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    Inside NASA's Yearlong Isolation Dome

    From The Guardian: "Water has been found on Mars – but if the red planet can support life, what will it be like for any humans who go there? Six future crew members of a possible Nasa mission spend up to 12 months in confinement in a Mars-like landscape in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to work out how humans would react to long-duration space travel."

    Dissecting the Technology of ‘The Martian’: NASA’s Roadmap to Mars

    The movie edition of Andy Weir's fantastically popular sci-fi novel, The Martian, is set to hit theaters in just a few days. Although the storyline is fictional, NASA has taken a keen interest in the movie, providing consultants to Hollywood and hosting a handful of promotional events. Clearly, the agency sees something to celebrate in Weir's vision of the future for manned spaceflight.

    As we have seen in the previous articles of this series, there are numerous similarities between The Martian and how NASA actually handles things in space, such as water, air, electrical power and problem solving. In this final article we'll examine NASA's current plan for visiting Mars.

    The Hermes spaceship in 'The Martian', via 20th Century Fox

    Red Planet Ambitions

    NASA is not being secretive about their plans for putting humans on Mars as early as 2030. They've even published a website with a slew of information. Yet, any plans that project 15+ years into the future are bound to be heavy with technical and financial assumptions. As the agency moves forward, the plan will certainly evolve to match the reality of the times.

    We're finding out that Mars has a very diverse landscape. Scientists are still trying to decide where the first manned Mars expeditions will land. It is a debate that will likely linger well into the next decade. Several satellites are currently orbiting Mars and mapping its surface. Lower-resolution, broad-brush mapping images will help the scientists narrow down the field of landing site candidates. Subsequent high-resolution imagery will be used to pinpoint precise landing locations.

    MSL Curiosity's Gale Crater Landing Site.

    While many fundamental aspects of a manned Martian mission remain in limbo, the basic timeline appears to be ironed out. If you've read Weir's book, you'll notice that it follows NASA's plan nearly verbatim. It goes something like this:

    In Brief: NASA Reports Signs of Liquid Water on Mars

    This morning, NASA announced that it has found the strongest evidence so far that flowing water exists on Mars. Spectral imaging from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed new insight into the 100-meter long dark streaks running down the slopes of the Martian craters, first spotted five years ago. By studying the signatures of hydrated minerals in those streaks, along with the streaks' intermittent appearance, researchers have concluded that it is caused by the seasonal flow of liquid water. (h/t NYTimes)

    How a Retractable Ballpoint Pen Works

    From the EngineerGuy's YouTube channel: "A ballpoint pen seems simple: press a button you can write, press again and put it in your pocket. Yet inside a clever mechanisms turns that simple push into all sorts of other motions. This video uses detailed animation to look inside the iconic Parker Jotter ink pen and see how it works."

    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Solving Problems In Space

    The previous articles of this series have focused on the real-life NASA hardware which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and imminent movie) The Martian. Specifically, we looked at many of the components that are used to process water, air, and electrical power in space. This article will be a little different.

    Readers of The Martian know that one of the recurring themes in the book deals with fixing broken equipment using whatever is on hand, combined with plenty of ingenuity. Those scenarios have a very real parallel in NASA's day-to-day operations of manned and unmanned spacecraft. Space is an extremely harsh environment and spacecraft components break…a lot. Let's take a look at how NASA deals with these in-flight failures.

    Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

    Stuff In A Box

    It would be difficult to talk about hardware problems in space without mentioning the Apollo 13 mission and the countless miracles performed by mission control to get the crew home alive. In one memorable scene from Ron Howard's 1995 movie about the ordeal, engineers in mission control begin working to reverse rising carbon dioxide levels in the Lunar Module. Someone empties a box of random-looking parts which represent the total resources of the spaceship's crew. The challenge is immediately obvious: use these parts to find a solution or people will die.

    In a recent conversation with present-day flight controller Tom Sheene, I asked if the "stuff in a box" scenario still happens. He replied, "All the time… it's the most challenging and rewarding part of my job." Sheene went on to tell me about a custom tool that his team had designed to lubricate the space station's robotic arm, and another that was used by spacewalking astronauts to free a solar array that refused to unfurl.

    Flight Controller Tom Sheene is part of the OSO group that is responsible for the maintenance and repair of all systems on the ISS.

    When these custom tools are being designed, aesthetics takes a back seat to functionality. But no one seems to mind as long as they get the job done. The names given to these tools are equally low-key. Apollo's hacked carbon dioxide scrubber was the "mailbox", and the solar array tool was the "hockey stick". Tools that become a part of the permanent inventory are renamed with more scientific terms and, as with all things NASA, branded with an acronym. Case in point: Sheene's robotic arm tool graduated from "fly swatter" to "BLT" (Ball Screw Lubrication Tool).

