NASA and DARPA will test nuclear thermal engines for crewed missions to Mars

NASA is going back to an old idea as it tries to get humans to Mars. It is teaming up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space with the aim of using the technology for crewed missions to the red planet. The agencies hope to "demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. "With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars."

Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead on technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental spacecraft from DARPA. NASA says that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, which could reduce the volume of supplies needed to carry out a long mission. An NTD engine could also free up space for more science equipment and extra power for instrumentation and communication.

As far back as the 1940s, scientists started speculating about the possibility of using nuclear energy to power spaceflight. The US conducted ground experiments on that front starting in the '50s. Budget cutbacks and changing priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) led to NASA abandoning the project at the end of 1972 before it carried out any test flights.

There are, of course, risks involved with NTP engines, such as the possible dispersal of radioactive material in the environment should a failure occur in the atmosphere or orbit. Nevertheless, NASA says the faster transit times that NTP engines can enable could lower the risk to astronauts — they could reduce travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets could be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.

NASA is also looking into nuclear energy to power related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it carried out tests of a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a habitat on Mars. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a fission surface power system that it can test on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have worked on other NTP engine projects over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the US has just approved a small modular nuclear design for the first time. As Gizmodo reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility that's around a third the size of a standard reactor. Each module is capable of producing around 50 megawatts of power. The design, from a company called NuScale, could lower the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.

NASA and DARPA will test nuclear thermal engines for crewed missions to Mars

NASA is going back to an old idea as it tries to get humans to Mars. It is teaming up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space with the aim of using the technology for crewed missions to the red planet. The agencies hope to "demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. "With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars."

Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead on technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental spacecraft from DARPA. NASA says that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, which could reduce the volume of supplies needed to carry out a long mission. An NTD engine could also free up space for more science equipment and extra power for instrumentation and communication.

As far back as the 1940s, scientists started speculating about the possibility of using nuclear energy to power spaceflight. The US conducted ground experiments on that front starting in the '50s. Budget cutbacks and changing priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) led to NASA abandoning the project at the end of 1972 before it carried out any test flights.

There are, of course, risks involved with NTP engines, such as the possible dispersal of radioactive material in the environment should a failure occur in the atmosphere or orbit. Nevertheless, NASA says the faster transit times that NTP engines can enable could lower the risk to astronauts — they could reduce travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets could be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.

NASA is also looking into nuclear energy to power related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it carried out tests of a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a habitat on Mars. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a fission surface power system that it can test on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have worked on other NTP engine projects over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the US has just approved a small modular nuclear design for the first time. As Gizmodo reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility that's around a third the size of a standard reactor. Each module is capable of producing around 50 megawatts of power. The design, from a company called NuScale, could lower the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.

The Biden administration is reportedly drafting an executive order to streamline space rules

The Biden administration is reportedly drafting an executive order designed to modernize federal space regulations. According to Reuters, White House officials have hosted multiple “listening sessions” since November 14th. The goal of those meetings has been to hear from private space companies and the rules they would like to see introduced.

Reuters reports the White House wants to simplify licensing and approval procedures for more routine space activities, including things like rocket launches and satellite deployments. Among the measures the Biden administration is considering is an order that would task the Department of Commerce with creating an online tool that would guide companies through the licensing requirements from each federal agency. The team drafting the order is also looking for ways to push Congress to give certain federal agencies oversight of space activities that aren’t covered by current laws, including things like asteroid mining and space junk removal. The order could be ready for President Biden to sign by early next year.

The administration’s push to streamline space regulations comes as companies like Blue Origin prepare to spend billions on projects like Orbital Reef, a space station the firm hopes to start assembling in low Earth orbit by the end of the decade. The next decade is also likely to see a new space race between the US and China play out as the rival superpowers look to put humans back on the Moon. Private space firms are likely to be critical in the outcome of that conflict.

The Biden administration is reportedly drafting an executive order to streamline space rules

The Biden administration is reportedly drafting an executive order designed to modernize federal space regulations. According to Reuters, White House officials have hosted multiple “listening sessions” since November 14th. The goal of those meetings has been to hear from private space companies and the rules they would like to see introduced.

Reuters reports the White House wants to simplify licensing and approval procedures for more routine space activities, including things like rocket launches and satellite deployments. Among the measures the Biden administration is considering is an order that would task the Department of Commerce with creating an online tool that would guide companies through the licensing requirements from each federal agency. The team drafting the order is also looking for ways to push Congress to give certain federal agencies oversight of space activities that aren’t covered by current laws, including things like asteroid mining and space junk removal. The order could be ready for President Biden to sign by early next year.

