Uber v Google: Self-drive tech clash heads to court

A trial pitting two of the biggest players in self-drive technology against each other has begun in San Francisco.

Ride-sharing firm Uber is being sued by Waymo, the self-driving company spun out of Google.

Uber is accused of stealing and using trade secrets relating to Lidar (light detection and ranging) – one of the technologies that enables an autonomous car to understand what is happening around it.

Waymo is making its case first, and then it will be up to Uber to defend itself.

Emails already shown in court detailed Uber’s ex-chief executive Travis Kalanick demanding “pounds of flesh” from Waymo, while others are said to involve him saying he wanted to “find the cheat codes”.

Waymo’s legal team has compared Mr Kalanick to Rosie Ruiz, a runner who cheated in the 1980 New York Marathon by taking the subway.

Uber will likely begin its defence next week. It is expected the company will not dispute document theft, but instead attempt to convince the jury it did not use the information in its self-drive experiments.

While bitter and expensive legal disputes between tech companies are common, it’s rare for these tussles to be played out in public.

The case is expected to last about three weeks.

At stake is a potential damages payout of hundreds of millions of dollars. Or, perhaps worse, an injunction to halt, or at least hinder, Uber’s self-driving research. This would be a big blow to the company, which once said leading the way in self-driving tech was critical to its survival.

What is the accusation?

The row centres around a man named Anthony Levandowski, a former Google employee considered a leading mind in autonomous research.

He worked on Google’s self-driving programme before leaving in January 2016. It is alleged that when he left, he took with him more than 14,000 confidential documents, which were blueprints and other technical information about Lidar.

He then founded Otto, an autonomous trucking company, which after less than a year was acquired by Uber for $680m (£481m). It formed the basis of Uber’s self-driving division, and Mr Levandowski was at the helm.

Waymo alleges this whole process was an elaborate charade, and that Uber, specifically then-chief executive Travis Kalanick, was in talks with Mr Levandowski before he left Google.

Otto was merely a front for Uber’s plan to pinch their technology, Waymo claims.

Uber denies this version of events, though not entirely. It’s not disputing the documents were taken, but insists it didn’t gain anything whatsoever from them.

The crucial point Waymo will need to prove is that not only did Uber have the documents, but that it used them to gain an advantage of some kind.

What are the trade secrets?

In the original filing, Waymo cited 121 secrets and patents Uber was said to have stolen. That number has since been reduced to eight.

The significance of this reduction depends on which company’s spin you want to follow. In background briefings, Uber said the fact so many of the claims were dropped from the case proved they were flimsy.

Waymo said it was forced to select a handful of the most significant claims in order to have a trial that didn’t last months, or even years.

Judge William Alsup’s comments, it has to be said, seem more closely aligned with Uber’s interpretation.

He described at least one of the dismissed “secrets” as “Optics 101” – meaning, the very basics of the technology, not the kind of insight that would justify calling it a secret.

Either way, the jury will be asked to rule individually on the eight secrets. Discussions about the specifics will be off limits to press, but the jury will see each secret in detail in order to make its decision.

Part of that process will be determining whether the information could be considered a secret in the first place.

Key to Waymo’s strategy will be convincing the jury that secrets can cover failure as much as success.

If Waymo spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours discovering that something didn’t work, is Uber capitalising on that trade secret by saving itself the effort?

Who will appear in court?

While Mr Levandowski is on the witness list, don’t expect much if he appears.

Throughout this case, he has “pleaded the Fifth” – the protection afforded by the American constitution to not say anything that could incriminate oneself. Because of this, Uber has since fired him.

Should Waymo call Mr Levandowski to the stand, we can assume it’s theatre – the man at the centre of the row refusing to speak a peep is not a great look for Uber.

We expect, within the first few days, to hear from Mr Kalanick. The controversial co-founder of Uber was forced to step down as chief executive last year following a string of scandals of which this case is but one.

We are also likely to see Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founders.

Less glamorous but perhaps more useful will be the numerous Uber engineers who will be rigorously questioned about how they were directed by Mr Levandowski, and whether those stolen documents and secrets ever surfaced in Uber’s work.

Overseeing the proceedings is Judge Alsup, a favourite among journalists for his highly-quotable courtroom quips, but not a person either legal team will be looking forward to dealing with.

