The SETI Institute has teamed up with telescope-maker Unistellar on a citizen science campaign asking for space fans’ help discovering massive hot Jupiter exoplanet candidates identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
“There are way too many planet candidates discovered by the NASA TESS mission. And we want to continue observing them when they are not in TESS’ field of view,” Franck Marchis, senior planetary astronomer at SETI told The Register.
“So this network is key to do the follow up and try to observe difficult object like long period exoplanets for which the uncertainty could be large, larger than the duration of one night on one spot.”
Over 5,000 alien planets have been confirmed since the first-ever exoplanet was found 30 years ago. Before 1992, the only worlds glimpsed by scientists were objects within the Solar System. Cataloguing exoplanets opens up a whole new field of astronomy, helping scientists understand what exists in outer space and whether there might be another planet that supports intelligent life.
The vast majority of exoplanets are spotted using the transit method. Space observatories like the now-defunct Kepler telescope and TESS measure the light from distant stars and detect whenever its brightness changes.
Periodic dimming is a telltale sign that an object is orbiting around the star. Whenever planets transit or cross in front of the star, the star’s luminosity temporarily decreases. By measuring the length and brightness of these events, researchers can estimate the exoplanet’s orbital period, radius, and mass.
Thousands of new candidates have been detected, and TESS may identify over 10,000 more. Astronomers need to observe them more closely, and there are too many to study.
“The demand for follow-up observations of transiting exoplanets is greater than ever,” the SETI Institute said in a statement.
“Regular re-observations by ground-based systems are necessary for confirmed planets to keep their orbital ephemerides updated. The potential for citizen scientist contribution to exoplanet science is high and has exciting implications for STEM education.”
Together with Unistellar, a company that makes smart telescopes for amateur astronomers, the nonprofit is supporting citizen scientists to conduct follow-up observations to find exo-Jupiters.
Additional data will aid TESS in confirming whether a candidate is a real exoplanet or a false positive like an eclipsing binary star. The Unistellar Exoplanet Campaign will provide professional mentoring and curate a list of targets to hunt for.
Citizen scientists have already helped astronomers study systems like TOI 1812, a solar system located 563 light years from Earth, home to three exoplanets. The radii and orbital periods were known for two planets, except for the Saturn-sized world codenamed TOI 1812.01. A network made up of 20 astronomers from seven countries observed the exoplanet candidate and successfully confirmed its orbital period was 112 days last month.
“Observing exoplanets like TOI 1812.01 as they cross in front of, or transit, their host stars is a crucial component of confirming their nature as genuine planets and ensuring our ability to study those planetary systems in the future,” said Paul Dalba, SETI Institute research scientist and 51 Pegasi b Fellow of the Heising-Simons Foundation.
“The specific properties of this planet, namely its long orbit and long transit duration, put it in a category where citizen science coordinated on a global level like the Unistellar Network can be extremely effective.”
Space fans who want to get involved will ideally have a telescope to observe exoplanet transits and log the coordinates of the object and exposure times. Anyone can join the Slack channel and interact with other citizen scientists.
“This early success shows the power of putting science directly into people’s hands; a core principle of this SETI Institute, Unistellar, and NASA partnership,” added Tom Esposito, SETI Institute research assistant and Space Science Principal at Unistellar.
“Citizen astronomers worldwide uniting to teach humanity about new planets discovered so many trillions of miles away is, simply put, amazing.” ®
Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Thursday that it was finally pulling the plug on its COVID tracking program.
On February 13, the city-state’s TraceTogether (TT) program, which uses the Bluetooth radios in mobile phones to track movements, and its business check-in system SafeEntry (SE) will come to a halt.
According to the ministry’s announcement, the government had already begun stepping down TT and SE, and would no longer require infected persons to submit TraceTogether data.
“SE data is no longer being collected, and MOH has deleted all identifiable TT and SE data from its servers and databases,” said the department.
The exception is data that was controversially used off-label in a murder investigation.
The systems will remain intact – as well as registration details including name, business registration, and mobile phone number – in case there is a need for reactivation. One example given is if a more dangerous COVID-19 variant were to spread. Apps will also remain available.
The ministry told members of the public, who haven’t been required to have them since last year, that they may “uninstall their TT App, and enterprises may do the same for the SE (Business) App.”
Furthermore, those with a physical TT token, which came in handy for the non-tech savvy as a device that exchanges anonymized identifiers, were asked to return the dongle for recycling.
Singapore began developing the open source TraceTogether at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The app constantly sought out other Bluetooth-enabled devices that ran the app and logged when they were in close proximity. The country required users to register and inform authorities if they contracted COVID-19 and used the app to draw up lists of contacts who were then isolated.