The administration’s push to streamline space regulations comes as companies like Blue Origin prepare to spend billions on projects like Orbital Reef, a space station the firm hopes to start assembling in low Earth orbit by the end of the decade. The next decade is also likely to see a new space race between the US and China play out as the rival superpowers look to put humans back on the Moon. Private space firms are likely to be critical in the outcome of that conflict.

FCC bans telecom and video surveillance gear from Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese companies

Last year, the Biden administration signed the Secure Equipment Act into law, which aimed to block the authorization of network licenses from several Chinese companies whose hardware has been deemed a national security threat. Today, the FCC announced that it's officially implementing that ruling, which means some future equipment from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua won't be authorized for sale in the US. Existing equipment from those companies, which are all listed under the FCC's "Covered List," aren't affected by the law.

“The FCC is committed to protecting our national security by ensuring that untrustworthy communications equipment is not authorized for use within our borders, and we are continuing that work here,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications.”

To be clear, the FCC isn't completely blocking all hardware from these companies. And for some, like Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, Rosenworcel writes that it's specifically focusing on gear related to "the purpose of public safety, security of government facilities, physical surveillance of critical infrastructure, and other national security purposes." If those companies can show that they're not marketing that equipment for government use — for example, directing it consumers instead — they may be able get authorized by the FCC.

This latest move follows years of conflict between the US and companies closely tied to Chinese governments. That's included placing several notable Chinese companies, including DJI, on the Department of Commerce's "Entity List," which prohibits US firms from selling equipment to them. The FCC is also calling for $5 billion to help US carriers with the massive task of replacing equipment from Huawei and ZTE.

FCC bans telecom and video surveillance gear from Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese companies

Last year, the Biden administration signed the Secure Equipment Act into law, which aimed to block the authorization of network licenses from several Chinese companies whose hardware has been deemed a national security threat. Today, the FCC announced that it's officially implementing that ruling, which means some future equipment from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua won't be authorized for sale in the US. Existing equipment from those companies, which are all listed under the FCC's "Covered List," aren't affected by the law.

“The FCC is committed to protecting our national security by ensuring that untrustworthy communications equipment is not authorized for use within our borders, and we are continuing that work here,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications.”

To be clear, the FCC isn't completely blocking all hardware from these companies. And for some, like Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, Rosenworcel writes that it's specifically focusing on gear related to "the purpose of public safety, security of government facilities, physical surveillance of critical infrastructure, and other national security purposes." If those companies can show that they're not marketing that equipment for government use — for example, directing it consumers instead — they may be able get authorized by the FCC.

This latest move follows years of conflict between the US and companies closely tied to Chinese governments. That's included placing several notable Chinese companies, including DJI, on the Department of Commerce's "Entity List," which prohibits US firms from selling equipment to them. The FCC is also calling for $5 billion to help US carriers with the massive task of replacing equipment from Huawei and ZTE.

FBI reportedly considered using Pegasus spyware in criminal investigations

As recently as early last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was considering using NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus spyware in criminal investigations, reports The New York Times. Between late 2020 and early 2021, agency officials were in the “advanced” stages of developing plans to brief FBI leadership on the software, according to internal bureau documents and court records seen by The Times. Those documents also reveal the bureau had developed guidelines for federal prosecutors detailing how the FBI’s use of Pegasus would need to be disclosed during court cases.

Based on the documents, it’s unclear if the FBI had considered using the spyware against American citizens. Earlier this year, The Times found that the agency had tested Phantom, a version of Pegasus that can target phones with US numbers.

By July 2021, the FBI eventually decided not to use Pegasus in criminal investigations. That’s the same month that The Washington Post published an investigation that claimed the software had been used to compromise the phones of two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A few months later, the US placed Pegasus creator NSO Group on the Commerce Department’s entity list, a designation that prevents US companies from conducting business with the firm. Despite the decision not to use Pegasus, the FBI indicated it remains open to using spyware in the future.

“Just because the FBI ultimately decided not to deploy the tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not test, evaluate and potentially deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals,” states a legal briefing filed by the FBI last month.

The documents appear to present a different picture of the agency’s interest in Pegasus than the one FBI Director Chris Wray shared with Congress during a closed-doors hearing this past December. “If you mean have we used it in any of our investigations to collect or target somebody, the answer is - as I’m assured - no,” he said in response to a question from Senator Ron Wyden. “The reason why I hedge, and I want to be transparent, that we have acquired some of their tools for research and development. In other words, to be able to figure out how bad guys could use it, for example.”

