Nasa’s Space Robotics Challenge Aims to Design Robots for Mars Journey

The US space agency has opened registration for a new competition – the Space Robotics Challenge – to develop the capabilities of humanoid robots to help astronauts on the journey to Mars.

Developed with with Space Center Houston and NineSigma, a global innovation consultant organization, the Space Robotics Challenge is a $1 million (roughly Rs. 6.6 crores) competition designed to push the boundaries of robotic dexterity.

Nasa's Space Robotics Challenge Aims to Design Robots for Mars Journey

Teams must programme a virtual robot, modeled after Nasa’s Robonaut 5 (R5) robot, to complete a series of tasks in a simulation that includes periods of latency to represent communications delay from Earth to Mars, Nasa said in a statement.

“Precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks,” said Monsi Roman, programme manager of Nasa’s Centennial Challenges.

Each team’s R5 will be challenged with resolving the aftermath of a dust storm that has damaged a Martian habitat.

This involves three objectives: aligning a communications dish, repairing a solar array and fixing a habitat leak.

Registration for the Space Robotics Challenge began from Wednesday with a qualifying round running from mid-September to mid-November.

Finalists of that round will be announced in December and will engage in open practice from January to early June 2017.

The final virtual competition will be held in June 2017, and winners will be announced at the end of June at Space Center Houston.

This technology could also benefit humankind on Earth as these robots could operate under dangerous or extreme environments on our home planet.

Cameras News Nokia Cuts Price of Ozo Virtual Reality Camera

Nokia has cut the price of its Ozo virtual reality camera by 25 percent from its initial launch price, the Finnish company said on Thursday.

Nokia, whose main business is now telecoms network equipment, started selling the camera earlier this year as the first device to be produced for its digital media business, one of its new hopes for future growth.

Nokia Cuts Price of Ozo Virtual Reality Camera

Having launched the device at $60,000 in the United States and Europe, Nokia has now priced it at $45,000, saying it was also taking the camera to the Chinese market next month.

The spherical camera features eight sensors and microphones and is designed for making 3D movies and games that can be watched and played with virtual reality headsets.

Nokia said the virtual reality market was developing quickly and the new price reflected that.

Last year, GoPro introduced a VR camera system using Google’s software, while several other technology companies such as Facebook and Samsung have also announced new products.

Nokia, known for its once-dominant phone business which it sold to Microsoft in 2014, is also bringing its name back to the handset market after a new company backed by its former executives teamed up with Foxconn to buy the rights to the brand.

Nasa to Launch First US Asteroid Sample Return Mission on September 8

Nasa, the US space agency is set to launch its first mission to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth on September 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

Nasa to Launch First US Asteroid Sample Return Mission on September 8

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study.

“The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu,” said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure,” Lauretta said.

The 2,110-kg fully-fuelled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins on September 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018.

After a careful survey of Bennu to characterise the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, OSIRIS-REx will collect between 60 to 2,000 grams of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023, the US space agency said.

Ex-Google Engineer Launches Blockchain-Based System for Banks

A former Google engineer, whose speech recognition software is used in more than a billion Android smartphones, has launched a company that uses blockchain technology to build a new operating system for banks.

Ex-Google Engineer Launches Blockchain-Based System for Banks

Paul Taylor, a Cambridge University academic with an expertise in artificial intelligence, speech synthesis and machine learning, started working on the system, called Vault OS, two years ago in a basement in London’s district, known for being a tech start-up hub.

Blockchain technology has captured the imagination of the financial industry, with advocates saying it has the potential to shake up how markets operate. The technology, which underpins the digital currency Bitcoin, creates a shared database in which participants can trace every transaction ever made.

The ledger is tamper-proof and transparent, meaning that transactions can be processed without the need for third-party verification.

“Most of the banks are using systems that were written in the 80s and 90s, and they just are not ready for the security-conscious internet app age at all,” Taylor told Reuters. “What the blockchain does is provide a very secure way of storing transactions.”

The system also negates the need for costly in-house data centres, as it uses cloud-based systems, which banks can use on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, which means that there is no single point of failure.

Taylor said major high-street banks were spending around a billion pounds ($1.3 billion) a year on computer technology, much of which he said was being used for propping up the current “legacy” systems rather than on any innovative technology.

Blockchain is still a nascent technology and is reckoned to still be five to ten years away from widespread adoption. Its reputation has suffered somewhat from its association with bitcoin, which has seen several company failures, including Tokyo-based exchange Mt. Gox filing for bankruptcy and leaving investors approximately $500 million in the red.

The startup has been working with about ten banks, Taylor said, at least one of which would be starting a trial using the new system in August. He expects the system to be up-and-running within about a year.

Three Astronauts Blast Off for ISS in Upgraded Soyuz Craft

Three astronauts blasted off into the early morning sky in an upgraded Soyuz spacecraft from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome Thursday, heading towards the International Space Station.

First-time astronauts Kathleen Rubins of Nasa and Takuya Onishi of the Japanese space agency set off for a four-month mission at the ISS with Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin at around 0136 GMT.

