Quantcast
Latest StoriesScience
    Turning Tiny Satellites into Cheap, Deep Space Drones

    There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.

    The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

    “It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”

    Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.

    It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.

    “It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”

    But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.

    University of Rochester's Optical "Cloaking"

    "Researchers at the University of Rochester Create a Three-dimensional,Transmitting, Continuously Multidirectional Cloaking Device Inspired perhaps by Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, scientists have recently developed several ways-some simple and some involving new technologies-to hide objects from view." I know the Rochester researchers and most of media are calling this "cloaking", but this clever optical trick is far from the invisibility cloak of science fiction and fantasy. The simplest version of this setup uses four off-the-shelf lenses to focus light around objects placed between them, but only for a specific region (eg. in a ring around the edge of the lens, but not at the center). And while the demonstrations in this video show a small lens system being used, it apparently can be scaled up as larger lenses are used. Neat stuff. Research paper here.

    Octobot Doubles Its Speed with Webbed Arms

    From the Foundation for Research & Technology's Institute of Computer Science: "Adding a soft silicone web to a small robotic octopus helps the machine hit the gas. The first robot shown propels itself by snapping shut rigid plastic legs. The second bot uses flexible silicone legs and moves at about the same speed. The third robot zips along faster, using silicone arms and a web that helps it push through water." Material science and animal biology come together in this robot's clever mimicking of an Octopus. Read more at Science News.

    In Brief: Stunning Macro Photos of Animal's Eyes

    Photographer Suren Manvelyan has shot unbelievable macro shots of different animal's eyes and posted them on his Behance portfolio. The shots are absolutely stunning, but as you browse through the three galleries of images, you'll start to see the different evolutionary paths that have shaped the eyes of a variety of creatures. I'm partial to this shot of a basiliscus lizard's eye, which could double as a planet in an upcoming sci-fi movie. (via Laughing Squid)

    Will
    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.

    How To Spot the International Space Station

    Many people have a difficult time comprehending the massive proportions of the International Space Station (ISS). Weighing almost one million pounds, and filling the footprint of a football field, it is by far the largest man-made object in space. The ship has an acre of reflective solar arrays that provide power for the crew and also help make the ISS the third brightest object in the night sky (behind the Moon and Venus). It is easily viewed with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.

    The ISS is as large as a football field. Those huge solar arrays reflect a lot of light and make the ISS clearly visible under certain conditions. (NASA photo)

    Where It’s Going

    Before we talk about how to find the ISS in the sky, let’s take minute to review some basic orbital mechanics. The ISS has a roughly circular orbit (as opposed to elliptical) at an altitude of about 260 miles. The plane of orbit is tilted 51.6 degrees from the plane of the equator. If you flatten the Earth onto a map, one orbital path takes on the shape of a single sine wave. That is often the image seen on the large wall displays in photos of the Mission Control Center.

    This diagram illustrates the relative path that the ISS might take through your viewing area. (NASA image)

    Each orbit takes roughly 90 minutes to complete. During that time, the Earth is rotating as well. Due to this relative movement, every orbit of the ISS overflies a path that is a little west of its previous orbit. When the paths of multiple orbits are displayed on a flattened Earth, the image is a series of identical sine waves with a slight and equal offset. The real advantage to this constant path shifting is that the ISS overflies pretty much all of the Earth between 51.6 degrees latitude north and south. This is great for science experiments aboard the ISS that require Earth observation. It is also a boon for those of us stuck on the ground who want to catch a glimpse of this enormous machine.

    NASA Announces Commercial Crew Program, Targets 2017 Goal

    "NASA and its aerospace industry partners have worked together for more than four years to develop subsystems,spacecraft, and launch vehicles that will lead to safe and reliable transportation to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station from the United States on American systems." After teasing the return of human spaceflight in the US, NASA today announced its Commercial Crew Program, tapping both Boeing and SpaceX to develop and test vehicles to transport astronauts to the ISS. Contracts of $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion were awarded to the two companies, respectively, with the target of flight certification by 2017, which includes one manned test flight. SpaceX will be using the Dragon 2 capsule unveiled earlier this year, while Boeing will use its CST-100 spacecraft. That capsule will even feature wireless internet for communications, according to Boeing.

