Saturday, November 30, 2013

Humanoid Droids dance, dogs nuzzle, speak at Madrid robot museum

Humanoid robots dance at "The Robot Museum" in Madrid on November 28, 2013.

A white robotic beagle sits wagging its tail and nuzzling anyone who pets it, while six pint-sized robots, flashing blue, pump their fists as they dance to the pop hit "Gangnam Style".

They are the stars of a new museum launched in Madrid this month, showcasing what its owners say is one of the world's top collections of robot dogs and other pet automatons.

"As far as we know this is the biggest collection of robots in Europe, and in particular of Aibo robotic dogs," sold by Sony from 1999 to 2006, said the Robot Museum's manager Daniel Bayon, 39.

"They are a very important part of the museum. They are the most advanced robot dogs that have ever existed," he told reporters.

This pack of Aibos is the biggest in the world outside their native Japan, he added.

The museum houses some 140 exhibits dating from the 1980s to the present.

Among them is Nao, a walking, talking miniature humanoid developed by the French robotics company Aldebaran as an educational aid.

"I am a very special robot. I can simulate real-life behaviour," it said, in a high-pitched mechanical voice, during a recent demonstration.

"If you'll excuse me, I'll make myself a bit more comfortable," it added, sitting down on its bottom.

A child pets a robotic dog at "The Robot Museum" in Madrid on November 28, 2013.

Nearby stood a model of R2-D2, the classic bleeping droid first seen on movie screens in "Star Wars" in 1977.

Since opening nearly two weeks ago, tickets for guided visits to the small museum underneath the Juegetronica games store in central Madrid have sold out several times, Bayon said.

The owner of the collection, local technology enthusiast Pablo Medrano, said most of the models on display are no longer for sale in shops.

A picture taken on November 28, 2013 shows "NAO" a programmable humanoid robot developed by French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics at "The Robot Museum" in Madrid.

The museum is "perhaps the only dedicated robot museum in Europe outside of universities and training centres where we can see this technology of the future," Medrano, 39, told reporters.

"I want robots to be able to help us, just as household appliances and computers are helping us, which years ago was unthinkable. I hope that in a few years robots will meet our daily needs, particularly those of old people."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits

At the centre of spiral galaxy M81 is a supermassive black hole about 70 million times more massive than our sun.

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA /CXC /Wisconsin /D.Pooley & CfA /A.Zezas; Optical: NASA /ESA /CfA /A.Zezas; UV: NASA /JPL-Caltech /CfA /J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA /JPL-Caltech /CfA

Japan's Simuzu Luna Ring: Transmitting solar energy from Moon to Earth

Japanese construction firm Shimizu Corp. has unveiled a proposal that entails building a solar panel array around the moon's equator, then sending the power it collects back to Earth. They are calling the project LUNA RING.

Since the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan back in March 2011 (which led to closing the country's nuclear power plants) scientists there (and elsewhere) have been scrambling to find ways to create electricity for the country in other ways. In this latest proposal, a private company is reaching, quite literally, for the sky.

The idea, company reps say, is to lay down a band of concrete (which can be made from moon soil) 250 miles wide all the way around the moon's equator (a distance of approximately 6,800 miles), using robots directed by humans back here on Earth.

Next, the concrete would be covered with solar panels, which would be connected via cables to microwave and laser transmission stations.

The energy beams sent from the moon would be directed at receiving stations on Earth, allowing for a round-the-clock source of energy as there are no clouds or other bad weather on the moon.

Shimizu claims that such a system would be capable of sending 13,000 terawatts of power back to Earth and that construction could begin on the project as early as 2035.

Not addressed are the costs and considerable hurdles such a project would have to overcome—foremost among them would be building such a massive structure from such a great distance—nothing like it has ever been attempted.

There are also issues of getting the international community to go along with the project and overcoming seemingly simple problems, such as lunar soil disrupting the robots and their construction efforts—not to mention dusting the solar cells once in place.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Comet ISON drawn in by Sun's gravity and burns up - Video


The comet has most likely disintegrated under the high heat and gravitational stress of the Sun on Nov. 28, 2013. 

It is not visible in Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) footage and NASA scientists confirmed that they do not see it. 

 Credit: NASA / SDO / SOHO

SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher: Launch aborted after engine trouble


Topped with a television broadcasting satellite, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket fired its engines and was moments away from liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, but the commercial booster aborted the launch after computers detected the engines were too slow building up thrust.

Engineers raced to understand and resolve the problem, but they could not get comfortable enough to attempt the launch again before Thursday's time-constrained flight opportunity closed.

Officials had not announced a new target launch date Thursday evening, but SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk posted on his Twitter account the mission would likely be delayed a few days.

SpaceX was targeting liftoff of the 22-story rocket at 5:39 p.m. EST (2239 GMT) Thursday, aiming to achieve the first Thanksgiving Day launch from Florida's Space Coast since 1959.

The launch was pushed back to Thursday after multiple technical problems thwarted an initial launch attempt Monday.

What is the universe expanding into?



"Since astronomers know that the Universe is expanding, what's it expanding into? What's outside of the Universe?"

