Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

The Future of Space: Building A Space Elevator!

space_elevator2Regularly scheduled trips to the Moon are one of many things science fiction promised us by the 21st century that did not immediately materialize. However, ideas are on the drawing board for making it happen in the coming decades. They include regular rocket trips, like those suggested by Golden Spike, but others have more ambitious plans. For example, there’s LiftPort – a company that hopes to build a space elevator straight to the Moon.

When he was working with NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts in the early 2000s, LiftPort President Michael Laine began exploring the idea of a mechanism that could get people and cargo to space while remaining tethered to Earth. And he is certainly not alone in exploring the potential, considering the potential cost-cutting measures it offers. The concept is pretty straightforward and well-explored within the realm of science fiction, at least in theory.

space_elevatorThe space elevator concept is similar to swinging a ball on a string, except it involves a tether anchored to the Earth that’s about 500 km long. The other end is in anchored in orbit, attached to a space station that keeps the tether taut. Anything that needs to be launched into space can simply be fired up the tether by a series of rocket-powered cars, which then dock with the station and then launched aboard a space-faring vessel.

Compared to using rockets to send everything into space, the cost using the elevator is far less (minus the one-time astronomical construction fee). And while the materials do not yet exist to construct 0ne, suggestions have been floated for a Lunar Elevator. Taking advantage of the Moon’s lower gravity, and using the Earth’s gravity well to stabilize the orbital anchor, this type of elevator could be built using existing materials.

space_elevator_lunar1One such person is Laine, who believes the capability exists to build an elevator that would reach from to the Moon to a distance of 238,000 km towards the Earth. Hence why, started two and a half years ago, he struck out to try and bring this idea to reality. The concept behind the Moon Elevator is still consistent with the ball on the string analogy, but it is a little more complicated because of the Moon’s slow orbit around the Earth.

The solution lies in Lagrangian points, which are places of gravitational equilibrium between two bodies. It’s here that the gravitational pull of both bodies are equal, and so they cancel each other out. Lagrangian point L1 is about 55,000 kilometers from the Moon, and that’s the one Laine hopes to take advantage of. After anchoring one end of the “string” on the Moon’s surface, it will extend to L1, then from L1 towards Earth.

lunar_space_elevatorAt the end of the string will be a counterweight made up of all the spent pieces of rocket that launched the initial mission to get the spike into the Moon. The counterweight will be in the right place for the Earth to pull on it gravitationally, but it will be anchored, through the Lagrange point, to the Moon. The force on both halves of the “string” will keep it taut. And that taut string will be a space elevator to the Moon.

What’s more, Laine claims that the Moon elevator can be built off-the-shelf, with readily available technology. A prototype could be built and deployed within a decade for as little as $800 million, he claims. It would be a small version exerting just a few pounds of force on the anchor on the Moon, but it would lay the groundwork for larger follow-up systems that could transport more cargo and eventually astronauts.

liftportTo demonstrate their concept, LiftPort is working on a proof-of-concept demonstration that will see a robot climb the tallest free­standing human structure in existence. This will consist of three large helium balloons held together on a tripod and a giant spool of Vectran fiber that is just an eighth of an inch think, but will be able to support 635 kilograms (1,400 pounds) and withstand strong winds.

Vectran is the same material was used by NASA to create the airbags that allowed the Spirit and Opportunity’s rovers to land on Mars. Since it gets stronger as it gets colder, it is ideal for this high altitude test, which will be LiftPort’s 15th experiment and the 20th robot to attempt an ascent. Laine doesn’t have a prospective date for when this test will happen, but insists it will take place once the company is ready.

LiftPort1Regardless, when the test is conducted, it will be the subject of a new documentary by Ben Harrison. Having learned about Liftport back in 2012 when he stumbled across their Kickstarter campaign, Harrison donated to the project and did a brief film segment about it for Engadget. Since that time, he has been filming Liftport’s ongoing story as part of a proposed documentary.

