe.” This sounds optimistic, but it’s that or we all die so you’d hope everyone would be on board.

After launch, the kinetic deflectors would cruise for 6-18 months before hopefully hitting their target. Our continued survival as a species would at that point depend on the boffins getting their maths right.

They will be helped in this by the NASA DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) project, which is on track to intercept an asteroid called Didymos in September next year. NASA then intends to crash an 600kg impactor into Didymos’s 160m (520ft) diameter moonlet at a speed of 6.6km per second (4.1 miles per second) just to see what happens.

Hopefully the DART project will allow impact-dodging scientists of all kinds to perfect their extinction-avoidance techniques in a way that will not make Liv Tyler cry, a criteria which everyone agrees exceeds all others in importance. ®

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*Although FastKD does not give a mass for the asteroid, the similarly sized 99942 Apophis – which is expected to come within 19,800 miles (31,900km) of Earth in 2029 – is estimated to weigh around 61 million tonnes. We at The Register suspect an impact by such an object would make Liv Tyler very, very unhappy indeed, so is to be avoided at all costs.

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2021 iPhone photography awards – in pictures | Technology

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The 14th annual iPhone photography awards offer glimpses of beauty, hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Out of thousands of submissions, photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary was named the grand prize winner for his image Transylvanian Shepherds. In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms.

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With Alphabet’s legendary commitment to products, we can’t wait to see what its robotics biz Intrinsic achieves • The Register

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Alphabet today launched its latest tech startup, Intrinsic, which aims to build commercial software that will power industrial robots.

Intrinsic will focus on developing software control tools for industrial robots used in manufacturing, we’re told. Its pitch is that the days of humans having to manually program and adjust a robot’s every move are over, and that mechanical bots should be more autonomous and smart, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and leaps in training techniques.

This could make robots easier to direct – give them a task, and they’ll figure out the specifics – and more efficient – the AI can work out the best way to achieve its goal.

“Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications,” said CEO Wendy Tan White.

“Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.”

Tan White – a British entrepreneur and investor who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2016 for her services to the tech industry – will leave her role as vice president of X, Alphabet’s moonshot R&D lab, to concentrate on Intrinsic.

She earlier co-founded and was CEO of website-building biz Moonfruit, and helped multiple early-stage companies get up and running as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, a tech accelerator. She is also a board trustee of the UK’s Alan Turing Institute, and member of Blighty’s Digital Economic Council.

“I loved the role I played in creating platforms that inspired the imagination and entrepreneurship of people all over the world, and I’ve recently stepped into a similar opportunity: I’m delighted to share that I’m now leading Intrinsic, a new Alphabet company,” she said.

The new outfit is another venture to emerge from Google-parent Alphabet’s X labs, along with Waymo, the self-driving car startup; and Verily, a biotech biz. ®

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Charles River to create 90 new jobs at Ballina biologics site

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Charles River is expanding its testing capabilities in Ballina as part of its partnership with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.

Contract research organisation Charles River Laboratories is planning an €8m site expansion in Ballina to facilitate batch release testing for Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca.

The expansion at the Mayo site will create an additional 1,500 sq m of lab space and 90 highly skilled jobs in the area over the next three years.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

The company provides longstanding partners AstraZeneca with outsourced regulated safety and development support on a range of treatments and vaccines, including testing and facilitating the deployment of Vaxzevria for Covid-19 and Fluenz for seasonal infleunza.

The latest investment follows earlier expansions at the Ballina site and Charles River recently announced plans to establish a dedicated laboratory space to handle testing of SARS-CoV-2 and other similar pathogens that cause human disease.

“We are incredibly proud of the transformational changes we have implemented on site and the role that Charles River has played in supporting the safe and timely roll-out of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine,” said Liam McHale, site director for Charles River Ballina.

“Throughout the pandemic, our site remained fully operational while keeping our employees safe and having a positive impact on human health. Our expanded facility will provide us with the increased capacity needed to continue the essential services we provide to our clients.”

Charles River acquired the Ballina facility, which focuses on biologics testing, in 2002. The company employs 230 people at its two facilities in Ireland, including the Mayo site and a site in Dublin, established in 2017, which serves as the EMEA and APAC headquarters for the company’s microbial solutions division.

IDA Ireland is supporting the expansion. Mary Buckley, executive director of the agency, said Charles River is an “employer of long standing” in Co Mayo.

“The enhancement of its product lines and the development of additional capability at the Ballina facility is most welcome,” she added. “Today’s announcement is strongly aligned to IDA Ireland’s regional pillar and its continued commitment to winning jobs and investment in regional locations.”

Dan Wygal, country president for AstraZeneca Ireland, added: “Our Covid-19 vaccine, Vaxzevria, undergoes extremely robust safety and quality testing prior to becoming available for patients. We are committed to bringing safe, effective vaccines to Ireland and other markets as quickly as possible, and Charles River will continue to be an important partner in this regard.”

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