Judge Alsup is a force to be reckoned with: he famously learned some coding skills in order to have a better grasp on a different trial between Google and database specialist Oracle.

What are the strategies and risks?

Jury trials bring about a whole new psychology to how lawyers must approach a case. Attacks and rebuttals must be thorough but not overwhelming; simplified but not patronising.

Uber knows it could face a jury which, being from San Francisco, may already hold a negative view of the company.

During the selection process, Uber asked potential jurors if they were, had been, or just knew a taxi driver – such is the animosity over Uber’s impact on traditional business. It also asked if anyone had deleted Uber’s app in protest at various ethical decisions the company has made in recent times.

Uber’s baggage in front of the five man, five woman jury can’t be understated: Mr Kalanick has a reputation as a hard, cut-throat operator – and that’s just to his friends.

Given a past of covering up a security breach, surveilling journalists, and using secret software to evade government officials, it will hardly be a huge leap for the jury to believe Mr Kalanick wasn’t above tapping up a rival’s star employee.

Privately, Uber accuses Waymo of wanting to dumb down the jury’s technical expertise in the hope of getting jurors who know less about sophisticated technology. Waymo strongly denies this, and if it is to win it will need to do a lot more than paint Uber as some kind of tech bogeyman.

We can expect Judge Alsup to have little patience for anything that strays far from the intricate facts of the trade secrets in question.

Ultimately, it’s up to Waymo to draw a clear line, from stolen documents, to Uber’s self-driving work.

What are the potential outcomes?

Let’s consider the jury decides that Uber stole and used all the trade secrets of which it’s accused. That could mean it would have to pay more than $1bn in damages.

Calculating such an amount could be difficult, though. It’s hard to measure the real cost to Waymo given the technology is yet to be commercialised, at least in the ways these companies envision.

More straightforward would be an injunction that would stop Uber’s self-driving programme altogether.

That would be an extreme outcome – it’s more likely that any injunction would just apply to whichever trade secrets the jury decides were infringed.

As I see it, there is a scenario would allow both companies to claim a moral victory, even if, technically, the decision goes Waymo’s way.

If a jury decides Uber did steal and use trade secrets and an injunction is handed down, Uber will immediately brush it off by claiming it doesn’t use the secrets anyway.

Indeed, the company has already outsourced its Lidar needs to San Jose-based Velodyne. At most, an injunction might impact Uber’s plans to make the technology in-house.

Another outcome, of course, is that Waymo fails to convince the jury that any trade secrets were stolen, and that’s the end of that.

What is the bigger picture?

This case is being so keenly watched because it already represents an enormous argument in Silicon Valley, one about the cross-pollination of ideas and expertise.

When extraordinary brains do incredible work at powerful companies, what right do they have to take those ideas with them?

Uber unquestionably benefitted from Mr Levandowski’s expertise. But is that because of trade secrets, or simply because of who he is?

The jury won’t be asked that question, but the outcome of this case will be seen by many as providing an answer.

source: BBC

Dow Jones stock index falls by 500 points

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen by 500 points in a day of volatile trading that has rattled global markets.

The leading US stock market is down 1.99% or 427.58 points to 25,012.47.

It was closely followed by the wider S&P 500 stock index and the technology-heavy Nasdaq.

The falls extend losses on Friday, when strong wage growth data raised the prospect of accelerated interest rate rises.

London’s main share index, the FTSE 100, closed down 1.46% while earlier, the biggest markets in Asia fell between 1% and 2.5%.

The decline followed months of market increases, which had fuelled concerns that share prices were over valued.

David Madden, market analyst at CMC Markets, said: “Equity traders were enjoying a bullish run recently, and the jolt from the major decline in the US last Friday has triggered a worldwide round of profit taking.”

US shares suffer sharpest drop since 2016

The Dow Jones rose more than 25% in 2017 – a year which was also unusual for its lack of sharp moves.

“There is going to be more volatility this year, ” Andrew Wilson chief executive of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, told the BBC.

“We are in a cycle where central banks are reducing the amount of bonds they are buying and some central banks putting up interest rates,” he said.

On Friday there was a hefty 4% loss for shares in Apple, which had been one of the markets’ star performers in recent years.

source: BBC

Maldives state of emergency declared by government amid political crisis

The Maldives government has declared a state of emergency for 15 days amid a political crisis in the island nation.

The state of emergency gives security officials in the Indian Ocean state extra powers of arrest, reports say.

