Tabby’s Star, SpaceX’s Calendar, and Two Security Nightmares At Once | Vol. 5 / No. 11

This week we’ve got the news on that “alien megastructures” star, SpaceX’s first launches of 2018, and those major security flaws affecting the majority of the world’s computer chips you’ve been hearing about. It’s the science and technology news roundup for Sunday, January 7, 2018!

Tabby’s Star Still Not Aliens

The alien megastructure hopefuls among us will have to start looking for a new star to dream about, after new data released this week pretty much eliminate the idea that there are alien megastructures around “Tabby’s Star,” KIC 8462852. If you don’t remember the story, basically a star was found that was dipping at strange periodicities by as much as 22%, and we couldn’t come up with a good reason why. But now it seems the answer, sad though it may be, is dust. Study of the dimming light showed that the blue wavelengths dimmed more than the red, meaning that whatever was blocking the light, it wasn’t opaque, and it had a preference for absorbing blue light. The only thing that really fits here is dust—and very fine dust at that. Particle size estimates are at the sub-micron size (human hairs are roughly 100 microns wide, if you were wondering), which means it’s not even going to be a swarm of interconnected, rice-grain-sized chunks of computronium in some kind of Dyson swarm hive-mind. It’s just dust. But for you lovers of mysteries, don’t worry, there are still tons of thing we don’t know, and even more that we don’t even know we don’t know. While we’re sussing those out, you can read more about the latest Tabby’s Star findings at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

Photo: SpaceX, CC0

SpaceX 2018

The first SpaceX launch of 2018 is scheduled for 8-10pm EST today, and consists of a Falcon 9 launch (and hopeful stage 1 return) from Cape Canaveral’s SLC 40. The payload is a classified one known only as ZUMA, provided by Northrop Grumman. Spooky stuff for the good old US of A military industrial complex, probably. Hopefully that’ll go well and they’ll get off to a good start—you can go here to watch live.

But what I’m really excited for is coming up near the end of the month, the first attempt at launch the three-core Falcon Heavy, which, if successful, will carry Elon Musk’s “midnight cherry” Tesla Roadster into an orbit around the sun about equal to Mars’s, where it will coast for the next billion years or so, one supposes. That is, if it doesn’t explode—and that’s got a pretty good chance of happening. Elon himself is on the record as saying “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage – I would consider even that a win, to be honest.” So it’ll be a show regardless of what happens. The hold-down test-fire should be next week.

 

Photo: Intel Free Press, CC BY-SA 2.0

Meltdown and Spectre

This week it was revealed that two similar attacks have been found that both exploit the same longstanding (and theoretically unknown) vulnerability in the vast majority of the computer chips we use today. The attacks, known as Meltdown and Spectre, both target a hardware process by which the processor “guesses” what you’ll do with it next so as to improve speed. Both allow any code running on your computer—no matter how big a wall you think you’ve put up around it—to get access to other code on your computer, which simply put is terrible. The reactions are complex, some patches have been released, and some are insisting that hardware replacement is the only real solution in the long run. Either way, it’s not a great week to have a computer. The only advice I can give you is this: keep up with updates on your computers, be they running Windows, OSX, or Linux. You can read more about the limitations of the fixes here, and about how the flaws work here.

 

That’s the top of the news for this week. Check back in next for more!

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, YA author, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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