The image of the Martian surface that confirmed the survival of Beagle2. Image: HiRISE/NASA/Leicester
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ESA's elusive Mars lander Beagle2 discovered - but how?

Eureka! We've found Beagle2 – now, where did Philae go?

Landing a spacecraft on a celestial body, whether it be the moon, Mars or a comet, is not easy. The European Space Agency found out the hard way in 2003 when its robot Beagle2, which was supposed to send back a signal after landing on Mars, didn’t do so.

But more than a decade after it went missing, the UK Space Agency has announced that the Beagle2, the elusive lander, has been re-discovered.

Beagle2 was ejected from the Mars Express spacecraft on 19 December 2003, and was scheduled to land on 25 December. The landing had Beagle2 protected by inflated airbags, which would be released from the lander and roll away before deflating. Beagle2 would then deploy its solar panels, before communicating with orbiting craft. Unfortunately, no signal was received, and after desperate attempts to communicate with Beagle2, it was sadly concluded that the lander had been lost.

The subsequent inquiry found that the most likely causes of the loss were either a problem with the Entry, Descent and Landing System (EDLS) or sheer bad luck. It now looks as though the EDLS worked – so that leaves bad luck:



Illustration: UKSA


The images that have sparked the news come from the HiRise camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Oriter. This is an instrument which is able to take very high resolution images of Mars’ surface. The scientists leading the search for the missing Beagle2 were looking for “something that wasn’t red, and wasn’t a pointy rock”. Given that this doesn’t narrow the field down very much, it is testament to the amazing perseverance and talents of the individuals concerned that they have managed to locate the lander.

It is poignant that the information comes at this time – Colin Pillinger was very much the driving force behind Beagle2, and one of the leaders of the Rosetta mission. His premature death last year deprived the scientific community of one of its most charismatic members. How he would have gloried in the re-discovery of Beagle2.

In contrast to the finding of Beagle2 comes news of another of ESA’s landers: Philae. Getting Rosetta spacecraft to drop Philae was an exciting and nerve-wracking time – the lander successfully sent an arrival signal, but subsequent information showed that Philae hadn’t landed where it was supposed to.

Since the mid-November landing, there have been several possible sightings of Philae from cameras on-board Rosetta. But none has been confirmed as the lander. Rosetta is continuing its science mission – which means that it has moved further away from the nucleus of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is now taking wider-field images of the comet’s nucleus, to search for signs of developing surface activity, rather than the more narrow, specific area images that were being acquired in the search for Philae.

Even though the exact location of Philae is unknown, the lander is not lost. It is misplaced, and there is hope that when Rosetta next approaches close to the nucleus, in mid-February, it will once again be able to resume scanning for its delinquent child.

And what of ESA’s third lander – the hugely successful Huygens spacecraft? This is also celebrating its anniversary. It landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan, in January 2005. It did everything that was asked of it, landed where it was supposed to land, acquired the data it was supposed to acquire, and then, on time and with no fuss, quietly went to sleep. A lesson for other landers to learn?

So if you kept score, ESA Landers: Mission accomplished 1, Lost 1, Found 1.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.