SciTechBlog
May 3, 2010

Geek Out!: Wearing your geek cred

Posted: 12:18 PM ET
Science Is A Verb Now
Science Is A Verb Now

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

As the old saying goes, "clothing makes the man." In the geek culture, what is said on the clothing is more important than the clothing itself.

Geeks, gamers and nerds have been showing their cred by the logos, designs and saying on their T-shirts. It is considered a badge of honor and a way to connect with others of like minds.

Shirt designers say people use T-shirts as a quick visual way to tell the world something about themselves. While the core audience for these shirts used to be hardcore geeks, some companies say the appeal has broadened in recent years.

Shane Peterman from Think Geek said buyers of their products include gamers, college students, scientists and NASA employees. "It is more of an open secret now," he said. "Your shirt helps you identify who is 'in the know'."

Brian Sunter, merchandise manager of Penny Arcade, agrees. "Geeks–and gamers especially–relate to that stuff as well, I think, because gaming has a huge pool of shared experiences," Sunter said. "Maybe it is a little awkward, but we’ve kind of all rescued the same princesses and saved the same worlds."

Chris Hastings, creator of "The Adventures of Dr. McNinja", takes a different view. He thinks T-shirts can connect people who wouldn't normally say a word to each other.

"If one is wearing a T-shirt that says 'Ninjas Can't Catch You If You're On Fire", the other sees it, immediately gets the joke and thinks "Wow! This person has the same weird sense of humor that I do," Hastings said.

Designers say that a good shirt goes a little further than just a logo and one level deeper to make that connection. But it all starts with a creative look on the t-shirt that sometimes has different meanings for different people.

TopatoCo has been working as an online store for many web comics artists for about 8 years. Supreme Commander of Promotions David Malki! said the best shirts get an idea out that is reflective of the comic's tone. He also thinks a good shirt speaks on behalf of the wearer.

"The shirt shows the exclusivity and uniqueness of the wearer," Malki! said. "It makes them seem super cool."

Ryan North, creator of "Dinosaur Comics", aims for shirts that target people who are familiar with his comic, but also works well with someone who has never heard of it.

"That way, the person buying it knows it's rad, and knows that people who see it will think it's rad too," North explained.

Sean Gailey, the Creative Overlord at Jinx, takes another route to designing their geek T-shirts. Gailey said they keep a close eye on trends and user comments.

"Our customer core is shameless and passionate about their interests," Gailey said. "The design message has to mean something and you're in on it."

Peterman also says the popularization of geek culture on television shows and movies influences who buys geek T-shirts.

"'The Big Bang Theory' is a big part of it," he said. "Older geeks are tapping back into the culture and they are the ones who can make buying decisions."

These companies are trying to harness that older audience by offering a wider selection beyond just T-shirts. Polo shirts, button down shirts, jackets, and even baby items are getting the geek treatment in an effort to spread the geek chic.

"It is more subtle," Gailey explained. "It is another option to still maintain and express your geek cred."

"I think what is next for geek chic is apparel that acknowledges the identity of modern geeks as responsible adults who grew up as gamers," Sunter said about their new First Party line of clothes. "There is a place, now, for classy clothing that gamers can identify with."

Malki! said TopatoCo is expanding their selections with more colors and organically produced shirts in response to customer requests. Peterman said Think Geek is offering interactive shirts, like a shirt recently seen on "The Big Bang Theory" that plays music when you press buttons on the shirt.

Perhaps the geek cred can be summed up in the mantra at Jinx – "Get into it."

"Whatever you like, get into it," Gailey said. "Don't take a casual interest."

Never let it be said that geeks aren't into what ever "it" is. And as this geek will tell you, wearing your heart on your sleeve – or emblazoned across your chest – is a matter of pride.

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Filed under: Gaming • Geek Out! • Mathematics • NASA • pop culture • science • web comics


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April 29, 2010

Geek Out!: Dreaming of interplanetary water stations

Posted: 05:32 PM ET
Fueling stations?
Fueling stations?

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

"This research indicates that not only could asteroids be possible sources of raw materials, but they could be the fueling stations and watering holes for future interplanetary exploration."

That's Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, talking about this morning's news in Nature that signs of water ice and organic compounds have been discovered on an asteroid. See Yeomans' full comments.

