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    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)

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    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
    NASA's LDSD Supersonic Test Flight

    "Ian Clark, principal investigator of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, takes us through a play-by-play of NASA's recent 'flying saucer' Test in Hawaii, using high-definition video shot from cameras on board the test vehicle." NASA's LDSD technology demonstration mission explores the use of a supersonic parachute for use with landers on future missions to Mars.

    MIT's Gravity-Defying "Magnetic Hair"

    "MIT engineers have fabricated a new elastic material coated with microscopic, hairlike structures that tilt in response to a magnetic field. Depending on the field's orientation, the microhairs can tilt to form a path through which fluid can flow; the material can even direct water upward, against gravity." More information here.

    In Brief: The Science of Designing Slot Machines

    Among all the artifice and constructs in a Las Vegas casino, none may be more engineered to entrance visitors and suck their wallets dry than the venerable slot machine. The evolution of the one-armed bandit is the topic of this Vox feature, which chronicles the many innovations and psychological tricks that slow machine designers employ to keep players in those ergonomic stools. These games are another example of activities that tap into psychological "flow"--even the architecture of the casino floor is designed to make the most persistent players feel like they're holed up in a private nook, free from the outside world. It's pretty scary stuff. MIT cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who was interviewed for Vox's report, has written a book about the ongoing manipulation of human-[slot]-machine interaction, and was previously featured in this 2013 episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    Norman
    The Secret to Smarter Robots: Ants

    Your cat is stuck in a burning building too dangerous for rescue crews to go inside, so off go the drones instead – five little unmanned aerial models that hover and flit through fiery beams and door frames without any human control. They know to spread out to cover more ground, and know how to adjust their search patterns when the communication links with the other drones go down. Their algorithms find and retrieve your cat in what rescue crews tell you is record time.

    Or that's the dream anyhow, to one day build artificially intelligent, self-organizing robot systems that can collaborate on complex tasks – or, at the very least, rescue imperiled cats. We're not there yet, but researchers have been getting closer, thanks in part to what we're learning from the collective behavior of ants.

    Photo credit: National Geographic

    Look back through artificial intelligence literature from the past few decades and you'll find ant-inspired algorithms are a popular topic of study. Of note, Swiss artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo was the first to algorithmically model ant colony behavior in the early 1990, and Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon published her own study on the expandable search networks of ants a few years after. Today, both have different but related ideas on how we might implement so-called ant-inspired swarm intelligence in robots – and perhaps soon, drones – outside of the lab.

    Consider, for example, how ants explore and search. Ants change the way they scour for things such as food and water depending on the number of ants nearby. According to Gordon, if there is a high density of ants in an area, the ants search more thoroughly in small, random circles. If there are fewer ants, the ants adjust their paths to be straighter and longer, allowing them to cover more ground.

    Photo credit: NASA

    This is all well and good in typical ant environments – but how do the ants adapt when interference is introduced, and their communication with other ants interrupted? To find out, Gordon sent over 600 small, black pavement crawlers to the International Space Station in January, and believes that studying how they react to the unfamiliar microgravity of space could help build better robots. Her research is especially prescient in the age of the drone.

    In a Stanford news release, Gordon likened the interference introduced by microgravity as "analogous to the radio disruption that robots might experience in a blazing building." Depending on how Gordon's space ants adapt, she thinks the results when applied to robotics and artificial intelligence could help us program more efficient algorithms for search and exploration – especially when our robots are faced with unfamiliar environments, and with little to no human control.

    In Brief: Why Your Best Thinking Happens in the Shower

    Wired Science has an interesting blog post about why our best thinking seems to happen when we're in the shower. According to psychologists, it's because the shower is a perfect situation for our brains to enter the "default mode network," a mental state in which the environment seems to fade and you become more aware of your internal thoughts. Kind of like an out-of-body experience. Activities like showering (or building LEGO!) engage a part of your brain to keep you just mentally active enough to be stimulated, but still allow for you to have an uninterrupted stream of thought for those eureka moments. It's also known in psychology as a state of "Flow." Earlier this week, we tested Birdly, a virtual reality apparatus that attempts to put your brain in that state of flow--by giving you the sensation of flying like a bird. We'll have video and a writeup recapping it soon!

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    In Brief: NASA Announces Marks 2020 Rover Payload

    Last Thursday, NASA JPL announced the loadout for the still-as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover. The follow up to 2012's Curiosity will carry seven scientific instruments, selected from 58 proposals made by engineers and researchers worldwide. The 2020 rover is based on Curiosity's proven chassis and landing system design, with upgraded hardware to explore its surroundings. (A landing site has not yet been determined.) Among the new gear--which will be developed by partners at academic and private institutions--is the Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with the ability to zoom. While filmmaker James Cameron was involved with the development of the imaging system on Curiosity (NASA eventually nixed his 3D camera system), the Mastcam-Z design will be spearheaded by Arizona State University's Jim Bell. And yes, the current plan is for it to be a stereoscopic camera system.

    Norman