    While a failed component on the International Space Station (ISS) rarely triggers an immediate life and death battle of wits, the stakes are invariably high. Whatever the failing component may be, it was sent up there for a reason and at great expense. You can't just roll down the window, turn up the radio, and pretend that it isn't squeaking.

    Scale Model of the Solar System

    This video's been getting a lot of play, but it's still worth sharing in case you haven't seen it. We've previously seen visual representations of the scale of the solar system in digital form, but a physical representation of the vastness of that scale strikes a more resonant chord. Wonderful project and presentation by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh: "On a dry lakebed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe."

    In Brief: Three Fascinating Interviews to Watch Today

    A couple of interviews that popped up over the weekend that I think you guys should watch. The first is the latest episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Star Talk, in which he interviews Edward Snowden via a telepresence robot. It's a great conversation about surveillance and data encryption that also includes one possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. I also loved this talk by artist Theo Jansen at MIT's Media Lab, as part of the school's MLTalks series. Jansen just debuted a Strandbeest exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, which also has a wonderful accompanying exhibition catalog (always buy the catalog). Finally, an older interview from the MLTalks series that merits watching is this conversation with director JJ Abrams--before he was attached to do Episode VII!

    Tested Builds a Hydrogen Converter

    This week, Adam challenges Will and Norm with the task of building a hydrogen converter--a simple electrolysis rig that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen. It's a science experiment to demonstrate one way of harnessing hydrogen gas with basic chemistry! (Special thanks to John Duncan for supervising the shop for this build!)

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Tom Iliffe, Underwater Cave Explorer

    Tom Iliffe only studies animals that live in the hardest-to-reach locations -- those weird colorless, sightless organisms that exist only in the world's deepest, darkest, underwater caves. As a biologist and a diver, he has been down to 460 feet below the ocean's surface and spelunked some of the world's most remote locations all while breathing through a dive regulator. Throughout his career, Iliffe has discovered 250 new species of marine and freshwater cavernicolous invertebrates, including 3 new orders, 7 new families and 50 new genera. He talked to us about how to find your way around a previously undiscovered cave without getting lost, how to swim through tiny cracks and crevices, and what it's like to grab samples of tiny nearly-invisible animals in the darkness of an underwater cave.

    Dr. Tom Iliffe in Deep Blue cave. Image courtesy of Jill Heinerth, Bermuda Deep Water Caves 2011, NOAA-OER

    Why study caves?

    First of all, it's like any form of basic research. You may set out just to learn how something works but you never know where the path is going to lead you. Some of the most exciting scientific discoveries that have taken place were because people were curious about a phenomenon and investigated.

    So that's kind of the starting point. We have a totally unknown realm, we know nothing about it, this is a challenge, let's learn what's happening here. Not: "let's find something that has immediate commercial potential." Just because you start out at the bottom rung of the ladder, doesn't mean you can't end up making very important discoveries.

    A lot of the most important discoveries that have ever been made have been by accident, by a fortuitous discovery. You don't have to have a rationale other than scientific curiosity.

    That's to begin with.

    In Brief: Download NASA's 1975 Graphics Standards Manual

    Possibly in response to the highly publicized (and successful) Kickstarter campaign to reprint NASA's 1975 Graphics Standards Manual, the US space agency has released a PDF copy of the manual for anyone to download. The document is in the public domain, so you can print (and sell) as many copies as you want, but the graphic designers behind the Kickstarter campaign claim that their $80 copy will be better scanned and a more accurate reproduction of the original. (h/t Wired)

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    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Electrical Power

    This is the third in a series of articles that examine the real-life NASA hardware which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and soon-to-be-released movie) The Martian. In the previous installments, we looked at the many ways in which water and air are managed in space. This time around, we will investigate some of the components that NASA uses to provide electrical power to their manned and unmanned spacecraft!

    Volts in a Blanket

    The International Space Station (ISS) is a big spaceship. Its outer perimeter is about the same size as an American football field. Much of the area within that perimeter is taken up by huge swaths of copper-colored solar arrays. More specifically, there are eight individual solar arrays, each measuring 112 feet by 39 feet (34.1m x 11.9m). Each array consists of two light-collecting blankets and the truss structures necessary to keep them outstretched.

    The ISS's eight huge solar arrays are perhaps its most dominant visual feature. They can provide the station with power equivalent to 55 average homes.