This is big news for the scientific community. Previously, scientists believed that asteroids within a certain distance of the sun are too close to the energy of our home star to maintain any water ice. That the asteroid 24 Themis, a mere 297 million miles from the sun, boasts the infrared signatures of both organic compounds and water ice lends credibility to theories that say that Earth's water and other organic compounds were delivered to the planet after its initial geological formation.

But what about the space exploration communities? The other parts of NASA, the people concerned with human spaceflight, don't seem to be reacting to 24 Themis' water news. As Yeomans indicates, the discovery of water ice on a near-Earth object could open up some possibilities for human exploration of the solar system. So why the relative silence?

Maybe it's because lately, it doesn't seem like the United States will ever get to a point where interplanetary exploration is a reality. Right now, the space shuttle is set to retire at the end of 2010 with Endeavour's last mission. President Obama's budget, which allocates more money to NASA for the types of research that could reveal other asteroids and near-Earth objects with watering hole capabilities, scraps the still-in-progress Constellation program. Constellation was supposed to be the shuttle's successor: a reusable, modular heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle that would put the moon and probably Mars back within the reach of U.S. astronauts.

The loss of both the shuttle and Constellation puts the United States astronaut corps completely at the mercy of Russian and other international space agencies. Put another way: The U.S. won't be able to put a person on orbit, on the international space station or otherwise, without paying a significant cost.

Which means that assuming all remaining shuttle flights launch as planned, by 2011, for the first time in 49 years, the United States will no longer be the No. 1 country capable of manned space flight. Instead, we'll cede orbital supremacy to Russia, Japan, China - all countries that either have capabilities at the moment or are on track to have them in the foreseeable future. And we will literally pay them for the privilege of being second-best.

To be fair, Obama's NASA budget allocates funds to the development of private spacecraft for human flight. There's a chance that the United States won't give up that No. 1 slot. But there's also a good deal of skepticism as to whether the private sector will be able to develop the crafts needed to restore U.S. manned spaceflight capability in a timely fashion. As David Waters, reporter for SpaceflightNow.com and former public affairs officer for United Space Alliance, points out, "NASA may have set the ball in motion for commercial companies to start flying astronauts, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we're years away from that happening."

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) and Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) have all also expressed their thoughts about scrapping Constellation, saying that the U.S.' loss of the ability to get to low-Earth orbit is going to cost this country a lot more than the $50 million to $60 million per seat on a Russian Soyuz. It's also going to cost knowledge, training and experience that space personnel, both NASA and private-sector, gain as machinery is developed and built and as astronauts train and fly.

It's also probably going to cost human space exploration public favor and attention. It's no secret that the general public pays far less attention to spaceflight than it did during Apollo's heyday in the '60s and '70s. So what will happen if the U.S. doesn't launch a person for 10, 20, 30 years? How long will it take before the American public regains its enthusiasm for the costly, risky challenge that is spacefaring? How many potential young scientists, engineers, pilots, astronauts and space geeks will turn their attentions and energies elsewhere without NASA flying?

Someone somewhere is imagining the day that a craft emblazoned with the familiar NASA logo reaches orbit around an asteroid, refills its water tanks and continues on through the solar system. The knowledge humanity would gain from such a flight is the stuff of dreams. But right now, such a day exists only in science fiction. While the data gleaned from 24 Themis will probably continue to inform theories of the Earth's origin and formation, with Obama's new budget and NASA's new plans for the future, it seems unlikely that NASA spacecraft will ever use Yeomans' asteroid pit stops.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • NASA • Uncategorized


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April 9, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane - really!

Posted: 10:51 AM ET
Global Hawk in flight
Global Hawk in flight

Flying higher, farther and without a pilot.

NASA's Global Hawk plane can fly to altitudes of 60,000 feet – way above normal flight paths – and as far as nearly half way around the world. It does this completely automatically, without the aid of a pilot or controller.

The plane follows a preprogrammed flight path and can stay aloft for nearly 30 hours while staying in contact with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center via satellites. The Global Hawk maiden voyage took it over the Pacific and Arctic oceans to study the atmosphere over those bodies of water.

Researchers hope that the plane's range and endurance will make it ideal to sample and measure greenhouse gases, ozone and air quality over a wide area in a short period of time.

"We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes," said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist.

Scientists expect the high altitude flights to let them measure dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia and affect U.S. air quality. The Global Hawk is scheduled to make four more flights this month over the Pacific and Arctic areas.

