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Why comets appear black? Indian-led scientists’ group finally finds answer

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Indian
Dr. Chaitanya Giri, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research

Bengaluru: A study by an international team from Europe and the US led by an Indian planetary scientist has resolved one of the mysteries that baffled astronomers.

Astronomical studies have shown that several small bodies – Centaurs and Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) – in the outer solar system are having surfaces that are extremely dark but the origin of this color had remained unclear.

Centaurs estimated to number around 44,000 are minor planets with diameters larger than one kilometer. And TNOs are similar objects at a distance farther than Neptune, the most distant planet in the solar system.

Now, in a report published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Dr. Chaitanya Giri, who led the research from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, and co-workers claim to have found why these objects appear dark.

They say they have obtained experimental evidence that the darkness of these objects is due to presence on their surfaces of highly ‘carbonized’ organic material analogous to ‘Titan tholin’ — a substance first synthesized in the late 1970s in the laboratory of Carl Sagan and another Indian scientist Bishun Khare at Cornell University to simulate the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon ‘Titan’.

“We investigated the chemical structure and composition of ‘Titan tholin’ using multiple analytical techniques such as laser desorption, mass spectrometry, Raman spectroscopy, and field-emission scanning electron microscopy,” Giri told IANS in an email.

“The investigation led to the discovery of novel graphitic structural components within the larger macromolecular structure of Titan tholin,” he said.

“Like the dark appearance of coal, our research indicates that the graphite within the Titan tholin-like material on Centaurs and TNOs contributes to their extreme darkness.”

According to Giri, since Centaurs and TNOs are progenitors of comets, “the darkness of the comet’s surface can also be attributed to similar material.”

For instance comet “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko”, which was visited by Europe’s Rosetta space mission in 2014, “was extremely dark,” said Giri, who was a co-investigator on the mission.

Giri, who is currently with Japan’s Earth Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, says the findings of this research will have far-reaching implications.

“For astronomers and planetary scientists, the prospect of complex organic material present on several objects in our Solar System is striking,” he said.

Astronomers might further use “Titan tholin” to study the surfaces of exoplanets (that are planets beyond our solar system) and planetary scientists could probe into the role of tholin-like material in shaping up organic-rich atmosphere and geology of several solar system objects.

“Chemists could further explore the exotic conformations in which ultra-complex organics exist in the universe and biologists would further probe whether such organics play any role in the origin of life on Earth,” he added.

Giri noted that in the past few years, interest in the small Solar System bodies had been on an ascent.

“Besides Europe’s Rosetta mission, NASA’s Dawn mission to dwarf planet Ceres and the New Horizons mission to dwarf planet Pluto all have given us glimpses to our yet unexplored and enormously diverse Solar System.”

Giri said the “Titan tholin” for his study was synthesized at the NASA Ames Research Center while chemical investigations were carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and at the Universities of Maryland (US), Nice (France), and Goettingen (Germany). (IANS)(Photo: chaitanyagiri.com)

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CES Tech Show Proves Technology Puts Our Privacy At a Major Risk

To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test.

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Technology, Privacy
A model wears the Owlet Band pregnancy monitor at the Owlet booth at CES International, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. The device can track fetal heart rate, kicks and contractions. VOA

The latest gadgets want even greater access to your lives.

This week’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that can livestream the living room, a bathroom mirror that captures your face to offer beauty tips and a gizmo that tracks the heartbeat of an unborn child.

These features can be useful — or at least fun — but they all open the door for companies and people working for them to peek into your private lives. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave employees access to some customer video footage.

You’ll have to weigh whether the gadgets are useful enough to give up some privacy. First, you have to trust that companies making these devices are protecting your information and aren’t doing more than what they say they’re doing with data. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data. Or an ex might retain access to a video feed long after a breakup.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington professor who researches computer security and privacy.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process

Technology, Privacy
The new Door View Cam is on display at the Ring booth before CES International, Jan. 7, 2019, in Las Vegas. VOA

Amazon’s video feeds

As with other security cameras, Ring’s can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home to give you a peek, through an app, of who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into peepholes for apartment dwellers or college students who can’t install one next to their doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

Technology, Privacy
A smart home mockup is on display at the Tuya booth at CES International, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. VOA

Living room livestream

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products.

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel icky.

Wellcam says video isn’t recorded until someone activates it from a phone and video is deleted as soon as the stream stops. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera, unless you unplug it or cover it up with something.

Technology, home, Privacy
Yoon Lee, right, senior vice president, Samsung Electronics America, uses the Family Board on a refrigerator during a Samsung news conference at CES International in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Bathroom cameras

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror — making it more important that personal data is protected.

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need internet to work, she said. Even if it is connected, all data is stored on a local network. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information — such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon — but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

Samsung, Home, Privacy
Arvin Baalu, vice president of product management at Harman International, talks about the Samsung Digital Cockpit during a Samsung news conference at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Bodily data

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information.

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Also Read: Technology Makes Home Items Smarter But Creepier

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a pregnant belly and tracks the heartbeat. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And you can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy — potentially raising health risks and hence premiums. (VOA)