The government has already suspended parliament and ordered the army to resist any moves by the Supreme Court to impeach President Abdulla Yameen.

Security forces have entered the Supreme Court and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the ex-president, has been arrested.

There were judges inside the court but a court spokesman said he was unable to contact them.

The US National Security Council has warned in a tweet that “the world is watching” the Maldives.

Why are all eyes on the court?

In a landmark decision on Friday, it ruled that the 2015 trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed had been unconstitutional.

Mr Nasheed, the island nation’s first democratically elected leader, was convicted under anti-terrorism laws of ordering the arrest of a judge and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

However the verdict was internationally condemned and he was given political asylum in the UK the following year after being allowed to travel there for medical treatment.

The Supreme Court also ordered the reinstatement of 12 MPs, which would see the opposition’s parliamentary majority restored.

How important is Mr Gayoom?

Now aged 80, he ruled the country autocratically for three decades before the Maldives became a multi-party democracy in 2008.

A half-brother of President Yameen, he has now aligned himself with the opposition.

He was detained in a police raid on his home, the opposition says. Shortly before, he tweeted about a large police presence outside.

How else has the government responded to the court ruling?

It sacked the police commissioner for pledging to enforce the ruling and ordered the detention of two opposition MPs who had returned to the Maldives.

It also warned that any court order to arrest President Yameen for not complying with the Supreme Court ruling would be illegal.

The Maldives previously declared a state of emergency in November 2015, after the government said it was investigating a plot to assassinate Mr Yameen.

That move came two days before a planned protest by Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.

How have the opposition reacted?

Mr Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, told BBC News that the government’s “brazenly illegal” actions amounted to a coup.

“Maldivians have had enough of this criminal and illegal regime,” he said. “President Yameen should resign immediately.”

An opposition MP, Eva Abdulla, said the state of emergency was a “desperate move” that showed the government had “lost everything [including the] confidence of the people and institutions”.

What is the Maldives better known for?

Breathtakingly beautiful beaches and breathtakingly expensive luxury hotels, says the BBC’s South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt.

The nation is made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 individual islands.

But while the water of the coral reefs that surround them may be crystal clear, politics in the “island paradise” has always been very murky indeed, our correspondent adds.

Since President Yameen took power in 2013 it has faced questions over freedom of speech, the detention of opponents and the independence of the judiciary.

source: BBC

North Korea to send ceremonial head Kim Yong-nam South

North Korea is to send its highest ranking official for years to the South amid an easing of tensions during the Winter Olympics.

Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of state, will lead a 22-member delegation to the South beginning on Friday, said the South’s Unification Ministry.

The two Koreas’ athletes will march under one flag at the opening ceremony.

The North’s participation in the Games is widely seen as a diplomatic manoeuvre by Pyongyang.

It faces growing international pressure and sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.

The united Korean women’s ice hockey team played its first match on Sunday, but lost the friendly against Sweden 1-3.

They will get a chance to even the score when they face Sweden again during the Games.

Sunday’s outing was the first and only practice match for the newly minted Korean squad.

Kim Yong-nam is the head of the parliament in the North and will be the highest-level official to visit South Korea in four years.

An unnamed official from the South’s presidential Blue House told the BBC that they believe this reflected a willingness on the part of North Korea to improve inter-Korean relations, and demonstrated the North’s sincerity.

Mr Kim will lead a delegation of three other officials and 18 support staff, the Unification Ministry said.

It did not say whether he would attend the opening ceremony of the Games in Pyeongchang, a county in the mountainous east of South Korea.

If so, it would put him in the company of US Vice President Mike Pence at a point of high tension with Washington over the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The North has conducted a series of missile tests designed to demonstrate its nuclear capability.

North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, which run from 9 to 25 February, was a sudden turn towards reconciliation.

It came after the hereditary leader Kim Jong-un extended an olive branch to the South in a New Year message, saying he was open to dialogue and could send a team to the Games.

As well as the ice hockey players, North Korean athletes will compete in skiing and figure skating events. It is also sending hundreds of delegates, cheerleaders and performers.

However, there have already been some bumps in the road to reconciliation.

Earlier this week it emerged that the North had scheduled a large-scale military parade for 8 February, the day before the Winter Olympics commences.

Amid negative headlines, North Korea said no-one had the right to take issue with its plans and promptly cancelled a cultural event it was to hold jointly with the South.

