ROM sites are falling, but a legal loophole could save game emulation

21 Aug 2018, 4:30 pm

Enlarge

In the last few weeks, a renewed bout of legal action from Nintendo has led to the shutdown of a handful of ROM sites, which previously let users download digital, emulation-ready copies of classic games. This has, in turn, led to a lot of good discussion about the positive and negative effects this kind of ROM collection and distribution has brought to the gaming community.

From a legal standpoint, it's hard to defend sites that revolve around unlimited downloads of copyrighted games. As attorney Michael Lee put it in a recent blog post, "this is classic infringement; there is no defense to this, at all." But as Video Game History Foundation founder Frank Cifaldi tweeted, "there is no alternative BUT piracy for, like, 99 percent of video game history" due to "the completely abysmal job the video game industry has done keeping its games available."

But what if there might be a middle ground that could thread the needle between the legality of original cartridges and the convenience of emulated ROMs? What if an online lending library, temporarily loaning out copies of ROMs tied to individual original cartridges, could satisfy the letter of the law and the interests of game preservation at the same time?

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ROLI Songmaker Kit mini-review: Rediscovering my musical roots with fancy new tech

19 Aug 2018, 3:30 pm

Samuel Axon

I've been a musician for the past 20 years, but I've been an electronic musician for a lot less than that. I use Apple's Logic Pro and a variety of software synthesizers to record songs these days, but coming from an electric guitar, I've missed the natural expressiveness that comes from playing a traditional instrument—particularly a stringed one.

Yes, you can create amazing expressive sounds with software, but there's just something about having that direct connection from your fingers to the amp or speakers that can't be replicated.

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F1 2018: More than a great game, it’s an interactive history lesson

17 Aug 2018, 8:00 am

Enlarge (credit: Codemasters)

Reviewing the latest version of a yearly sports franchise game isn't always something to look forward to. "It's just like the Game Name 20xx you love, but now with one extra year on the date" can be hard to spin out into a full-length piece. Then again, persuading cynics like me to open our wallets again is probably an even tougher job from the developer's side. I don't envy the task in front of Lee Mather (the game director) and his team at Codemasters—luckily, F1 2018 is proof there's genuinely a lot of thought going into that effort.

"It's actually not the ideas that are the problem, it's purely the time we have to create it," explained Mather. "2015 was a tech establishing year [when the game moved to the new EGO engine]. The career added in 2016 was just the beginning, and we know where we wanted to take it, what features to add over time. With such a tightly constrained dev window, we can't waste any time. We can't just try things and throw them away if they don't work."

At its core, F1 2018 is a damn fine Formula 1 game. But the last two years' games were, too, thanks to a revised game engine that's right up there with the best in the racing genre. So to stand out from those past iterations, the crew at Codemasters has tweaked things all over the place this go round. Some of it you may not notice, like the way the new game renders skies, clouds, and environmental lighting. But some of it you definitely will notice, like the way you now have to manage your car's hybrid system throughout the race or the RPG elements that have been integrated into career mode.

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1,160 miles in 11 days: A grand tour with the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio

15 Aug 2018, 12:00 pm

Enlarge / The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio on a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. (credit: Eric Bangeman)

In the time since I began reviewing cars for Ars Technica, my reviews have settled into a routine. A fresh vehicle pulls into the alley behind my house on Tuesday morning with a full tank of gas and a soft limit of 500 miles of driving. After familiarizing myself with the infotainment system, safety features, and the other peculiarities, I take each car for a 60+ mile drive. I include suburban neighborhoods, arterial streets, expressways, and winding country roads with actual hills and curves (a few of those actually exist around Chicagoland). Then for the rest of the week, I spend time doing the stuff I'd do with any other car: buying groceries, taking my son to rugby practice, driving to church... the usual stuff. It's generally enough to give me a good picture of what a car is and is not capable of.

That said, there is always one question left unanswered at the end of a trip: "How would this car be on a family road trip?"

