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    What Will Power the Long-Distance Spacecraft of the Future?

    In May, when researchers contacted the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) for the first time in 16 years, that a decade’s old spacecraft still had enough juice to phone home might have come as a surprise. Launched in 1978, here was an object some 36 years old that had better battery life than some of the most advanced technology in existence today.

    But that’s precisely it: ISEE-3, and other spacecraft, like it, don’t run on batteries. And they likely won’t in the future, either. Sure, battery technology has certainly improved since ISEE-3’s heyday, and solar technology is certainly more efficient than it once was, too. But the truth is, the long-distance space craft of the future tasked with exploring the outer planets and beyond will likely be powered with the same thing we’ve been using for decades: plutonium-238. That's right, we're talking about nuclear power.

    NASA's ISEE-3, still running strong.

    When sending unmanned vehicles into space, you really only have two options for power: light from the sun, or heat from a nuclear source. Obviously, the former is preferred where possible. It’s relatively cheap to harness, and there’s practically an unlimited supply. But the sun has other limits. Light can only travel so far, which means the farther you travel, the less electricity you can produce. In some places, such as parts of the moon, there are permanently shadowed regions which never receive the sun’s light. Even on planets such as Mars, which are still close enough to harness the sun’s rays, dust dramatically reduces the efficacy of solar panels over time.

    For deep-space missions, and missions to hostile environments where light from the sun won’t do, NASA’s only other option is to harness the heat generated by a slowly decaying hunk of radioactive material – in this case, plutonium-238 – with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG. This process turns heat into electricity, and in some cases there is even excess heat that can be used to warm the components of a spacecraft or rover too. Make no mistake, though, this is old technology.

    Norm Drinks Soylent, Day 3

    On the third day of the Soylent-only challenge, Norm conserves energy at home while mixing some new ingredients into his latest batch. Spirits remain high, but the chalkiness of the beverage may be starting to get to our intrepid dieter. To support Norm in his new healthy living initiative, sign up for a Tested Premium Membership by clicking here.

    Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 4

    For this week's episode of our custom arcade cabinet build, Norm experiments with the laser cutter at Adam's shop to design some decorations for the control panels. We also begin prepping the cut, sanded, and stained pieces of wood for the final assembly. That means learning some basics about biscuit joining! (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    Norm Drinks Soylent, Day 2

    For the second day of soylent drinking, Norm begins to experiment with adding flavor enhancing ingredients to his life-sustaining beverage. Soylent doesn't recommend switching to a soylent-only diet immediately, so we're still in the easing in period. Plus, a special guest appearance by a Tested family member we haven't seen in a while! To support Norm in his new healthy living initiative, sign up for a Tested Premium Membership by clicking here.

    Norm Drinks Soylent, Day 1

    Tested reader Luke sent over a week's supply of Soylent for us to test! Unfortunately, this is the old Soylent formula, which isn't representative of the current product being sold--we'll wait until we can buy the latest batch before an official review. But we can't let good Soylent go to waste, so Norm is committing to a week of living off of this future food. To support Norm in his new healthy living initiative, sign up for a Tested Premium Membership by clicking here.

    Show and Tell: LEGO Mystery Build #9

    Let's kick this week off with a LEGO Mystery Build! Norm gets a new custom kit designed by one of his favorite LEGO artists, and assembles it in his home office. Place your best guess as to what the kit is in the comments below!

    Kong vs. Kong in Hollywood

    We've seen happen in Hollywood again and again: the simultaneous production of two movies about the same subject. Whether it's asteroid movies, werewolf movies, or even two different takes on the Snow White story. Once an idea is in the zeitgeist, studios start a mad dash to see who gets a movie made about it first. And back in the mid-seventies, this happened with the first remake of King Kong.

    In 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis got his version to the big screen, starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, and Rick Baker playing the big ape in a gorilla suit he created.But some fanboys who weren’t happy with the remake have often lamented about what could have been with the other planned remake of Kong, which Universal had been planning for ’76 as well.

    Titled The Legend of King Kong, Universal's flick was going to be more faithful to the original, staying in the ‘30’s, while the De Laurentiis version was updated to modern times. While the ’76 remake had plenty of drawbacks, there were certainly no guarantees the Universal movie would have been any better or worse. Yet looking back on it today, we get the impression it certainly had a good shot.