Much like Laine, Harrison and his team are looking for public support via Kickstarter so they can finish the documentary, which is entitled “Shoot the Moon”. Check out their Kickstarter page if feel like contributing. As of the time of writing, they have managed to raise a total of $14,343 of their $37,000 goal. And be sure to check out the promotional videos for the Liftport Group and Harrison’s documentary below:

Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure Overview:


Shoot the Moon – Teaser Trailer:


Sources:
 motherboard.vice.com
, lunarelevator.com

The Future of Money

future_money4The good people over at Envisioning Technology – the independent research organization based on Brazil – have produced yet another intriguing infographic. As some of you may recall, whenever ET has released a new inforgraphic, I’ve been right there to post about it. So far, they have produced graphics addressing the future of Technology, Education, Health, and Finance.

There latest graphic is similarly significant and addresses the future of something that concerns and effects us all: money. Entitled “The Past, Present and Future of Money”, this graph looks at the trends affecting the buying, selling and investment patterns of people over time, contrasting three trends that are interwoven and have moved between centralized, decentralized, and distributed monetary systems.

future_money1In this scenario, centralized tendencies refer to networks where the nodes are connected through dense centers (aka. urban environments), which rely on hierarchically structures institutions (i.e. banks) and require legal tender (physical money). This sort of system relies on an ordered distribution of power, one that generally favor the connected few, and which emerged with the advent of modern industrial civilization.

Decentralized tendencies are those which are based on networks where nodes connect in clusters, that have irregular distributions of power, and favor the selected individual. As the graph shows, these types of networks predate centralized networks, taking the form of bartering and commodities in earliest times, but which have emerged yet again in the modern era and are predicted to continue to grow.

PrintExamples of current and future trends here include crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, banking APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), microfinance, and collaborative consumptions – where access is developed so that consumers can lend, swap, barter, share, and gift products. Whereas this model predates centralized tendencies, it is once again emerging with decentralizing potential of digital technology and open-source databases.

In the third and final method, one which is emerging, is the distributed network of money. These are networks where nodes connect independently, where power is distributed horizontally, and which favor the entire network. This trend began as a result of global real-time communications (i.e. the internet, satellite communications, etc.), and which are expected to expand.

future_money2Combining the concepts of attention economies, digital currencies, peer-to-peer communications, and digital wallets, the essence of this final stage is a network economy that is controlled by individuals, not financial institutions or corporations. In addition, currencies are based shared belief in their value, transactions occur between individuals, and physical currencies are replaced by digital ones.

Other trends that are incorporated and cross-referenced into this infographic include global population versus the number of people per capita who have online access. As it stands, less than half the world’s 7 billion people currently have access to the internet, and are hence able to take part in the decentralizing and distributed trends affecting money. However, the infographic predicts that by 2063, nearly 90% of the world’s 10 billion people will be online.

future_money_bitcoinLike many predictions that I’ve come to know and respect, this latest infographic from ET gives us a glimpse of a future where a Distributed model of politics, economics and technological development – otherwise known as Democratic Anarchy – will be the norm. It’s an exciting possibility, and places history in a new and interesting light. In short, it makes one reconsider the possibility that true socialism might exist.

While this was crudely predicted by Karl Marx, the basic concept is quite intriguing when considered in the context of current trends. What’s more, subsequent thinkers – Max Weber, Proudhon, Gramsci and George Orwell – refined and expressed the principle more eloquently. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Goldstein Manifesto in 1984, where Orwell addressed how the process of industrial civilization was making class distinction virtually unnecessary.

the_future_of_money_timelineSource: envisioning.io/money/

The Future of Transport: High-Speed MagLev’s

hyperloopThis past summer, Elon Musk once again impressed the world with his futuristic design for a high-speed transit tube that could take passengers from Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes. It’s known as the Hyperloop, a “fifth form” of transportation that would utilize linear electric motors, solar panels, and air cushions to achieve speeds of up to 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph).

