Microwaves Could Power Tomorrow’s Space Shuttles

By Carl Engelking | July 22, 2015 4:20 pm
A rendering of Escape Dynamics' microwave-powered space-plane. (Screengrab from YouTube/Escape Dynamics)

A rendering of Escape Dynamics’ microwave-powered space-plane. (Screen grab from YouTube/Escape Dynamics)

The same electromagnetic radiation used to heat up a Hot Pocket could propel a shuttle into space.

A Colorado-based technology company, Escape Dynamics, says initial testing indicates it’s possible to launch single-stage shuttles into orbit using microwaves beamed from the ground. If researchers can make the concept work, it could drastically reduce costs and make it safer to send satellites and humans into space. Read More


Welcome to Mcity, the Place Driverless Vehicles Call Home

By Carl Engelking | July 21, 2015 1:03 pm

Credit: University of Michigan

Sorry, Detroit, but there’s a new “Motor City” in Michigan.

On Monday, the University of Michigan announced the founding of Mcity, a 32-acre stretch of land on the Ann Arbor campus that no person will ever call home. Instead, driverless cars milling about Mcity’s urban and suburban environs will represent the “city’s” population. Mcity serves as the first urban environment specifically designed to test and perfect autonomous vehicle technologies before they are mass-marketed.

King of the Hill

More than 100 years ago, Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line helped Michigan firmly plant itself as the heart of the automotive industry. A century later, Silicon Valley has started to lead the way in terms of advancing automotive technology — Google’s self-driving vehicles are already cruising the streets of California, for example. For the “founders” of Mcity, the test facility is a bold move to reassert Michigan’s top-dog status in the future of automobile technology.

“We’re not going to let Silicon Valley take this technology away. This is the center of the universe for automotive technology,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said during Mcity’s grand opening Monday.

By all appearances, Mcity is a real city complete with traffic lights, roundabouts, construction obstacles, sidewalks, streetlights and even a quaint downtown district. With a plethora of real-world props, researchers and engineers can design myriad traffic scenarios to test self-driving vehicles’ skills. Researchers can even deploy mechanized pedestrians to see how autonomous vehicles react.

The $10 million Mcity was planned as a safe place to test the limits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technologies, which will play a key role in preventing collisions. Ford is already testing technology in Mcity, and Honda, GM, Toyota, Nissan and other tech companies have also invested in the facility. Mcity organizers say one of the primary goals of the project is to have autonomous vehicles testing on Ann Arbor streets by 2021.

Push the Accelerator

Just two days before the unveiling of Mcity, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman penned a lengthy editorial saying an “asphalt utopia is on the horizon” and it’s time to “accelerate toward a world where self-driving cars are not just allowed but mandatory in the vast majority of spaces.” Before that happens, self-driving vehicles will have to prove they can handle the unpredictable nature of roadways shared by imperfect human drivers and pedestrians.

The controlled chaos at Mcity should certainly pose plenty of challenges for driverless vehicles to overcome.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

Pluto’s Icy Plains, Pits and Mountains Take Shape in Tombaugh Regio

By Eric Betz | July 17, 2015 4:12 pm

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature — informally named “Tombaugh Regio” — lies a vast craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum, after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons team released the latest set of Pluto imagery Friday afternoon. And among the most fascinating finds are the dwarf planet’s smooth, craterless plains — informally dubbed Sputnik Planum — which push up against mountains of ice as tall as Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

“I think the solar system saved the best for last,” Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a press conference at NASA Headquarters.

New Horizons co-investigator Jeff Moore said the newly unveiled vast, craterless plain that can’t be easily explained, but surely has a strange story to tell.

“I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths,” he said. “The landscape geology is just astoundingly amazing.”

While larger-scale images of Pluto show ancient craters that are perhaps billions of years old, Tombaugh Regio is very young with signs of ongoing erosion and fractures that imply some form of tectonics.

“Pluto is every bit as geologically active as any place we’ve seen in the solar system,” Moore said.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Pluto’s Bright Heart and Charon’s Dark Spot Revealed in HD

By Eric Betz | July 15, 2015 4:33 pm

pluto detail

NASA has released the latest batch of images of Pluto and its complex system of moons, revealing the dwarf planet’s heart in stunning detail.

The white heart shape was Pluto’s most prominent feature as the New Horizons spacecraft was still millions of miles away, and for that reason astronomers have named it after the planet’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh.

What’s more, the region has incredible and complex geology.

“There are mountains in the Kuiper Belt,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said at a 3 p.m. EDT press conference today. Astronomers expect these mountains are as much as 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) high. And those towering features are very likely made of water ice — a substance known to occupy Pluto’s interior but yet to be conclusively detected on the surface. And yet water is the only way to get these mountains, the team thinks.

Stern said he submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal in May predicting such features, which was accepted earlier in the day. The journal’s editor only learned about the ice mountains from the press conference.

Because nitrogen sits on the surface, some sort of ice volcanism must be present, even though it has yet to be detected. New Horizons’ images will be picked apart meticulously looking for signs of such activity.