Meanwhile, although Seoul and Washington have agreed to delay the annual big joint military exercises which always enrage the North, they will still go ahead at the end of the Paralympics.

Source: BBC

Greece Macedonia: Name dispute draws mass protest in Athens

At least 140,000 Greeks have taken to the streets of Athens in a protest about the decades-long dispute over the name Macedonia.

Many Greeks object to the country of the same name calling itself Macedonia, saying it implies a territorial claim on Greece’s northern Macedonia region.

Protesters oppose Greek government proposals on resolving the issue.

Celebrated Zorba The Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, 92, was among those addressing the crowds.

Anarchists daubed red paint over his home on Saturday but he was unfazed, declaring, “I am calm and ready.”

How high are passions in Athens?

Demonstrators carrying Greek flags chanted “hands off Macedonia” and “Macedonia is Greece”, as they assembled in Syntagma Square outside parliament.

“Macedonia was, is and will forever be Greek,” Mr Theodorakis told the huge crowds, adding that any suggestion of a name to resolve the dispute must be put to a referendum.

“If a government considers signing on behalf of our country… there is no doubt it must first ask the Greek people.”

He said the neighbouring northern state was “illegitimate”.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias recently received death threats when he said he expected the dispute to be resolved within months.

“Here are the borders,” said protester Rania Mainou from Xanthi in northern Greece. “This is Macedonia. Here, these are Slavs, they are not Macedonians, we are Macedonians. Macedonia is Greek, no one can take this name, no one can use it.”

It is the second such protest in a fortnight. Some 90,000 demonstrators rallied in Thessaloniki, the capital of the Macedonia region, on 21 January.

Organisers of Sunday’s protest estimated that 1.5 million people had attended but police said turnout was less than one tenth of that.

How long has this row been rumbling?

The dispute has simmered since Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and it has held up its attempts to join Nato and the EU.

Greece’s left-wing Syriza government says the issue is a diplomatic obstacle it wants resolved and has proposed agreeing to a composite name for the country which would include the word Macedonia but ensure a clear differentiation from the Greek region.

Macedonia argues that its people can be traced back to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, once ruled by Alexander the Great, and that the name “Macedonia” is therefore the logical option.

However, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said last month that Macedonia would change the name of its airport from Skopje Alexander the Great airport, to show good will.

The Greek Orthodox Church backs the campaign to stop Macedonia using any variant of the name.

What names are being mooted?

In organisations such as the UN, where talks have been under way, the country is officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

At home, the Macedonian government calls the country it administers simply “Republic of Macedonia”.

UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has suggested alternatives such as “Republic of New Macedonia”.

A proposal to name it “Republic of Macedonia-Skopje” was reportedly accepted by Greece but rejected by Macedonia.

source: BBC

Doctor shares dying children’s wishes: ‘Be kind and eat ice cream’

When a palliative paediatrician in South Africa saw too many negative stories appear on his Twitter feed, he decided to share some positive, inspiring thoughts of the terminally ill children in his care.

Alastair McAlpine, from Cape Town, tweeted: “I asked some of my terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning. Kids can be so wise, y’know. Here are some of the responses.”

Dr McAlpine told the BBC he wanted to write something uplifting, and was overwhelmed when he saw hundreds of responses to his tweet, which has been liked more than 10,000 times.

At first he tried to respond to each comment. He said: “It’s extraordinary. I believe in thanking people when they say something nice, but there were just too many for me to reply to all of them.”

None of the children, aged between four and nine, said that they wished they had watched more television, or spent more time on Facebook.

Animals played a huge part in their lives as they enjoyed talking about their pets. Dr McAlpine tweeted examples: “I love Rufus, his funny bark makes me laugh; I love when Ginny snuggles up to me at night and purrs; I was happiest riding Jake on the beach.”

Dr McAlpine trained in palliative care in May 2017 after he saw a huge gap in paediatric care.

“When it came to kids dying, it seemed we weren’t prepared for what to do. The best part of my job now is that I get to meet these extraordinary children and families. I walk a special road with them,” he says.

“As horrible as it is when a child dies, one of the best rewards is a dignified and pain-free death. If I can make their lives slightly less bad, it’s worthwhile. That keeps me going.”