Other countries, including Australia, based their apps on the technology. While many nations seemed to flop at COVID tracking, Singapore fared somewhat better, even with similar technology. That success has been attributed to a culture willing to comply, combined with a government that modified behavior through other strict rules to keep the virus from spreading.
One example of the additional measures was tracking devices issued to travelers during a required one-week isolation after arriving.
In April, TT and SE became largely superfluous as their use was no longer mandatory except for select events. The efficacy of such systems relied on mass compliance so if some people weren’t using them, they were less effective anyway.
However, job postings for positions related to the program near that time sparked speculation that the system would remain in some form in the island nation, unlike in most other countries. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) told The Register in late March 2022 the job listings were merely for replacing existing employees.
Australia quit its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan followed in September, and China discontinued use of its tracking app in December. ®
Based in Co Mayo, Ovagen now plans to add 65 jobs over the next five years and hopes to see its revenue reach €42m by the end of 2027.
Irish biotech start-up Ovagen has raised €1.1m in an oversubscribed funding round led by the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN) for its germ-free egg production business.
Ovagen, based in Ballina, Co Mayo, is a biotech company that has developed a process of producing germ-free chicken eggs intended for use in the pharmaceutical industry for products such as vaccines.
According to Ovagen, up to 20pc – or one in five – egg-based vaccine batches are destroyed because of contamination.
Overall, more than 1bn eggs are used every year as ‘bio reactors’ to develop vaccines. Viruses are injected into the eggs to propagate the virus, which vaccine manufacturers can then use to develop vaccines for diseases including the flu, yellow fever, mumps and measles.
Dr Catherine Caulfield, CEO and co-founder of Ovagen, said that current vaccines are developed using specific pathogen free eggs, which are free of many bacteria and viruses, but they are not germ-free and a significant portion become contaminated.
“Our funders have been instrumental in supporting us on our long journey to make a concept a reality,” she said.
“At critical stages in our development, our angel investors have not only provided us with their financial backing, but they have also introduced us to other potential investors, as well as their highly influential industry contacts.”
Ovagen now aims to go to market with the “world’s first germ-free egg” in what is potentially a multimillion euro industry.
“The global potential of the company’s technology is vast and that is why this is the second time HBAN syndicates have backed Ovagen,” said Declan MacFadden, an HBAN spokesperson.
“Ovagen is now in prime position to launch its product and we are excited to see the impact that this ground-breaking development has in a highly lucrative global market.”
Following the latest investment, in which the Western Development Commission and an existing shareholder also participated, the company expects to add 65 jobs (it currently has 12 staff) over the next five years, with revenues reaching €42m by the end of 2027.
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US lawmakers held a combative hearing on Wednesday with former senior staffers at Twitter over the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
The proceedings set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to hone in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.
The House oversight committee called for questioning recently departed Twitter employees including Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.
The hearing centered on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020, the month before the US presidential election. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the opportunity to interrogate moderation practices at Twitter and other tech firms.
“The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech,” said Republican committee chairman James Comer, hammering the former employees for censoring the Post story.
In that report, the Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report containing potentially hacked materials.
In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy, and the then CEO, Jack Dorsey, later called the company’s communications about the Post article “not great”.
Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said on Wednesday that Twitter acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.
“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”
Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records, known as the Twitter Files, showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing concerns from the Biden campaign, among other factors.
Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.
“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.
“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”
Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.
Republican lawmakers seem to have found an ally in Musk, and repeatedly praised him during Wednesday’s proceedings. The rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene used her time on the floor to personally attack the former Twitter employees and complain about her own account, which was suspended for violating the platform’s policies on coronavirus misinformation.
“I’m so glad you’ve lost your jobs,” she said. “I am so glad Elon Musk bought Twitter.”
But Democrats on Wednesday used their time in the House to explore how the Trump administration engaged with Twitter, revealing that the former president himself tried to interfere with content decisions.
In response to questioning from the new representative Maxwell Frost of Florida, the former Twitter content moderation executive Navaroli confirmed that in 2019 Trump tried to have an insulting tweet from internet personality Chrissy Teigen removed from the platform. In the tweet, which was read for the record, Teigen referred to Trump as a “pussy ass bitch”. Twitter denied the White House’s request, and it remains online today.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further sought to disprove bias against conservative speech on Twitter when she asked about an instance in 2019, when a tweet from Trump including hate speech was kept online despite violating platform policies.
The former president told Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to their countries, a clear violation of Twitter’s policies regarding abuse against immigrants, but was not penalized, Navaroli confirmed, and the rules were changed.
“So Twitter changed their own policy after Trump violated it to accommodate his tweets?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So much for bias against the rightwing on Twitter.”
The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.
In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.
“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”