This Week in Science: Mind-Reading Robots, Military Space Force and More

July 6, 2018

From mind-reading robots to an apparent dog-human hybrid, it’s been an interesting few weeks in science. STEM news tends to fly under the radar, but have no fear - here’s the past week in science stories.

 

 Photo: Hal Gatewood on Unsplash 

 

Real Life Sci-Fi

 

The World’s Fastest Supercomputer Has Arrived

On June 19, Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer. The machine can perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second (200 petaflops), beating out the former “fastest supercomputer” by 107 billion calculations per second (107 petaflops). For five years, China held the top spot in supercomputing, so the machine’s existence is a win for the United States.

 

Mind-Reading Robots

Using a control system, robots now have the ability to “read” minds. To do so, electrodes are placed on a person’s head and arms, which send signals for a robot to “read” and interpret. The robot can then act according to how the person, based on distress signals from the brain and hand gestures, wants them to. Essentially, if you think the robot has made a mistake, it will sense this and correct itself. The system, from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research team, was displayed at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference on June 28, 2018.

 

Inside the Animal Kingdom

 

DNA Testing Proves Mystery Beast Was Just a Wolf

Back in May of this year, a Montana rancher shot a mysterious dog-like animal. Many, including wildlife officials, were confused about what kind of animal it was. Speculations included a dog-wolf hybrid, a dog-human hybrid, and a dire wolf (an extinct, prehistoric wolf species). Using DNA testing, lab officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) confirmed on June 18 that the creature was really just a gray wolf. The confusion may have stemmed from the wolf’s unusually large ears and short legs.

 

Extraterrestrial

 

Trump Announces “Space Force”

President Donald Trump announced the creation of a space force on June 18, and sadly, it’s not about fighting aliens. In a speech, the president directed the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to create a sixth military branch focused on operations in outer space. According to Trump, the branch would be “separate but equal” with the Air Force.

 

Dust Storm Covers Mars, Disconnects Rover

A Mars dust storm became global, or planet-encircling, on the morning of June 19, cutting off a rover’s connection with Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration confirmed the storm as global on Wednesday, June 20. With the lack of sunlight, NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover was cut off from Earth a week earlier, and remains disconnected. The nuclear-powered Curiosity rover was not affected. The storm, which began on June 1, is the most extreme storm since 2007.

 

Telescope Launch Delayed for Another Year

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been delayed by a year, to March 30, 2020. NASA announced the new date after a review of the JWST project. The review pointed out several issues in the project, and made recommendations for the future. The JWST project began in 1996, and the past two decades have seen multiple (expensive) delays in its implementation.

 

Cosmic Object Identified as a Comet

Scientists had a tough time identifying ‘Oumuamua, an interstellar object. The rock was first spotted from a Hawaii telescope, back in October 2017. Judging from its speed and path, it was clear the object came from another solar system, but it remained unclear what ‘Oumuamua really was. After shuffling between “asteroid” or “comet” (or both,) researchers have concluded that the object is a comet. Since it is the first object ever observed from beyond our solar system, its unique shape and characteristics made it difficult to categorize.

 

Microscopic

 

The Most Detailed 3D Model of Zika

Using Nobel Prize winning cryo-electron microscopy, researchers were able to create the world’s most detailed 3D model of the Zika virus. The team, led by Michael Rossman of Purdue University, was also the first to discover the virus’ structure. Their results were published on June 26, 2018 in Structure.

 

Ore James is a high school student who's into books, politics, and green tea. You can usually find her browsing through scientific journals, buried in a novel, or keeping up with current events.
 

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