One person who was impressed with the paediatrician’s tweets, was Canadian obstetrician, Dr Jennifer Gunter, who has frequently written about Gwyneth Paltrow’s advice on the actress’s lifestyle website.

“I was pretty star-struck when I saw Jennifer’s comment. My partner will probably roll her eyes at me. I think she’s liked a grand total of two of my tweets.”

Some people online asked how the paediatrician copes with working with terminally ill children, while others just admired both the medical staff and the children:

After a child’s death, parents often continue a relationship with their child’s doctor, which Dr McAlpine says is a “huge compliment.”

From his online thread, the children also worry about their parents as one of his tweets read: “Hope mum will be OK; Dad mustn’t worry, he’ll see me again soon.”

All of the children loved ice cream and books. But many wished they had spent less time worrying about what others thought, and about losing their hair or how their scars looked.

It’s no surprise that kindness, laughter, toys and family were all very much valued by the children. As his threads unfolded and the comments poured in, Dr McAlpine left this take-home message: “Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with our family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them… and eat ice cream.”

Working in palliative care can be heart-wrenching, but Dr McAlpine says he works with some “lovely people” at Paedspal Cape Town – a programme providing care for terminally ill children.

“It’s an extraordinary team. We believe in a holistic approach to care.

“The negativity can get me down. But I glean inspiration from the parents of these children.”

source: BBC

Philippines gripped by dengue vaccine fears

Fears over a dengue vaccine in the Philippines have led to a big drop in immunisation rates for preventable diseases, officials have warned.

Health Under-Secretary Enrique Domingo said many parents were refusing to get their children vaccinated for polio, chicken pox and tetanus.

The fears centre on Dengvaxia, a drug developed by French company Sanofi.

Sanofi and local experts say there is no evidence linking the deaths of 14 children to the drug.

However, the company had warned last year that the vaccine could make the disease worse in some people not infected before.

Dengue fever affects more than 400 million people each year around the world. Dengvaxia is the world’s first vaccine against dengue.

The mosquito-borne disease is a leading cause of serious illness and death among children in some Asian and Latin American countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

What did Mr Domingo say about immunisation rates?

“Our programmes are suffering… (people) are scared of all vaccines now”, he warned.

Mr Domingo added that vaccination rates for some preventable diseases had dropped as much as 60% in recent years – significantly lower that the nationwide target of 85%.

Mr Domingo expressed concerns about potential epidemics in the Philippines – a nation of about 100 million people, many of whom are impoverished.

What triggered fears about Dengvaxia?

More than 800,000 children were vaccinated across the country in 2016-17. Fourteen of them have died.

Dengvaxia immunisations were halted last year, as the Philippines launched an investigation into what caused the deaths.

On Saturday, Doctors for Public Welfare (DPW) said a clinical review conducted by Philippine General Hospital forensic pathologists had determined that the deaths were not linked to the vaccine, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

What about Sanofi’s reaction?

In a statement, the French company said: “The University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital expert panel confirmed… that there is currently no evidence directly linking the Dengvaxia vaccine to any of the 14 deaths.

“In Dengvaxia clinical trials conducted over more than a decade and the over one million doses of the vaccine administered, no deaths related to the vaccine have been reported to us.

“Clinical evidence confirms dengue vaccination in the Philippines will provide a net reduction in dengue disease.”

Last November, Sanofi announced that its vaccine could worsen the potentially deadly disease in people not previously infected.

“For those not previously infected by dengue virus, however, the analysis found that in the longer term, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination upon a subsequent dengue infection,” the firm said in a statement.

Sanofi says Dengvaxia has been registered in 19 countries and launched in 11 of them.

In its latest advice on the vaccine, the WHO said that “until a full review has been conducted, WHO recommends vaccination only in individuals with a documented past dengue infection”.

Presentational grey line

Recent vaccine controversies:

  • ‘Anti-vax’ movement: activities in the past few years by fringe campaigners against immunisation – particularly for measles – lead to falling immunisation rates in France, Italy and the US
  • Polio: Islamist militants in Pakistan have carried out attacks against workers vaccinating children in recent years. The militants say immunisation is a Western campaign to sterilise Pakistani children
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella): starts with a publication of a 1998 paper falsely linking the vaccine to autism. This leads to a drop in immunisation rates in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

source: BBC

Space lasers to track Earth’s ice

With new space missions come new and improved capabilities. And for those interested in what’s happening to the ice on Planet Earth, we have two ventures this year that are going to make a major contribution to our understanding.

