All posts in “Science”

Google just helped NASA find an alien planet thousands of light-years from Earth

And we’re tied, folks. 

Thanks to Google and some fancy artificial intelligence, we now know that our solar system is just slightly less unique than we may have thought. 

Scientists have discovered an eighth planet circling the sunlike star Kepler-90, 2,545 light-years away. This means that our solar system and Kepler 90 are now tied for the most number of known planets within a star system. 

So yeah, maybe we’re not that special after all.

The newfound planet, named Kepler-90i, was found using machine learning technology from Google that effectively teach a computer to spot patterns in large datasets.

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In this case, the dataset was compiled of signals spotted by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, which discovers planets by spotting the slight dips in a star’s light that happen when a planet passes in front of its star from Earth’s perspective. That movement is called a transit.

Astronomer Andrew Vanderburg and Google’s Christopher Shallue trained the artificial intelligence by first showing it how to pick out transits from 15,000 signals they already knew were from actual exoplanets, NASA said.

After that, they moved on to the hard stuff. Vanderburg and Shallue then used the technology to look at the data from 670 other star systems that they knew had planets to find any other worlds that may be lurking in the data. 

Kepler-90i is one of those worlds. 

“We got lots of false positives of planets, but also potentially more real planets,” Vanderburg said in a statement. “It’s like sifting through rocks to find jewels. If you have a finer sieve then you will catch more rocks but you might catch more jewels, as well.”

Scientists also found another planet, Kepler-80g, circling a star with five other planets orbiting it. 

The Kepler 90 system.

The Kepler 90 system.

Image: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

Kepler-90i isn’t the kind of place you want to jet off to for a quick vacation, however. 

While the world is rocky, it’s also exceedingly hot. The planet completes an orbit of its star once every 14.4 Earth days and likely has an average surface temperature of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Kepler 90 system is also very different from our own. 

If all eight planets in that system were moved into our solar system, they would all fit within Earth’s orbit. In other words, all of the planets are closer to Kepler 90 than our Earth is to the sun, according to NASA. 

“These results demonstrate the enduring value of Kepler’s mission,” Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist, said in the statement. 

“New ways of looking at the data — such as this early-stage research to apply machine learning algorithms — promises to continue to yield significant advances in our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. I’m sure there are more firsts in the data waiting for people to find them.”

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Genalyte hires Facebook and Google exec Kevin Lo as company president


Khosla-backed one drop blood test startup Genalyte has hired former Facebook exec Kevin Lo as president of the company.

Lo comes to Genalyte after leading “connectivity efforts” at Facebook “for the four billion people not online, and the 1.5B under-served who use the Internet at ‘2G’ speeds,” according to his LinkedIn profile. Before that, Lo worked for Google where he headed up Google Fiber.

So why jump into medicine after working on connecting the world? “We are at a critical juncture where technology and innovation are driving fundamental changes within our healthcare industry,” said Lo. “Genalyte is poised to lead a revolution in real time diagnostics—one that creates better treatment and patient outcomes.”

Genalyte leverages lab-on-a-chip technology it says can run through up to 128 different tests on a single finger prick of blood in under 15 minutes using what it calls its Maverick Detection Platform.

The San Diego-based startup’s proprietary silicon chip contains arrays of photonic microring sensors to detect diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and has so far raised nearly $92 million in venture funding.

The startup hopes to use this technology in an outpatient setting, pending FDA approval.

“We are thrilled to welcome Kevin to our leadership team at a moment of incredible momentum for the company,” Genalyte CEO Cary Gunn said in a statement. “Kevin’s unique expertise and experience working with some of the world’s most groundbreaking companies will help guide Genalyte as the company begins this next important chapter in diagnostic innovation.”

Rocket blast from the past: Voyager 1 fires thrusters last used in 1980


While some spacecraft get the chance to go out in a blaze of glory, others are in it for the long haul – Voyager 1 more so than any other. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it’s not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs. Thrusts, rather.

Of course, many parts of the Voyager craft still work despite their age — they’ve been sending reliable telemetry back since launch, including the memorable data in 2012 indicating that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space. But the crafts’ power sources are estimated to run dry around 2025, at which point they will no longer be reachable.

