Pew, pew! Massive ‘oddball’ blasts a jet of material at over a million mph

Astronomers have discovered a hitherto unseen jet of material being ejected from a distant massive “oddball” star at a staggering speed of over a million miles per hour. It is believed that the high-speed jet is being driven by the magnetic forces of the unusual star.

The team made the discovery while studying masers, naturally occurring amplified microwave radio emissions, around the massive star designated MWC 349A with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The findings could help scientists better understand how massive stars evolve.

MWC 349A is located around 4,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus and is not only one of the brightest radio sources in the sky but is also one of only a handful of objects known to be surrounded by hydrogen masers. 

Related: Pew, pew! Scientists detect record-breaking ‘megamaser’ 5 billion light-years away

Because of its unique features, MWC 349A which has roughly 30 times the mass of the sun, has become the subject of intense study in optical, infrared, and radio wavelengths. And yet nothing like this jet had been seen emerging from the star before. 

“Our previous understanding of MWC 349A was that the star was surrounded by a rotating disk and photo-evaporating wind. Strong evidence for an additional collimated jet had not yet been seen in this system,” lead author and undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) (opens in new tab), Sirina Prasad said.

The discovery was made in part because masers make it easier to study processes that are otherwise too small to see, thus allowing Prasad and the team to uncover the previously unseen structures in the star’s immediate environment.

“A maser is like a naturally occurring laser,” Prasad said. “It’s an area in outer space that emits a really bright kind of light. We can see this light and trace it back to where it came from, bringing us one step closer to figuring out what’s really going on.”

In addition to spotting this high-speed jet, the study of masers also allowed the team to map MWC 349A’s surrounding disk in detail for the first time.

“We used masers generated by hydrogen to probe the physical and dynamic structures in the gas surrounding MWC 349A and revealed a flattened gas disk with a diameter of 50 AU [1 AU is approximately 93 million miles the distance between the sun and the Earth] approximately the size of the Solar System, confirming the near-horizontal disk structure of the star,” project principal investigator and CfA senior astrophysicist Qizhou Zhang, said. “We also found a fast-moving jet component hidden within the winds flowing away from the star.”

The jet of material is rocketing away from the star so fast that it would cover the distance between San Diego, California, and Phoenix, Arizona in a literal blink of an eye. The team thinks that the source of this incredible speed is a magnetic force called magnetohydrodynamic wind. The movement of this type of wind is controlled by the interaction of a star’s magnetic field and the gases in its surrounding disk. 

“Although we don’t yet know for certain where it [the jet] comes from or how it is made, it could be that a magnetohydrodynamic wind is producing the jet, in which case the magnetic field is responsible for launching rotating material from the system,” said Prasad. “This could help us to better understand the disk-wind dynamics of MWC 349A, and the interplay between circumstellar disks, winds, and jets in other star systems.”

The team’s findings were presented at the 241st proceedings of the American Astronomical Society (opens in new tab) on Monday, Jan. 9. 

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via Space

January 10, 2023 at 07:34AM

Security Researchers Say They Hacked California’s Digital License Plates, Because Duh

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Only a few months after they officially launched, a security researcher and his friends have managed to pwn California’s new digital license plates.

Yes, for the past several years, Cali has been on a weird mission to digitize its car tags. Advocates claims that this modernization effort will offer a host of benefits to drivers, including “visual personalization” and easy in-app registration renewal, but security experts have long warned that if you hook your plates up to the web, somebody will inevitably try to mess with them.

Now, only a few months after the California legislature passed a law to legalize digital plates, that’s exactly what has happened.

In a blog post published last week, bug hunter Sam Curry noted that he and his friends had recently managed to attain “full super administrative access” to the internal environment of Reviver, the digital contractor responsible for selling California’s modernized plates.

Reviver sells a thing called the RPlate, or a “smart plate.” Basically, it’s a battery-powered digital display that gets affixed to a vehicle’s rear and then projects the car’s information. The plate allows users to share different graphics and words on the plate, and also comes with an app that includes car monitoring and safety features. The going rate for one of these things, which are also available in Arizona and Michigan, is $20 a month, according to Reviver’s website.

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Unfortunately, Reviver’s pricy, hi-tech solution also comes with some hi-tech problems. Curry and his friends investigated the Reviver app and website, discovering a vulnerability that allowed them to gain full administrative access to “all user accounts and vehicles for all Reviver connected vehicles.”

What could they do with that access? Among other things, they found they had the power to track the GPS locations of every single registered user, manipulate data on users’ plates, and even report specific vehicles as stolen (Reviver has an in-app feature that allows cars to be reported as stolen to authorities).

“An actual attacker could remotely update, track, or delete anyone’s REVIVER plate,” Curry writes. “We could additionally access any dealer (e.g. Mercedes-Benz dealerships will often package REVIVER plates) and update the default image used by the dealer when the newly purchased vehicle still had DEALER tags.”

Gizmodo reached out to Reviver for comment but did not hear back. In a statement provided to Motherboard, the company admitted that it had patched software vulnerabilities that allowed for the intrusion to take place.

“We are proud of our team’s quick response, which patched our application in under 24 hours and took further measures to prevent this from occurring in the future. Our investigation confirmed that this potential vulnerability has not been misused. Customer information has not been affected, and there is no evidence of ongoing risk related to this report,” the statement partially reads.