I reviewed the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti last year. Although it was my second review to be published, it was the first car I actually drove. And I liked it. A lot. So when the 505hp, V6 Stelvio Quadrifoglio finally made it to dealers this spring, I had an idea for Alfa Romeo: instead of doing the usual one-week loan, how about letting me see how practical a high-performance, $84,000 SUV is for a family vacation? What it's like to spend day after day in the racing seats? How does this vehicle handle on the winding Pacific Coast Highway?

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The Ars Technica Back to School buying guide

13 Aug 2018, 8:00 pm

Enlarge / A few gadgets we think will be appreciated this school year. (credit: Jeff Dunn)

College is a time for meeting new people, opening up your worldview, taking in new experiences, reading (please, for the love of God, read), and generally experiencing the last years of a life untainted by taxes and a daily job.

It is not a time to care about things—if I could just write “books” and leave this buying guide at that, I would. But a modern student requires a few equally modern gadgets to get through the school year, and there are certainly a few pieces of technology that can make their life on campus feel a little less overwhelming and a little more enjoyable.

So, as we’ve done a few times already this year, we’ve dug through our recent reviews to put together a list of preferred gadgets, this time aimed at those heading back to school in the next few weeks. Because we’re dealing with students, we mainly focused on the affordable stuff. (We also tried to avoid anything that could too easily become a beer bong—books, everyone, books!)

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The hottest new board games from Gen Con 2018

11 Aug 2018, 12:00 pm

Late summer is the time for barbecues, concerts in the park, and (most importantly) making the trek to downtown Indianapolis to play tabletop games with 60,000 other board game fanatics for four days straight. Gen Con—the biggest tabletop gaming convention in North America—is now in its 51st year, and it's not slowing down. According to the organizers, this year's show was once again an attendance record-breaker.

We played a truly obscene amount of games to sort through the noise and bring you this big list of 20 top titles. These games should be available soon; check with your favorite local or online game store for when they'll be getting them in. (And be sure to check out our Gen Con image gallery if you missed it earlier this week.) Of course, with more than 600 new games from 520 game companies and 17,000 ticketed events on offer, we weren't able to sample everything. We focused on board games; roleplaying games and miniature wargaming were sadly not in our purview. Nevertheless, we think there's something here for everyone.

Reef

Emerson Matsuuchi, Next Move Games, 2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, age 8+

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This isn’t a game: We try out a professional driver-in-the-loop simulator

9 Aug 2018, 11:30 am

Enlarge / Mazda racing driver Harry Tincknell in the Multimatic driver-in-the-loop simulator in Markham, Ontario. (credit: Al Arena/Ignite Media/Mazda)

Devotees of racing games love to throw shade at each other. Xbox versus Playstation, console versus PC, controller versus wheel; you name it, people will argue about it on the Internet. And one of the more common ways to denigrate an opponent in such an argument is to play the purity card. This inevitably involves some variation of "my game's better than yours, because mine is a simulator, and yours is just an arcade game." The implication is that you aren't hardcore enough because you play something fun and accessible.

It's not an argument I buy into, but it is one I've thought about through the years. If being a faithful simulation is the be-all and end-all of it, then how do consumer games compare to the real thing? Not racing an actual car on an actual track—I answered that one years ago. No, I'm talking about the driver-in-the-loop (DIL) simulators used by professional racing teams—these proprietary setups that move and shake and carry price tags in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. It's been a tricky question to answer. DIL sims are few and far between, and they tend to be in heavy use doing actual work.

As luck would have it, the nice people at Mazda North America didn't laugh when I recently asked them if I could visit their sim. In fact, they invited me to see it in action as the team prepared for an upcoming race in the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship. Two of their four drivers were new to the series this year, and they'd be spending a couple of days getting up to speed with a track they'd never been to before. Suddenly I had a chance to see what pro drivers and engineers actually got from spending time in a sim, and to gauge how the whole endeavor differs from even really, really hard racing games. Plus, if I was really lucky, I might even get to have a go myself…

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Galaxy Tab S4 review: Even Samsung’s Dex desktop can’t save Android tablets

8 Aug 2018, 6:00 pm

Enlarge / Samsung Dex can be used with or without an external monitor. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

OEMs are trying to make tablets that can replace your laptop, but most of us know that tablets can't really do such a thing for power users. However, these new devices try to balance portability and power, giving users a device that's easier to take along yet can also get things done like a traditional PC. Samsung's latest attempt at this type of device is the Galaxy Tab S4, the successor to last year's flagship Android tablet. And this time around, the Tab S4 boasts Samsung's desktop-mode software called Dex.

