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    Research Robots Versus the Volcano

    The last time NASA scientists sent a robot into the crater of a volcano was 1994.

    It’s name was Dante II, an autonomous, eight-legged crawler packed with video cameras, lasers and other sensors. It was designed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to rappel and hobble down the inside of the active Alaskan volcano Mount Spurr – a proof-of-concept for encounters with the types of hostile environments that NASA robots might deal with in space.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    But a tumble towards the end of Dante’s mission and subsequent helicopter rescue offered a stark reminder that “the possibility of catastrophic failure is very real in severe terrain,” the robot’s designers wrote. Even with today’s technology – we have self-driving cars now! – there hasn’t been another Dante since.

    “To get a robot to go over the varied and often difficult terrain is very challenging. Robotics has come a long way since Dante, but […] it’s just not quite at the level where they can handle volcanic terrain yet,” explained Carolyn Parcheta, a volcanologist and NASA postdoctoral fellow sponsored by Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It’s part of the reason that the U.S. Geological Survey still believes that "experienced volcanologists are a better and more cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes” than robots – at least, for now.

    In a volcanic environment, there are myriad materials of different sizes and shapes. You’ll find small round rocks where each step is like walking on the shifting sands of a beach. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is lava that’s sharp and jagged, making it near impossible to find space both flat and wide enough for a human foot. You’re always walking at an angle. In the middle, you have what Parcheta describes as “the slow, oozing, ropy looking stuff” that’s still difficult to walk on, but less so than the jagged stuff.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    “Volcanic terrain is much more complicated than just a set of stairs or an inclined slope, because it’s often all those different things combined,” Parcheta explains. “There’s no regular pattern to the landscape. It feels random. And to the robot it will be random. It needs to learn how to assess that before it can take its steps, and humans do this on the fly, naturally.” This is, as you might expect, difficult – and one of the big problems that Dante’s designers had. So, for years, humans have instead sufficed.

    But there’s also another reason that volcano crawling robots haven’t exactly been subject to pressing demand. According to Dr. Peter Cervelli, associate director for science and technology at the USGS Volcano Science Center, his agency has had “limited need for ground based robotics” – in large part because the majority of volcanoes in the United States don’t presently pose a threat to human volcanologists.

    In Brief: Startup Touts Working Hoverboard, Launches Kickstarter

    Let's hope this isn't like that Funny or Die hoax from earlier this year. Hendo is a startup that just launched a Kickstarter for a hoverboard, claiming to have created a working prototype of a hovering skateboard. Their hoverboard system using four focused magnets to keep the board and someone standing on top of it afloat over a designated surface. Yep, there's the catch: the Hendo hoverboard only works when placed above non-ferromagnetic conducting surfaces, like metal sheets spread over a half pipe. Hendo isn't being very forthcoming about how its "Magnetic Field Architecture" engines work, but Nerdist' Science Editor explains it as such: "Henderson’s MFA technology is then apparently creating and fluctuating a magnetic field above a metallic surface, and the induced current in that surface provides enough of a response that you can drop in on a metal [surface]." The Kickstarter is offering backers one of ten production boards for $10,000 each (already four sold!), and developer kits with the magnetic "engines" and metal surfaces starting at $300. Working hoverboards? Auto form-fitting fabrics? Everyone wants to get in on the promise of 2015. Put me firmly in the skeptical category.

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    In Brief: Research Shows Plants Can Detect When They're Being Eaten

    Don't worry, this isn't about plants having consciousness or anything like that. Modern Farmer reports on a new study conducted at the University of Miami, in which researchers found that a thale cress plant was able to physiologically react to its leaves being eaten. In the study, the researchers mimicked the vibrations made by a caterpillar when it chews on the plant, which caused the thale cress to excrete extra predator-deterring oils. The revelation isn't that the plant is self-aware, but that scientists can look into ways to spur plants to activate their natural defenses on command--which may be useful for farmers to better prepare crops against the elements.

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    Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

    While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.