Ice is the “climate canary”. The loss, and the rate of that loss, tell us something about how global warming is progressing.

In the Arctic, the most visible sign is the decline of sea-ice, which, measured at its minimum extent over the ocean in September, is reducing by about 14% per decade.

At the other pole, the marine floes look much the same as they did in the earliest satellite imagery from the 1960s, but land ice is in a negative phase.

Something on the order of 160 billion tonnes are being lost annually, with most of that mass going from the west of the White Continent.

The two 2018 missions of interest that will pick up these trends and extend them into the future are Grace Follow-On and IceSat-2.

The former is the successor to the highly successful US-German gravity spacecraft that operated from 2002 to 2017.

Grace is actually a pair of satellites that pursue each other around the globe in formation with a separation of 220km.

They accelerate and decelerate in turn as they pass over variations in the local gravity field. It is a very small effect – a change in distance equivalent to the thickness of a human hair – but discernible to the microwave ranging instrumentation carried on the satellites.

Because the gravity variations are a function of changes in mass, the pair are able, literally, to weigh the ice sheets sitting below them on land as they pass overhead.

Its from the first Grace mission’s observations, for example, that we know Greenland is currently losing about 280 billion tonnes of ice to the ocean every year.

It’s a significant contribution to the 3.4mm per annum rise in global sea levels.

Grace Follow-On will work in the same way as its predecessor did, but it will also demonstrate a laser range-finder.

“It’s a first in space, and it allows us to do the ranging with much higher precision – a factor of 10 to 20 times better,” says US space agency (Nasa) deputy project scientist Felix Landerer. “So, we go from that human hair thickness down to the scale of large viruses.”

Stop and think about that for a second – measuring the distance between London and Sheffield to the accuracy of the width of a large virus.

This impressive German laser technology will form the basis of the orbiting instruments that will eventually be used to detect the cataclysmic collisions of the biggest black holes in the cosmos. Stay tuned. That mission to sense gravitational waves – it’s called Lisa – will launch in the 2030s.

Back here on Earth, the other ice project this year also involves a laser. IceSat-2 will fire six green beams of light at the Arctic floes and land ice-sheets to measure their shape.

Simple but effective: the satellite times the return of the reflected beams and converts that into a range, which in turn is converted into an elevation.

Again, the new satellite is a successor. The previous effort in the 2000s, known as IceSat-1, showed remarkable promise as an ice-sensing tool. However, its mission was blighted by fragile diode technology, and it could only use its laser for a handful of months a year.

“IceSat-2 is a micro-pulse laser,” says Nasa project scientist Thorsten Markus. “The strength of the laser pulses is much, much smaller than it was on IceSat-1, and we also have a very high pulse repetition frequency of 10kHz. Basically, the laser is always on, which makes it much less stressful on the diodes.

“We’ve had some diodes running [in test form] for seven, eight years now. So, conceptually, one laser should last a whole mission of seven years and we have two lasers onboard,” he told BBC News.

The hope is IceSat-2 will be up and operating before Europe’s ageing CryoSat mission dies.

CryoSat has been pursing very similar objectives, except its “tape measure” is a radar altimeter.

A period of overlap would allow for an inter-comparison. This is not wholly straightforward. The laser on IceSat and the radar on CryoSat don’t range to exactly the same surface.

In the former’s case, the light beams are reflected off the very top of any snow covering the ice. In the latter’s case, the radar can penetrate the snowpack for many tens of centimetres, depending on conditions, before scattering back to the spacecraft.

Scientists have to use modelled assumptions based on the regional climatology to account for any bias.

“It’s an important consideration,” says CryoSat scientist Anna Hogg from Leeds University, UK.

“If you get an extreme melt year, you can actually get a new ice layer forming in the snowpack as water trickles down from the surface and refreezes. That’s what happened during 2012 when the whole of Greenland experienced melt.

“Afterwards, CryoSat saw a step change in elevation equivalent to a 0.5m increase just because the scattering horizon had risen. It made it look like Greenland had grown ice, whereas in reality it had very probably lost mass.”

Dr Hogg has just returned from Antarctica where she has been drilling cores to try to understand better the layering in the snowpack and its influence on the radar’s return signal.

