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The White Pill: The NASA UFO Conference
white pill #8 // earth's new quasi-moon, space robot workforces, all earth's water in a bubble, self-replicating machines, the nasa ufo conference, and more
Readers, it’s time to enjoy the eighth edition of the White Pill, Pirate Wires’ weekly roundup of evocative, fascinating developments in space, energy, engineering, computing, artificial intelligence, and medicine.
This Wednesday, NASA held a big press conference on UAP in D.C. Our recap of everything that went down there is the lead story. And as usual, we’ve got quite a bit more space news: a newly-discovered quasi-moon orbiting Earth, the possibility of beaming solar power from space, an advance toward human hibernation, new plans for SpaceX’s Starship, and a chart you’ll like.
In this White Pill we also discuss some really cool AI products that recently hit the market, to the bizarre chagrin of haters. And in addition to the White Pill Investment Index, where you’ll read about the most interesting projects that got funded this week, we go over how self-replicating machines could be the key to long-term civilizational survival, and several promising new medical advances.
Also: news in energy, engineering, and computing, like IBM’s plans to create a 100,000-qubit quantum computer, a carbon sequestration project in the Moroccan desert, and more. And at the end of the issue — as always — some Fun Stuff.
But first, some excellent news…
SpaceX plans another Starship launch for summer. After launchpad modifications and a six-engine static fire test in June, SpaceX will be ready to attempt another Starship launch later this summer, getting the US one step closer to the Science Victory. This time around, the company hopes to have a successful first stage, and to keep its concrete launch structure secure with water-cooled steel plates. Excellent news. (NASA Space Flight)
New leukemia chemotherapy technique may ultimately massively reduce side effects. Researchers have developed a technique that significantly reduces the accumulation of chemo drugs in vital organs, and thus could allow even the highest risk patients to be treated without suffering severe side effects. Using a “bispecific antibody,” they’re able to bind liposome-encapsulated chemo drugs directly to the surface of leukemia cells, thus preventing the drugs from attacking healthy cells. In mice, this approach lowered the accumulation of toxic chemo drugs in vital organs, and extended subject lifespan by up to four times. Excellent news. (Freethink)
Scientists record first X-ray of a single atom. The X-ray signals emitted by atoms are so weak that, until recently, the smallest amalgam of atoms observable by X-ray detectors was 10,000. To image materials at the atomic level, scientists have relied on instruments like electron scanning microscopes, which allow for single atom imaging, but are unable to identify what material a single atom is made of. Now, a new advance in X-ray detection technology known as synchrotron X-Ray scanning tunneling microscopy (SX-STM) has for the first time enabled both single-atom identification and chemical state measurement. Researchers expect SX-STM to spark a cascade of technological advances in fields such as quantum information and nanomedicine. Excellent news. (Phys.org)
Never in human history have more people been orbiting the Earth than right now. There are seventeen people in orbit around our home planet, going 18,000 miles per hour. (Space.com)
A newly discovered quasi-moon has been orbiting Earth since 100 BC. A space rock 50 feet in diameter called 2023 FW13 is only slightly influenced by Earth’s gravitational pull because it’s orbiting at a distance of nine million miles. Nonetheless, that slight pull was enough to turn the asteroid into a “quasi-satellite” around 100 BC — the century during which Julias Caesar was born — and ever since, it has circled the Earth during its annual journey around the Sun. But the cosmic bond won’t last forever. Scientists expect FW13 to start charting a new orbital trajectory around 3700 AD. (Live Science)
What about beaming solar power to Earth, from space? “A space solar power prototype was launched into orbit in January 2023 and scientists at Caltech are sharing that they have shown detectable power being beamed to Earth,” reads CalTech’s recent news release about their program Space Solar Power Project. Why not just use solar power collected here at home? (1) No clouds in space, so it’s ‘unlimited’ in comparison — and space-originating microwaves can penetrate clouds in Earth’s atmosphere without issue, (2) the technology could deliver power to areas without access to any power, and (3) we could beam it to a moon base and the ISS. Here’s a two-minute video on how it works. (CalTech)
Related: Japan aiming to beam solar power from space by 2025. After proving concept in 2015 by beaming “1.8 kilowatts of power, enough energy to power an electric kettle, more than 50 meters to a wireless receiver,” Japanese researchers are primed to beam solar power from space to receiver stations on Earth’s surface by mid-decade, using several small satellites to do the beaming. (Engadget)
Hibernation triggered in rodents via ultrasonic pulses. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis successfully induced hibernation in rodents who, like humans, don’t naturally hibernate. Using ultrasonic pulses, the team stimulated rat brains to spur a drop in body temperature, a metabolic shift to burning only fats, and a 47 percent drop in heart rate. When the ultrasonic pulses were switched off, the rats woke up. The jump from rodents to humans is a big one, but still… interstellar space travel anyone?! (The Guardian)
Find a different take on human hibernation via meditation in White Pill Issue 3.
