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    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Water

    Andy Weir's novel The Martian has struck a chord with an audience of readers that extends far beyond the traditional sci-fi demographic. I think that part of the book's broad popularity stems from the fact that Weir never leaps too far ahead of the current human condition. This makes his storyline approachable for readers who would normally dismiss the sci-fi genre as too fantastical, myself included.

    Much of what grounds the story is the technology that is referenced throughout. There are no Zenon alien zappers or antimatter toothbrushes. In fact, many of the systems found on Weir's imaginary Martian outpost are actually in use on the International Space Station (ISS) today. Weir sometimes extrapolates the capabilities of these systems into the future, but he invariably remains faithful to the science at their core.

    Water is a tremendously valuable commodity in space. The ISS contains numerous systems aimed at getting the most out of every drop.

    This is the first in a short series that will examine a few of these real-life space systems that are referenced in The Martian. The intent is not to compare any differences between the actual components and Weir's versions. What would be the point? Although he aimed for (and largely achieved) technical accuracy, Weir had creative license to write about death rays powered by peanut butter if he chose. So there's no point in splitting hairs. Rather, the goal here is simply to provide greater insight into the life-sustaining systems that that are referenced in the book and relied upon by astronauts and cosmonauts every day.

    Today, we'll discuss the use and recycling of water in manned space missions.

    Aging Suit Simulates Experience of Old Age

    Speaking of conceptual transhuman experiences, here's video of an "aging suit" that simulates the experience of being 75 years old. The Atlantic's James Hamblin tests this exoskeleton, which limits movement, impairs hearing, and blurs vision (to approximate cataracts). It's the latest invention of technologist (and ex-Imagineer) Bran Ferren's Applied Minds, and is intended to get people talking about issues around aging and long-term care.

    In Brief: Real Life Goat Simulator

    Our buddy and former writer Matt Braga reports on an experiment by English speculative designer Thomas Thwaites, who recently investigated what life would be like living as goat. As in, Thwaites donned custom limb prosthetics and lived among goats for a few days in the Swiss Alps. The bizarre experiment is more performance art project than scientific endeavor, but totally worth it for the surreal photographs.

    Astronauts on ISS to Eat Veggies Grown in Space

    My biggest takeaway from the two videos we did with Commander Hadfield in 2013 about eating in space is that fresh produce is one of the astronauts most precious commodities. From cosmonauts chomping into raw onions to astronauts snarfing apples sent up in resupply missions, getting a bite of crisp food is a high point for most long-duration astronauts. Right now, those bites are limited to the few days after the arrival of a resupply mission since the station lacks food refrigeration facilities.

    That's about to change. The Veggie plant growth system has been used to grow leafy greens and flowers on orbit since May 2014. The first crop was returned to earth for safety analysis last year, and astronauts have gotten the go-ahead to chow down on half of the most recent crop (the other half will be sent back to Earth for analysis). I believe this marks the first time humans have eaten food grown on-orbit while still on-orbit. This is an awesome step toward figuring out how to grow food in space and a problem we must solve before we can make it to Mars and points beyond with manned missions.

    I'm Fascinated By the Tree of 40 Fruit

    I've been into the idea of grafting, attaching a branch from one tree to another similar species, since I was introduced to the technique as a kid. Sam Van Aken grafts branches from 40 species of fruit tree to make a single gorgeous tree that bears 40 different kinds of fruit. Horticulture meets art! (via kottke)

    Smithsonian Launches Kickstarter to Conserve Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit

    The Smithsonian Institution just launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes in raising funds to conserve and digitize the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on Apollo 11. It's seeking $500,000 for this "Reboot the Suit" project, which isn't covered by its federal appropriations. The suit currently resides in museum storage, in fragile condition--the project would include building a climate-controlled display case to protect the suit for public display, as well as digitizing it using multiple scanning technologies (as part of the Smithsonian X 3D initiative). Half a million is a lot to raise for this project, but the campaign could be a way for the museum to get press to reach private donors. If the money isn't raised, the suit would stay in storage, which would be a bummer come 2019 and the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing.

    In Brief: Five Interesting Things Today

    After a week-long exhale from Comic-Con, we're back to a regular schedule and looking forward to upcoming events, product testing, and more projects! Here are some stories currently sitting my browser tabs that I thought were worth sharing. First, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced that he would be spending $100 million over the next ten years to amp out the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Steven Hawking's on board. I also enjoyed this NPR story about the research into the curious sound of screaming. Windows 10 comes out in a week, and Microsoft has released an invite-only beta of its Cortana app for Android--Arstechnica has tested it. Boingboing's exploration of vintage Star Wars clothing collecting strikes a chord. And the best custom LEGO build in recent memory may be David Szmandra's enormous RC construction crane. "Massive erection" indeed.

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    10 Surprising Things Spotted With Satellites

    It wasn’t long after the Soviets put Sputnik in orbit that people started to think about what we could see on the Earth from up in the sky. Surveillance satellites are constantly spinning around our planet, taking snaps that we use for military and civilian purposes. But sometimes, they manage to get pictures of things we didn’t even know were there. Today, we’ll share ten images that came back from space and gave us a real surprise.

    Fluid Dynamics and The Lollipop Hypothesis

    From Science Friday: "It's not just generations of children who have pondered how many licks it takes to reach the center of a lollipop. Mathematicians studying fluid dynamics at NYU's Applied Mathematics Lab designed experiments to watch how lollipops dissolve, and in doing so answered this epic childhood question."

