SpaceX launches secretive Zuma spacecraft

SpaceX kicked off the new year with a mystery-shrouded mission to deliver a government spacecraft, called Zuma, into orbit.

After more than a month of delays, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket vaulted toward the skies at 8 p.m. ET Sunday with the secretive payload. It launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The space exploration firm, which is headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, initially scheduled the Zuma mission last November.

SpaceX gave a couple reasons for the schedule changes. At one point, SpaceX said it delayed the mission for “fairing testing.” The fairing is the very top portion of the rocket that houses the payload. “Extreme weather” also slowed down the company’s launch preparations.

Last week, SpaceX finally declared that both the rocket and the payload were “healthy” and ready for launch.

On Sunday, Zuma was delivered to low-Earth orbit, which is typically defined as any orbital path less than about 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface, according to NASA. Zuma’s precise destination was not disclosed.

That was not the only thing kept secret about Zuma.

The spacecraft was built for the U.S. government, and it’s not unusual for the government to keep information about sensitive payloads under wraps. Typically these payloads involve a military concern, such as national security, defense or surveillance.

When asked about the project in November, Northrop Grumman — the Virginia-based aerospace and defense company that built the Zuma spacecraft — declined to give any details about the spacecraft or reveal which arm of the government funded it.

“The U.S. Government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” the company said in a statement. “Northrop Grumman realizes this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma.”

The company declined further comment Sunday.

Because of Zuma’s secrecy, SpaceX didn’t live stream the entire mission. But there was still plenty for SpaceX to show off after launch.

The company executed its signature move: guiding the first-stage rocket booster back to Earth for a safe landing.

Just over two minutes after liftoff Sunday, the first-stage booster separated from the second stage and fired up its engines. The blaze allowed the rocket to safely cut back through the Earth’s atmosphere and land on a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX lands boosters so they can be reused in future missions. It’s meant to help make spaceflight cheaper.

The Zuma launch kicked off what SpaceX hopes will be an exciting year.

The company completed a record-setting 18 launches last year, and SpaceX plans to do even more this year, according to spokesman James Gleeson.

Later this month, the company plans to debut its latest invention: the Falcon Heavy. The monstrous rocket will have three times the thrust of the Falcon 9.

An exact date for the inaugural launch has not been set, but Musk wrote on Instagram last week that SpaceX is looking to do it before the end of the month.

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What’s on center stage at the CES tech show? Your voice

What’s the hottest thing in the world of technology these days? Your voice.

Some of the most popular gadgets over the holiday season were smart speakers with digital assistants from Amazon and Google . Apple is coming out with its own speaker this year; Microsoft and Samsung have partnered on another.

As the annual CES gadget show kicks off in Las Vegas this week, manufacturers are expected to unveil even more voice-controlled devices – speakers and beyond – as Amazon and Google make their digital assistants available on a wider array of products. If these prove popular, you’ll soon be able to order around much more of your house, including kitchen appliances, washing machines and other devices.

CES is expected to draw more than 170,000 people, as some 4,000 exhibitors showcase their wares over the equivalent of nearly 50 football fields, or more than 11 New York city blocks. The show formally opens Tuesday, with media previews starting Sunday.

While major tech companies such as Apple and Google typically don’t make big announcements at CES, their technologies will be powering products and services from startups and other small companies. Expect more gadgets using Google’s Android operating software and Google’s digital assistant, for instance, and products that work with Apple’s HomeKit, a smart-home system getting a boost with the coming launch of Apple’s HomePod smart speaker.

Here’s what else to expect at CES.

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Computers that learn your preferences and anticipate your needs are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Consumers are seeing practical applications in voice-assisted speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. These systems will get more useful as manufacturers design new ways to control their products with voice commands.

You might also see hints of where AI is heading. Steve Koenig, senior director of market research at CES organizer Consumer Technology Association, says that as more people use these AI systems, companies have more data to better train the machines.

Auto makers will also demonstrate self-driving vehicles propelled by AI. CES is increasing the space for self-driving technologies by more than a third this year. Startups are expected to unveil earphones that promise real-time translations of conversations in different languages, much as Google’s Pixel Buds now do, but only for Google’s Pixel phones. There are also conference sessions devoted to high-tech retailing, including the importance of collecting and analyzing data on customers.

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SMART EVERYTHING

Cars, lights, washing machines and other everyday items are getting internet connections. That could mean checking what’s left in your fridge from the grocery store, for instance. Expect more appliances and tasks for them to do online.

As more devices get connected, there’s greater concern for security. We’ll likely see more products and services designed to protect these smart-home devices from hacking.

Beyond that, companies will showcase the potential of smartening up entire cities so that maintenance crews can remotely detect roads needing repairs, and motorists can view and reserve parking spaces ahead of time. Better yet, how about traffic lights that aren’t set with timers, but reflect actual traffic and pedestrian flows?