She did this as CryoSat flew overhead, in addition to an aeroplane equipped with two types of radar ranging instrument. One used the same radio frequency (Ku-band) as Cryosat; the other used a higher frequency (Ka-band) which should scatter a lot closer to the actual surface of the snowpack.

The thinking in Europe is that if CryoSat has a follow-on, it should be dual, Ku-Ka band to try to get a more direct measure of the amount of snow lying on top of the ice. This would be particularly important for sensing sea-ice thickness.

In the Arctic, CryoSat does this by measuring the height (the freeboard) of the floating ice sticking just above the ocean water and then calculating the corresponding submerged (the draft) ice. It is roughly 1/9th above and 8/9ths below.

“That becomes problematic in the Antarctic where the snow can be so heavy that it compresses the ice to the point that it’s sitting at the water-line; in other words, there is no ice freeboard,” explains Leeds colleague Rachel Tilling.

While Dr Hogg was examining snow-layering conditions on land in recent weeks, Dr Tilling was doing the same with the marine floes surrounding Antarctica.

She’s hopeful that the data gathered as she cruised across the Weddell Sea will lead to some of the first robust satellite sea-ice thickness maps for the region. And, certainly, this effort should be greatly assisted in the short-term if IceSat and the existing CryoSat can also run alongside each other for a good period of time. That’s because the differences in how each senses the surface would lead to a much improved description of snow loading, too.

“It’s a new opportunity that we haven’t had before and can only mean we will get more accurate sea-ice thickness measurements. That’s exciting,” Dr Tilling told BBC News.

  • Cryosat’s radar has the resolution to see the Arctic’s floes and leads
  • Some 8/9ths of the ice tends to sit below the waterline – the draft
  • The radar senses the height of the freeboard – the ice above the waterline
  • Knowing this 1/9th figure allows Cryosat to work out sea-ice thickness
  • The thickness multiplied by the area of ice cover produces a volume
  • IceSat-2 will do exactly the same as Cryosat but with a laser instrument

source: bbc

Design call for ‘solar sentinel’ mission

UK scientists and engineers will play a leading role in developing a satellite that can warn if Earth is about to be hit by damaging solar storms.

The European Space Agency has requested studies be undertaken to design the mission that would launch in the 2020s.

Explosive eruptions from the Sun can lead to widespread disruption on our planet – degrading communications, even knocking over power grids.

The satellite’s observations would increase the time available to prepare.

Esa has a working name for the new mission – “Lagrange”, which reflects the position the satellite would take up in space.

The plan is to go to a gravitational “sweetspot” just behind the Earth in its orbit around the Sun known as “Lagrangian Point 5”.

Spacecraft that are sited there do not have to use so much fuel to maintain station – but there is an even bigger operational rationale to use this location: it is the perfect spot to see that part of the Sun which is about to rotate into view of the Earth.

“So, not only do you get a preview of the active regions and how complicated they are, but if the Sun throws something out you also get to track it from the side,” explained British solar physicist Prof Richard Harrison.

“Imagine a fist coming directly at your face – it’s difficult to say how far away it is; but if you see that fist from the side, it’s much easier,” he told BBC News.

Esa signed four so-called Phase AB1 contracts on Friday at its mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

These include two parallel industrial studies – to be led by Airbus UK and OHB System of Germany – to spec the spacecraft bus, or chassis, and the process for integrating all the satellite’s instruments.

The aerospace companies will also work out how the entire mission would be managed, from launch to the end of service life.

The actual design of the onboard instruments is the subject of the other two contracts. Both of these will be directed by British-led consortia.

RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) Space will assess the requirements of the mission’s “remote sensing package” – that is, the instruments that discern what the Sun is doing by looking at it.

The UK’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) will scope the “in-situ package” – those instruments that investigate the Sun’s activity by directly sensing emitted particles and magnetic fields.

Although led from Britain, these efforts will of course draw on talents from across European member states.

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The different Lagrangian Points

  • These are the sweetspots in the Sun-Earth-Moon system
  • They are places where gravitational forces balance out
  • Satellites at these locations use less fuel to maintain station
  • L5 is at a 60-degree offset, and follows Earth in its orbit
  • A complementary US mission would very likely go to L1
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Solar storms are a common occurrence. Our star will sometimes despatch big bursts of shortwave and longwave radiation, superfast particles and colossal volumes of charged gas (plasma) in our direction. This material is also threaded with strong magnetic fields.