    In Brief: After 10 Years, a New Portrait of Pluto

    As I'm sure you've heard, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made its flyby past Pluto this morning, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers) of the dwarf planet's surface. The trip took almost 10 years, and netted us invaluable data about our solar system, including a highest resolution color photo taken of Pluto. Yep, that's Pluto's real color. Data from New Horizons is coming back at about 1kb/s, so it's going to take a while for the next series of images to come through. NASA's New Horizons team just finished a Reddit AMA where they answered a ton of questions about the mission.

    Photo Gallery: Adam Incognito with Astronaut Chris Hadfield

    Here are some photos I took of Adam and Commander Chris Hadfield prepping for their Comic-Con incognito walk, roaming the convention show floor, and randomly bumping into "The Martian" author Andy Weir! You can actually see the exact moment when Andy realizes that the two 2001: A Space Odyssey astronauts must be Adam and Chris!

    10 Awesome NASA Space Projects Of The Near Future

    For a while there, it was looking like America was sort of giving up on space. Economic issues here on the ground made it tough to fund all of the cool things we wanted to do, but a new combination of private investment, technological advancement and a public desire to see more of our glorious universe seems to have lit a fire under the agency’s behind. If you haven’t been keeping track, NASA has a lot of cool stuff coming up. Here’s our guide to ten cool things they hope to get off the ground soon.

    NASA’s Super Guppy–Awkward, Old, and Irreplaceable

    When it comes to airplanes, I have a soft spot for the rare and unusual. If an airplane looks like it shouldn't even be capable of flight…all the better. NASA's Super Guppy cargo plane meets all of those qualifications. I've seen it fly many times, and I was even able to explore its interior once. Yet, it never fails to leave me scratching my head in slack jawed bewilderment. It is a tremendously unique aircraft with an equally unique history.

    Flight – Lacking power-boosted controls, the Super Guppy requires a lot of pilot muscle to fly. (NASA image)

    Genesis of the Super Guppy

    The Super Guppy did not emerge from a clean drawing board. It is actually a mishmash of parts from several airplanes, along with a few custom pieces holding it all together. Some of those parts are from WWII-vintage designs. Despite its "Frankenplane" structure and relative age, the Super Guppy continues to do things that no other airplane in NASA's fleet can do. Indeed, few aircraft anywhere in the world can match this bulbous machine's ability to haul oversized cargo.

    Before dissecting the makeup of NASA's current Super Guppy, it is worth reviewing the genealogy of aircraft that spawned it. As the story goes, aircraft salesman Lee Mansdorf and his friend, Jack Conroy conceived the "Guppy" idea in 1960 as an opportunity to provide logistical support to America's fledgling space program – even though NASA wasn't looking for help.

    The nose of NASA's Super Guppy swings open to allow loading into the cargo area. (NASA image)

    The manufacturers building spacecraft components were located all over the US. The only reasonable means to get these parts from one coast to the other was via ship travelling through the Panama Canal – an expensive and risky journey that could take weeks. Mansdorf and Conroy felt that air transport would be a much better method. Although there were airplanes capable of lifting the necessary weight, none were large enough to accommodate the girth of these loads. The industrious pair felt that they had a solution.

    10 Inventions to Restore Lost Senses

    The human brain is the most complex biological machine we know of, and as a result its input mechanisms are a little more involved than a keyboard and mouse. Our five senses process a staggering amount of information during the course of our lives, and when one of them gets taken out it can be agonizing. Thankfully, scientific progress has been coming up with new and better ways to restore those senses, and today we’ll spotlight some truly astounding inventions that can bring them back.

    Earth, Fire, Wind, Water: Alternative Battery Technologies

    There are a bazillion solar-powered portable batteries on the market. But they have this little problem: they need the sun in order to work. Inventors and engineers, seeing the need for portable power generation that doesn't require daylight, have been hard at work coming up with some creative ideas for alternative energy sources. Let's call them the Earth element batteries (or just call them awesome). Now you can get a portable battery powered by wind, water, fire, and even mud. Here's the science behind how these mini-generators work.

    Fire Power

    The FlameStower is a portable device that uses temperature variations to generate electricity. It's based on a simple principle called the thermoelectric effect. To put it in the most simplified way possible: all you need is to put two materials that are effective at moving electricity next to each other and add an electricity-capturing device on one end. Then you heat one side and cool the other. Electrons move from the hot side to the cool side (because they like to be where energy is lower and heat has a higher level of energy, a concept you probably know as diffusion). As they travel into the cool side they release heat energy and voila! You have a battery. Yay physics! This method of power generation is regularly used to power devices in space, where it's easy to generate heat naturally with a decaying radioactive material while subjecting it to the extreme cold temperatures of the vacuum outside.

    The FlameStower generator works over any flame or heat source (a cook stove, a campfire, or even the stove in your kitchen). You simply put one end of it over the heat, pour some water into the cold side to keep the temperature there low, and plug in any USB device. They even have a version that can charge your gadgets using a candle. Depending on how powerful your flame is, the FlameStower can produce about 3w of power, which its makers calculate out to about two to four minutes of talk time on your phone for every one minute of charging. You can get one for $70 on their website and their candle charger, which will cost $99, is expected to be available soon.

    UrtheCast Camera Footage from the ISS

    UrtheCast, a satellite imaging startup, operates two massive Iris cameras mounted on the International Space Station to capture pretty incredible footage. Objects a meter in size are visible, and software compensates for the movement of the ISS above Earth. The company, which plans to sell its video and data to companies and the government, has promised to stream live video from its cameras to the public next month.