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Did Russia just launch a secret space weapon into orbit?

Russia has launched several so-called "inspector satellites" that could potentially be weaponized.

Pixabay
  • U.S. intelligence recorded a Russian rocket deploying a mysterious object during a recent mission.
  • It's possibly an inspector satellite, a spacecraft designed to repair, monitor and, potentially, destroy other satellites.
  • Weaponized satellites would likely be used in the early stages of a large-scale conflict, U.S. intelligence reports.

On November 30, a rocket launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Western Russia and delivered three Rodnik communications satellites into orbit. The U.S. military's Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) knew about the launch in advance and was keeping a close eye on the mission, expecting to see four new orbital objects: three satellites and the upper stage of the vehicle.

Strangely, the CSpOC saw five objects leave the rocket. It's possible the mystery object resulted from the upper stage breaking into two pieces, both of which were large enough for the military to track. But it's also possible the object is a so-called inspector satellite.

Inspector satellites are sophisticated spacecraft capable of maneuvering close to other space objects for, as the name suggests, inspecting. These satellites could also potentially be used to refuel spacecraft, track space missions and repair other satellites. However, they could also be weaponized to spy on other countries, disrupt communications systems from space, or even destroy other satellites.

Russia has already launched several of these satellites, prompting concerns from other countries. In September, French Defense Minister Florence Parly accused Russia of sending its Louch-Olym orbiter to spy on the French-Italian military satellite Athena-Fidus.

"Trying to listen to one's neighbor is not only unfriendly. It's called an act of espionage," Parly said. "It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications."

In August, U.S. officials expressed concern after a satellite launched by Russia in October 2017 was exhibiting "very abnormal behavior."

"...Its behavior on orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational-awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection-satellite activities,"' U.S. Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Yleem D.S. Poblete, told the United Nations.

Russia has called such accusations slanderous, insisting its satellites aren't designed for offensive purposes. Alarmingly, however, that's nearly impossible to verify with current technology.

"We don't know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it," Poblete said.

Inspector satellites in wartime

The U.S., China and Russia are all reportedly pursuing anti-satellite weaponry, and U.S. intelligence estimates that the superpowers will have "initial operational capability in the next few years." These weapons would likely be used in the early stages of a future conflict to disrupt the enemy's ability to coordinate and execute attacks, as the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community warned in February.

"We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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