Unfortunately, Musk also indicated that with his current, busy schedule, it would be many years before a working demonstration could be produced. What’s more, he was unclear on what role, if any, he would play in its creation. The project was unveiled as an open-source venture, and he called upon business investors to take up the role of making it happen.

hyperloop1However, some investors have come forward to do just that. Gathering around the entrepreneurial collaboration platform known as JumpStartFund, these enthusiasts have come together to create a corporation that will see Musk’s concept through to development. This is no small task, seeing as how the price-tag (according to Musk) would be between 6 and 10 billion dollars.

JumpStartFund launched on August 22, and aims to give entrepreneurs a network through which to both seek funding and support as well as crowdsource the idea and collaborate with others to refine it. The Hyperloop concept, put up on the site by the JumpStart team, became the platform’s flagship project within its first week of launch.

hyperloop2Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and co-founder of JumpStartFund, said in an interview back in September:

We want to be the ones that actually make things happen. So of course we need to create a corporation. Whoever decides to dedicate more time to this than just logging onto the platform deserves to be part of this company.

Because Ahlborn and his co-founders have connections with SpaceX, they were able to talk over the idea with the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, and get the green light to feature it on the platform. Joining them are engineers Marco Villa and Patricia Galloway, who worked for SpaceX and the US National Science Board respectively and even held directorial and vice chair positions.

hyperloop3JumpStartFund is also accepting applications from members of the site to work full-time on the Hyperloop project in exchange for equity in the company. Ahlborn has also indicated that even naming the company will be a crowdsourced effort:

We want to find a way to give everyone the ability to be a part of this project. The whole concept is always going to be on the platform. Everything is going to be very transparent, and we intend to reserve a percent of future revenues for people that work with us on the platform.

And the Hyperloop is hardly alone when it comes to the future of mass transit. On the opposite side of the US, along the Northeast Corridor, The Northeast Maglev (TNEM) company is looking to create a superconducting magnetic railway that could take passengers from New York to Washington D.C. in 60 minutes, and from Baltimore to D.C. is just 15.

scmaglev-rendering-marylandAt present, this American company – which is backed by a Japanese government bank – is testing a maglev route in Japan that runs from Nagoya to Tokyo in Japan and is planned to be completed by 2027. In the US, their efforts are aimed at replacing the nation’s aging transit infrastructure, which is unable to cope with modern demand.

As Northeast Maglev CEO and chairman Wayne Rogers said in a recent interview with Co.Exist:

What’s happening is we’re operating on 1940s and 1950s infrastructure and drowning in congestion. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology. This is something that you could fly to Tokyo, sit on a train, and actually ride a train that goes 311 miles per hour.

Much like the Hyperloop, the train would run on a bed of air, levitated by a series of electromagnetic coils located on the track. While similar magnetic levitation projects along the corridor have been considered in the past, they repeatedly failed due to curves that would slow down the transit process, and passengers projections were consistently too low.

scmaglev-rendering-new-jersey-high-trafficThe current maglev project plans on using tunnels to bypass the curves, and train ridership is at an all-time high. However, the realization of the project will still require significant funds. As Rogers himself projects, the first leg of the route – from D.C. to Baltimore – will cost some $10 billion. As such, the company imagines it will require some additional federal support.

The company does have some high-profile support working in its favor, though. Its advisory board includes two former transportation secretaries, former majority leader Tom Daschle, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, former Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland, and George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman, and Ed Rendell – the former governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

scmaglev-rendering-washington-stationAnd ultimately, Rogers and his company are hopeful, citing recent changes and the enthusiasm garnered by the Hyperloop project:

[T]he concept is different, the sponsorship is different, the routing is different, and the technology is different. I think one of the things [the Hyperloop] has done – without commenting on the feasibility of the Hyperloop or not – is it’s brought people’s attention to the problem and brings America back to the things it’s good at, which is thinking big things and implementing cutting-edge technologies on terrific projects.

Who knows? In a few decades times, we could be looking at a world where high-speed maglev trains crisscross every continent, carrying people between all major cities faster than jet planes, and at a fraction of the cost. Meanwhile, intercontinental transit could be taking the form of aerospace travel, jets that fly into the lower atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. It’s important to dream big!