For the first time, CES has an area devoted to smart cities, with more than 40 companies set to exhibit. The smart-cities concept has been making the rounds at several tech shows, but what remains unanswered is when it will actually begin happening – and who will pay for it.

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CONSUMER GADGETS

CES is typically when Samsung, LG and other manufacturers announce their TV lineups for the year. In a bid to get consumers to upgrade sooner, higher-end models will come with fancy technologies going by such names as “4K,” ”HDR” and “OLED.” Many sets will come with voice controls. They will sit alongside basic sets that work just fine for regular viewing.

Don’t expect new iPhones or flagship Galaxy models. Apple and Samsung typically announce those at their own events. But CES is the place for less-known and lower-cost Android phones, along with tablets, laptops and other personal computers, not to mention storage drives and other accessories.

There will also be virtual-reality and augmented-reality technologies, some aimed at sports fans who want to feel they’re more part of the game.

And while a few companies like Apple and Fitbit are currently dominant in wearable devices, many startups are eager to challenge them with new approaches for tracking fitness and medical issues.

There should also be no shortage of flying drones overhead and scurrying robots underfoot. There will even be a robot that folds your laundry – though at a snail’s pace of one shirt every two minutes.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

Although CES is about consumer electronics, consumers will never see many of the technologies on display. Network-equipment makers, for instance, might use the show to display technologies for next-generation 5G wireless networks, which promise to be much faster than the existing 4G LTE. Phones that can take advantage of 5G won’t be around for a few more years.

Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Technology Association, said that given the changing nature of technology, about a third of CES is now about back-end business deals rather than direct-to-consumer products.

“Twenty years ago, people bought products sold at retail stores in very defined categories,” he said. “Now every company and business defines itself as a tech company.”

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11,500-year-old infant remains reveal ancient population

The skeletons of two ancient infants, who lived and died in Alaska 11,500 years ago, are helping tell the story of a previously unknown population called the Ancient Beringians, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. This is the first genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to the same population that migrated using a land bridge.

Both infants found in the burial pit at Upward Sun River, in the Tanana River valley in central Alaska, were female. The local indigenous community gave them the symbolic names Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gaay (sunrise child-girl) and Yełkaanenh t’eede gaay (dawn twilight child-girl).

The first child was between 6 and 12 weeks old when she died, and the other was premature, not having had the chance to live, at 30 weeks of development. DNA suggests that they were related, like first cousins.

Researchers were able to sequence the genome of sunrise child-girl, referred to in the study as USR1, using her DNA. She was revealed to be closely related to Native Americans, but in a distinct way.

USR1’s DNA led the researchers to determine that they had found a previously unknown genetic population of Native Americans, which they dubbed Ancient Beringians, that represent the oldest known genetic lineage of Native Americans to date, according to Eske Willerslev, study co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“It changes our understanding of the timing of events that formed the genetics of Native Americans,” Willerslev wrote in an email.

Beringia was the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. It has long been thought that the peopling of the Americas happened when a group migrated from East Asia 34,000 years ago, using the land bridge, to form the first population of ancestral Native Americans.

But when, and how, had been unresolved. Any evidence that there was a single founding population for the Americas was indirect.

“There are limited ancient human remains in the Americas, and only very few have undergone genomic analysis,” Ben Potter, study co-author and department of anthropology chair and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote in an email. “This represents the first genetic data from the last Ice Age in Beringia. Prior to this study, we did not know that this Ancient Beringian population existed. We had evidence of the other branch leading to North and South Native Americans, and indirect evidence for a single founding population. So our findings show that the early history of ancestral Native Americans is more complex than previously known.”

The new data allow the researchers to test and develop models for when and where population splits occurred.

Willerslev explains it like this: About 34,000 years ago, a population began separating from the Asians, but genetic exchanges continued until 25,000 years ago — which may suggest that by then, they were in Alaska. The new data put that shift at 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

About 25,000 years ago is also when this group met another population of people who were more related to modern Europeans than to Asians. This is how the Ancient Beringians came to be.

“By 20,000 years ago, contemporary Native American ancestors diversify from the Ancient Beringians, likely moving south of the North American ice caps and forming the two major Native American lineages all contemporary Native Americans as we know of belong to: the northern and southern branches,” Willerslev said. “The northern branch moves north into Alaska and replace or absorb the Ancient Beringians sometimes after 11,500 years ago. After that time some of the northern branch members meet some Siberians and mix with them.”

Researchers are still testing scenarios for where the split occurred between Ancient Beringians and other Native Americans who populated the Americas, whether it was in Asia or East Beringia/Alaska.

Potter has directed research at the Upward Sun River since 2006, where researchers are investigating who lived at the site and when, including burials and a residential camp. The ancient people who lived at the site are associated with the Denali complex of culture in Alaska, meaning they lived in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia from at least 12,500 to 6,000 years ago, Potter said.

Based on what they’ve learned at the site, these people, including the Ancient Beringians, hunted bison, elk, hare, squirrels and birds. There is also the earliest evidence of “salmon exploitation” in the Americas. Even though they lived through climate and vegetation changes over 6,000 years, they adapted their strategy from using organized hunting parties, processing the game they caught and delivering it to centrally located base camps, like the Upward Sun River site.

But what happened to the Ancient Beringians?

“We don’t know,” Potter said. “We are limited by very few genetic samples of ancient North American populations, and we would need samples from peoples in the region to ascertain to what extent Ancient Beringian gene-flow occurred with neighboring peoples. It is possible that incoming Athabaskan ancestors, who are widespread throughout the region today, replaced or absorbed the Ancient Beringians inhabiting that area.”

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How to protect devices from Spectre and Meltdown chip flaws

Companies like Apple and Microsoft are rolling out fixes to protect against Spectre and Meltdown, two major flaws found in most computer chips that affect processors.

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to take action to protect your devices.

Researchers recently discovered these issues and unveiled the two-decade old flaws on Wednesday. The flaws affect modern processors including Intel, AMD and ARM that use “speculative execution” to enhance performance. Fixing the problems may slow a computer’s performance, experts say, especially on devices more than five years old.

Considering the issues affect virtually all processors, your computer and smartphone are likely impacted.

Some companies knew about the flaws ahead of the public release and got fixes ready, but they aren’t all available yet.

For now, there’s only one thing you can do: Update your devices and browser software when the updates are made available.

The good news is researchers and companies said there is no evidence of these flaws being exploited in the wild. However, it would be difficult to determine if a computer has been exploited because there doesn’t appear to be records saved in computer log files. It’s also not clear how easy it would be to exploit these flaws.

The vulnerabilities could allow a hacker to steal your passwords and other sensitive information.

Apple

Fixes: Available for iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple TV. Coming for Safari.

Apple said late Thursday all its Mac and iOS devices are affected by Spectre and Meltdown. The company already released mitigations against Meltdown in its most recent versions of iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV software. It is working on updates for Safari to protect users against Spectre and expects to release them “in the coming days.”

Check “Settings” on your iPhone and iPad and “Updates” in the Mac App Store to make sure your devices are up-to-date.

The Apple Watch is not affected by Meltdown or Spectre.

Google

Fixes: Released for Android, Google Cloud, and pending for Chrome.

Google provides a helpful list of its products and services affected by the chip bugs, as well as their mitigation status.

Android software released this week includes mitigations. People with Google-supported Android phones including Nexus and Pixel devices will get that update, but others will have to wait for security updates from their manufacturers. Google released those changes to its Android partners last month.

The next Chrome browser update to be released on January 23 will contain fixes. A fix was included in Chrome OS 63 in December, so up-to-date Chromebooks received protection. However, Google has a list of computers that won’t receive the update because they are older models.

Microsoft

Fixes: Released on Windows, servers, cloud, and Edge and Internet Explorer browsers.

Microsoft also provides guidance for consumers on its website.

The company already released updates for Windows 10, Windows 8.1, and Windows 7 operating systems. If you don’t have automatic updates turned on, go to Windows Settings to manually update.

However, you need to make sure your antivirus provider is compatible with the update. As tech website Cyberscoop reports, some computer security companies are scrambling to reconfigure their software so it works with Microsoft’s update.

PCs also require additional hardware protection, so companies will be issuing firmware updates. Microsoft said users should check with their computer manufacturers for more information.

The latest versions of Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer include fixes for the bugs.

Firefox

The most recent version of Firefox contains a fix for these flaws.

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Apple says all Macs and iOS devices affected by chip flaws

Apple has confirmed all its Mac systems and iOS devices are affected by two recently disclosed processor flaws called Spectre and Meltdown.

In an announcement on Thursday, Apple said it has released mitigations to defend against Meltdown in iOS 11.2, macOS 10.13.2, and tvOS 11.2. It will release mitigations in Safari to defend against the Spectre bug “in the coming days,” the release said.

“There are no known exploits impacting customers at this time,” Apple said, echoing what other companies and security researchers have said.

Apple Watch isn’t impacted by the Meltdown flaw.

Researchers announced the two flaws affecting virtually all computer processors on Wednesday.

Here’s the issue: Modern processors are designed to perform something called “speculative execution” to enhance performance. Data is supposed to be protected and isolated, but researchers discovered that in some cases, the information can be exposed while the processor queues it up.

Researchers said almost every computing system — desktops, laptops, smartphones, and cloud servers — is affected by the Spectre bug. Meltdown appears to be specific to Intel chips.

Apple users should make sure their computers, iOS devices, and all apps they use are kept up to date to protect themselves against hackers exploiting the flaws.

“Since exploiting many of these issues requires a malicious app to be loaded on your Mac or iOS device, we recommend downloading software only from trusted sources such as the App Store,” the company said.

That is good advice regardless of whether or not your phone has a flaw in the processor.

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