Surprising moon food suggested. Today, humans in space depend mostly on prepackaged food brought from Earth, which has a year-and-a-half shelf life. That’s not enough time to sustain humans for a long-term Moon colonization mission, let alone a trip to Mars. So in an effort to push beyond the constricting limits of space food systems, NASA launched its Deep Space Food Challenge in 2021, and one of the competing teams that’s moving to the final phase of the competition uses water and electricity to transform astronaut-exhaled CO2 into alcohol, which can then be fed to yeast, which in turn produce something akin to a protein shake. So yeah, astronaut breath smoothies… no one said it was going to be a luxury cruise… (MIT Technology Review)
In a first, NASA maps an exoplanet with the James Webb Space Telescope. 400 light years away, a gas giant called WASP-18, 10 times the size of Jupiter, completes a full orbit around its sun once every 23 hours. Observing the planet through the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists identified water vapor in its atmosphere and created a detailed temperature map of the planet — a first for JWST. The scientists also showed temperature differences of more than 1,000 degrees between the planet’s sun-facing and space-facing sides. (NASA)
Does the way our solar system cruises through the galaxy freak you out like it does me? Click the link to find out.
A quasar is currently going “goblin mode,” as the kids say, shooting out an X-ray beam 60,000 times hotter, and 100,000 billion times brighter than the Sun. (Space.com)
NASA’s TBIRD satellite broke the space-to-ground laser communication throughput record, transmitting two terabytes of data from orbit to Earth in a single five-minute flyover. This is a big improvement that will buff satellite-based research on e.g. Earth’s climate, high-resolution blackhole imaging, etc. (The Verge)
Watch SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule re-entering Earth’s atmosphere after a ten-day mission at the ISS. The capsule was carrying four astronauts; it splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico late Tuesday night. (Twitter)
In orbit around Mars, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Orbiter sent an encoded message back to Earth in a ‘dry run’ for SETI. (seti.org)
UAE’s Space Agency will launch the MRB explorer in 2028, and by 2030, it will enter the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. If successful, by 2034 it should be in position to drop a small lander onto the 30-mile-wide asteroid Justitia. (NYT)
Literally a million people knew about this before me, but NASA has a Twitter for exoplanets: @NASAExoplanets
The White Pill Investment Index: June 3
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out the previous edition of the White Pill.
This week in deals
Luxury hypercars — Drako Motors raises $100m from GV, Kleiner Perkins and Bessemer Venture Partners; Drako makes “the most powerful, quickest and fastest production hyper-luxury SUV in history,” according to its website.
A few more white pills
Chips — Lightmatter raises a $154m Series C from GV, Hewlett Packard Pathfinder, and Fidelity Management & Research to continue developing “a light-powered chip designed to speed up artificial intelligence driven computations by orders of magnitude.”
AI powered heavy equipment — SafeAI, a company working on technology to “accelerate the transition to autonomous construction and mining” by “retrofitting heavy vehicles with autonomous technology,” raises a $68m Series B.
Cyberpunk bikes — Land Energy, a company that makes electric motorcycles that are distinctly cyberpunk, raises a $22m Series A2 in a deal led by Ancora Holdings.
Investment in memes — Antimatter, an education-through-memes platform, raises $2m in a deal led by Version One Ventures. Balaji Srinivasan invested in Antimatter’s February 2021 seed round.
Moon power — Constanellis Aerospace, which is working on lunar-based power distribution hardware and services, raises nearly a $79m Series A.