The first high-resolution image from the flyby released today shows an area just off the southern edge of the informally named Tombaugh Regio.

“The most striking thing geologically is we have not yet found a single impact feature on this image,” says New Horizons science team member John Spencer. “Just eyeballing it we think it has to be less than 100 million years old, which is a small fraction of the age of the solar system — it could be active right now.”

And the high-resolution image is only one of many that are still to come.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: new horizons

Pluto’s Craters, Spots, Signs of Snow Seen in New Horizons Flyby

By Rich Talcott | July 14, 2015 3:23 pm
This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. Credit NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. Credit NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sped past Pluto at around 7:50 a.m. EDT today, arriving 72 seconds earlier than expected and missing its aim point by about 45 miles — not bad after a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile (5 billion km) journey and well within the probe’s target zone. Principal Investigator Alan Stern led a large group of scientists, enthusiasts, and media gathered at the site of mission operations at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, in a countdown to closest approach.

As New Horizons zoomed past Pluto’s surface, it performed a tightly choreographed series of maneuvers to learn as much as possible about the world and its five moons, including giant Charon. But the spacecraft wasn’t done. As it flew behind the planetary system, it looked back at both Pluto and Charon as they passed first in front of the Sun and then Earth. These observations will prove the most sensitive for studying the composition and density profile of Pluto’s atmosphere and for seeing whether Charon has an atmosphere at all.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: new horizons

Live Blog: New Horizons’ Historic Pluto Flyby

By admin | July 14, 2015 6:00 am


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been traveling for nine and a half years, speeding ever closer to our solar system’s last major unexplored world: Pluto.

For the first time ever, scientists are getting close-up views of the most popular dwarf planet, and today is the pinnacle of New Horizons’ whole 3-billion-mile trip.

Celebrate the closest approach with Astronomy and Discover magazines as we bring you all the latest information live right here today and tomorrow.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: new horizons

In Brief: What to Expect from New Horizons This Week

By Karri Ferron | July 13, 2015 5:17 pm


Keep up with the latest developments of New Horizons LIVE on our live blog!

At around 7:50 a.m. EDT tomorrow, New Horizons will officially make history as it makes its closest approach to Pluto, opening a whole new realm of solar system exploration. But what can we expect here on planet Earth, some 3 billion miles from the encounter?

Because New Horizons has so much important data to collect, it can’t focus its precious energy on delivering information back to Earth in real time. Instead, it will actually be incommunicado for most of the day July 14. Only later will downlinking begin.

Astronomy.com will have complete continuous coverage starting just before 7:30 a.m. EDT July 14 in our shared live blog with Discover magazine, but here’s a brief timeline of what you can expect (and when). It’s important to note that although we know when some data will arrive on Earth, that doesn’t mean it will be made public that moment. The New Horizons team will release the data and images on their own schedule.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: new horizons

How Big Is Pluto? New Horizons Settles Decades-Long Debate

By Rich Talcott | July 13, 2015 3:19 pm
Pluto and its moon Charon. Credit: NASA

Pluto and its moon Charon (brought nearer together, but sizes kept same) Credit: NASA

With less than 24 hours to go before closest approach, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is seeing Pluto at a level of detail that grows sharper literally by the minute — not surprising when you consider that it is closing in on its target at nearly 31,000 miles per hour.

Late Monday morning, members of the mission science team held a news briefing at the Johns Hopkins University Applies Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, site of mission operations. Principal Investigator Alan Stern broke some major discoveries from the past few days. Perhaps most importantly, the science team has refined Pluto’s radius to 736 miles (plus or minus 6 miles). This is on the high end of previous estimates and, when combined with the ice dwarf planet’s known mass, implies a lower density than thought and thus a higher proportion of ice forming its bulk.

Earlier assessments of Pluto’s size were fraught with uncertainty because the atmosphere, thin as it is, makes it difficult to pinpoint the world’s actual surface from Earth.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: new horizons, pluto

Researchers Wire Monkey Brains Together to Make a Super-Brain

By Carl Engelking | July 10, 2015 12:34 pm


Brain-computer interfaces always sound incredibly futuristic. But this one is even wilder than most.

In a pair of studies published Thursday, researchers say they’ve linked up multiple brains, of both monkeys and rats, to form an “organic computer.” By literally putting their heads together, the networked animals performed simple tasks and computations better than an animal flying solo.

The experiment could point toward future brain interfaces between people, allowing learning or collaboration to pass directly from brain to brain.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, top posts

Genetically Modifed Mosquitoes Battle Dengue Fever in Brazil

By Carl Engelking | July 8, 2015 3:04 pm


In the fight against disease-bearing mosquitoes, residents in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba have a new ally: mosquitoes.

A biotech company has released into the wild an army of genetically modified male mosquitoes that will never see their children. That’s because these mosquito dads pass on a gene to their offspring that causes them to die before they ever mature.

It’s a cutting-edge battle tactic that aims to reduce the population of mosquitoes that can infect people with dengue fever — and a new study finds that it’s working. Read More



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