And in the meantime, enjoy this promotional video from The Northeast Maglev company:


Sources: news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com

A Menu for the Mars Mission

hi-seas1Throughout the summer, six people participated in an experiment designed to test how people will deal with the physical and psychological strangeness of a manned space journey. Known as the “Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation” (HI-SEAS) study, the research took place on a desolate slope of an abandoned quarry in Hawaii, 8,000 feet above sea level.

Here, the volunteers lived in a two-story geodesic dome and put on a full space suit to venture outside. Their communications were limited, their shower time rationed, and each spent much of their time conducting individual “space” experiments. But most importantly, they were eating food fit for a Mars astronaut. This was the main purpose of the experiment, testing the menu that manned missions to Mars will have to offer.

hi-seas2For years now, scientists have been trying to find ways to make astronaut food more palatable. In space, the food is either dehydrated and requires water and heat to process, or is rendered in liquid form that has to be drunk right out of the package. But on Mars, where there would be gravity, astronauts could actually cook their own food from “shelf-stable” ingredients.

The goal of the HI-SEAS study, run by investigators at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University, has been to figure out the best strategies for nourishing Mars astronauts. On any long and isolated mission, especially on one as long as a hypothetical Mars mission. “menu fatigue” is a real danger. Astronauts need to consume a set amount of calories a day, otherwise they might lose body mass and bone density.

Lemon Dill Pasta Salad
Lemon Dill Pasta Salad

For the sake of testing the menu, the mission relied on a six-member crew of scientific-minded professionals who kept detailed logs of their food adventures. They filled out smell, taste, and appearance questionnaires for each meal; weighed each food item; tracked water consumption, cooking and cleanup time; and even monitored their sense of smell to see if food boredom had any physiological effects.

Another fun aspect was that they also tested crowdsourced recipes submitted by the public. Each recipe was limited to using the list of ingredients available. There was “Cajun Style Spam Jambalaya” and “Oatmeal Thickened Beef Stew” for dinner, “Blueberry Lemon Cornmeal Pancakes” for breakfast, and even a spicy veggie sushi as an appetizer.

"Dark Matter" cake
“Dark Matter” cake

Kate Greene, a science and technology journalist on the mission, had this to say about the menu:

I’ve enjoyed so many meals here, actually. A quinoa salad, breakfast tacos, borscht, beef tagine, and all the breads we make with our bread maker… We’ve also had cakes and puddings and pies, grilled cheese sandwiches and soups like seafood chowder.

With today’s technology, it could take as long as 300 days to even get there. But even with fully-stocked shelves, life on a Mars mission would still be a major challenge. In addition to fighting menu boredom, there was also the issue of regular boredom. Confined to their shelters and forced to wear space suits to go outside, the “astronauts” began to miss the everyday activities they used to take for granted.

hi-seas5As Greene indicated, she came to miss such things as walking about outside, biking, and swimming, and gained a new appreciation for her old life:

Something I realized about my day-to-day life on Earth is that it’s full of novelty. I see new people all the time and I go to different places. In the habitat, novelty has been a lot harder to come by, and it was subtle when I found it–a new recipe, a different way to arrange the furniture, or someone saying something completely out of character. When I noticed these slight changes, my joy and excitement was embarrassingly disproportionate.

On August 13th, Greene and her five colleagues emerged into the daylight without a spacesuit for the first time in months. After a media event and a debrief with the principal researchers on the NASA-funded project, they continued to sift through all of their research data, which ranged from scientific research, their food study, and even a record of their sleep cycles.

hi-seasmapAll of this information is likely to be very useful in coming years and decades. Back in August, on the one-year anniversary of the Curiosity Rover’s landing on Mars, NASA chief Charles Bolden said he believed that human footprints would follow in its path, and 2030 remains the projected date for putting those boots on the Red Planet.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, hi-seas.org

The Future of the Classroom

virtual_learning2As an educator, technological innovation is a subject that comes up quite often. Not only are teachers expected to keep up with trends so they can adapt them into their teaching strategies, classrooms,and prepare children in how to use them, they are also forced to contend with how these trends are changing the very nature of education itself. If there was one thing we were told repeatedly in Teacher’s College, it was that times are changing, and we must change along with them.