Three Astronauts Blast Off for ISS in Upgraded Soyuz Craft

“All is well on board!” said mission control in commentsrelayed by Nasa TV, which broadcast footage of the launch in Kazakhstan.

Footage also showed Ivanishin and Onishi giving each other fist bumps to celebrate the successful launch.

Features of the new Soyuz series include upgraded boosters, an improved navigation system, strengthened shielding from debris and more cells on the craft’s solar panels.

The trio’s launch was delayed by two weeks as Russian space officials carried out further software tests on the modified vehicle.

The craft’s journey to dock at the ISS will take two days – longer than the usual six-hour flight – to give ground control more time to monitor the tweaked system’s performance.

Nasa’s Kate Rubins will be the first woman aboard the ISS since Italian Samantha Cristoforetti returned to earth with the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman (199 days) in June last year.

The molecular biologist-turned astronaut will also become the first person to sequence DNA in space during her mission.

“Rocket is on the launchpad, crew is ready to go! #AstroKate” the Nasa Astronauts Twitter handle tweeted prior to her launch.

Rubins’ launch caps an exciting week for Nasa as the US space agency’s unmanned Juno spacecraft entered orbit around distant Jupiter Tuesday after a journey of nearly five years.

Onishi, who trained as a pilot on Japan’s largest commercial airliner, is the eleventh Japanese national to enter space.

His journey to the ISS, where he will participate in experiments connected to the Japanese space agency’s Kibo program, coincides with the Tanabata star festival celebrated across his homeland.

The last Japanese astronaut to spend time at the ISS, Kimiya Yui, returned to earth from the ISS in December alongside Nasa’s Kjell Lindgren and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.

Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin has already logged over 165 days in space following his first mission at the ISS in 2011 and 2012 and has a background as a military pilot.

Following docking at ISS, Rubins, Ivanishin and Onishi will join current ISS commander Jeff Williams of Nasa and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin.

The ISS space laboratory has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,400 miles per hour) since 1998.

Space travel has been one of the few areas of international cooperation between Russia and the West that has not been wrecked by geopolitical tensions over Ukraine.

Snapdeal Announces Changes to Simplify Seller Policies

E-commerce major Snapdeal has reduced the marketing fees for over 120 sub-categories, including for digital products, electronics, women’s fashion, FMCG products, as part of its policies to attract more sellers to its platform.

Snapdeal Announces Changes to Simplify Seller Policies

The changes have been incorporated on the basis of the feedback received from sellers and will be effective from this week, a company statement said.

However, the marketing fee for nearly 30 sub-categories has been increased marginally, it added.

While the reduction in fee ranges from 0.2-18 percent, the increase ranges from 0.5 to 5.5 percent, it said.

Snapdeal has also simplified policies for its self-serve platform which helps sellers resolve their queries easily. This is expected to enable the sellers avoid penalties due to ignorance or complexity.

To reduce the hassle of return of sold goods, or exchange, Snapdeal said it will bear the cost for reverse pickup and payment collection, while packaging and shipping will be borne by sellers.

“We believe reduction in marketing fees will foster growth for our sellers. We have worked closely with our sellers and based on their feedback. We have made these policy changes to make them in-line with e-commerce industry best practises,” Vishal Chadha, Senior Vice President, Market Development, Snapdeal, said.

The policy refresh is a part of Snapdeal’s initiatives to make the seller journey more transparent and frictionless.

Honor 8 With Dual 12-Megapixel Cameras

Huawei Terminal’s Honor brand, as promised, on Monday unveiled its new Honor 8 smartphone at an event in China. The new smartphone will be available in China starting July 19 and will come in three versions – CNY 1,999 (approximately Rs. 20,000) for the 3GB of RAM and 32GB of inbuilt storage model, CNY 2,299 (approximately Rs. 23,000) for the 4GB of RAM and 32GB storage model, and CNY 2,499 (approximately Rs. 25,000) for the 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage model. The Honor 8 is currently up for pre-orders in China. The Chinese company has so far not revealed availability plans for the Honor 8 outside China.

Honor 8 With Dual 12-Megapixel Cameras Launched

As rumoured for weeks, the biggest highlight of the Honor 8 is its dual-rear camera setup. It sports 12-megapixel dual-rear cameras with dual-tone LED flash and also features laser autofocus. There is an 8-megapixel front-facing camera on board as well. The smartphone sports a USB Type-C port and also supports fast charging. There is fingerprint scanner at the back of the handset. Another notable feature of the Honor 8 is its 7.45mm slim build and that it comes with a metal frame and a glass back.

The Honor 8 features a 5.2-inch full-HD (1080×1920 pixels) LTPS LCD display and comes with a pixel density of 423ppi. It is powered by an octa-core Kirin 950 processor clocked at 1.8GHz. The smartphone supports expandable storage via microSD card (up to 128GB). The Android 6.0 Marshmallow-based Honor 8 runs EMUI 4.1 on top. The smartphone features hybrid dual-SIM slot which means users can either use two SIM carss or one SIM card and a microSD card for storage expansion. It measures 145.5x71x7.4mm and weighs 153 grams.