Samsung hopes that including Dex will encourage users to go all-in with Android as both their mobile and desktop operating system—at least when they're on the go. But Android isn't a desktop OS, and, while Samsung bills the Tab S4 as a multitasking powerhouse akin to an iPad Pro or a Surface device, it doesn't exactly perform as such. Dex, while useful in some respects, leaves a lot to be desired. Starting at $649, the Tab S4's mixed bag of software and hardware capabilities proves that Samsung may want to embrace Chrome OS in tablet form sooner rather than later.

Look and feel

Specs at a glance: Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 (Wi-Fi only model)
Screen 10.5-inch 2560×1600 Super AMOLED
OS Android 8.1
CPU Octa-core Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz)
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB, expandable up to 400GB with microSD card
Networking Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, MIMO, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 5.0
Ports One USB Type-C port, microSD card reader
Cameras Rear: 13MP AF, Front: 8MP flash
Size 9.8×6.5×0.28 inches (249.3×164.3×7.1mm)
Weight 1.1 pounds (482g)
Battery 7,300mAh
Starting price $649
Other perks 4K video recording (3840×2160) @ 30fps, included S Pen, Dex technology built in

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

Starts at: $649.99 at Samsung
Ars Technica may earn a commission on this sale.

Buy

From purely a design point of view, the Tab S4 improves upon last year's Tab S3 nicely. Its dimensions are close to that of the previous tablet even though it doesn't have the visible or tangible heft of a 10-inch tablet. Samsung minimized the bezels and removed the home button to make more space for the 10.5-inch Super AMOLED, HDR-ready display, giving you more screen real estate in a package that's fairly close to the 9.7-inch frame of the Tab S3. Even with its slimmer bezels, the tablet is easy to hold with one or both hands, and it feels sturdy. Like the Tab S3, this new tablet has a Gorilla Glass back and metal edges that give it a premium feel worthy of its high price tag. Our review unit had a white back, which didn't hold on to many fingerprints (and even if it did, its light color hid them well).

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How to win (or at least not lose) the war on phishing? Enlist machine learning

7 Aug 2018, 12:00 pm

Enlarge / Coming to a device near you: Freddi Fish 666—the Phishing Apocalypse. (credit: collage by Sean Gallagher from urraheesh iStock & Humongous Entertainment)

It's Friday, August 3, and I have hooked a live one. Using StreamingPhish, a tool that identifies potential phishing sites by mining data on newly registered certificates, I've spotted an Apple phishing site before it's even ready for victims. Conveniently, the operator has even left a Web shell wide open for me to watch him at work.

The site's fully qualified domain name is appleld.apple.0a2.com, and there's another registered at the same domain—appleld.applle.0a2.com. As I download the phishing kit, I take a look at the site access logs from within the shell. Evidently, I've caught the site just a few hours after the certificate was registered.

As I poke around, I find other phishing sites on the same server in other directories. One targets French users of the telecommunications company Orange; others have more generic names intended to disguise them as part of a seemingly legitimate URL, such as Secrty-ID.com-Logine-1.0a2.com. Others still are spam blogs filled with affiliate links to e-commerce sites.

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3D-printed (and CNC-milled) guns: Nine questions you were too afraid to ask

5 Aug 2018, 9:00 pm

Enlarge / Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed company, holds a 3D-printed gun, called the "Liberator," in his factory in Austin, Texas, on August 1, 2018. (credit: KELLY WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

By now, you’ve probably seen all the news regarding Defense Distributed, company founder Cody Wilson, and 3D-printed guns. As of last week, his story has shown up everywhere from The New York Times' podcast The Daily to Comedy Central's The Daily Show. Issues surrounding 3D-printing firearms and firearms parts have recently come up in the Senate and been addressed by White House officials.