Ask any astronomer and you'll get an unsatisfying answer. We give you the same unsatisfying answer, but really explain it, so your unsatisfaction doesn't haunt you any more.

The short answer is that this is a nonsense question, the Universe isn't expanding into anything, it's just expanding.

The definition of the Universe is that it contains everything. If something was outside the Universe, it would also be part of the Universe too.

Outside of that? Still Universe. Out side of THAT? Also more Universe. It's Universe all the way down.

Either the Universe is infinite, going on forever, or its finite, with a limited volume. In either case, the Universe has no edge.

When we imagine the Universe expanding after the Big Bang, we imagine an explosion, with a spray of matter coming from a single point. But this analogy isn't accurate.

A better analogy is the surface of an expanding balloon. Not the 3 dimensional balloon, just its 2 dimensional surface.

If you were an ant crawling around the surface of a huge balloon, and the balloon was your whole universe, you would see the balloon as essentially flat under your feet.

Imagine the balloon is inflating. In every direction you look, other ants are moving away from you. The further they are, the faster away they're moving.

Even though it feels like a flat surface, walk in any direction long enough and you'd return to your starting point.

Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. 

Credit: NASA /WMAP Science Team.

You might imagine a growing circle and wonder what it's expanding into. But that's a nonsense question.

There's no direction you could crawl that would get you outside the surface.

Your 2-dimensional ant brain can't comprehend an expanding 3-dimensional object.

There may be a center to the balloon, but there's no center to the surface. Just a shape that extends in all directions and wraps in upon itself and yet, your journey to make one lap around the balloon takes longer and longer as the balloon gets more inflated.

To better understand how this relates to our Universe, we need to scale things up by one dimension, from a 2-d surface embedded in a 3-d world, to a 3-d volume embedded within a 4-d universe.

Astronomers think that if you travel in any direction far enough, you'll return to your starting position. If you could stare far enough into space, you would be looking at the back of your own head.

Watch the video for the full story.

European Space Agency (ESA) sets a path for big space science

Europe has fixed a broad plan for the big space science missions it will launch over the next two decades.

It will likely lead to a large X-ray telescope being launched in 2028, and to an orbiting observatory to detect gravitational waves going up in 2034.

Together, these two ventures will cost in excess of 2bn euros (£1.7bn).

They join a mission already approved known as Juice, which will see a big satellite sent to observe Jupiter and its icy moons in 2022.

The path ahead was set by the Science Policy Committee (SPC) of the European Space Agency (Esa), which is meeting in Paris, France.

The committee's decision should now give clear direction and certainty to Europe's research and industrial base.

Fabio Favata
"These big missions take a long time to put together - of the order of 20 years," said Dr Fabio Favata, head of Esa's Science Planning and Community Coordination Office.

"Of course, when you fix things you trade flexibility for stability, but this gives the community the opportunity to plan. They now understand what will be the 'pillars', what will be the 'cornerstones'," he told reporters.

The SPC gathering was asked to approve a set of scientific "themes" that will guide the selection of Esa's next Large Class mission opportunities.

The agency tries to launch one of these flagship endeavours every six years.

The themes are titled the "hot and energetic Universe", and the "gravitational Universe".

And although these themes do not endorse a specific X-ray telescope or gravitational wave detection concept, their prescription is so tight that only two candidates can have real confidence of making it through the forthcoming selection process.

These are the two consortia that narrowly lost out to the Juice team in the last L-Class competition in 2012.

The Athena+ science instruments. Left: Design drawing of the X-IFU showing the Dewar and a zoom on the focal plane assembly. Right: Design drawing of the WFI.

The X-ray telescope proposal currently goes by the name of Athena+. It would be roughly four tonnes in mass and have a 12m focal length.

With a survey capability and sensitivity a hundred times better than today's best space telescopes, Athena+ would be used to study the origin of the monstrous black holes that reside at the centres of galaxies, among other objectives.

A Lisa-like observatory would detect gravitational waves using lasers fired across millions of km of space

It would fire lasers across millions of km of space to try to measure the disturbance in the fabric of space-time resulting from exploding stars and merging black holes.

The gravitational wave observatory, Laser Interferometer Space Antennagoes, (Lisa).

It is a concept that has been studied for the better part of 20 years already.

Indeed, ESA is about to fly a small satellite called Lisa Pathfinder to demonstrate some of the key technologies.

The agency will call for proposals to take the 2028 launch opportunity early next year. There will then be a design phase with various technical reviews before a formal adoption of a mission in about 2018.

Read the full article here

Origami to solve astronomical space problem - Video


Brigham Young University (BYU) engineers have teamed up with a world-renowned origami expert to solve one of space exploration's greatest (and most ironic) problems: lack of space.

Working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a team of mechanical engineering students and faculty have designed a solar array that can be tightly compacted for launch and then deployed in space to generate power for space stations or satellites.

Applying origami principles on rigid silicon solar panels – a material considerably thicker than the paper used for the traditional Japanese art – the BYU-conceived solar array would unfold to nearly 10 times its stored size.