FBI reportedly considered using Pegasus spyware in criminal investigations

As recently as early last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was considering using NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus spyware in criminal investigations, reports The New York Times. Between late 2020 and early 2021, agency officials were in the “advanced” stages of developing plans to brief FBI leadership on the software, according to internal bureau documents and court records seen by The Times. Those documents also reveal the bureau had developed guidelines for federal prosecutors detailing how the FBI’s use of Pegasus would need to be disclosed during court cases.

Based on the documents, it’s unclear if the FBI had considered using the spyware against American citizens. Earlier this year, The Times found that the agency had tested Phantom, a version of Pegasus that can target phones with US numbers.

By July 2021, the FBI eventually decided not to use Pegasus in criminal investigations. That’s the same month that The Washington Post published an investigation that claimed the software had been used to compromise the phones of two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A few months later, the US placed Pegasus creator NSO Group on the Commerce Department’s entity list, a designation that prevents US companies from conducting business with the firm. Despite the decision not to use Pegasus, the FBI indicated it remains open to using spyware in the future.

“Just because the FBI ultimately decided not to deploy the tool in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not test, evaluate and potentially deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals,” states a legal briefing filed by the FBI last month.

The documents appear to present a different picture of the agency’s interest in Pegasus than the one FBI Director Chris Wray shared with Congress during a closed-doors hearing this past December. “If you mean have we used it in any of our investigations to collect or target somebody, the answer is - as I’m assured - no,” he said in response to a question from Senator Ron Wyden. “The reason why I hedge, and I want to be transparent, that we have acquired some of their tools for research and development. In other words, to be able to figure out how bad guys could use it, for example.”

FCC proposes rules to prevent fake emergency alerts

The Federal Communications Commission is well aware of the potential damage from fake emergency alerts, and it's hoping to minimize the threat with policy changes. The agency has proposed rules that would require stricter security for the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts. Participants and telecoms would have to not only report EAS breaches within 72 hours, but provide yearly certifications that they both have "sufficient" safeguards and a risk management plan.

The proposed rules would also require phone carriers to send authentication data ensuring that only legitimate emergency alerts reach customer devices. The FCC is similarly looking for comments on the effectiveness of the current requirements for transmitting EAS notices, and suggestions for "alternative approaches" with improvements.

The proposal comes three years after University of Colorado researchers warned that it was easy to spoof FEMA's presidential alerts, with no way to verify the authenticity of the broadcasts. And while the 2018 Hawaii missile alert was the result of an error rather than a hack, it underscored the risks associated with false warnings. Even at small scales, a fake alert could reach tens of thousands of people, possibly leading to panic and reduced trust in real messages.

It's not certain if the proposals are enough. The 72-hour window may help prevent some false alerts, but not all of them — that's plenty of time for a hacker to both breach an emergency system and send fake messages. It's likewise unclear if the FCC would update its security requirements to keep up with evolving threats. Even so, this shows that the Commission is at least aware of the dangers.

NTSB calls for all new vehicles to include alcohol monitoring tech

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on its sister agency to implement regulation requiring all vehicles sold in the US to include blood alcohol monitoring systems. The NTSB sent the recommendation to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday after completing an investigation into a horrific collision last year that involved drunk driving and the death of two adults and seven children.

“Technology could’ve prevented this heartbreaking crash — just as it can prevent the tens of thousands of fatalities from impaired-driving and speeding-related crashes we see in the US annually,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives.”​

According to statistics published by the NHTSA, nearly 43,000 people died on US roads last year, marking the highest that number had been in 16 years. While traffic deaths fell slightly between April and June, Ann Carlson, the agency’s acting administrator, said a “crisis” was still underway on the country’s roads. “We need NHTSA to act. We see the numbers,” Homendy told The Associated Press. “We need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to save lives.”

The NTSB says all new cars sold in the US should include an integrated system that passively detects if the driver is under the influence of alcohol. It notes that such a system could be combined with advanced driver monitoring technologies to prevent accidents. Separately, the agency recommends that the NHTSA incentivize automakers to include tech that prevents speeding-related collisions. The NTSB does not have the authority to regulate or enforce any safety measures it suggests. It has been calling on the NHTSA to explore alcohol monitoring technologies since 2012.

The NHTSA also faces pressure from Congress to mandate such systems. Under last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the agency has three years to study the feasibility of various alcohol monitoring technologies and establish a final set of rules. It can seek an extension, however. And in the past, it has been slow to implement such requirements.