    With incredible stop-motion animation from Willis O’Brien, the original King Kong was the state of the art effects movie of its time. In fact, it was the film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to launch his own career in stop motion effects, and it also inspired Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker as well. (Jackson’s 2005 remake of Kong was not only his way of paying tribute to the film that enchanted him as a kid, but it was his way of trying to make up for the ’76 version as well.)

    While many modern remakes have basically done what’s called “movie karaokie,” redoing a movie practically verbatim from the original, in the ‘70’s remakes tried to bring old stories up to date. The ’76 Kong took place in modern day, with the added twist of Kong’s exploitation mirroring the then energy crisis. Here Kong is captured and exploited by an evil oil company, similar to Exxon, who first go to Skull Island looking for crude, then discovering the giant gorilla instead.

    iPhone 6 Plus Mockups and Size Comparisons

    Apple announced its new iPhone 6 smartphones yesterday, both of which are larger than the current iPhone 5/S/C design. To get a sense of how the 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screen phones fit in our hands, we 3D printed mockups based on Apple's posted spec dimensions and compare them to our current phones. Plus, the jeans pocket test! (Thanks to Jeremy Williams for the 3D printing!)

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Meg Lowman, Tree Canopy Biologist

    Meg Lowman’s head is in the trees. She’s a botanist and the Chief of Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Lowman was one of the first scientists to climb a tree in the name of science and ended up pioneering one of the most important fields of botany. Called “Canopy Meg” in scientist circles, she chatted with us about why the tippy tops of trees are the most important part of a forest and what it’s like to spend hours and days above the canopy.

    Why do we care about studying the tops of trees?

    In the 1950s scuba gear was discovered and that opened up exploration of coral reefs. In the 1960s, NASA developed spaceships and went to the moon. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that single rope techniques were adapted from mountaineering in order to climb trees.

    Started by me in Australia and another researcher in Costa Rica (independently), we started asking questions that required us to reach the top of trees. In Australian rain forests, I welded a slingshot and sewed a climbing harness from seat belt fabric, tools that allowed me to climb a coachwood tree and discover enormous numbers of critters living up there. It turned out to be what scientists call a “biodiversity hotspot” of the planet.

    Scientists acknowledge that we know more about the moon then the top of a tree.

    We now know that forest canopies are a center for global biodiversity. Almost 50 percent of the biology on the land portion of Earth lives on the treetops. That is a lot of species! And we didn’t know that 30 years ago! Scientists acknowledge that we know more about the moon then the top of a tree. It’s been an amazing journey for me as a scientist to be part of this discovery, virtually in our own backyards.

    The canopy is home to so many species on the planet. Tree tops undertake energy production in a humongous way. It is a region of abundant fruits and flowers and lots of sex! Incredible materials that we harvest come from canopies like medicines, building supplies, and food products. And canopies give us clues about forest health in general -- healthy forests provide water conservation, prevent soil erosion, store carbon, provide shade, serve as a genetic library, and influence climate control in a big way. It is amazing to appreciate that millions of trees, while we sleep, are doing all these things for us!

    Tested Projects: Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 3

    With the top and side panels of the arcade cabinet cut out, we move onto the control boards and the holes needed for all the buttons, joysticks, and other gaming controls. Different types of buttons and sticks for each of the panels require unique mounts, so John Duncan teaches us how to set up a router to cut the right kind of hole for each control scheme. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    The Army’s Ersatz Gliders of WWII

    If necessity is the mother of invention, then wartime must be the mother of desperate ingenuity. There are countless stories throughout history of imaginative soldiers figuring out how to make do, and even thrive with whatever equipment was available. Sometimes, this sort of grassroots pragmatism occurred on a large scale. For instance, when the US Army Air Corps (USAAC ) urgently needed aircraft to train thousands of glider pilots during World War 2, they realized that the answer was already right under their nose.

    Why Gliders?

    Early in the war, the Germans used troop-laden gliders with great success in the quick capture of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. Subsequent German glider missions were much less effective and they were ultimately abandoned by the Wermacht. However, the Allies were already convinced that they needed a glider force of their own. The US and Britain began amassing enormous fleets of gliders as well as pools of trained pilots to fly them.

