22nd > January > 2005 Archive

Titan: rains of methane, mountains of ice

The data sent back via NASA's Cassini spacecraft confirm that Titan is a moon with weather. It rains methane on Titan. They don't know how often, but they know that it does. The latest news from the Huygens probe is that "it might have rained yesterday". Of course, "yesterday" is the day before the probe landed, not yesterday, yesterday, so mission scientists are being a little poetic. Still, mountain ranges of ice are gently eroded by the methane rainfall, which washes dark organic compounds into streams, channel and pools. The researchers think that the landing site is in a pretty arid area of Titan, much like Arizona on Earth. Martin Tomasko, principal investigator for the Descent Imager and Spectral Radiometer (DISR), said that everywhere the team looks there is evidence of fluid flow, although the area is pretty dry now. "We think the riverbeds are dry most of the time, with liquid only flowing just after the rains," he said. The exact site of the landing could be a dry riverbed. The probe sent back pictures of rounded rocks, which are most likely ice blocks with their hard edges eroded by flowing rivers of methane. The dark "pools" near the landing site are probably dry places where the rainfall collects, then evaporates, leaving the dark organic material behind. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, ESA Huygens mission manager, said the research teams working on each of the science packages have spent long hours unravellins the data from the probe. "We have not had much sleep," in the seven days since Huygens landed on Titan, he told the press. Toby Owen, a specialist from the Cassini team, investigating the atmospheres of both Titan and Saturn, says the data shows the atmosphere is, as expected, mostly made of nitrogen. As the probe descended, the levels of methane detected rose steadily. There are also traces of argon, but no primordial argon, unlike Earth. This absence, he says, is a clue to the formation of the moon. The data also confirms that the liquid on the surface of Titan is methane, not ethane. This discovery raises the question of where all the CH4 is coming from. The researchers explained that it can't be left over from Titan's primordial atmosphere, or it would all have been used up. Photochemical reactions occurring in the upper atmosphere break the methane down, and other organic compounds form as a result. The probe touched down at about 4.5 m/s, a whole series of instruments gathered data on the texture of the surface. It is similar to wet sand or clay with a thin solid crust, but is mainly a mix of dirty water ice and hydrocarbon ice. It is also darker than researchers expected. Owen points to a spike in the amount of methane detected by the instruments, after the probe had landed. This same spike was observed by the surface science package team, headed by John Zarnecki. After the initial impact, the probe sank about 15 cm into the soft surface, Zarnecki said. The temperature at ground level was about -180 degrees Celsius, but the probe was generating plenty of heat: "Once it has landed, the probe heats the soil. The CH4 evaporates through the soil, and the mass spectrometer gets a whiff," he said. "It is still early days, but it is a pretty consistent picture. There are some truly remarkable processes on Titan, very, very similar to those on Earth. Similar processes are at work, but the ingredients are different. On Earth, rocks are silicate. on Titan they are ice. There is even dirt on Titan, the dark organic matter." The researchers are still pretty guarded about what these other organics that might exist on Titan could be. All they will say is that there are some hints in the data, but there is a lot more work needed before they can say anything with any degree of certainty. "So what have we learned?" Owen asks. "The main thing is the detection of liquid methane. Titan is a flammable world, it is really quite extraordinary." ® Update Regarding the question of a flammable world: It is a pretty safe bet that the scientists involved in running space exploration missions are cognisant of the fact that for methane to combust, there must be oxygen present. We suspect Owen was using poetic license. Related stories ESA shows off Titanic views Huygens lands on Titan, and the data floweth Huygens probe alive and kicking
Lucy Sherriff, 22 Jan 2005

Once fabless, almost chipless - is Transmeta's future hopeless?