"It's expensive and difficult to get things into space; you're very constrained in space," said BYU professor and research team leader Larry Howell.

"With origami you can make it compact for launch and then as you get into space it can deploy and be large."

Mechanical engineering professor Larry Howell and a team of researchers from BYU and NASA are using origami to create space equipment.

The current project, detailed in the November issue of the Journal of Mechanical Design, is propelled by collaboration between BYU, NASA and origami expert Robert Lang.

Howell reached out to Lang as part of landing a $2 million National Science Foundation grant in 2012 to explore the combination of origami and compliant mechanisms. (Joint-less, elastic structures that use flexibility to create movement.)

CERN ATLAS experiment: Higgs boson decays to two tau particles

The ATLAS detector, open during a recent technical stop. 

Credit: Maximilien Brice /CERN

The ATLAS experiment at CERN has released preliminary results that show evidence that the Higgs boson decays to two tau particles.

Taus belong to a group of subatomic particles called the fermions, which make up matter.

This result – measured at 4.1 sigma on the 5-point scale particle physicists use to determine the certainty of a result – is the first evidence for a Higgs decay to fermions.

On 4 July 2012, the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN announced the discovery of a new particle, which was later confirmed to be a Higgs boson.

For physicists, the discovery meant the beginning of a quest to find out what the new particle was, if it fit in the Standard Model, our current model of nature in particle physics, or if its properties could point to new physics beyond that model.

An important property of the Higgs boson that ATLAS physicists are trying to measure is how it decays.

The Higgs boson lives only for a short time and disintegrates into other particles. The various possibilities of the final states are called decay modes.

So far, ATLAS physicists had found evidence that the Higgs boson decays into different types of gauge bosons - the kind of elementary particles that carry forces.

The other family of fundamental particles, the fermions, make up matter. The tau is a fermion and behaves like a very massive electron.

Graphical representation of a Higgs boson decaying to two tau particles in the ATLAS detector. 

The taus decay into an electron (blue line) and a muon (red line) 

Credit: ATLAS

The Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism was first proposed to describe how gauge bosons acquire mass but the Standard Model predicts that fermions also acquire mass in this manner, so the Higgs boson could decay directly to either bosons or fermions.

The new preliminary result from ATLAS shows clear evidence that the Higgs boson indeed does decay to fermions, consistent with the rate predicted by the Standard Model.

This important finding was made possible through careful analysis of data produced by the LHC during its first run.

Only with new data will physicists be able to determine if the compatibility remains or if other new models become viable.

Fortunately, the next LHC run, which begins in 2015, is expected to produce several times the existing data sample. In addition, the proton collisions will be at higher energies, producing Higgs bosons at higher rates.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

ESO VLA Explores Dragon's Head Nebula in Large Magellanic Cloud - Video


A lesser known region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 2035 (right), has been photographed using the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. 

The effects of new star birth and stellar death are on display.

Credit: ESO

JAXA: How Nanosatellites are deployed from ISS


JAXA's ISS Program Manager Masazumi Miyake explains how 3 nanosatellites (aka cubesats) were deployed from the Japanese 'Kibo' Experimental Module on Nov. 19. 2013. Credit: NASA

NASA ISS Astronauts record US Thanksgiving message - Video


Aboard the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, both Expedition 38 flight engineers, send down their best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving.

NASA STEREO: Watching Comet ISON - Video


This movie from NASA's STEREO spacecraft's Heliospheric Imager shows Comet ISON, Mercury, Comet Encke andEarth over a five-day period from Nov. 20 to Nov. 25, 2013. 

The sun sits to the right of the field of view of this camera. 

Credit: NASA/STEREO

NASA Stereo: ISON Comet approaching the Sun - video

Now that we have observations of the comet in the NASA STEREO instruments and, more recently, the ESA/NASA SOHO LASCO C3 instrument, CIOC team member Matthew Knight has been able to start recording photometry of the comet.

His results seem to imply that the comet may have experienced an outburst during the (approximate) period Nov 21 - 23 with corresponding brightness increase, followed by a leveling off and then dropping back down to "pre-outburst" levels.

Since entering the LASCO C3 field of view, comet ISON has increased by at least a factor of four, and indications are it may be closer to a factor of ten. In the most recently available images, the comet appears to be around magnitude +0.5.

It is now the opinion of the CIOC Team that Comet ISON is now behaving like a sungrazing comet. We can not comment on whether the nucleus is in tact or not, but our analyses indicate that its rate of brightening is directly in line with that we have experienced with other sungrazing comets.

This has no implication on its chances of survival. We strongly encourage all professional solar observatories who have plans in place for observing the comet, to please do so, and the teams should plan for an object brighter than negative one magnitude (and we are being conservative on this estimate).

Today's tl;dr is somewhat upbeat: we don't know if ISON will survive, and we won't know until it either does it or vaporizes but the comet is still "alive" and brightening dramatically in accordance with the behaviour we expect of sungrazers. Professional observers with solar telescopes should plan for a negative magnitude object, and we urge observation from these facilities.