For Ars readers, this may feel a bit like déjà vu. We've covered Wilson and his company at Ars for more than five years now; we've met him in Texas and California.

But it's easy to get lost in all of this new coverage of his saga, so we thought we'd try to help clarify the major details and the current state of it all. Similar to the beginner's guide to bitcoin we put together at the height of cryptocurrency hype, we've gathered the most common questions that come up in the comments section or over a cup of coffee. Hopefully, these nine topics can help clear up some confusion regarding this strange intersection of technology and the law.

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WarioWare Gold: A fine example of Nintendo’s weird “end of life” history

3 Aug 2018, 11:30 am

Enlarge / It's-a-he, Wario. (credit: Nintendo)

Nintendo's WarioWare Gold launches this week, and if we're judging the game within a vacuum, it's pretty good. We've been micro-gaming with the WarioWare series for just a hair over 15 years (a squiggly, Wario mustache hair, for sure), and Gold lands as a "best-of" compilation—one that finally brings the franchise to the 3DS, no less.

But WWG is difficult to judge within a vacuum. The game's release date puts it in a rarified air among first-party Nintendo games: it arrives within a system's end-of-life window. In case you haven't noticed, the 3DS side of Nintendo has been tumbleweed city these days.

Corporate promises of continued support and new, limited-edition 3DS systems don't obscure the slim pickings that are currently announced for the beloved handheld's future: a Luigi's Mansion port and Yokai Watch sequel by year's end, then a Mario & Luigi RPG port in 2019. WWG is arguably the most interesting game left in that "farewell tour" selection.

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“P is for Power”—Android engineers talk battery life improvements in Android P

1 Aug 2018, 12:00 pm

Enlarge / This interview is all about battery life.

With the last version of the Android P Developer Preview released, we're quickly heading toward the final build of another major Android version. And for Android P—aka version 9.0—battery life is a major focus. The Adaptive Battery feature will dole out background access to only the apps you use, a new auto brightness scheme has been devised, and the Android team has made changes to how background work runs on the CPU. All together, battery life should be batter (err, better) than ever.

To get a bit more detail about how all this works, we sat down with a pair of Android engineers: Benjamin Poiesz, group product manager for the Android Framework, and Tim Murray, a senior staff software engineer for Android. And over the course of our second fireside Android chat, we learned a bit more about Android P overall and some specific things about how Google goes about diagnosing and tracking battery life across the range of the OS' install base.

What follows is a transcript with some of the interview lightly edited for clarity. We also included some topical background comments in italics.

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How they did it (and will likely try again): GRU hackers vs. US elections

27 Jul 2018, 11:30 am

Enlarge / #Cyberz. (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

In a press briefing just two weeks ago, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the grand jury assembled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller had returned an indictment against 12 officers of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (better known as Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye, or GRU). The indictment was for conducting "active cyber operations with the intent of interfering in the 2016 presidential election."

The filing [PDF] spells out the Justice Department's first official, public accounting of the most high-profile information operations against the US presidential election to date. It provides details down to the names of those alleged to be behind the intrusions into the networks of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the theft of emails of members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign team, and various efforts to steal voter data and undermine faith in voting systems across multiple states in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The allegations are backed up by data collected from service provider logs, Bitcoin transaction tracing, and additional forensics. The DOJ also relied on information collected by US (and likely foreign) intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Reading between the lines, the indictment reveals that the Mueller team and other US investigators likely gained access to things like Twitter direct messages and hosting company business records and logs, and they obtained or directly monitored email messages associated with the GRU (and possibly WikiLeaks). It also appears that the investigation ultimately had some level of access to internal activities of two GRU offices.

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Lenovo Smart Display review: The Google Assistant now has a face

26 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

The first Android Things device is now available; Google is officially firing shots at Amazon's Echo-everywhere mentality with Lenovo's help. Lenovo's Smart Display is much like Amazon's Echo Show: a screen-toting smart speaker that carries not Alexa, but the Google Assistant. Like the Google Home and its Max and Mini cousins, this Smart Display (and similar forthcoming devices) is designed to enhance the Google Assistant experience with a screen that can show weather forecasts, recipe instructions, smart home controls, Duo video calls, and YouTube videos.