Global Hawks – obviously not retro-fitted with scientific sensors – are also used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were recently used after the Haiti earthquakes to provide more than 3,600 images of affected areas to help with disaster relief.

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Filed under: Aviation • climate change • environment • greenhouse gas • NASA • Space


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April 6, 2010

Geek Out!: Fulfilling a geek dream - there for space shuttle launch

Posted: 11:45 AM ET
Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

We were awake for more than twenty-four hours in the singular pursuit of one goal: We had a shuttle to catch.

The Space Shuttle Discovery. One of NASA's final shuttle missions blasted off from Kennedy Space Center yesterday morning at 6:21:25 EDT, just as the sun was edging towards daybreak - the last shuttle mission scheduled to blast off into night skies.

This mission and crew are special for a few reasons: it will mark the first time that four women are in orbit simultaneously. It will mark the first time that two Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts are in orbit at the same time. This is Discovery's second-to-last scheduled trip to space, and the last time that a Shuttle crew will comprise seven people. It is also the last time that a rookie will fly aboard the Shuttle.

The milestones are plentiful - like most Shuttle missions, NASA and its partners have made sure the 13-day flight will be nonstop activity.

But for our little crew of three, this launch was unique because it represented a geek dream realized: The three of us have been space enthusiasts, NASA supporters and star gazers for most of our lives. With only four (now three) scheduled launches remaining in NASA's Shuttle program, we were running out of chances to witness a launch in person.

And witness one we did. After weeks of delays due to cold weather and leaky-valve technical issues, Discovery was finally on the launch pad and ready to go. The countdown proceeded smoothly through the course of the night, sliding in and out of planned wait periods with nary a hint of a problem.

We watched the clock tick down, standing a few feet from those iconic yellow numbers. All told, we spent roughly seven hours at Kennedy Space Center, photographing the stars, the moon, the xenon-lit Shuttle and the people who had come to quite literally feel the earth move.

At T-3 seconds, we saw more than felt the three main engines light.

At T-0 we could see enormous clouds of vapor and smoke billowing beneath the Shuttle as Discovery lifted off the pad.

The sky brightened faster than any sunrise. And then, the roar: the ground-shaking, chest-thrumming bass announcement of several million pounds of thrust pushing seven people into orbit.

Accompanying it, the hundreds of shutter clicks as hundreds of photographers scrambled to get the perfect shot.

Then, just as swiftly as it began, it was over. In what felt like a split second, Discovery was out of sight, its thunderous roar fading quickly back to a quiet coastal dawn, leaving only a contrail that marked the sky.

The three of us kept moving, kept shooting, kept talking, completely astounded at the sheer force - physical and mental - that this agglomeration of engineering and ingenuity produced on this early Monday morning.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • NASA • Space


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February 4, 2010

NASA: Pluto is 'not simply a ball of ice and rock'

Posted: 03:19 PM ET

NASA released new photos today of everyone's favorite former planet: Pluto.

The space agency says the photos, which were taken in the early 2000s by the Hubble Space Telescope, are the "most detailed and dramatic images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet."

"The Hubble pictures confirm Pluto is a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes not simply a ball of ice and rock," NASA says in a news release.

But the new glamour shots won't be enough to get Pluto registered again as a planet.

The pictures come just as Pluto is heading into a new phase of its 248-year orbit around the sun, NASA says:

Pluto is unlike Earth, where the planet's tilt alone drives seasons. Pluto's seasons are asymmetric because of its elliptical orbit. Spring transitions to polar summer quickly in the northern hemisphere, because Pluto is moving faster along its orbit when it is closer to the Sun.

Space.com says new colors and features of Pluto came to light in the photos:

The surface appears reddish, yellowish, grayish in places, with a mysterious bright spot that is particularly puzzling to scientists.

Some of the colors revealed in the new pictures of Pluto are thought to result from ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with methane in the tenuous atmosphere of the dwarf planet. The bright spot apparent near the equator has been found in other observations to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost.

Pluto lost its status as our solar system's ninth planet in 2006 when an international group of scientists decided that it was too small and too distant to be considered a member of the Earth's solar-system family.

More from the National Academies:

Pluto is considerably smaller and more distant than the other planets in our solar system. Two-thirds the size of Earth's moon, Pluto's classification as a planet came under scrutiny when many objects of similar size and distance were discovered in the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s.