Comet ISON Dances near the Sun

In this photo provided by NASA, a contrast-enhanced image produced from the Hubble images of comet ISON taken April 23, 2013 reveals the subtle structure in the inner coma of the comet. 

In this computer-processed view, the Hubble image has been divided by a computer model coma that decreases in brightness proportionally to the distance from the nucleus, as expected for a comet that is producing dust uniformly over its surface. 

ISON's coma shows enhanced dust particle release on the sunward-facing side of the comet's nucleus, the small, solid body at the core of the comet. 

This information is invaluable for determining the comet's shape, evolution, and spin of the solid nucleus. (AP Photo/NASA)

Comet ISON is teasing the solar system as it dances with the sun and it's giving astronomers mixed signals.

Will it meet a fiery death—or survive—when it whips around the sun on Thursday?

The icy comet will be only about 1 million miles ( 1.6 million kilometers) away from the sun's super-hot surface during its close encounter on US Thanksgiving day.

On Monday, it looked like it was about to die even before it got there. On Tuesday, it appeared healthy again.

"We have never seen a comet like this," Naval Research Laboratory astrophysicist Karl Battams said during a NASA news conference Tuesday. "It has been behaving strangely."

Because it is so close to the sun, ISON will likely not be visible from Earth on Thursday—except via a fleet of NASA telescopes and spacecraft aimed at the comet as it gets closest to the sun at 1:37 p.m. EST( (1837 GMT), he said and it will be a few hours before scientists know whether the comet survives.

But even if the comet dies, Johns Hopkins University scientist Carey Lisse said there's a good chance that people on Earth will get an interesting cosmic show.

The comet's remnants could paint the sky with a wide swath of green in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ESA Herschel Video: 37 thousand science observations

This animation shows the timeline of over 37 000 scientific observations made by ESA's Herschel space observatory throughout its entire mission, condensed into less than a minute.

The animation was prepared by Pedro Gómez-Alvarez in the Herschel Science Centre Community Support Group and presented by Herschel's Project Scientist Göran Pilbratt during the opening session of The Universe Explored by Herschel symposium held at ESA's ESTEC facility, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, last month.

The animation runs from launch, on 14 May 2009, until the infrared observatory made its last observation on 29 April 2013.

Running through the centre of the graphic is the 'ecliptic plane' tracing the paths of the planets with respect to Herschel's viewpoint from its orbit around L2, which is located 1.5 million kilometres behind the Earth as viewed from the Sun.

A horseshoe shape marks the Galactic Plane, the direction in which much of the Milky Way's mass lies, and where many of Herschel's observations were focused.

In total, Herschel observed almost a tenth of the entire sky for over 23 500 hours, providing new views into the previously hidden Universe, pointing to unseen star birth and galaxy formation, and tracing water through the Universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and to their planet-forming discs and belts of comets.

Its two camera/imaging spectrometers, PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer) and SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver), which together covered wavelengths of 55–670 microns, provided about two thirds of Herschel's sky coverage in parallel imaging mode.

These data points are shown in yellow. PACS and SPIRE photometry observations are indicated in blue and green, which together with spectroscopy performed with PACS, SPIRE and the third science instrument, HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared, covering wavelength bands of 157–212 microns and 240–625 microns) make up the remainder.

Mercury meteorite among world's rarest rocks

The magnetism of the meteorite formally known as NWA 7325 exactly matches that of Mercury.

Talk about a precious stone—the largest piece of the only known meteorite from the planet Mercury has found its way to Yale, where it is now on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Known as NWA 7325, the fist-size, greenish space rock is a rarity among rarities: there just aren't many verified planetary meteorites.

Scientists know of about 70 from Mars and, until now, none from any of the other planets in Earth's solar system.

There are about 180 known meteorites from the moon. NWA 7325 is the first believed to be from Mercury.

"If it's not from Mercury, it's from a very interesting place," said Anthony J. Irving, an expert in planetary meteorites at the University of Washington, during a recent appearance at the Peabody.

The meteorite's chemical composition provides the strongest evidence that it came from Mercury, a rocky world that is the smallest planet in Earth's solar system and closest to the sun, Irving said.

He noted the object's high magnesium and chromium content and its low iron content are similar to those of Mercury. Also, the meteorite's magnetism matches Mercury's magnetism exactly, he said.

The NWA in the name stands for Northwest Africa. The meteorite was found in fragments in 2012 in the Moroccan desert.

It is estimated to be 4.56 billion years old, about the age of Earth. The piece on display at the Peabody was sold to a private collector in Germany, Stefan Ralew, who consulted with Irving.

The exhibition, "From Mercury to Earth? A Meteorite Like No Other," runs Nov. 22 to Sept. 2, 2014.


U-Cat Robot Turtle: Underwater archaeologists to inspect shipwrecks


The Robot Safari in London Science Museum will see the world premiere of the underwater robot U-CAT, a highly maneuverable robot turtle, designed to penetrate shipwrecks.

U-CAT's locomotion principle is similar to sea turtles. Independently driven four flippers make the robot highly maneuverable; it can swim forward and backward, up and down and turn on spot in all directions.