Mineral exploration — Fleet Space raises a $50m Series C to continue developing satellite-based critical mineral discovery (as opposed to doing it like Daniel Plainview)
Neuroimmunity — Modulo.bio, which uses machine learning to find new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases raises $8m from Initialized Capital Management, Refactor Capital and Hawktail.
While this ‘lens-free camera’ doesn’t seem to need to be its own device (couldn’t it just be an iPhone app?), the concept itself is pretty evocative: generate imagery based on location coordinates and real-time local weather, both of which are seeds for generating text-to-image prompts, powered by Stability.ai. Above left is a real picture of the location that, above right, the lens-free camera generated an image of that same day. (@BjoernKarmann)
Generative AI expanding meme-verse frontiers. Adobe released a generative AI fill tool, and while I’m seeing some bizarre hostility to it on Twitter, it can do some pretty amazing stuff. For example, ST3U used it to modify memes — see below (inside the rectangles show the original memes).
At long last, Elon’s new pasta just dropped: quantum spaghetti. “Made from quantum ingredients, sourced from the multiverse,” with “Elon Musk’s interdimensional marinara,” this stuff looks pretty good. The fact that AI did the commercial is cool, too.
Lead story: what went down at NASA’s UAP press conference
Below the paywall: our lead story on NASA’s UAP press conference. Then: news in energy, engineering, and computing, like a geoengineering project in the Moroccan desert, and IBM’s plans for an insanely powerful quantum supercomputer. Also, a few medical advances that will make you say F yeah, and finally the Fun Stuff, such as a discussion of the fact that most Bronze Age iron was made from meteorites.
On Wednesday, NASA held a D.C. press conference on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP, updated from Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) that essentially established the need for transparently tracking and accounting for UAP and better, calibrated data collection in UAP detection efforts. (For a slightly different take here, check out Motherboard’s coverage and The Debrief’s coverage.)
Several factors influence UAP transparency issues. The platform on which data is collected — as well as the content that’s collected — can be classified. For example, even though the Statue of Liberty is ‘unclassified,’ if a fighter jet took a picture of the Statue of Liberty, that might be classified. In other words, allegedly, UAP themselves are not classified categorically. Rather, the technology that collect UAP data can often be classified “because of our desire not to reveal our technological capabilities to other nations.” With this anecdote, NASA Associate Administrator Nikola Fox advanced the organization’s mission to make all UAP data that they will study transparent and available to the public.
UAP data quality is another issue that can be greatly improved in a systematic, rigorous, scientific approach. The vast majority of UAP data on record have been collected by anecdotal reports and ‘uncalibrated’ sensors — those which were not built specifically to collect data on UAP. In other words, what if we created sensors that were uniquely suited to collecting data on UAP? "The current approach is unsystematic, often using instruments that are uncalibrated and poorly characterized," said chair Dr. David Spergel.
The NASA conference was but a step on the timeline leading up to its August release of their UAP study — a “‘win-win’ development” in which “[g]overnment agencies and academia [will work] collaboratively towards the scientific collection of evidence-based knowledge on truly anomalous objects near Earth,” as Avi Loeb, head of Harvard’s Galileo Project, wrote in The Debrief on Friday.
So unfortunately, nothing on spheres encased in cubes yet, though several speakers did address specific UAP incidents, with one panelist saying it’s “not a question you can answer very quickly with yes or no” after being asked if NASA had evidence that anything in their study was extraterrestrial technology. But, said panelist David Grinspoon, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, “[i]f NASA applies the same rigorous methodology toward UAPs that it applies to the study of possible life elsewhere, then we stand to learn something new and interesting.”
Energy, engineering, computing
Mummifying algae in the Moroccan Desert to sequester carbon. A startup called Brilliant Planet’s pilot site in Akhfennir uses wind power to pump seawater into artificial ponds, in which algae are allowed to grow for 30 days. Then it’s removed from the ponds, dried, and buried beneath the desert sand — a process that keeps the carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere for millennia, because the algae is so dry, salty, and acidic that it can’t decompose. Mummy sh*t, basically. (Sky News)
IBM to spend $100 million on a 100,000-qubit “quantum-centric supercomputer.” For context, IBM currently holds the record for highest qubit quantum computer with “Osprey,” which comes in at just 433 qubits. It’s an ambitious project to say the least, but the company has tapped world-class research teams at the University of Chicago and the University of Tokyo for help in completing development by 2033. If successful, we’ll be one step closer to solving complex problems currently out of reach for even the most advanced traditional supercomputers. (The Register)
Will self-replicating machines carry the fire? “The future survival of terrestrial life for billions of years requires an artificial space platform that can adjust its distance from the Sun. It would be even better to travel to the vicinity of low-mass stars, like our nearest neighbor — Proxima Centauri, which have a lifetime of trillions of years... Combining both issues suggests self-replicating machines on multiple sites in the Universe as the ultimate recipe for long-term survival.” Read this great, quick case for self-replicating machines’ place in the future of humanity published this week, over on The Debrief.