When these emissions encounter Earth, they can kick-off a number of effects in modern infrastructure, from glitching electronics in aircraft avionics and in orbiting spacecraft to increasing the interference heard on radio broadcasts, such as those from the BBC.

Numerous studies have warned of the possible consequences of a major solar storm impacting Earth.

Just last year, a government report said the UK economy would lose £1bn for every day the GPS satellite-navigation service was unavailable.

“What we need is a ‘solar sentinel’, watching the Sun to tell us what is going to happen in advance,” said Dr Ralph Cordey from Airbus UK.

“This is an area where the UK’s expertise is well established. It’s also the case that the impacts of ‘space weather’ are regarded as a priority in the UK with the issue recognised in the register of civil hazards, along with pandemic flu, severe flooding and volcanic eruptions.”

The Lagrange mission concept is being overseen by the Space Situational Awareness programme at Esa to which the UK committed €22m, over 4 years, at the last gathering of Europe’s space ministers in December 2016.

When the ministers next meet, in December 2019, they will have the results of the new studies and should hopefully be in a position then to sanction the mission’s full development.

One key instrument that will have to be carried is a coronagraph.

This is a device that blocks the full glare of the Sun’s disc so that the beginnings of an eruption are more easily seen.

At the moment, space weather forecasters are relying on a coronagraph on a 20-year-old spacecraft called Soho.

“A coronagraph gives us the first warning that something really is happening,” said Prof Harrison, who is the chief scientist at RAL Space.

“A coronal mass ejection is a million times weaker in intensity than the Sun itself. It’s a contrast problem: if you didn’t block off the Sun, you wouldn’t see it.”

It is likely the Americans will launch a similar mission in the coming years that will sit directly in front of Earth in line with the Sun. Taking the two perspectives together will give solar storm forecasters the best assessment of potential impacts.

source: BBC

Are we stuck with plastic drinking straws?

One of the world’s leading makers of single-use plastic drinking straws has told Radio 5 Live that the development of more environmentally friendly alternatives is “stuck”.

John Sidanta, chief executive of Primaplast, said he was aware of rising global concern over levels of plastic pollution in oceans and landfills.

But he said affordable alternatives had yet to be developed.

At the moment, greener straws cost a hundred times more, he said.

Primaplast manufactures up to 600 million polypropylene plastic straws a month from its base in Tangerang, Indonesia, for markets in Europe and Japan, where they are sold alongside cartons of juice, milkshakes and yoghurt drinks.

Despite a useful life of just minutes, traditional plastic straws cannot degrade once disposed of and Mr Sidanta acknowledges their days are probably numbered.

Some firms are already beginning to curb their use.

The pub chain JD Wetherspoon and Pizza Express have announced plans to phase them out completely, while other firms, such as All Bar One, say they plan to substantially reduce the availability of plastic straws in their branches.

Cornwall may become the first county to ban them from bars and restaurants after a campaign by the group Final Straw Cornwall.

The market for multi-use designer straws made of bamboo, metal or glass, that can retail for several pounds each is growing.

But paper alternatives have had a mixed response as they tend to go soggy easily, making them harder to use – particularly for children.

Straws can also be made from potato or corn paste, but Mr Sidarta said it has been expensive to develop products from those materials.

“To be as close as possible to plastic materials, this is not an easy job.”

Mr Sidarta points that carton drinks can last up to 18 months, but straws made from alternative materials that could last that long would cost Primaplast up to a hundred times more to manufacture.


Mr Sidanta adds that polypropylene straws are in fact “definitely recyclable”, and in Japan are often reused in other forms of packaging, plastic tiles and even for types of stationary.

In other markets this often isn’t done as the lightweight nature of these straws mean that, like banknotes, a huge volume is needed before recycling becomes cost effective.

He believes governments worldwide must decide on clear legislation for the global use of plastic materials in food and drinks and other consumer goods and warns a boycott won’t work.

“We have to be rational… it’s not reasonable enough to say ‘stop using the products’ without a solution,” he said.

“This is not just about straws… for mainstream restaurants and food outlets, this is all single-use disposable products.

“We have been looking for the past fifteen years at replacing… polypropylene. We found the materials but the pricing isn’t good enough. It’s a stuck situation. There is no reasonable substitution by far.”

source: BBC