Maneuverability is a desirable feature when inspecting confined spaces such as shipwrecks. The robot carries an onboard camera and the video footage can be later used to reconstruct the underwater site.

"U-CAT is specifically designed to meet the end-user requirements. Conventional underwater robots use propellers for locomotion. Fin propulsors of U-CAT can drive the robot in all directions without disturbing water and beating up silt from the bottom, which would decrease visibility inside the shipwreck", says Taavi Salumäe, the designer of the U-CAT concept and researcher in Centre for Biorobotics, Tallinn University of Technology.

"The so called biomimetic robots, robots based on animals and plants, is an increasing trend in robotics where we try to overcome the technological bottlenecks by looking at alternative technical solutions provided by nature ", explains Prof. Maarja Kruusmaa, a Head of Centre for Biorobotics.

Credit: Centre for Biorobotics, Tallinn University of Technology

NASA MESSENGER Image: Comet C/2012 S1 aka ISON

NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft took this image of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) during its closest approach of Mercury at 01:54:30 UTC on November 20. 

ISON was approximately 22.5 million miles (36.2 million kilometers) from MESSENGER and 42.1 million miles (67.8 million kilometers) from the sun. 

The image is 7° by 4.7° in size and has been slightly magnified and smoothed to enhance the faint tail of the comet. 

The tail was oriented at an angle to MESSENGER at the time and is foreshortened in this image; however, some faint structure can still be seen.

This image was acquired by the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) aboard NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft. 

The MESSENGER spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation are unraveling the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute

NASA MESSENGER Image: Comet 2P aka Encke

MESSENGER image of comet 2P/Encke during its closest approach to Mercury. 

At that time, Encke was approximately 2.3 million miles (3.7 million kilometers) from MESSENGER and 32.7 million miles (52.6 million kilometers) from the Sun. 

The image is 7° by 4.7° in size and has been slightly smoothed to enhance the faint tail of the comet. 

The tail was oriented nearly side on to MESSENGER in this image and is seen to stretch several degrees from the comet’s bright coma in the direction away from the Sun. 

Messenger's cameras have been acquiring targeted observations (watch an animation here) of Encke since October 28 and ISON since October 26, although the first faint detections didn't come until early November. 

During the closest approach of each comet to Mercury, the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) and X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) instruments also targeted the comets. 

Observations of ISON conclude on November 26, when the comet passes too close to the Sun, but MESSENGER will continue to monitor Encke with both the imagers and spectrometers through early December. 

The MESSENGER spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation are unraveling the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet.

During the first two years of orbital operations, MESSENGER acquired over 150,000 images and extensive other data sets. 

MESSENGER is capable of continuing orbital operations until early 2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover: MMRTG likely cause of electronic short

This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. 

In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player.

This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 7 meters (23 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity resumed full science operations on Saturday, Nov. 23.

Activities over the weekend included use of Curiosity's robotic arm to deliver portions of powdered rock to a laboratory inside the rover.

The powder has been stored in the arm since the rover collected it by drilling into the target rock "Cumberland" six months ago.

Several portions of the powder have already been analyzed. The laboratory has flexibility for examining duplicate samples in different ways.

The decision to resume science activities resulted from the success of work to diagnose the likely root cause of a Nov. 17 change in voltage on the vehicle. The voltage change itself did not affect the rover safety or health.

The vehicle's electrical system has a "floating bus" design feature to tolerate a range of voltage differences between the vehicle's chassis—its mechanical frame—and the 32-volt power lines that deliver electricity throughout the rover. This protects the rover from electrical shorts.

"We made a list of potential causes, and then determined which we could cross off the list, one by one," said rover electrical engineer Rob Zimmerman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Science operations were suspended for six days while this analysis took priority.

The likely cause is an internal short in Curiosity's power source, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).

Due to resilience in design, this short does not affect operation of the power source or the rover.

Similar generators on other spacecraft, including NASA's Cassini at Saturn, have experienced shorts with no loss of capability.

Testing of another MMRTG over many years found no loss of capability in the presence of these types of internal shorts.

Following the decision to resume science activities, engineers learned early Nov. 23 that the rover had returned to its pre-Nov. 17 voltage level.

This reversal is consistent with their diagnosis of an internal short in the generator on Nov. 17, and the voltage could change again.

The analysis work to determine the cause of the voltage change gained an advantage from an automated response by the rover's onboard software when it detected the voltage change on Nov. 17.

The rover stepped up the rate at which it recorded electrical variables, to eight times per second from the usual once per minute, and transmitted that engineering data in its next communication with Earth. "That data was quite helpful," Zimmerman said.

Atlas teams head for DARPA Robotics Challenge


Team IHMC's Atlas Humanoid Robot walking over random stuff to simulate a rough terrain. 

While the robot has some impressive sensors, including the Carnegie Robotics sensor head, in this video the team has the robot walk over the obstacles without any sensing of them, to demonstrate some robustness to rough terrain. 

The tether provides electrical power to an onboard hydraulic pump. The overhead safety rope does not support any of the weight of the robot. It is there in the off chance that the robot falls. 