Let’s be honest: some things really don’t need to be digitized. As boring as it is, I think I’ll be sticking with non-hackable tags for the foreseeable future.

via Gizmodo

January 9, 2023 at 09:17PM

The first-ever UK space flight fails to reach orbit

Virgin Orbit’s historic "Start Me Up" mission launched from Spaceport Cornwell on January 9th as planned, but it has failed to reach orbit and has ultimately ended in failure. If you follow the the company’s tweets during the event, everything went well at first. Virgin Orbit confirmed LauncherOne’s clean separation from its carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, as well as the ignition of its NewtonThree first stage rocket engine. The mission also seemed to have gone through a successful stage separation, with the company tweeting about NewtonFour’s, the second stage engine’s, ignition. "LauncherOne is now officially in space!" the tweet after that reads

LauncherOne’s upper stage shut down and was supposed to coast halfway around our planet before deploying its payload. As Ars Technica reports, the next tweet after that said the rocket and its payload satellites had successfully reached orbit. But the company deleted that tweet and replaced it with an announcement that said an anomaly prevented the mission from reaching orbit as planned. According to Reuters, a graphic display it saw over the launch’s video feed showed that the mission reached second-stage cutoff but stopped three steps ahead of payload deployment a couple of hours after take off. 

Matt Archer, Commercial Space Director at the UK Space Agency, said the government and various entities that include the company will conduct an investigation about the failure over the coming days. Archer also said that the second stage suffered a "technical anomaly and didn’t reach the required orbit." It’s unclear what the investigation entails, but Virgin Orbit promised to share more details when it can. Meanwhile, Cosmic Girl and its crew was safely able to return to Spaceport Cornwall.

The mission was carrying payload satellites from seven commercial and government customers. They include a UK-US joint project called CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment) and two CubeSats for the UK Ministry of Defense’s Prometheus-2 initiative. Ars says this failure could have a huge impact on the company, which is struggling to launch enough missions to break even. "Start Me Up" wasn’t only the first orbital launch from UK soil, it was also the first international launch for Virgin Orbit and the first commercial launch from Western Europe. It could’ve been a high-profile success for the company and would’ve shown potential customers what it’s capable of. 

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said in a statement sent to Engadget: "While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve. The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit. We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process."

via Engadget

January 10, 2023 at 12:24AM

Tesla Autopilot and Full Self-Driving drove a 6,000-mile road trip — there were hiccups

Tesla Model Y.
Tim Levin/Insider
  • Tesla driver Tim Heckman drove 6,392 miles primarily using Autopilot and Full Self-Driving.
  • He said Autopilot has gotten “worse” over the years and FSD was “exceptionally poor outside of California.”
  • But, the Tesla driver said the software has been a “lifesaver” when it comes to long road trips.

A Tesla owner took a 6,392-mile road trip using primarily Tesla Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) — and said that while the software was a “lifesaver,” there were some hiccups along the way.

In December, Tim Heckman drove a Model S Plaid from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania and back, using the autonomous software for 99% of the journey, an experience he documented on Twitter.

Heckman, a site reliability engineer, told Insider that while the autonomous software proved helpful during his journey, it also made for a “stressful drive” at times, detailing incidents where the technology phantom braked and struggled to obey the speed limit, proper following distances, or stay in its lane. 

The pros and cons of autonomous driving

While Autopilot is a driver assist software that is built into all Teslas and designed for driving on highways, FSD is a beta add-on that can operate in urban settings and is designed to change lanes, recognize stop signs and lights, as well as park.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that the software will eventually be able to operate entirely on its own and will be safer than human drivers, but the beta program still requires a licensed driver to monitor it at all times.

Tesla Model S Plaid sedan
Tesla Model S Plaid.

Heckman told Insider the software sometimes registered cars on the screen that weren’t there or had difficulty identifying lane markings when there was salt on the road.

“It’s kind of like driving with a 15 or 16-year-old driver sometimes,” Heckman said of using FSD in city streets outside of California. “There’s weird jerky maneuvers. It’ll stop or get into a turn lane too early. In a way, there’s just a general lack of awareness about the environment.”

On the other hand, the Tesla owner said Autopilot was a “lifesaver” on highways, adding that while he had to disengage the FSD software on numerous occasions, Autopilot was only disengaged once when a car in front of him on the highway slammed on his brakes.

“It can be a huge cognitive relief. Long trips can take a mental toll,” Heckman said, noting that he’s used Autopilot on previous road trips and discovered he could drive further without getting tired.

The software has also helped him avoid collisions on the highway in the past.

“I realize I sometimes tune out when I’m driving,” Heckman said “This [software] can augment that, but I know if I do tune out, at least I know the vehicle is backing me up.”  

Getting worse, not better

In his Twitter thread about the experience, Heckman wrote Autopilot was “worse” than when he bought his first Tesla in 2019 and FSD was “exceptionally poor outside of California.”

Hedges & Company, a digital marketing firm for automakers, found in an analysis of over 175 million car owners in 2019 that the majority of Tesla owners live in California — meaning the AI software could have more opportunities to learn from California roads.

Ultimately, Heckman said he couldn’t see himself buying a non-Tesla electric-car — at least not until the charging networks could catch up to Tesla — but he wishes the automaker would rely on LiDAR, radar sensors that can help vehicles detect nearby objects.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks to the media next to its Model S in Hong Kong on January 25, 2016.
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks to the media next to a Model S in Hong Kong on January 25, 2016.
Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Musk has spoken out against the expensive hardware in the past and reportedly demanded cameras over radar because he wants the autonomous software to operate like human eyes. The car company stopped installing LiDAR in its cars in 2021.

Heckman isn’t the first person to detail issues with Tesla’s Autopilot or FSD add-on. Many FSD testers have posted videos showing bugs in the software. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Autopilot and its potential connection to several accidents.

“At the end of the day, I think this stuff has tremendous potential,” Heckman wrote on Twitter. “But at this point there needs to be focus and good execution, while not causing regressions in the experience especially on features that impact your safety and the safety of others on the road.”

Do you drive a Tesla or have some insight to share? Reach out to the reporter from a non-work email at

via Autoblog

January 9, 2023 at 03:11PM