SpaceX Gets Some Answers, the DoT Talks Automation, and the 2016 Ig Nobel Prizes Are Awarded | Vol. 3 / No. 48

Photo: USLaunchReport

Preliminary Answers for SpaceX

The first glimpses of answers were seen this week as the investigation continues into the rapid unplanned disassembly of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket back on September 1. On September 23, the company posted an “anomaly” update with the latest progress on the investigation by the Accident Investigation Team, which is composed of scientists and engineers from NASA, the FAA, SpaceX itself, and more. So far it seems as though the explosion began with a “large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank,” the precise cause of which is still being determined. Despite the explosion being in roughly the same part of the rocket as that which destroyed the CRS-7 mission last year, the AIT has ruled out “any connection” with the strut failure which caused that incident. Meanwhile repair work on the launch pad (LC-40) continues, and while the damage was pretty bad, it actually isn’t as bad as had been feared, with a fairly strong wind keeping the flames from many of the pad’s structures. The company is still targeting a “November timeframe” for return to flight (RTF), “pending the results of the investigation.” For more, you can read SpaceX’s status update, as well as some great analysis over at SpaceFlight Now.

In related news, Elon Musk’s “Mars Architecture Announcement” is scheduled for Tuesday at 2:30pm Eastern, which you can watch live at


A Ford Fusion equipped with Uber's self-driving system | Photo: Uber
A Ford Fusion equipped with Uber’s self-driving system | Photo: Uber

Federal Automated Vehicles Policy

This week the US Department of Transportation issued a set of guidelines seemingly aimed at getting “automated vehicles” (self-driving cars, trucks, etc.) on the road as soon as possible. The “why” is, of course rather understandable — something like 94%-95% of automobile crashes in the United States are the result of human error, and as of 2015 they still kill more people than guns (though keep it up, gun lobby, you’re getting close!). As if to hammer the point home yesterday, a human running a red light just handed one of Google’s self-driving cars a blow it won’t likely recover from. The DoT’s guidelines let manufacturers know how they’re going to determine if a self-driving vehicle is considered “safe,” what will be required of state and federal governments, the way it’ll use the National Highway Transportation Safety Act (NHTSA) to regulate self-driving vehicles, and what kind of new regulations they think they’ll need to ensure a safe transition away from cars piloted by easily-distracted bipedal primates. In short, it’s a kind of state-of-the-field to open communications between the people who regulate the roads and the people making the things that go on the roads, so everyone can stay up to date. It’s a forward-thinking move, and an important one given that the first-generation of self-driving cars is already on the road. You can read a great explainer over at Vox, or the guidelines themselves over at the DoT.


The thinker off his perch | Image: The Annals of Improbably Research
The thinker off his perch | Image: The Annals of Improbably Research

Ig Nobel Winners

Every year, the Annals of Impossible Research hands out awards for new research that “makes people laugh and then think,” and this year was no different. On Thursday, September 22, the 2016 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded to an amusing and sometimes provocative collection of studies. In the field of economics, the prize went to three researchers from New Zealand, “for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective.” While it sounds ridiculous, like all Ig Nobel winners, there’s a very serious point: “brand personality” is an often-lauded way of assigning personality traits to corporate branding, but the researchers suspected that the methodology of a prominent BP scale “‘creates’ the BP that it measures.” So they took pictures of rocks “as they do not have any obvious commonalities with brands, or have antecedents to BP formation,” and found that each rock photo still had “a distinct BP and that the personality is developed from sometimes surprisingly detailed personifications.” Basically, they used a little absurdity to call into question the methodology by which personalities are assigned to brands, and suggested that the personality was not something intrinsic to the brand, but rather the scale. Other winners included the psychology prize awarded for “asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers,” and the rather tongue-in-cheek awarding of the chemistry prize to Volkswagen, “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.” You can read the whole list over at the Annals of Improbable Research.


In case you missed it, here’s what else we got up to this week!

If you missed any of them, go take a look!


Best of the Rest

And of course there’s always more to see than we can get to here at This Week In Tomorrow with our actual day jobs and the like, so here’s the things we would’ve expanded on more if we could do this full time!


And for all you Monty Python fans out there who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a strangely-compelling rendition of the Argument Sketch, performed by two old-school speech synths. It’s like the Dalek Flying Circus.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an 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.