In anticipation of that moment, perhaps, a group of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been kicking the tires on Voyager 1. They noticed that the craft’s attitude control thrusters, which it uses to keep itself pointed the right direction, have been falling in efficiency for years.

Fortunately, the Voyagers are equipped with backup thrusters included with this eventuality in mind. Only one problem: the last time they were used was 37 years ago, in 1980.

To reawaken these dormant thrusters the team had to go back to the original Voyager documentation.

“The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” said JPL’s Chris Jones, who led the effort, in a JPL news release.

That’s because for all the team now knows, not being the original software engineers, there could be some bug or strange feature in the code that might interrupt normal operations or (heaven forbid). And the thrusters had never been tested for the 10-millisecond “puffs” needed for reorientation.

On November 28, the team sent the signal to warm up the thruster and fire off a few puffs. The radio waves traveled for 19 hours and 35 minutes before reaching Voyager 1 13 billion miles away; 19 hours and 35 minutes after that, they got the results of their little experiment.

“The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all,” said Todd Barber.

The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there’s no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they’re looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 — after proper testing, of course.

GE Ventures unveils new blood collection startup Drawbridge Health


Drawbridge Health wants to make it easier for doctor’s offices and clinics to collect small samples of your blood for testing on site with a handheld device.

The device uses proprietary technology to collect and stabilize just a few drops of blood for various tests like hormone levels, genetic testing, monitoring disease and other things patients normally have to get done at an outside lab like Quest Diagnostics or Lab Corp.

Instead, the device can stay in the clinic and the proprietary Drawbridge cartridge holding your blood would be shipped out to the third-party lab for results.

Of course, any blood diagnostics startup claiming to collect just a few drops of blood for testing on a small device is going to get compared to Theranos, which first promised to deliver results for hundreds of diseases on a single drop of blood. It’s an understatement to say things didn’t go so well for that startup and it seems it may now be running out of cash.

However, GE Ventures partner Risa Stack, who was instrumental in guiding the idea for Drawbridge says, unlike Theranos, Drawbridge only collects the blood. It doesn’t do the testing.

“Partners are going to run the tests on our stabilized samples. Our responsibility is going to give them a quality sample,” Stack told TechCrunch.

GE Ventures started the company through an old school VC method of first coming up with the idea in house, with the promise of launching and funding the startup as it progresses.

The idea probably sounds fantastic to anyone who hates going to the doctor and then going out to a lab for blood work. The device also promises minimal discomfort for those who hate needles as it takes just a few drops from your upper arm. I’m told it feels like less than a pinch.

But first Drawbridge needs to get through a few hurdles. It’s early days for Drawbridge and it is just now exploring partnerships with clinics and doctor’s offices.

It will also need to go through FDA approval, which it has applied for as a medical device.

This summer GE Ventures hired on Lee McCracken to run the ship as CEO at Drawbridge and the startup intends on a commercial launch next year, pending FDA that approval.

There are also other approaches to cutting out the blood collection middleman — both One Medical and Forward have in-house labs where patients can get blood work done.

There are also other blood prick diagnostics but, as McCracken points out, those, like Theranos, come with potential risk.

“The current sample testing process is inconvenient and challenging for patients and medical
providers, alike,” McCracken said in a statement. “It requires clinical processing equipment, often a technician specifically trained to draw blood, plus a trip to the doctor’s office or hospital. By combining world class technology developed by GE Healthcare and a talented founding team to address an important market need, Drawbridge Health is well positioned to transform diagnostic testing for healthcare stakeholders, testing laboratories, patients and consumers.”

Featured Image: Mate Marschalko/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

The top 10 tech companies with the best fertility benefits

Thinking of starting a family but need a little help from science? IVF costs alone can be exorbitant, ranging from $12,000 to $20,000 per cycle, depending on where you live — and most couples will need to do two or three cycles just to get a baby.

The good news is, Facebook, Apple and Google paved the way for fertility perks a couple of years ago in an effort to entice more women to work for them.

Now several tech companies have followed with some pretty good IVF and other benefits to help you out. Here are the top 10 tech companies and the fertility benefits they offer.

*IVF data compiled courtesy of Fertility IQ Family Builder Index 2017-2018 and verified, where possible, with the company.

*Maternity and paternity leave verified with the company or, as noted where appropriate, courtesy of employee reporting on FairyGodboss.