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Filed under: NASA • Space


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August 18, 2009

Will the Big Crunch follow the Big Bang?

Posted: 08:57 AM ET

The Big Crunch may sound like a slogan for crackers or potato chips, but it’s actually an astronomical theory with a gloomy twist.

We’ve all heard of the Big Bang, a widely accepted theory that proposes the entire universe began from a single point about 13.7 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since.

But will it expand forever? Or could it stop and reverse that process?

One possible fate of the universe is the Big Crunch, the idea that the cosmos could one day begin contracting and eventually collapse back on itself or return to a single point.

If it ever happens, this anti-Big Bang would take place so far in the future that Earth might even not exist anymore, according to experts writing for Cornell University’s Curious About Astronomy Web site.

But the experts also took a stab at what a contracting universe could look like to an observer billions of years into the future.

“As the present-day observable universe started to get really small, the observer would most likely see some of the things that happened in the early universe happen in reverse. Most notably, the temperature of the universe would eventually get so high that you could no longer have stable atoms, in which case the hypothetical observer wouldn't be able to hold himself together.”

Yikes. But fear not. It turns the expansion of the universe has been accelerating rather than slowing.

Astronomers believe that’s caused by a mysterious dark energy pulling galaxies apart, according to NASA.

“Dark energy is this idea that not only is the universe expanding, dark energy is actually making that expansion happen even faster,” said Marla Geha, as assistant professor of astronomy at Yale University. “The dark energy will actually continue the expansion of the universe forever, so there probably will not be a Big Crunch if we have the numbers right.”

But the continuous expansion would have other consequences. Over tens of billions of years, the galaxies that we see around us would get farther and farther away, making the universe more of a lonely place, Geha said.

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Filed under: Astronomy • NASA • Space


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July 20, 2009

Meet the strange moons of Mars

Posted: 08:00 AM ET

Famous for its reddish color, Mars has long fascinated astronomers, ordinary sky gazers and science-fiction writers.

But its strange, tiny moons also deserve plenty of attention, especially since one of them has been suggested as a way for humans to get to the planet itself.

“To reach Mars, we should use comets, asteroids and Mars’s moon Phobos as intermediate destinations. No giant leaps this time. More like a hop, skip and a jump,” Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, wrote recently in an article in Popular Mechanics. Read more about the moon vs. Mars debate

Phobos is one of two Martian moons, with Deimos keeping it company in space.

Just 13 miles across, Phobos orbits so close to Mars that it may be shattered by the Red Planet’s gravitational tidal forces in about 100 million years, according to NASA.

You can see its battered, pockmarked surface in the photo above, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last year. The Stickney Crater, which takes up almost half its diameter, is on the lower right.

Some astronomy Web sites call Phobos potato-shaped and that’s a good way to describe it!

Think Phobos is small? Deimos is even tinier, at about 7.5 miles in diameter. If you were to stand on the surface of Mars, it would look light a bright star, NASA says.

And here’s a bit of mythology to add to your astronomy knowledge. You may know that Mars was named after the Roman god of war. So in keeping with the tone, Phobos (“Fear”) and Deimos (“Terror”) were named after the horses that pulled the chariot of Ares, the Greek god of war and the counterpart to Mars.

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Filed under: Astronomy • Mars • NASA • Space


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July 16, 2009

The forgotten almost-moon men

Posted: 02:13 PM ET

Only 12 men have had the honor of walking on the moon, but six astronauts were in charge of getting them there and bringing them home safely. These were the command service module pilots, whose job it was to circle the moon and return to Earth - without setting a foot on the lunar surface.

These six people are often overshadowed by the moonwalkers. Their stories are worth telling, though, especially in honor of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

The first CSM pilot is the most famous. Michael Collins flew on the Apollo 11 mission, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon for the first lunar landing. He circled the orb for nearly a day in solitude. For 48 minutes out of each orbit he was out of radio contact with Earth.

In his autobiography, Collins wrote "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." He also said he never felt lonely, but "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation."

Richard Gordon, commander of the Yankee Clipper – the Apollo 12 CSM, was the second to orbit the moon while others walked on the surface. While he circled, he mapped out potential landing sites for future missions. He was slated to walk on the moon in the Apollo 18 mission, but that mission was canceled.