    9 Extremely Dangerous Places Scientists Conduct Research

    A lot of experiments can be done in the relative tranquility of a lab, but sometimes scientists have to get out in the field to get things done. Today, we’ll spotlight ten locales around the world that researchers have gone to collect data, and the results of their experiments.

    In Brief: Why Archaeologists Hate Indiana Jones

    National Geographic writer Erik Vance recently blogged about his conversations with scientists and archaeologists about the problem of looting in their field. Academics pointed to Indiana Jones' character as more looter than archaeologist, who would rather attempt to steal a gold statue than study the amazing mechanisms built into the temple at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Vance studied the problem of looting of Mayan artifacts for this recent NatGeo feature, and a black market trade that is far from the glamour that Hollywood portrays. "The real life Indiana Joneses of the world are not wise-cracking professors with bullwhips. They are poor farmers and hooligans pushed by desperation and warfare to the fringes of society where they eke out an existence, destroying our only opportunities to understand ancient cultures." (via Boingboing)

    Norman 6
    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!

    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.”

    In Brief: Death Valley's Sailing Stones Mystery Solved

    The mystery of Death Valley's famous moving stones has finally been solved. For almost a century, geologists have been puzzled by the movement of stoves along a dry lake bed called Racetrack Playa in the California desert. The moving stones, which weigh up to 700 pounds, travelled up to 3000 feet in their journey, seemingly without any human or animal assistance. To study their movements, geologists in 2011 tagged 15 rocks with GPS loggers and time-lapse cameras, and even buried magnetic triggers beneath some to test popular theories. They found the perfect combination of light wind and layer of thin ice on the lake bed was the cause of the movement. In the video below, Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris describes the discovery.

    Norman
    Making a B.F. Goodrich Mercury Mark IV Helmet, Part 1

    When Adam commissioned us to make a hybrid NASA Mercury space program suit, we didn’t give much thought to the helmet or really any of the “hard parts” with the exception of the neck and wrist rings. We just figured that if anyone was interested in buying another suit, they would have to find a helmet on their own, and that we’d probably have to re-cast or find standalone MIG neck rings. Adam advised us they would be hard to find.

    But initial feedback from prospective customers indicated that we might not be able to sell many suits without including helmets and accessories. Pictured below are Adam’s suits. One with rings on the left and one without rings on right:

    Since Adam supplied the neck ring for the first build and we returned it to him, we had to find another for our third suit. We weren’t really in a hurry to find one but weeks passed and we saw nothing except MIG helmets with rings, so we bought one hoping maybe we could sell the MIG helmet later. The upside of buying the helmet and ring was understanding how the ring locked onto the helmet as Adam never sent us his helmet at this point for scrutiny. Now that we’ve had a closer look at his helmet during the Comic-Con Incognito walk, we can see he manufactured a similar locking system we have based on the MIG helmet and neck ring design.

    I remember Adam saying he needed another neck ring so I kept looking and eventually found one and bought it. Because it was expensive we considered recasting it in four-part molds for future projects. It wouldn’t be functional but may look good enough for some buyers.

    When I told Adam what we were planning and asked him where he got his helmets he offered to send us his spare helmet blank to re-cast but we would have to return it as it was his only one. I’ve never had quite this experience before. We’ve been lent stuff in the past but nothing that couldn’t be replaced easy enough. It was very generous for Adam to send his helmet so we didn't have to sculpt one from scratch, and really aligns with his philosophy of opening these projects up to makers. Above is a photo of what he sent over. We were absolutely thrilled to have access to it!