How often does the robot fall? Right now often, but much less than when the team started working with the robot, which was 2 months before this video was made.

While the robot is strong enough to get back up after a fall, it's hard to say if it is able to fall without damaging itself. 

December 20 is a big day for teams competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge.

The idea is to promote critical improvements in what robots can do to help out in disaster relief efforts, when human intervention is unsafe and time is of the essence, such as nuclear power plant disasters, oil spills, and wildfires.

The challenge is for robots to be agile and responsive enough to move through such disaster zones and do needed rescue tasks. Enter Atlas, the six-foot two, 330-pound robot developed by Boston Dynamics.

As part of the contest, DARPA has been furnishing some of the teams with Atlas units. The teams are expected to come to Florida prepared to put their Atlas robots through tough paces.

The Atlas factor in the competition is interesting because it calls upon team scientists and engineers to give their robot its "brains."

In December, the teams will need to show they are up to the challenge, having worked out code and customized software to put their Atlas machine into action.

Each team is to enter its own Atlas into the DARPA competition, performing tasks that prove their robot is disaster-site ready.

The original developer, Boston Dynamics, created Atlas to negotiate difficult outdoor terrain while picking up objects and carrying them in its arms.

In July, the seven teams that had progressed from DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) arrived at the Boston Dynamics site in Waltham, Massachusetts, to meet the real Atlas.

Since then the teams have been preparing for next month's event by giving their Atlas the brains it needs to succeed in the challenge.

The Atlas is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built, but the teams are expected to take its physical shell and develop its software.

As DARPA points out, these seven teams are not starting from scratch.

With the physical modeling of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Simulator, software algorithms employed by teams in the VRC may transfer with minor tuning to Atlas hardware.

"The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams' ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario."

"The DRC Simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real world causes and effects, but the experience wasn't quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot," said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

"Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments. And we expect all teams will be further refining their algorithms, using both simulation and experimentation."

One of the teams that was kitted out with an Atlas robot is the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC).

The video published earlier this month showed Atlas losing its walking grip, missing its step over a slab of wood, as it navigated its way through assorted debris purposely placed on the floor to tests its ability to walk on rough terrain.

Actually, the stumble indicates the hard tests the IHMC is putting its entry through, as the sophisticated sensors were purposely disabled, and yet the robot at least almost completed its way across the obstructive objects.

Ecuador NEE-02 Krysor: Second nano-satellite launched

"Krysaor," like its predecessor, is equipped with a video camera, but with a higher resolution, more advanced solar panels, and a high-speed digital broadcasting system that "can transmit data a thousand times faster" than Pegaso, Nader said.

Ecuador's Civilian Space Agency (EXA) successfully launched the second nano-satellite into space early Thursday, the government-run news agency Andes reported.

The "Krysaor" satellite was launched aboard a Russian-built Dnepr RS-20B rocket that blasted off from the Dombarovsky launch site in Russia's southeastern Orenburg region.

"Krysaor has been put into orbit. The mission is successful," EXA's director Ronnie Nader was quoted as saying.

Experts at the EXA, led by Nader, monitored the launch from a ground control station in Guayaquil in southwestern Ecuador.

In April, the South American country launched its first nano- satellite "Pegaso," a 10x10 centimeter cube weighing 2.1 kilograms, to broadcast images in real time for educational purposes.

A month later, however, "Pegaso" collided with debris from an old Russian rocket, and the EXA announced in September that the device had vanished.

"Krysaor," like its predecessor, is equipped with a video camera, but with a higher resolution, more advanced solar panels, and a high-speed digital broadcasting system that "can transmit data a thousand times faster" than Pegaso, Nader said.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Urthecast: Canadian video camera launches to International Space Station

A Russian Progress freighter has launched to the International Space Station (ISS) carrying a pair of Canadian Earth observation cameras, built in the UK.

One of the imagers is a high-resolution video unit that will return short snatches of the planet's surface up to about 150 times a day.

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire made the cameras for a Canadian start-up called Urthecast.

The company hopes to build a business around space station imagery.

One of the customer sectors for the hi-res video, for example, is likely to be news organisations that want moving pictures of major events, such as war zones and regions of the Earth hit by natural disasters.

This space camera is one of two developed by Vancouver-based Urthecast that were launched Monday, bound for the International Space Station, where they’re expected to transmit images of Earth on the Internet.

Photograph by: HO, THE CANADIAN PRESS

The movie camera should be able to pick out details as small as a metre across from the ISS's altitude of 400km.

This means it ought to be possible to discern large crowds and moving vehicles.

The second camera will provide static imagery at a resolution of 5m per pixel.

Urthecast hopes to have both units operational in the New Year, shortly after they have been installed on a special gantry at the rear of the station by spacewalking astronauts.

The Progress-53 cargo ship lifted clear of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz rocket at 02:53 local time (Tuesday, 26 November - 20:53 GMT, Monday).

Scott Larson, the CEO of Urthecast, was at the Kazakh spaceport to witness launch.

"There are a lot of very happy Canadians, a lot of very happy Brits and a lot of very happy Russians," he said.

"It is truly spectacular. We are just incredibly grateful and thankful to have the opportunity to come here, and for all the hard work that has gone into it."

The Progess docking at the ISS is planned for Friday. As well as the cameras, the freighter is carrying general hardware, food, and fuel needed by the station's astronauts.

Engineers design spacesuit tools, biomedical sensors

Several Kansas State University engineering students are working with a model spacesuit to explore how wearable medical sensors can be used in future space missions to keep astronauts healthy. 

Credit: Kansas State University

Kansas State University researchers are improving astronauts' outerwear for outer space.

The collaborative team—which includes electrical and computer engineering professors and more than a dozen students—envisions a future spacesuit that could monitor astronauts' health and use body heat to power electronics.

By working with a model spacesuit, the engineers are exploring how wearable medical sensors can be used in future space missions to keep astronauts healthy.

William Kuhn
The project is supported by a three-year, $750,000 NASA grant and involves the College of Engineering's electrical and computer engineering department, the Electronic Design Laboratory and the College of Human Ecology, including the kinesiology department and the apparel, textiles and interior design department.

William Kuhn, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Steven Warren, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are two key faculty members working on the engineering portion.

Steven Warren
"This project supports a number of undergraduate and graduate students in doing systems-level engineering research and making them the technologists of the future," Kuhn said.

The project involves five parts, with several students involved in each part:

Kansas State University engineers are developing new energy harvesting methods that use body heat and a spacesuit's cooling garment to power radios and other electronics inside the spacesuit. 

Credit: Kansas State University
  • Developing and testing biosensors that can monitor astronauts' vital data, such as breathing rate or muscle activity.
  • Creating a specialized wireless network so that spacesuit biosensors can communicate with each other and with a space station.
  • Using energy harvesting technology to power radios and biosensors while an astronaut is in a spacesuit.
  • Building hardware prototypes for biosensors and energy harvesting electronics.
  • Producing spinoff technologies, such as new radio technologies and devices that apply to home care.

"This project is a good example of how when you do something in space, everything needs to be rethought—human elements and nonhuman elements of the system," Warren said.

"We have a lot to learn about human physiology and what happens to a person as they physically change in a reduced-gravity environment."

NASA ESA Hubble Image: Bright Quasar 3C 273

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

This image from Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) is likely the best of ancient and brilliant quasar 3C 273, which resides in a giant elliptical galaxy in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin).

Its light has taken some 2.5 billion years to reach us.

Despite this great distance, it is still one of the closest quasars to our home.

Allan Sandage
It was the first quasar ever to be identified, and was discovered in the early 1960s by astronomer Allan Sandage.

The term quasar is an abbreviation of the phrase "quasi-stellar radio source," as they appear to be star-like on the sky.

In fact, quasars are the intensely powerful centers of distant, active galaxies, powered by a huge disc of particles surrounding a supermassive black hole.

As material from this disk falls inwards, some quasars, including 3C 273, have been observed to fire off super-fast jets into the surrounding space.

In this picture, one of these jets appears as a cloudy streak, measuring some 200 000 light-years in length.

Quasars are capable of emitting hundreds or even thousands of times the entire energy output of our galaxy, making them some of the most luminous and energetic objects in the entire Universe.

Of these very bright objects, 3C 273 is the brightest in our skies. If it was located 30 light-years from our own planet—roughly seven times the distance between Earth and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us after the sun—it would still appear as bright as the sun in the sky.

WFPC2 was installed on Hubble during shuttle mission STS-61. It is the size of a small piano and was capable of seeing images in the visible, near-ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.

NASA ESA Hubble Image: Anaemic Spiral NGC 4921

How far away is spiral galaxy NGC 4921? 

Although presently estimated to be about 310 million light years distant, a more precise determination could be coupled with its known recession speed to help humanity better calibrate the expansion rate of the entire visible universe.

Toward this goal, several images were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to help identify key stellar distance markers known as Cepheid variable stars

Since NGC 4921 is a member of the Coma Cluster of Galaxies, refining its distance would also allow a better distance determination to one of the largest nearby clusters in the local universe.

The magnificent spiral NGC 4921 has been informally dubbed anemic because of its low rate of star formation and low surface brightness. 

Visible in the above image are, from the center, a bright nucleus, a bright central bar, a prominent ring of dark dust, blue clusters of recently formed stars, several smaller companion galaxies, unrelated galaxies in the far distant universe, and unrelated stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA

Significant amount of methane is escaping from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Main bathymetric features of the Arctic Ocean, taken mainly from Weber 1983 'Maps of the Arctic Basin Sea Floor: A History of Bathymetry and its Interpretation' on a base of a screenshot taken from the Nasa WorldWind software. 

Credit: Mikenorton / Wikipedia

A combined team of U.S. and Russian researchers has found that large amounts of methane are bubbling up from the subsea permafrost along the East Siberian Shelf.

In their paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the team describes research they've conducted over several years from fishing vessels in the Laptev Sea and other areas along the shelf along with the results of measurements they've made.

North of Russia lies the Arctic Ocean, over time, parts of it have been given different names—one of those the Laptev Sea, lies north of Siberia, and is bounded by peninsulas on both sides.

The sea normally freezes in the winter and thaws in the summer, but the water remains so cold that the seafloor has, at least until recent years, remained frozen.

The researchers in this latest effort have been monitoring the amount of methane released into the sea as the subsea permafrost melts in the summer.

The melting of the subsea permafrost in the Arctic Ocean can't be blamed on modern humans—it's been slowly warming down there for thousands of years—it's just recently however, reached the point where it melts in the summer just enough to allow the methane in it to seep out and bubble up into the sea column above.

The researchers have been seeing record levels of methane in the both seawater and permafrost core samples they've been collecting over the past several years (they also use sonar to measure the density of bubbles emanating into the seawater).

Worse, they have found that methane levels drop dramatically during storms.

This means, the researchers report, that all that methane in the seawater is whipped into the atmosphere, adding to the other greenhouse gasses that are contributing to global warming.

The researchers note that their measurements contradict predictions by others that a massive "pulse" of methane will very soon add as much as 50 billion tonnes of methane to the atmosphere, causing a dramatic spike in global air temperatures.

Instead, they suggest, it appears more likely that the methane will continue to bubble up slowly, contributing to greenhouse gases much as is happening currently—though they do caution that its possible global warming could cause more or bigger storms in the Arctic Ocean, releasing methane on a bigger scale.

More information: Ebullition and storm-induced methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Nature Geoscience (2013) DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2007

Are We Alone in the Universe - Paul Davies examines the risk or odds

Paul Davies
Recent research suggests that there may be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. 

A number that large has some scientists speculating that the universe might be teeming with life.

Before we eagerly set out to find our interstellar brethren, ASU cosmologist and author Paul Davies says we need to take a hard look at the odds of life elsewhere.

Thanks to Charles Darwin, we know a lot about how life evolved on Earth, but we know very little about how it first arose on this once sterile planet. 

Current thinking assumes there had to be the right chemicals and the right environmental conditions to set up a series of reactions that somehow led to the most basic of life forms.

According to Davies, the actual odds of the right chemical and environmental conditions coming together on a habitable planet at the right times to trigger an unlikely series of events are completely unknown because we don't know what those reactions and conditions were. 

The odds might indeed turn out to be favorable, as many scientists intuitively feel. But, on the other hand, they might equally well be very slim; indeed, less than, say, one in a trillion trillion. 

In our present state of ignorance, we simply cannot say, Davies adds.

"Set against a number that big – and once you decide a series of unlikely accidents is behind the creation of life, you get enormous odds very easily – it is irrelevant whether the Milky Way contains 40 billion habitable planets or just a handful," he writes in "Are we alone in the Universe?" in the Nov. 19 New York Times

"Forty billion makes hardly a dent in a trillion trillion."

US Navy's stealthy Zumwalt destroyer is moored at Bath Iron Works

In a Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 file photo, the Navy's stealthy Zumwalt destroyer is moored at Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine. 

The skipper of the technology-laden Zumwalt is Capt. James Kirk, and his futuristic-looking vessel sports cutting-edge technology, new propulsion and powerful armaments, but this ship isn't the Starship Enterprise. 

The technology-laden Zumwalt taking shape at Maine's Bath Iron Works is unlike any other U.S. warship. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Captain Kirk's futuristic-looking vessel sports cutting-edge technology, new propulsion and powerful armaments, but this ship isn't the Starship Enterprise.

The skipper of the stealthy USS Zumwalt is Navy Capt. James Kirk, and yes, he's used to the jokes about the name he shares with the TV starship commander played by actor William Shatner.

"I don't take any offense," he told reporters in an interview. "If it's a helpful moniker that brings attention to help us to do what we need to do to get the ship into the fleet and into combat operations, then that's fine."

While it's no starship, the technology-laden Zumwalt taking shape at Maine's Bath Iron Works is unlike any other U.S. warship.

The Navy's largest destroyer will feature a composite deckhouse with hidden radar and sensors and an angular shape that minimizes its radar signature. Its unusual wave-piercing hull will reduce the ship's wake.

It's the first U.S. surface warship to use electric propulsion, and its power plant is capable of producing enough electricity to light up a small city and to power future weapons like the electromagnetic rail gun.



Inside, it's just as unique. The number of sailors needed to stand watch will be reduced through the use of cameras and video monitors that show what's going on outside.

The bridge will indeed look like something from "Star Trek" with two chairs surrounded by nearly 360 degrees of video monitors.

A handful of reporters accompanying Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday got a first look at the ship's interior while it's under construction. It's due to be christened in the spring.

The 610-foot (186-meter)-long ship has the highest level of automation on a U.S. surface warship, with systems in place to combat flooding and to put out fires, among other things.

Because of automation and technology, the number of sailors needed to run it will be nearly half the number serving on the current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

All this whiz-bam technology comes at a price that sailors couldn't have imagined in the mid-1960s, when the first episodes of "Star Trek" aired on television.

The first-in-class Zumwalt will cost northward of $3.5 billion, a price tag so high that the Navy was forced to reduce the number of ships in the series to just three.