Android Things is Google's Internet of Things initiative, basically a stripped-down version of Android aimed at low-end hardware. Things' two big points of emphasis seem to be improving IoT security through Google-led updates and allowing third parties to build smart devices that leverage Android APIs and Google Services... like Lenovo has done here with the Smart Display.

The screen is the selling point of this first Android Things device, begging you to assess your expectations for the Google Assistant. Do you need the Assistant to have a screen? Google hopes your answer will be yes and, in turn, that you're willing to drop extra money for such a smart display. Lenovo's 8-inch and 10-inch Smart Displays, priced at $199 and $249 respectively and available starting tomorrow, show off the perks of having a panel. But after spending some time with this device, these Smart Displays don't hide the fact that the Google Assistant remains—first and foremost—a voice-activated helper.

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2018 15-inch MacBook Pro review: Better, faster, stronger?

24 Jul 2018, 5:00 pm

Enlarge / The 2018 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. (credit: Samuel Axon)

We’re well into an effort by Apple to win over pro Mac users who have been dissatisfied with recent design and technology choices. But even as many of those users have expressed frustration, MacBook Pro sales have been relatively strong.

Part of that disconnect comes down to parsing what Apple means when it adds the “Pro” label to a piece of hardware. Naturally, the term means different things to different people depending on what exactly they’re professionals at doing.

Then there’s the fact that the MacBook Pro has lived a double life not just as a pro workstation but as the high-end consumer Mac. Lots of people buy MacBook Pros who aren’t professionals—at least, not professionals at doing the sorts of things they might actually need a $3,000 computer for. These users buy it because it’s simply the best-performing Mac laptop.

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Risky Thailand cave rescue relied on talent, luck—and on sticking to the rules

22 Jul 2018, 1:45 pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Last week, the world was riveted by the successful rescue of a youth soccer team as they and their coach were pulled out of a flooded cave in Thailand. The team had been stranded on a narrow rock shelf in the dark for two weeks, the way out blocked by turbid stormwater. The rescue involved far more than a few divers putting on gear and heading into the cave—it required a tremendous amount of technical skill and posed extreme danger.

But why, exactly, was it so dangerous? And what would it feel like to dive in those kinds of conditions?

I’m a professional diver with 16 years of dive experience, including safety diving and cave diving, and I have trained numerous scuba instructors. I also work full-time in a safety diving role, so answering the first question from a technical perspective is easy enough. The short answer is that all cave diving is dangerous (we'll dig into why below).

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Google’s iron grip on Android: Controlling open source by any means necessary

21 Jul 2018, 1:56 pm

(credit: Aurich Lawson)

In light of the $5 billion EU antitrust ruling against Google this week, we started noticing a certain classic Ars story circulating around social media. Google's methods of controlling the open source Android code and discouraging Android forks is exactly the kind of behavior the EU has a problem with, and many of the techniques outlined in this 2013 article are still in use today.

The idea of a sequel to this piece has come up a few times, but Google's Android strategy of an open source base paired with key proprietary apps and services hasn't really changed in the last five or so years. There have been updates to Google's proprietary apps so that they look different from the screenshots in this article, but the base strategy outlined here is still very relevant. So in light of the latest EU development, we're resurfacing this story for the weekend. It first ran on October 20, 2013 and appears largely unchanged—but we did toss in a few "In 2018" updates anywhere they felt particularly relevant.

Six years ago, in November 2007, the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) was announced. The original iPhone came out just a few months earlier, capturing people's imaginations and ushering in the modern smartphone era. While Google was an app partner for the original iPhone, it could see what a future of unchecked iPhone competition would be like. Vic Gundotra, recalling Andy Rubin's initial pitch for Android, stated:

He argued that if Google did not act, we faced a Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice.