    The blankets are comprised of photovoltaic solar cells--lots of them. The job of these cells is to convert sunlight to electrical energy. The vast number of these purified silicon cells (more than 250,000) reflects the immense power needs of the ISS. If you look at the combined output potential of the ISS's solar arrays (there are some smaller Russian arrays as well), it's enough power for approximately 55 average US households – that is, if the average US household utilized 160 volt DC power.

    'Star Stuff' Short: Sagan's Science Spark

    Hollywood's Carl Sagan biopic was only just announced, but director Ratimir Rakuljic has already imagined how a young Carl Sagan began a lifelong voyage of scientific curiosity and discovery in this charming short film. According to Rakuljic, the story here was inspired by anecdotes from Sagan's life and works, including material found in the Sagan archives at the Library of Congress. Behind-the-scenes of the production here. (h/t Gizmodo)

    Kickstarter: Reissue of the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual

    Hot on the heals of NASA's old 1975 Graphics Standard Manual getting some love in blogs and on Flickr, a new Kickstarter campaign is raising funds to republish that manual for fans of the NASA worm logo. Jesse Reed & Hamish Smyth have had success with crowdfunded reissues of famous graphics manuals before, and are sourcing this reprint with scans from designer Richard Danne's personal copy of the 1975 document.

    Surprising Places Where Hydrogen Energy Is Being Used

    It's obvious to pretty much everybody that fossil fuels aren't going to last this planet forever. Alternative energy is the way of the future, and scientists are working to find all kinds of different sources to tap. One that has already seen some use is hydrogen - one of the most common gases in the universe, in fuel cells it's combined with oxygen to produce electricity, with clean water as the only byproduct. Several companies have introduced hydrogen-powered vehicles, but here's an interesting look at other places using the technology that you might not have guessed.

    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Air

    This is the second in a series of articles that examine the real-life systems aboard the International Space Station (ISS) which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and soon-to-be-released movie) The Martian. In the first installment, we looked at the many ways in which water is conserved and recycled. This time around, we will investigate the components that process air to make the ISS both habitable and comfortable for the humans inside.

    The Basics

    Before getting into too much detail about the air systems on the ISS, a brief overview of the general layout is probably warranted. As with the water systems, many of the US-made air management components on the ISS have foreign counterparts. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus only on the US equipment.

    The habitable areas of the ISS are pressurized modules that are typically cylindrical in shape. Three node sections (named Unity, Harmony, and Tranquility) serve as the crossroads for all of the modules No matter which direction you choose to exit a node, your path will soon reach a dead end in some module.

    On Earth we have the luxury of myriad natural processes that create air currents on a local and global scale. This helps to ensure that the same patch of air never lingers over any location for very long. In the manmade ecosystem of the ISS, however, such air flow does not occur naturally. The Intermodule Ventilation system (IMV) compensates by using fans to force airflow between the modules. Without it, the air would stagnate in those dead ends. Well, everywhere, actually.

    The inter-module airflow is extremely important because the life support systems that manage the composition of the air are not present in every module. In fact, most of the US-managed life support systems are located in Tranquility. IMV mixes and moves the atmosphere to ensure that the air quality in every module is homogeneous--or nearly so.

    The Talking Room: Adam Savage Interviews Author Mary Roach

    While researching topics for her books, author Mary Roach puts the obscure and fascinating stories of science under a spotlight. Her books cover a diverse range of topics, including sex, colonizing Mars, death, and the human alimentary canal. Please welcome Mary Roach to The Talking Room!

    Calculating The Raw Power of Natural Occurrences

    If there's one thing our culture values, it's power. Whether we get it from burning fossil fuels, pumping water through dams or absorbing it from the sun, it makes our way of life possible. Scientists are always trying to find new sources of energy in the natural world, and today, we're going to crunch some numbers to find out just how much is really out there. From lightning strikes to volcanic eruptions, let's calculate exactly how much power we could harness from these acts of nature.

    Ryan Nagata's Space Suit Replicas

    Adam isn't the only replica prop builder obsessed with spacesuits. At the recent Replica Prop Forum showcase, we met Ryan Nagata, a propmaker and independent director who collaborated with Adam on his Mercury suit, and made his own Apollo-era spacesuit as well. Every part of Ryan's suits is an original fabrication, and the suits are wearable!

    Photo Gallery: The Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

    Much of my past two weeks was spent in Calgary, Alberta where some of you suggested a visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in nearby Drumheller. I'm so glad I made that trek--it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The paleontology museum is filled with incredible displays of dinosaur fossils and skeletons, including quite a few T-Rex's. The exhibits are beautifully arranged and lit, making them really fun to photograph as well. Here are a few of my favorites from the visit.