    The large Waco CG-4A was the eventual steed of most US glider pilots. It was considered easy to fly, but required training different from that for sport gliders. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the US Air Force)

    The workhorse of the US glider force was the CG-4A combat glider. This boxy aircraft was designed by the Waco (pronounced like “taco”) Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio and produced at factories all over the US. The unlikely mix of shops turning out CG-4A parts included the Steinway Piano Company and Anheuser-Busch. The fuselage, constructed of welded steel tubing, could hold up to 13 equipped troops in addition to the pilot and copilot. Alternately, the Waco could hold fewer troops and a Jeep or small howitzer. Regardless of how many troops were inside, their only protection from enemy fire was the painted canvas fabric stretched over the frame.

    In combat, a cargo plane (usually a Douglas C-47 Skytrain) towed one or two CG-4As over the landing zone. The glider pilots would release their plane from the tow rope and begin a rapid and irreversible return to solid ground. Ideally the pilot’s chosen landing spot would be free of obstacles and other gliders. Once the wheels touched the ground, the pilot would push the control yoke forward to bury the Waco’s front skids in the dirt and bring the glider to a quick and dusty stop. For many gliders, their first combat landing was their last.

    Replicating the Original Robocop 2 Cain Stop-Motion Puppet

    During our visit to Phil Tippett Studio, we had a chance to inspect one of the original stop-motion puppets used to for Robocop 2's Cain robot. This intricately designed and machined miniature was actually recently disassembled so its hundreds of parts could be molded to create a series of replicas. We chat with Paul Francis of Chronicle Collectibles to geek out over the little details of this amazing puppet and learn about the replication process.

    Bits to Atoms: Building the Millenbaugh Motivator, Part 5

    After three months of work, the Millenbaugh Motivator has been completed and the parts have been delivered. As Adam has demonstrated before, finishing is extremely important and he immediately got to work on the Motivator parts in order to detail and finish it along with his Mecha-Hand for Comic-Con. There were some difficulties with the crankshaft due to tight tolerances and the addition of paint, but I’m working on a revised version for him to use later.

    Adam's painted Motivator.

    Now that I delivered everything to Adam and am back home, the only thing left to do is the finishing work on my own Motivator! And to be honest, this is the part that I’ve been kind of dreading. This goes way back to when I was a kid and built a lot of models. I would be super meticulous on all the details, get to the very end, and ruin the final paint job--every time. This has stuck with me and almost every time I work on a project, I get to the end and often peter out, leaving it unfinished for long stretches (or sometimes forever). In hindsight, I just didn’t have the right tools or know the right techniques for finishing work. I’d spray paint when it was too humid, too cold, too windy, too dirty, using crappy paint or my really bad airbrush setup. I had a subscription to Fine Scale Modeler magazine and would constantly try higher-level techniques before I understood the basics which almost always ended poorly. In the end, I just thought I was really bad at painting and finishing and it subconsciously kept me from finishing or even starting many projects. I still haven’t fully painted the Stormtrooper Blaster I made five years ago!

    My still unfinished Stormtrooper Blaster - weathering would really help.

    I decided to not screw around with the Motivator and just finish it, but I wasn’t sure how. On the trip to San Francisco, I’d hope to do some painting and finishing with Adam but we ran out of time. I did pick his brain about it and we tossed a few options around. Early on, while I was still building the Motivator, Adam was seriously considering metal plating the whole thing and asked me to look into it. I called just about every place in NYC and surrounding area and didn’t have much luck. Coating plastic, or electroplating, is done all the time--it requires the plastic to be coated in a conductive paint, which the metal plating will adhere to. It seemed like most of the places that do this work usually plate metal and they either didn’t do plastic at all or were reluctant to do so and they didn’t really want to do small jobs such as the Motivator. In the end, Adam decided to move on and figure out a different approach.

    Paying Tribute to the Twilight Zone

    The Twilight Zone first debuted on CBS in October 2, 1959, and ended on June 19, 1964, with 156 episodes in all. Not every episode was a winner, and there were varying degrees of greatness for many Twilight Zone installments, but the show’s lasting impact after half a century is still remarkable.

    The show is remembered for its many great elements: the strong moral lessons of the show, the skillful storytelling, the zappers at the end, the wonderful, moody cinematography, Rod Serling’s speeches that bookended every episode, and so much more. Today, let's go in depth into why we still love The Twilight Zone and which of those elements resonated strongest with us as truly effective storytelling.

    Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling first got into the entertainment business writing for radio, breaking into television in the early fifties. Serling came into prominence for writing the drama “Patterns,” which aired on the Kraft Television Theater, and “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” which aired on Playhouse 90 and swept the Emmys. Serling came up in the golden age of television, when the medium featured incredible writers and directors like Paddy Chayefsky (Network), and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate).

    But soon television started appealing more and more to the lowest common denominator, earning the nickname “the idiot box.” Serling kept writing stories with a social conscience, but they were routinely shredded by the censors. He finally realized that sci-fi and fantasy could be the Trojan horse to get his messages through.

    “Rod was forever getting into trouble because he wanted to call a spade a spade,” says George Clayton Johnson, who wrote the Twilight Zone episodes Nothing in the Dark and Kick the Can. “They were forever stopping him for the pettiest of reasons, which made him even more of a little David against a bunch of Goliaths.”

    As Anne Serling, Rod’s daughter, tells us, “My father did an interview with Mike Wallace right before The Twilight Zone came out, and he was apprehensive about revealing too much about the show. He knew he was using it as a vehicle to get these messages out, and slip it under the radar. They never knew what hit them! Another one of my father’s quotes was the writer’s job was to menace the public’s conscience.”

    Flying the Birdly Virtual Reality Simulator

    We strap on an Oculus Development Kit and mount Birdly, a full-motion virtual reality rig that simulates flying. It's one of the most awesome and intuitive VR experiences we've ever had, and we chat with Birdly's creators to learn how it works.

    No More Peek-a-Boo: Inventing a Modern Periscope

    The physical design and internal mechanics of a periscope has changed quite a bit over the years, but there’s one thing that still remains the same: in order to see what’s going on above the water even the most high-tech modern periscope still has to poke it’s little head out above the surface. And when you’re a military machine whose main goal is stealth that isn’t exactly a smart move. That’s why, for at least a decade, some scientists and engineers have been trying to figure out how to build a virtual periscope. One that can see what’s happening all around without having to come up for air. And they’re starting to make some significant and exciting progress.

    Photo credit: US Navy Naval Historical Center

    An Extremely Brief History of Periscopes

    According to the US Navy, the first periscope was designed in 1854 by a French chemist named Edme Hippolyte Marie-Davie. It was simply a long tube with mirrors set at 45 degrees angles at each opening. There were several attempts to perfect the design through the following decades--among them a 65-foot, 130-ton tube set with eight prisms designed by American John Holland in 1900, which gave the viewer a very dim 360 degree view of the horizon and could actually be rotated.

    Image credit: US Patent Office

    The modern periscope, or, at least, the one we all remember from Looney Toons, was a perfected version of Holland’s design. Patented in 1911 by Dr. Frederick O. Kollmorgen, the new version used two telescopes instead of a series of lenses (or prisms). Because it didn’t need prisms at the opening or a series of lenses throughout, the new periscope could be built at a variety of lengths and its opening above the surface could be much smaller. Kollmorgen started a company to develop and update his telescope design and, in fact, the company he created (called Kollmorgen) still exists today.

    Kollmorgen’s original design went through several upgrades through the years--adding night vision, star pattern recognition systems, optical magnification, and antennas for satellite communication, but the overall concept mostly remained the same. Then, in the 1960s, the US Navy created the Type 18 periscope, which added television cameras that allowed its images to be displayed anywhere on the submarine and also recorded.

    In modern US submarines, beginning around 2004 on all Virginia-class attack subs, the periscopes were replaced by photonics masts. These are telescoping arms that have visible and infrared digital cameras at the top. Since they don’t use mirrors or telescopes, there is no need for the control room to be located directly below the masts anymore. Because of this, the Navy has relocated these sub’s operations area away from the hull and down one deck where there is a lot more space.

    Designing Underwater Robots for Deeper Dives

    In May, the remotely operated underwater vehicle Nereus descended 10,000m to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench, one of the ocean’s deepest, and never came back. It’s believed that Nereus—a hybrid remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that could also operate autonomously—likely imploded. The pressure at such depths can be as great as 16,000 pounds per square inch.