    Soviet Moon Colonization Dreams, Circa 1965

    Produced in 1965, this Soviet documentary was produced to educate citizens about Soviet rocket technology and what astronomers knew back then about the Moon. Its second half is a fantastic imagination of how humans might colonize the Moon in the distant future. Just great retrofuturist fodder, even if you can't understand the Russian. "The film consists of two parts: popular scientific and science-fiction. In the first part in the popular form the modern (1965) scientific convergence on the Moon are stated. In the second part the director and the artist create a picture of the future of the Moon." More context about the production of this video on The NewStatesman. (h/t io9)

    Here's The Drill Designed for Space Mining

    Like many good ideas, Dave Boucher’s Moon mining drill started as a sketch on a napkin. That was in 1999 (just one year after the space drilling adventures of Armageddon). But sometime this fall, his company Deltion Innovation’s latest prototype of a real Moon drill will go through one of its final tests. And with any luck, DESTIN — which stands for Drilling Exploration & Sample Technology Integrated — will be chosen to spearhead NASA’s lunar prospecting mission in 2018 or 2019, bringing us one step closer to leaving Earth forever and moving to the Moon.

    “Space mining has now become a must-do activity for every space agency in the world,” Boucher said in an interview earlier this year. “They all recognize that they have to be able to go mine in space just to support the missions that they're planning.”

    In other words, space mining isn’t so much about monetizing the supposed wealth of precious resources contained on the Moon’s surface (though, yes, there is apparently a lot). Not yet, at least. For now, it’s all about figuring out how to make future missions, manned or otherwise, self-sustainable — what’s known as In-Situ Resource Utilization — should we have any hope for the long-term exploration and colonization of world’s beyond our own.

    Of central interest for NASA’s prospecting mission are the pockets of water ice that satellite imagery believe exist in the Moon’s Polar Regions. “Water and oxygen extracted from lunar soil could be used for life support,” suggests a NASA document describing the eventual mission, “and methane produced from the Martian atmosphere could be used to refuel spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.”

    But we don’t know it’s there for sure. And that’s where Boucher’s drill comes in.

    How To Make A Replica Hybrid Mercury IV Pressure Suit

    (Editor's note: One of Adam's favorite costumes is his Mercury program spacesuit, which we've previously featured here on Tested. It's one of the costumes he wore at this year's Comic-Con. Elizabeth Galeria of The Magic Wardrobe, who made the costume in collaboration with Adam, reached out to us to share the process of designing and patterning this suit to meet Adam's specific needs and requests. This is the first in a series of articles in which Elizabeth and her partner explain their fabrication process fort his project. Feel free to ask Elizabeth--Tested user "antylyz"--questions directly in the comments section below.)

    An accurate replica of any costume or prop is only as good as the source images and what budget a “detail enthusiast” is willing to spend to get what’s envisioned. When Adam approached me to make him a Mercury suit, his celebrity factored into my quote. I really wanted to do this project having been a fan of MythBusters for many years.

    Adam had no shortage of images to show me so quoting him was pretty easy. It’s not often you get 100+ high-res images of the actual suits from the Smithsonian so I was able to count stitches-per-inch as is often the case needed for detail enthusiasts.

    Adam was very specific that all he wanted was someone to do the “soft parts” and he would provide all the “hard parts,” which made the project easy. Adam was also very specific about what details he liked about the various iterations of suits used by NASA in the Mercury space program, and he focused on the following image in particular.

    The biggest challenge in almost any replica costume or prop is finding the same or similar fabrics and materials used to make the original. Adam was very specific in describing the fabric he thought the original suit was made of. It's something he has described in his videos about the suit.

    In Brief: Physicists Make a Tractor Beam in Water

    Have you ever sat in the bathtub or swimming pool and made waves on the surface of the water with your hands to push or pull away a rubber duck? That's the basic idea behind what Australian physicists have been experimenting with in what popular media is calling "tractor beams" in water. Researchers at the Australian National University released a paper in Nature Physics describing how precise generation and manipulation of surface flows in a pool of water can force small objects to move against the direction of the resulting waves--returning to the source of the water disturbance. Computer models and tank experiments show how complicated and precise the movements have to be to get a desired result, but the researchers are hopeful that their discovery could be applicable for real-world tasks like collecting oil spills.

    Norman