Contrary’s fascinating deep dive into the evolution of chipmaking takes readers from the invention of the transistor to advanced chip manufacturing, and covers how counterintuitive scaling computational power can seem. “By scaling down the size of a transistor by two, you scaled up the computational power by a factor of eight!” Really cool read — highly recommend. (Contrary)
Epigenetic editing can cut bad cholesterol in monkeys by more than half. Biotech startup Verve achieved a 70 percent reduction in bad cholesterol in monkeys by using a CRISPR-based tool to edit and thus permanently disable the PCSK9 gene. However, Verve has so far failed to get FDA approval for human clinical trials due to concerns about permanent changes to off-target genes in addition to PCSK9, as is known to happen on occasion with CRISPR therapies. Enter Tune Therapeutics, a rival startup using CRISPR for “epigenetic editing,” rather than traditional gene editing, in an effort to circumvent concerns about irreversible off-target changes. By controlling the expression of PCSK9 rather than editing the gene itself, Tune was able to drop bad cholesterol in monkeys by 56 percent. It’s the first time anyone has recorded a successful epigenetic edit of a non-human primate, and if it works as well in humans, it could become an affordable, one-time treatment for cholesterol.(Freethink)
Medical robots 20 micrometers wide. A research group at the University of Colorado-Boulder has developed a novel form of microrobot many times thinner than a single human hair. They can travel through liquid at three millimeters per second, and they’ve been used thus far to deliver prescription drugs to mouse bladders. The goal is to use them similarly in humans, and eventually, to equip them with the capability to perform non-invasive surgeries. (Press Release)
New blood biomarker predicts risk of Alzheimer’s in healthy elderly patients. For years, scientists have looked to the accumulation of amyloid plaques and “tau tangles” in the brain to gauge the likelihood of Alzheimer’s onset. But a new study has revealed an even better screening method that tests patients for both amyloid levels and blood biomarkers indicative of abnormal “astrocyte reactivity” — a neurological component not previously thought to factor heavily into Alzheimer’s progression. The better we’re able to identify Alzheimer’s risk, the better we’ll be able to halt cognitive decline in its tracks. (Eurekalert)
More support for inaudible binaural beats relieving stress and improving brain function was established by researchers recently, suggesting the possibility of scientifically tailored music therapy. (The Debrief)
Researchers at UCSD have developed a clip phone attachment that can measure blood pressure with just a smartphone camera and flash, and when produced at scale, each could cost as little as ten cents to manufacture. (Scitech Daily)
Looking at over 100 studies with a combined 2,800 patients, researchers found convincing evidence of improved attention span and both short- and long-term memory after subjects’ neurons were rhythmically stimulated with weak, oscillating electrical currents. (The Conversation)
Humanity’s oldest pastime: asteroid mining. A 2017 paper resurfaced on Twitter found that “the few iron objects from the Bronze Age that could be analyzed are definitely made of meteoric iron.” Even a dagger found in King Tut’s tomb was almost certainly composed of iron from a meteor. “Before the development of high-temperature-furnaces, meteorites were the only source of native iron accessible to early civilizations. Unable to fuse or melt the metal, the ancient blacksmiths hammered the pieces of meteoritic iron into shape.” Humans are f****ing awesome. (@emollick h/t @rionharmon)
All Earth’s water would fit in what seems like a pretty small bubble, relative to the size of our planet. Watch this video.
Check out this thread full of awesome factory photography. Who knew?
Pirate Wires finally got its Instagram up. Follow us? QR code if you’re on desktop —
Touch grass this weekend.
-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo