NASA Bets on a Spacecraft that Can 3-D Print and Self-Assemble in Orbit

By Daniel Bastardo Blanco | July 15, 2019 6:20 pm
Archinaut One will test 3-D printing spacecraft components, and then assembling them, in low-Earth orbit. (Credit: Made in Space, Inc.)

Putting a satellite in space is news of the past, but launching a spacecraft that can 3-D print and self-assemble is a story of the future. NASA is now betting on the technology being ready for prime time as early as 2022.

Last week, the space agency announced that they had awarded a $73.7 million contract to a startup company called Made In Space, Inc. The money will fund a test of the concept using a small spacecraft, called Archinaut One, in low-Earth orbit.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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SpaceX Aims to Test Starhopper This Week

By Hailey Rose McLaughlin | July 15, 2019 5:15 pm
An artist’s illustration shows the eventual Starship, SpaceX’s future passenger vehicle, launching above the clouds. (Credit: SpaceX)

Exploring space on your next family vacation is still a few years in the future. But Elon Musk now says that Starhopper, the prototype for SpaceX’s future passenger spacecraft, could be tested as soon as July 16 at the company’s facility near Brownsville, Texas. That would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo launch.

In a tweet on July 12, Musk said that the Raptor engines, the high-tech powerful rocket motor created by SpaceX for Starship, were now mounted onto Starhopper.

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Aerogels Could Be Used to Build Terraforming Domes on Mars

By Charles Choi | July 15, 2019 5:00 pm
(Credit: Discover; Pavel Chagochkin/Shutterstock)

(Inside Science) — Shields made of a material so light it is sometimes called “frozen smoke” could help make areas on Mars livable, a new study suggests.

Currently, the surface of Mars is too cold for water to stay liquid, often thought of as a key prerequisite for life as we know it. Moreover, its atmosphere is too thin to shield against hostile ultraviolet radiation, which is dangerous to life.

Scientists have suggested a number of strategies to make the Red Planet more habitable, but all such terraforming projects are nigh impossible with current technologies. In one common scenario, humans would unleash the greenhouse gases locked away on the Martian surface to trap the sun’s heat. However, a 2018 study noted the only greenhouse gas abundant enough to significantly warm Mars is carbon dioxide, and not enough of it remains on the Red Planet to successfully terraform it. Another strategy involves redirecting comets and asteroids rich in greenhouse gases to hit Mars, but many thousands would be required.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Scientists Made a Microbe-Boosting Diet to Help Malnourished Kids Grow

By Daniel Bastardo Blanco | July 12, 2019 2:25 pm
A malnourished child at a camp in Bangladesh. (Credit: Pahari Himu/Shutterstock)

One in four children will never grow to a normal height. In developing countries, the number can be as high as one in three. The problem? Malnutrition.

Now scientists have developed a diet that can boost key colonies of gut bacteria in malnourished kids. The finding is important because past research has shown these bacteria are essential for healthy growth and development. The study paves the way for a new wave of food therapy focused on tackling malnutrition from a gut bacteria perspective.

Lack of proper nutrition accounts for nearly half of all infant deaths before age 5. And while therapeutic diets can help malnourished kids survive, they struggle to counteract the long-lasting consequences — surviving kids fail to develop normally and ultimately experience health complications throughout life.

For a few years now, scientists have suspected that gut bacteria could be behind the lingering effects of malnutrition. They had shown evidence for it but hadn’t come up with a solution yet. Now, an international collaboration appears to have cracked the dietary code to repair the damage caused by childhood starvation on gut bacteria. They suggest the fix could potentially erase the long-lasting effects of malnutrition.

The results of the study were published Thursday in the journal Science.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: microbiome, nutrition

NASA Built Rock Climbing Robots to Scale Cliffs on Mars and Beyond

By Korey Haynes | July 12, 2019 1:45 pm
climbing robot
LEMUR can climb walls with special gripping feet, and is only one of a suite of climbing NASA robots. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has built many adventurous robots that can fly in space, land on alien planets, roll across Martian and lunar terrain, and even fly helicopter-style across far-off worlds. But the next big challenge is climbing and clambering across rough or steep terrain, a common sight whether on rocky Mars or icy Enceladus.

To that end, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has been developing what they call a Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot, or LEMUR. With four limbs, 16 fingers, and hundreds of tiny hooks, LEMUR and its descendants can climb steep walls, slippery surfaces, or otherwise uneven ground. Aided by an artificial intelligence system, these robots can maneuver their own way around obstacles to complete science goals like mapping new areas or searching for prized rock and soil samples. LEMUR itself isn’t going to be used for its original purpose, which was to crawl around the International Space Station and effect repairs. But its descendants might yet make their mark beyond Earth.

There Are Many Copies

LEMUR’s basic design is proving versatile. Built for climbing, gripping, and navigating, these same skills can be used in many environments.

One challenging world astronomers want to explore is Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. RoboSimian has the same basic build as LEMUR, but instead of feet that grip, it has flexible wheels made from piano wire. It can walk, crawl, slide, or wiggle across untrustworthy and varying terrain. This is important, because standard rover wheels, while sturdy, have difficulty over ground that is too sharp, too soft, too slick or too steep. To venture into wilder worlds and territory, NASA needs new modes of transportation.

Another LEMUR offshoot built for icy worlds is Ice Worm, which crawls across the ground like an inch worm. It originated as one of LEMUR’s limbs, and shares its AI know-how for avoiding and navigating obstacles without a human driver. It can also climb sheer walls by drilling into their hard sides, one end at a time, and scientists have considered whether such drilling could also be used to collect samples. On Earth, it has so far explored glaciers and ice caves, prepping for its possible future on an icy moon.

Like Ice Worm, the Underwater Gripper is adapted from one of LEMUR’s parts, in this case a hand with 16 fingers. Also like Ice Worm, the Gripper has the ability to hang onto surfaces and drill into them. Drilling can be tricky even on normal surfaces, as the Mars InSight lander has discovered. But underwater or in places with low or no gravity, gripping is essential, or the force of a drill would simply push the robot away from its testbed.

LEMUR’s other descendant might come in handy on Mars or Titan, where flying robots have been approved for either testing or full mission use. While it has no name as yet, JPL is working on a flying robot that could land not just horizontally, but vertically, by gripping walls like a true dragonfly. Using LEMUR’s feet with many hooks would mean it won’t need to scout for flat surfaces before landing, but could do so on a variety of surfaces.

With these and other innovations, there may be no place in the solar system NASA can’t explore.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Viking Relics Will Disappear With Climate Change, Study Says

By Roni Dengler | July 12, 2019 12:30 pm
Nuuk coast of greenland
Archaeological sites in the Nuuk Region along Greenland’s southern coast, shown here, are among those in the most danger from climate change. (Credit: XPixel/shutterstock)

Hailing from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the seafaring pirates best known as Vikings, or Norsemen, raided and colonized Europe from the ninth to eleventh centuries. They also established settlements throughout the Arctic including in Greenland. Now researchers say that climate change is threatening the cultural history of the region, as rising temperatures eat away archaeological relics. The findings suggest Norse Viking artifacts are particularly endangered by climate change.

“Our findings highlight that climate change will have an effect on cultural heritage,” said environmental scientist Jørgen Hollesen, who led the new research. “If we do nothing to protect the archaeological sites in the Arctic, we will lose irreplaceable human and environmental records of the past.”

He added: “It would be a great shame if future generations will not have the opportunity to learn from the past as we have today.”

Arctic Assessment

For almost a decade, Hollesen has been trying to get a grasp on what will happen to the nearly 6,000 archaeological sites in Greenland as the climate changes. In the last three years, he’s teamed up with other researchers on a project called REMAINS of Greenland. The group is carrying out the first regional assessment of climate change impacts on archaeological sites in the Arctic. This new research is part of that project. Ultimately, the team hopes to produce a tool to identify and prioritize the sites most vulnerable to degradation. 

In the new work, Hollesen and his team examined how fast increasing temperatures might degrade wood, bone, hair, DNA and other organic materials at seven archaeological sites in Greenland’s Nuuk region. The sites stretch from the sea to about 75 miles inland and originate from three main Greenland cultures – Saqqaq (2,500 to 800 B.C.), Dorset (300 B.C. to 600 A.D.), and Thule (1,300 A.D. to present) – as well as from Norse Viking Age settlers who inhabited the inland area from 985 to 1,350 A.D. 

The sites also differ markedly in climate. Coastal sites are much colder and wetter than the inland sites, the researchers found. They also modeled effects of future climate warming on soil temperatures at five of the sites.

Disappearing History

The analysis revealed rising future air temps would mean higher soil temperatures and a longer thaw season, circumstances that can put some pep into microbes that break down organic materials.

“Our results show that 30 to 70 percent of the archaeological fraction of organic carbon in the archaeological deposits could disappear within the next 80 years,” Hollesen said. 

Although the researchers expect all of the archaeological sites to experience substantial loss, the most rapid degradation will occur in inland areas, the team announced Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. The finding suggests remains from the Norse Viking Age settlers are especially under threat, Hollesen says. 

Though the team still needs to investigate other parts of the Arctic beyond the Nuuk region, Hollesen and team hope the research will help identify particularly vulnerable sites.

“We must be realistic and acknowledge that it will be necessary to prioritize between sites in order to direct limited resources to the most valuable sites,” he said.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

New ‘Vegebot’ Highlights Why Robots Won’t Replace Vegetable Pickers Anytime Soon

By Anna Groves | July 11, 2019 4:51 pm
lettuce in a field for picking by a robot
Cambridge researchers have a new lettuce-picking robot. Its success underlines the challenges of automating vegetable picking. (Credit: leungchopan/shutterstock)

A skilled human can pick a head of lettuce every 10 seconds. Just reach down, slice a mature head off its stalk, bag it, toss it in the cart. Easy, right?

Tell that to wannabe veggie-picking robots. For them, it’s actually quite a challenge.

Earlier this week, a team from the University of Cambridge published their latest robotic veggie-picking platform: Vegebot. The study appears in the Journal of Field Robotics. The good news is, it picks lettuce. The bad news is, it’s not nearly as fast or efficient as a human.

Lettuce Pick You

Iceberg lettuce is a particularly problematic produce to pick. The mature heads are surrounded by visually similar immature heads, diseased heads and extra leaves. Once picked, they’re easily damaged by handling. And, the heads you see at the grocery store have had their big outer leaves removed during picking.

What’s more, there are very specific standards for how much stalk can be left on the base of the head. Just 1 to 2 millimeters — that’s not a very wide margin for error. Any more than that, you’ve got a noticeable stem sticking out — nobody wants that. But less than that, and you’re cutting into the leaves.

“Supermarkets order growers to deliver big orders at extremely short notice and it’s hard to marshall the required workers in time,” adds Simon Birrell, researcher at Cambridge University and lead author on the study.
“So Vegebot allows growers to respond to spikes in demand.”

Vegebot has its work cut out for it.

(Credit: Birrell et al. 2019, Journal of Field Robotics)


Vegebot has some great qualities. It’s really quite good at identifying the pickable heads out of the sea of green it sees in its view. In trials, it detected over 90 percent of lettuce heads, and had a false-positive rate of less than 2 percent.

But, it struggles telling immature heads, which shouldn’t be picked yet, from mature ones.

And, during its final field test, it only had about a 50/50 success rate. That’s not great. Out of 69 lettuces it spotted, it tried to pick 60, and succeeded to get 31. The researchers say the failures were caused by “mechanical failures on the arm which made attempting harvesting impossible.”

But even batting 0.500 it’s slower than a human picker. Three times slower: Its average pick time was over 30 seconds per head. The researchers think the biggest slow-down was caused by the weight of its arm: a lighter or stronger one could move faster.

If this four-person team of engineers had spent their 10 days in the field picking lettuce, instead of messing with Vegebot, they could’ve picked something like 100,000 heads of lettuce. Vegebot picked “hundreds.”

Future Robot Farmers?

The struggles of veggie-picking robots are not limited to Vegebot and lettuce. The study authors cite a 2014 review that came to the “gloomy conclusion” that “harvesting is a challenging task to automate and … almost no progress had been made in the past 30 years.” Brutal.

Birrell’s team also points out that since every type of produce is so unique, it will take a diversity of robots to automate vegetable picking. You just can’t harvest wheat, broccoli and grapes in the same way. Some crops are closer than others to having robot caretakers, but for now, just the giant row crops (corn, soy, wheat) are really harvested mechanically.

And it’s tough work. “Agricultural robotics is very different from working in the lab,” sats Birrell. “You get dust, wind, cold [and] rain.”

“In one field trial we were caught in a thunderstorm and were terrified we’d get struck by lightning,” says Birrell. “It hit a tree instead!”

Vegebot, and its produce-picking peers, are certainly on their way — but they still have a long way to go.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: robotics

An AI Bot Just Beat Poker Pros In Six-Player Texas Hold’em

By Roni Dengler | July 11, 2019 2:15 pm
Playing Poker
(Credit: LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

The best poker players in the world can cash in on millions of dollars in a game. Played in casinos, poker clubs, private homes and on the internet, the game demands skill and strategy.

Now scientists have created an artificial intelligence (AI) bot that can best even the top human players. And this new AI won at six-player poker. Bots were already dominant at two, or three-player poker, but six players is much harder. The feat represents a major breakthrough in artificial intelligence that could one day apply to far beyond card games to everything from cybersecurity to navigating self-driving cars.

“This research isn’t really about poker,” said computer scientist Noam Brown, who authored the work while completing his doctoral degree at Carnegie Mellon University and working as a research scientist for Facebook AI. 

“It’s about developing AI that can handle hidden information in a complex multi-participant environment.”

Touchstone Task

In any game of poker, the goal is to win the “pot,” the collection of bets players make throughout each deal. Players win by having the highest-ranking set of five cards in hand or by making a bet that no other player matches. Because there are multiple players, participants must work with imperfect information about their opponents, a situation that’s previously made it difficult for AI to succeed.

“Poker is a useful benchmark for progress on this more general problem because in poker we can objectively measure performance against professionals who have dedicated their lives toward reaching the peak of human performance in this game,” Brown explained.

Two years ago, Brown and a team of researchers developed another AI called Libratus that beat poker pros playing heads-up no-limit Texas hold’em, a two-player version of the game. But since most real-world AI applications involve more than two participants, developing a bot that could win in six-player no-limit Texas hold’em poker – the most popular version of the game – was a long-standing challenge.

Now the researchers have revealed their improved AI, which they call Pluribus. Pluribus first played against copies of itself to create what the researchers dub a “blueprint strategy.” As the AI plays, it figures out what actions lead to better outcomes. Then, when playing against human opponents, Pluribus improves the blueprint strategy by searching in real time for a strategy that better suits the circumstances of the current game.

Superhuman Strategy

The overall strategy led Pluribus to beat some of the best players of the game for the first time, the researchers announce Thursday in the journal Science. The AI had a very high win rate when it competed against five professional poker players in 10,000 hands of the game over 12 days. Pluribus won at a rate of 48 milli big blinds per game, which is a measure of money won based on how much the second player put in the pot. Forty-eight is considered a very high win rate.

In another round where one human elite played 5,000 hands of poker against five copies of the Pluribus, the AI beat the human by 32 milli big blinds per game. For comparison, poker superstar Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, who has won nearly 10 million dollars in live earnings, lagged behind Pluribus by 25 milli big blinds per game. 

“Pluribus plays at a superhuman level, and defeats elite human professionals in six-player poker even when they have time to observe the bot’s strategy and adapt to it,” Brown said. 

“In the future I can see this research being applied to everything from cybersecurity to combating fraud to navigating traffic with a self-driving car,” he added.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

Japanese Asteroid Mission Touches Down on Ryugu, Collects Sample

By Korey Haynes | July 11, 2019 2:01 pm
illustration of spacecraft above asteroid surface
Hayabusa2 has successfully collected its second sample from the surface of asteroid Ryugu. (Credit: Illustration by Akihiro Ikeshita (C), JAXA)

Hayabusa2’s encounters with asteroid Ryugu have been delightfully action-packed. In February, the Japanese spacecraft collected its first sample by swooping close and firing a bullet into the asteroid’s surface to stir up material it then snagged with a horn-shaped collector. Then, in April, it shot a much larger impactor into Ryugu, creating an artificial crater so it could examine the material churned up from beneath the surface. On Thursday, Hayabusa2 returned to the scene of the crime and fired a second bullet, collecting material from its newly made crater.

Astronomers hadn’t been certain they’d be able to find a safe spot to touch down in the new crater, and spent the last few months scouting the area and analyzing the images Hayabusa2 sent back. The successful collection of this second sample means the mission has accomplished all its major goals, and can head back to Earth later this year on a positive note.

A Rocky Journey

Hayabusa2 is just one spacecraft currently surveying an asteroid with the goal of bringing back pieces of its rocky partner. A NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx is similarly investigating the asteroid Bennu. Astronomers often find fragments of asteroids in the form of meteorites that fall to Earth, but obtaining samples directly from space gives them a clearer picture of where and how these space rocks formed and how they’ve spent the past few billion years of solar system history.

The mission team behind Hayabusa2 has had to work hard to get their spacecraft to finish the job it started when it launched back in 2014. Its asteroid, Ryugu, proved more jagged and rocky than mission planners had anticipated. The spacecraft must descend all the way to the surface to collect its samples, and it’s not built to handle rough or uneven terrain. The engineering team found that to guarantee a safe touchdown, they had to dramatically increase the accuracy of their touchdown targeting.

That took longer than they’d planned, and the craft has a schedule to keep. Its mission timeline has it leaving Ryugu in December so it can bring its samples back to Earth for study.  It’s also a race against time, as Ryugu’s surface is about to become too warm for Hayabusa2 to handle, meaning it couldn’t just extend its stay indefinitely.

But the engineering team persevered, and Hayabusa2 has now successfully completed all its main mission objectives. It still has a few months of work left to do in orbit around Ryugu, taking pictures and measurements from afar, before it can return to Earth with its prized samples.   

If you want to re-live the whole encounter, JAXA has posted their livestream online.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: asteroids

How Did 5,500 Miles of Seaweed Spread Across the Atlantic? Researchers Still Aren’t Sure

By Jennifer Walter | July 11, 2019 1:56 pm
Sargassum covers a beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in April 2019. (Credit: Kamira/shutterstock)

Marine scientist Mengqiu Wang is no stranger to questions about the forecast. The seaweed forecast, that is.

Wang, a researcher at the University of South Florida, is one of the scientists who tracked the largest seaweed bloom in history – an expansive 5,500 mile cluster that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of West Africa in 2018. It was documented in a report published in the journal Science on July 5.

But now enormous piles of Sargassum weed, a smelly, yellow algae, are once again washing up on beaches this summer. So it’s no surprise to Wang that people are curious as to how bad it will be this year. Luckily, it’s not poisonous, but it can clog up shores and reek of rotting eggs when it starts to decay.

Sargassum is already piling up on beaches in Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean Islands. And in the new report, researchers say that this high volume of seaweed may be the “new normal.”

But how did this massive bloom spread in the first place? The study authors have ideas, but there isn’t just one factor that may have caused Sargassum to stretch from one end of Atlantic to the other.

Feeding the Bloom

Sargassum is native to the Sargasso Sea – the northwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean, named for its signature flora. It’s a relatively calm part of the Atlantic, and has even caused thousands of pieces of trash to accumulate in what’s known as the North Atlantic Garbage Patch because of the weak currents.

But circling the Sargasso are strong currents that push ocean dwellers –seaweed included – between Africa, North America and South America. The Sargassum bloom follows the Antilles Current and thrives in saltwater, which allows it to grow over such a massive span.

But the current is just one part of the equation. When the water isn’t salty enough, or too hot, or there aren’t enough nutrients in the ocean, the seaweed suffers. Feeding the bloom is a delicate balance, but all the factors lined up in 2011, when this so-called Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt was first observed by NASA satellites.

The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt as mapped by a NASA satellite between 2011 and 2018. (Credit: University of South Florida)

Wang says this was probably due to a large deposit of Sargassum seeds left in the water during the previous year. That, coupled with nutrients from runoff pouring out of the Amazon River, as well as some from the coast of West Africa, are likely the biggest factors that fed the massive, ocean-spanning cluster we see today.

More Ground to Cover

Coming to a solid conclusion on Sargassum growth wasn’t in the cards this time, but Wang and co-author Chuanmin Hu say they’ll continue studying those factors that they suspect play into it.

Overbearing quantities of seaweed cause problems for humans and marine life alike, but the effects are still not fully understood. In open water, Sargassum provides valuable shelter for turtles, crabs and fish. But near shores, it can suffocate marine life, like coral and baby turtles.

One big question is how well Sargassum grows in different environments. Wang says the team plans to collect samples from the bloom in different parts of the world to measure nutrient levels. Looking at factors like light, water temperature, salinity and pH might also give clues as to what’s feeding the weed.

The team also plans to study the bloom’s effect on ocean ecology and to find better ways to predict how much Sargassum will grow so that people can prepare. But the massive scale and density of the bloom is a tricky factor.

“It’s a combination of the biological growth and the physical accumulation,” Wang says. “So that makes it harder to study.”

The New Normal

Every summer between 2011 and 2018 the seaweed patch got bigger – except in 2013, when the bloom barely showed up on the NASA satellites. Wang says this could have possibly been due to lower salinity in the water, a lack of seed deposits from the previous summer and a lack of nutrients that year.

“It’s not just a simple relationship,” she says.

And its growth could fluctuate in the future. As the bloom expands, it will leave behind more seeds every winter. That doesn’t mean they’ll all grow though, depending on the conditions the following year. But Wang says there likely won’t be another summer like 2013, where the bloom seemed to vanish from satellites.

So, the forecast? Expect seaweed — lots of it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: ecosystems, ocean

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