The Vmall listing confirms that the Honor 8 is compatible with 4G LTE bands in India. Other connectivity options include Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, 3G, GPRS/ EDGE, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, and Infrared sensor. The handset packs a 3000mAh non-removable battery.

Complete List of ‘Ok Google’ Voice Commands Published

Google keeps adding new voice commands to its ‘Ok Google’ hotword recognition, and it can be quite a chore to keep a track of additions. Thus, a charitable developer has come up with a complete list of commands that users can easily refer to.

Complete List of 'Ok Google' Voice Commands Published

Developer Kristijan Ristovski (aka Kitze) has launched a website, ok-google.io, where users can find the list of all the commands. It also includes over a thousand variations of the commands.

“Annoyed by the fact that every once in a while a new “complete list of google now commands” appears online, I decided to create this project,” writes Kitze. He has revealed that the project will be open sourced soon and anyone could report bugs or issues on GitHub. Kitze will update the list with new commands.

The website shows the commands according to the categories namely People & Relationships, Weather, Conversion, Math, Device control, Social apps, Reminders, Flight & Travel, Easter eggs, Sports, Web Browsing, Movies & TV Shows, Messaging, Gmail integration, Definitions, Stocks, Music, and Reminders among others.

Google’s voice-personal assistant, Google Now, has over the years improved and received several upgrades to become smarter. The company updated its Search app to expand the ‘Ok Google’ hotword recognition adding the feature to any webpage in the in-app browser. Google last year announced that it was using better acoustic models for its Voice Search feature, which used less computational resources, was more accurate, more robust to noise interference, and faster.

Google recently brought Hindi Voice Search for its Maps for iOS and has added multilingual voice search as a part of the Google Search update for Android.

Stunning Images Reveal Jupiter Ahead of Juno’s Arrival

Researchers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile have captured stunning new images and prepared the highest-resolution maps to date of Jupiter, a week ahead of the arrival of Nasa’s Juno spacecraft at the giant planet on July 4.

Stunning Images Reveal Jupiter Ahead of Juno's Arrival

The images were captured at the thermal infrared wavelengths using a newly-upgraded thermal imager called VISIR.

“We used a technique called ‘lucky imaging’, whereby individual sharp frames are extracted from short movies of Jupiter to ‘freeze’ the turbulent motions of our own atmosphere, to create a stunning new image of Jupiter’s cloud layers,” said Leigh Fletcher from University of Leicester.

“At this wavelength, Jupiter’s clouds appear in silhouette against the deep internal glows of the planet. Images of this quality will provide the global context for Juno’s close-up views of the planet at the same wavelength,” he added.

Jupiter’s high resolution maps, which reveal the present-day temperatures, composition and cloud coverage within the planet’s dynamic atmosphere, and show how giant storms, vortices and wave patterns shape its appearance, will help set the scene for what Juno will witness in the coming months.

The ground-based campaign in support of Juno is led by Glenn Orton of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Once in orbit around Jupiter, Juno will skim just 5,000 km above Jupiter’s clouds once a fortnight – too close to provide global coverage in a single image.

The Earth-based observations supplement the suite of advanced instrumentation on the Juno spacecraft, filling in the gaps in Juno’s spectral coverage and providing the wider global and temporal context to Juno’s close-in observations.

Fletcher presented the observations at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham on Monday.

Hasselblad X1D Medium Format Mirrorless Camera

Hasselblad has announced a ground-breaking new camera called the X1D, which is the world’s first compact mirrorless medium format camera. A medium format sensor is typically much larger than a full-frame sensor which lets you capture way more detail and much better dynamic range. To be able to use this in a compact form-factor of a mirrorless camera is quite an achievement.

Hasselblad X1D Medium Format Mirrorless Camera Launched at $8,995

As you would have guessed, the X1D doesn’t come cheap as you’ll be forking out around $8,995 (approximately Rs. 6,11,900) for just the body, without taxes. Two new XCD lenses were also announced for the camera which will retail at $2,295 (approximately Rs. 1,56,000) for the 45mm f/3.5 and $2695 (approximately Rs. 1,83,400) for the 90mm f/3.2. You can order one from these locations in India.

The X1D is handmade in Sweden and boasts of a 50-megapixel CMOS sensor and an ISO range of 100-25600. The camera weighs 725 grams and features Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, built-in GPS, full-HD video recording, stereo microphone, mini-HDMI and is completely weather-proof. The X1D offers a 3-inch touchscreen with a 920K-dot resolution along with an electronic viewfinder with a 2.36M-dot resolution.

Commenting on the announcement Perry Oosting, Hasselblad CEO said, “The X1D marks a pivotal point in Hasselblad’s rich 75-year history. This camera makes medium format photography available to a new generation of Hasselblad users, while pushing the existing limits of photography to new heights.”