    What’s weird is that Nereus was *designed* to withstand such pressure. That’s what made it unique. Unlike most other ROVs, which get their buoyancy from a material called syntactic foam, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), which designed and built Nereus, opted for a radical new design involving hundreds of ceramic spheres instead.

    Photo credit: WHOI

    While we still don’t really know how or why Nereus failed–it completed numerous previous dives, some to deeper depths, without issue–there’s no denying that its novel design allowed Nereus to dive deeper, be built lighter, and stay underwater longer than probably any other ROV in existence. So, implosion aside, why aren’t we yet building more ROVs like Nereus—even the ones that aren’t destined for places as deep or pressures as intense as those of the Kermadec Trench?

    Putting anything underwater requires a delicate balance between buoyancy and weight, explains Andy Bowen, director of the WHOI’s National Deep Submergence Facility, and maintaining that balance becomes more difficult the deeper you go down.

    “You want the vehicle to be slightly positively buoyant, or at least neutrally buoyant. So all the stuff that weighs something has to be offset by something that doesn’t weigh as much–or, in fact provides, a buoyancy offset,” Bowen says. “You can broadly divide these things into parts that float or parts that don’t.”

    Syntactic foam block machined for ROV use.

    Obviously, batteries, cameras, lights and motors are the things that don’t, and it’s the job of people like Bowen to make them float. Traditionally, manufacturers have used a material known as syntactic foam, which is composite material filled hollow microscopic glass bubbles. These bubbles lower the material’s density, making it buoyant. It’s flexible, well-understood, and has been in use for decades. When you look at a photo of a typical ROV, it's the brightly colored material mounted to the top of the robot's frame. "You can make syntactic foam to go just about anywhere you want it to go,” says Bowen, “but with a price.”

    Tested Projects: Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 2

    Woodworking begins on our Arcade Cabinet Project! This week, we have to figure out how to cut the curves for the cocktail cabinet's top board and the control panel's side pieces. Ex-ILM model maker John Duncan guides us through Adam's shop tools to complete the task. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    What the FAA Thinks of RC Aircraft, and Why it Matters

    The past few weeks have witnessed developments that could spell the end of radio-control aeromodeling as we know it. In short, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has claimed jurisdiction over certain RC activities. This move comes as part of the FAA’s attempt to grasp control of the rapidly expanding presence of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the national airspace. What was once a relaxing pastime could soon be a punishable offense. Here's how that could affect you and your FPV multi-rotor flying friends (like us!).

    Genesis of a Duel

    The FAA’s recent actions have put them sideways with the bulk of the model airplane community. The group on the front lines defending the interests of modelers is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). To fully understand the situation, a short history lesson is in order.

    In February of 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act became law. Among many other things, this law instructed the FAA to integrate UAS activities into the national airspace. At that time, the FAA had no specific regulations governing the use of these machines, or even a firm definition of what constitutes a UAS.

    Anticipating that the law would give birth to blanket policies that could negatively impact aeromodeling, the AMA fought for provisions to exclude hobbyists. At the time, the FAA stated no ill will towards RC modelers and Congress had no intention to impose any regulations on the hobby. The win-win provision that emerged is Section 336 of the FAA act – Special Rule for Model Aircraft. It prohibits the FAA from introducing any new rules to regulate “hobby or recreational” use of model aircraft.

    Taken at face value, the FAA’s new stance on aeromodeling would have drastic and far-reaching implications to the hobby as well as the small industry that it supports.

    Mood Check: AMA – Relieved, FAA – Overwhelmed

    Since that time, the FAA and AMA have met regularly to ensure that both parties were on the same page as the FAA moved forward with its obligations under the new law. Although the FAA’s progress was glacial and milestone dates continually moved to the right, they frequently reassured the AMA that they had nothing to worry about.

    Mood Check: AMA – Cautiously Optimistic, FAA – “What was that due date again?”

    In June of this year, the FAA released a memo indicating its interpretation of Section 336. Not only was this memo produced absent of any coordination with the AMA, its wording is contrary to previous statements made by the FAA. Taken at face value, the FAA’s memo-defined stance on aeromodeling would have drastic and far-reaching implications to the hobby as well as the small industry that it supports.

    Mood Check: AMA – Deceived, FAA – “You mad bro?”