    In Brief: Skepticism about Lockheed's Fusion Reactor Ambitions

    Lockheed's announcement that its Skunk Works division had made a theoretical breakthrough in developing a compact fusion reactor got people very excited this week. The idea of a clean, safe, and compact way to produce nuclear power easily spurs the imagination (as well as Mr. Fusion references). And even though Lockheed's own engineers admit that it'll be 5-10 years before they can put their theories to practice in a viable reactor, they seemed confident in Lockheed's videos. Less optimistic are the nuclear physicists who want to remind us just how difficult it is to implement small-scale fusion. The dissenting voices are always worth reading to get a better understanding of breakthrough claims. I found a few here, here, and some good points on Reddit's thread on the topic. At least this seems more credible than the latest Cold Fusion claim.

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    Worth Watching: The Largest Glacier Calving Ever Filmed

    Sometimes it's good to get a sense of our scale as part of the world. In 2008, Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski were filming glacier calving at the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland when they captured a piece of ice roughly the size of lower Manhattan breaking off from the glacier. This video is breathtaking, play it full-screen and crank up your sound. (via Jake Rodkin)

    If You Enjoyed The Martian...

    After posting the SPOILERCAST for The Martian earlier this week, we got a lot of requests for similar book recommendations, so I've put together a short list. Without exception, these books were all major page turners, the kind of read that I just couldn't put down no matter how late it got.

    Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - This is part one of a trilogy and it's a well-researched take on Mars colonization based on the information we had about the planet at the time it was written. The second book in the trilogy, Green Mars, is still pretty heavy on the science, but the third entry went a bit heavy on the character drama for me.

    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson - Every nerd should read Cryptonomicon. While it's probably closer to a techno-thriller than hard science fiction, serious math, data havens, Defcon presentations, and cryptocurrencies all play a key part in the plot. Beware, Crytonomicon is a slow starter, but it picks up by the third chapter.

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash, along with William Gibson's early VR novels are probably more responsible for the rise of 90s VR than anything else out there. Read this to get a glimpse of the VR future that didn't materialize, before VR actually takes over.

    The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - The Forever Wars is the best kind of thought experiment. It describes the experience of a new recruit in an interstellar war, and the true meaning of relativity. Despite occasional flashbacks to technology that went out of fashion 40 years ago (it was written in the 70s), The Forever War is one of those timeless science fiction classics.

    (Several more recommendations below!)

    Snake Robot Helps Roboticists and Herpetologists

    Howie Choset's team built Elizabeth, a snake-like robot designed to explore parts of caves that were unsafe, or too small, for humans. Elizabeth performed really well in most situations, but it had problems climbing sandy slopes. As is often the case, the roboticists looked to the natural kingdom for engineering help. By mimicking the movement of sidewinder rattlesnakes, Elizabeth can now climb steep, sandy slopes. Ed Yong has a full writeup about the project.

    MIT and Columbia Labs Run Cable Coiling Simulations

    "Engineers at MIT, along with computer scientists at Columbia University, have developed a method that predicts the pattern of coils and tangles that a cable may form when deployed onto a rigid surface. The research combined laboratory experiments with custom-designed cables, computer-graphics technology used to animate hair in movies, and theoretical analyses. The researchers say the coil-predicting method may help design better deployment strategies for fiber-optic cables to avoid the twisting and tangling that can lead to transmission glitches and data loss."

    In Brief: MIT Exploring "Second Skin" Spacesuit Design

    Last month, MIT researchers at the school's aeronautics and astronautics department revealed that they have been working on materials to design a skintight pressure suit for astronauts. The idea of this "second skin" suit would be to use shape-memory alloys that can spring into a programmed shape with heat to make pressure suits form-fitting and mobile. The SMA material they're working with is nickel-titanium, which can be spun into coils and expand and tighten-up with sufficient trigger heat. Outside of spacesuits, the researchers are also exploring applications of SMA-based wearables in athletics or even military uniforms--think of self-tourniquet armor. But what about Marty McFly's form-fitting jacket and self-lacing shoes? 2015 is only a few months away.

    The Scientific Origins Of Monsters And Mythical Creatures

    Monsters aren’t real, right? As Halloween draws nearer, you might not be so sure – especially after you read this piece. Some of the most famous monsters of all time are actually drawn from real-life creatures and events. Let’s dig up some graves and find out where these creeps came from.

    10 Places on Earth NASA Used to Mimic Space Travel

    Astronauts go through years of training before they take off, but there’s not very many good ways to simulate the airless vacuum outside Earth’s atmosphere. Here’s a quick tour of the spots around the world that our rocketmen visit to get ready for the final frontier.

    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)

    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.