Google was terrified that Apple would end up ruling the mobile space. So, to help in the fight against the iPhone at a time when Google had no mobile foothold whatsoever, Android was launched as an open source project.

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As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist

20 Jul 2018, 12:15 pm

Enlarge / First hot firing of the P120C solid rocket motor that will be used by Europe's new Vega-C and Ariane 6 rockets. (credit: ESA/CNES)

KOUROU, French Guiana—White light flooded in through large windows behind Alain Charmeau as he mused about the new age of rocketry. The brilliant sunrise promised another idyllic day in this beach town, but outside the sands remained untroubled by the feet of tourists.

Lamentably, the nearshore waters of this former French colony are chocolate rather than azure, muddied by outflow from the Amazon and other rivers. French Guiana has other compensating assets, however. It lies just 5.3 degrees north of the equator. Neither tropical cyclones nor earthquakes threaten the area. And its coast offers untrammeled access to both the east and north. These natural gifts have helped this remote region become one of the world’s busiest spaceports.

From here, Europe has established a long but largely unheralded history in the global rocket industry. Nearly three decades ago, it became the first provider of commercial launch services. If your company or country had a satellite and enough money, Europe would fly it into space for you. Remarkably, more than half of all telecom satellites in service today were launched from this sprawling spaceport.

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Formula E ends its season—and an era—in Brooklyn

18 Jul 2018, 11:00 am

Enlarge (credit: Elle Cayabyab Gitlin)

NEW YORK—Racing cars came to Red Hook this past weekend as Formula E held its season four finale, the NYC ePrix. Although the event is only in its second year, the Big Apple is fast feeling like home for these all-electric race cars, and once again we saw championship-deciding races play out against the Manhattan skyline.

But this event also marked a different sort of finale—the end of Formula E's first chapter as the series prepares to retire the cars it has been using for these last four seasons. When season five gets underway in Saudi Arabia this December, Formula E will have a new vehicle in the spotlight: one with more power, wild looks, and enough battery to make mid-race vehicle swaps a thing of the past.

Formula E's current reality

Unlike other racing series, Formula E exclusively races on temporary street tracks in city centers, because city centers are where electric vehicles make the most sense. (Yes, the Mexico round is the exception that proves the rule, but that permanent circuit is in a pretty urban part of Mexico City.) Not all of those city centers have proved welcoming; races in Miami and Montreal were one-offs, and the London ePrix lasted but two years. But the series signed a 10-year deal with New York City, and, by building the course around the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, the impact on local residents from road closures and the like are minimal. (The course itself is slightly modified from last year, including longer straights that increase the track length to 1.5 miles, or 2.4km.)

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To make Curiosity (et al.) more curious, NASA and ESA smarten up AI in space

16 Jul 2018, 2:30 pm

Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars and one of several identified by the Mars Exploration Rovers. (credit: NASA)

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has done many great things in its decade-plus of service—but initially, it rolled 600 feet past one of the initiative’s biggest discoveries: the Block Island meteorite. Measuring about 67 centimeters across, the meteorite was a telltale sign that Mars' atmosphere had once been much thicker, thick enough to slow down the rock flying at a staggering 2km/s so that it did not disintegrate on impact. A thicker atmosphere could mean a more gentle climate, possibly capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, maybe even life.

Yet, we only know about the Block Island meteorite because someone on the Opportunity science team manually spotted an unusual shape in low-resolution thumbnails of the images and decided it was worth backtracking for several days to examine it further. Instead of this machine purposefully heading toward the rock right from the get-go, the team barely saw perhaps its biggest triumph in the rear view mirror. "It was almost a miss," says Mark Woods, head of autonomy and robotics at SciSys, a company specializing in IT solutions for space exploration that works for the European Space Agency (ESA), among others.

Opportunity, of course, made this near-miss maneuver all the way back in July 2009. If NASA were to attempt a similar initiative in a far-flung corner of the galaxy today—as the space organization plans to in 2020 with the Mars 2020 rover (the ESA has similar ambitions with its ExoMars rover that year)—modern scientists have one particularly noteworthy advantage that has developed since.

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