Stuart Roosa spent 33 hours in orbit during Apollo 14. His skill as the CSM pilot was needed after initial attempts to dock with the lunar module failed.

Alfred Worden was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most isolated human being” while he was orbiting the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. When the Endeavour was at its greatest distance from the lunar crew, Worden was 2,235 miles away from any other human being.

Ken Mattingly is probably well known for his actions on the ground of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, but he finally did get to go to the moon for the Apollo 16 launch. Mattingly used instruments aboard Casper to map a stretch of the lunar surface all around its equator.

The final mission, Apollo 17, put Ronald Evans in control of the command module, America. Evans holds the record of more lunar time in orbit than anyone else: 147 hours, 48 minutes.

Each of these men spent countless days training next to their more-heralded moonwalker colleagues. Yet, while their capsule brethren actually touched another heavenly body, these brave astronauts could only stare out their window and marvel at the view.

- Larry Frum

Filed under: NASA • Space


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July 15, 2009

Listen to the Apollo 11 mission on 40 year delay

Posted: 06:36 PM ET

John Stoll lives amongst about 38,000 hours worth of audio recordings.

As NASA's lead audio engineer, it's his job to take care of these tapes and files, which record every second of every NASA mission since the U.S. space agency started sending chimpanzees into space, he said.

On Thursday, Stoll will start playing what amounts to his opus.

He will share with the world the audio recordings from the Apollo 11 mission, which put the first man on the moon. All 190 hours of the mission will stream on NASA's Web site, coinciding exactly with the dates and times of the original mission - only on a 40-year delay.

The mission recordings will begin playing at about 7:30 a.m. ET on Thursday and will continue for eight days, ending at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday July 24, NASA says.

Those who don't want to listen to the whole, 190-hour broadcast can find some highlight clips here.

In their entirety, the recordings offer a gritty, real-life take on history that you can't find in books or old television footage, Stoll said.

His favorite part, of course, is the moon landing, which happened at 4:18  p.m. ET on July 20, 1969, and will be broadcast at the same time on Monday.

On the recording, you hear the NASA flight director in one ear and the audio feed from the moon in the other. At about the time Neil Armstrong announces that "the Eagle has landed," Stoll said, the flight director's voice is tense as he has to figure out whether to declare the landing a success or to pull back. Stoll said he never felt that tension until he listened to the raw recordings.

"That call, it was just really cool to listen to because everything is just happening so fast," he said, "and you don’t get to hear that, especially if you see it from the outside."

Stoll said he and other NASA employees in Houston, Texas, are in the process of digitizing NASA's entire audio collection, most of which is on old-fashioned tape. The older tapes, like the ones from Apollo missons, are in great conditon and are kept under strict environmental controls, he said. But newer tapes, like those from the 1980s, tend to gum up reel players. He has to heat those tapes to 130 degrees with a small oven before he can play them.

All of that work will soon culminate in a public Web site where people can listen to NASA audio from many other U.S. space missions.

That site should go up in two months or so, he said.

But it's probably best to get through the eight days of Apollo recordings before you worry about more.

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Filed under: NASA


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NASA to junk space station in 2016

Posted: 10:33 AM ET

After a decade of costly construction, the International Space Station is nearing completion. But NASA won't have long to enjoy the achievement.

According to an article from the Washington Post, NASA space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini raised eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that NASA plans to de-orbit the station in 2016.

That means the $100 billion research facility, which has been circling Earth since 1998, will ultimately burst into flames as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere and crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Budget constraints and the lack of a shuttle program, which is set to retire in 2010, may have persuaded NASA to end the space station program.

The Washington Post explains:

The rap on the space station has always been that it was built primarily to give the space shuttle somewhere to go. Now, with the shuttle being retired at the end of 2010, the station is on the spot. U.S. astronauts will be able to reach the station only by getting rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

There is no official lobbying to extend the mission, but NASA's plans have met with criticism. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) argues, "If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015."

While speaking to a panel charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program, Nelson affirmed, "My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing... If we get rid of this darned thing in 2015, we're going to cede our leadership in human exploration."

What do you feel should be done with the International Space Station? Does the initial $100 billion investment justify extending the program, or should we simply cut our losses and look toward a new future of space exploration?

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Filed under: Astronomy • International Space Station • NASA • science • Space


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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