Five years ago almost to the day, Transmeta launched without manufacturing facilities as a "fabless chip company". Now it's all but abandoning future chip design, so it's a fabless chipless company. In a conference call today executives outlined some of the options Transmeta is exploring, and tried to explain why less is more. There are a couple of reasons why the picture isn't as bleak as the headlines suggest. More than half of Transmeta's revenue is from licensing and services, which is where it wants to focus - and only 15 per cent comes from the notebook sector, where Intel's aggressive Centrino campaigns are perceived to have hurt it the most. And the company has more than $50m in the bank. And there's money in licensing, if you have something people think they need. Transmeta's immediate strategy is threefold, but the specifics won't be clear until deadline day, March 31. In the background lurks and eventual sale. Investment bank Perseus has been brought in to advise. For now, Transmeta is looking for new licensees for its LongRun2 power management technology in addition to Fujitsu and NEC. It's also looking for strategic collaboration to shore up its existing OEMs, and finally, examing more potential IP licensing deals for its other technologies. Transmeta's most recent 10Q filing valued its IP portfolio at $24m. If these don't come to fruition the future for many of the employees looks grim. Transmeta gains 53 per cent of its revenues from licensing and services, the rest from chip sales, of which only about 15 per cent is from notebooks. But until March 31, executives said they won't be making any redundancies and staff who stay on receive a cash incentive. Production of the 130nm Crusoe and Efficeon processors will end, but current contracts will be honored. OEMs who want supplies of the 90nm Efficeon, which launched in September, will be supported, however. CEO Matt Perry said that Transmeta had $53m in cash at the end of the last quarter and had since raised $16m more. It had made a $4m payment to IBM and pushed back a $5m payment to Big Blue to June next year. Perry described this as "the only meaningful debt on our balance sheet." Even as Transmeta exits the chip business, Perry couldn't resist having a dig at Intel. The Sonoma chipset launched this week "used 50 per cent more standby power" than previous Centrinos, he said. ® Related stories Transmeta touts Media Center PC design Transmeta may power down chip making biz Transmeta licenses LongRun 2 to Fujitsu Transmeta loss widens as revenues miss target Transmeta: 2GHz Efficeon to offer SSE 3 support
Andrew Orlowski, 22 Jan 2005

EU rules against Voda / 02 Irish duopoly

Mobile virtual network operators look set to become a reality in Ireland as the European Commission rules in favour of ComReg's review of the mobile market. ComReg said on Friday, 21 January that it had received notification from the European Commission saying that it agrees with the regulator's assessment of the Irish market and the "joint dominance" held by Vodafone and O2. ComReg has welcomed the Commission's ruling and said it will proceed with its measures to make the Irish mobile market more competitive. Such measures are expected to include rules that will force O2 and Vodafone to allow other mobile operators - so-called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) - to piggyback on O2 and Vodafone's networks. Virtual operators are common elsewhere in Europe, with the UK's Virgin Mobile and often-cited example. In December 2004 ComReg approached the Commission about the Irish mobile market. The regulator's review of the market concluded that Vodafone and O2 should opened up their networks to MVNOs to increase competition. Both Vodafone and O2, which together control around 94 per cent of the Irish market, reacted angrily to ComReg's suggestions and vowed to challenge the decision in the European courts. In a strongly-worded statement Vodafone has expressed disappointment with the Commission's decision and has called on ComReg to revise its position on MVNOs, citing developments such as two new national roaming agreements, the recent improvement in Meteor's performance and the imminent entry of Hutchison-controlled 3 into Ireland, as examples of increased competition in the market. In a statement, Gerry Fahy, strategy director at Vodafone Ireland, expressed disappointment that the European Commission has "not taken the opportunity to examine more closely ComReg's inadequate analysis and flawed conclusions". If ComReg proceeds with its proposals, as it has said it will, Vodafone says it will be left with no choice but to appeal the decision to an Electronic Communications Appeals Panel. This could hold up the introduction of MVNOs in Ireland. Tommy Broughan, the Labour spokesman for communications, who welcomed the Commission's decision; "It is about time the Irish mobile phone user started getting something back from companies who have been exploiting the heavy usage rates in this country." This landmark decision by the Commission could open the floodgates in other European mobile markets where similar situations of collective dominance may exist. The regulators in the French market, for example, has long been pushing for more competition there where, only has three main players exist: France Telecom's Orange unit, Vivendi Universal's SFR unit and Bouygues Telecom. ® © ENN Related stories Vodafone Ireland puts price tag on 3G Vodafone Ireland admits multi-million overcharge Eircom overcharges 31,500 customers
ElectricNews.net, 22 Jan 2005