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Elon Musk's SpaceX approved to launch 7,518 Starlink satellites into orbit

SpaceX plans to launch about 12,000 internet-providing satellites into orbit over the next six years.

  • SpaceX plans to launch 1,600 satellites over the next few years, and to complete its full network over the next six.
  • Blanketing the globe with wireless internet-providing satellites could have big implications for financial institutions and people in rural areas.
  • Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit.

The Federal Communications Commissions has approved the last key request of SpaceX's plan to provide the globe with wireless internet beamed from thousands of satellites, a project known as Starlink.

On Thursday, the FCC said the private aerospace company can launch an additional 7,518 satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of approved satellites to about 12,000. The commission first approved the launch of 4,400 Starlink satellites in March following the company's successful deployment of two test satellites. SpaceX plans to launch the first 1,600 satellites within the next few years, and to launch a full network of internet-providing satellites over the next six.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the goal is to create a new kind of global communications system.

"This is quite an ambitious effort," Musk said in 2016. "We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space."

Low Earth orbit

Internet-providing satellites have been around for years, as I wrote in an article on the Starlink project from April. However, they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. This is mainly because it takes a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the host. SpaceX plans to solve this problem by launching satellites into low Earth orbit–just hundreds of miles up, in order to reduce the "latency," or time it takes for the signal to travel.

However, the problem with this low-orbit solution is that it reduces the amount of surface area to which each satellite is able to provide service. That means SpaceX will need lots of satellites if it wants to cover the globe with wireless service. To accomplish this, SpaceX plans to launch about one-third of its 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, about 680 miles above ground, and the remainder into very-low Earth orbit, about 210 miles up. The satellites would communicate in a peer-to-peer system, using a combination of lasers and radio waves.

The implications of a faster connection

In addition to providing internet access to rural areas and other places where infrastructure is lacking, one institution stands to gain tremendously from the Starlink network: banks.

In the financial practice known as high-frequency trading, shaving mere microseconds off of latency can give traders an extraordinarily lucrative advantage in the market. Financial institutions would likely shell out billions for dedicated service, which would help SpaceX maintain its costly constellation of satellites.

The dangers of space debris

Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit, including NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The U.S. military already tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk flying around the planet at lethal speeds.

"My favorite example is an innocuous little screwdriver that slipped through an astronaut's grasp and has been circling low Earth orbit at up to 21,600 miles per hour for the last 35 years," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "At these speeds, even a common household item can wreak havoc."

On Thursday, the FCC published a proposal designed to limit the amount of space debris brought into orbit by the satellite industry. The commission also signed off on plans for three other companies to launch internet-providing satellites into orbit: Kepler, Telesat and Leosat, all of which are competing with SpaceX to build the world's dominant satellite internet network.

Why space junk is more lethal than a bullet

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

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