And as history has repeatedly taught us, technological integration not only changes the way we do things, but the way we perceive things. As we come to be more and more dependent on digital devices, electronics and wireless communications to give us instant access to a staggering amount of technology, we have to be concerned with how this will effect and even erode traditional means of information transmission. After all, how can reading and lecture series’ be expected to keep kid’s attention when they are accustomed to lighting fast videos, flash media, and games?

envisioning-the-future-of-education

And let’s not forget this seminal infographic, “Envisioning the future of educational technology” by Envisioning Technology. As one of many think tanks dedicated to predicting tech-trends, they are just one of many voices that is predicting that in time, education will no longer require the classroom and perhaps even teachers, because modern communications have made the locale and the leader virtually obsolete.

Pointing to such trends as Massive Open Online Courses, several forecasters foresee a grand transformation in the not too distant future where all learning happens online and in virtual environments. These would be based around “microlearning”, moments where people access the desired information through any number of means (i.e. a google search) and educate themselves without the need for instruction or direction.

virtual_learning3The technical term for this future trend is Socialstructured Learning = an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. This trend may very well be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education–from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey–talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. The only difference is that today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

One such tool comes in the form of augmented reality displays, which are becoming more and more common thanks to devices like Google Glass, the EyeTap or the Yelp Monocle. Simply point at a location, and you are able to obtain information you want about various “points of interest”. Imagine then if you could do the same thing, but instead receive historic, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

virtual_learningThis is the reasoning behind projects like HyperCities, a project from USC and UCLA that layers historical information on actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. The Smithsonian also has a free app called Leafsnap, which allows people to identify specific strains of trees and botany by simply snapping photos of its leaves.

In many respects, it reminds me of the impact these sorts of developments are having on politics and industry as well. Consider how quickly blogging and open source information has been supplanting traditional media – like print news, tv and news radio. Not only are these traditional sources unable to supply up-to-the-minute information compared to Twitter, Facebook, and live video streams, they are subject to censorship and regulations the others are not.

Attractive blonde navigating futuristic interfaceIn terms of industry, programs like Kickstarter and Indiegogo – crowdsources, crowdfunding, and internet-based marketing – are making it possible to sponsor and fund research and development initiatives that would not have been possible a few years ago. Because of this, the traditional gatekeepers, aka. corporate sponsors, are no longer required to dictate the pace and advancement of commercial development.

In short, we are entering into a world that is becoming far more open, democratic, and chaotic. Many people fear that into this environment, someone new will step in to act as “Big Brother”, or the pace of change and the nature of the developments will somehow give certain monolithic entities complete control over our lives. Personally, I think this is an outmoded fear, and that the real threat comes from the chaos that such open control and sourcing could lead to.

Is humanity ready for democratic anarchy – aka. Demarchy (a subject I am semi-obsessed with)? Do we even have the means to behave ourselves in such a free social arrangement? Opinion varies, and history is not the best indication. Not only is it loaded with examples of bad behavior, previous generations didn’t exactly have the same means we currently do. So basically, we’re flying blind… Spooky!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, envisioningtech.com

Wanted: People for Mars!

MarsOneThey’re called Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands that intends to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet by 2023. What began as a proposed Reality TV project that would hopefully recoup the costs of sending people to Mars has since matured into a project for actual, factual colonization. There’s just one thing missing at this point…

They need people to volunteer.

A little over a week ago, they released a document specifying their application criteria. Clearly, they can’t take just anyone. Among the five key categories for qualification are Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity (no pun!), Ability to Trust, Creativity and Resourcefulness. Oh, and you must be at least 18 years of age, kind of like getting in to an R-rated movie. No specific technical qualifications are necessary, but if you’ve got a go-getter attitude, a positive outlook and are willing to learn, I’m sure they can teach you.

terraforming-marsThe selection process will begin during the first half of 2013, and will still be based around a reality TV concept. Basically, it will take the form of Mars One experts and viewers of a “global, televised program” choosing who they want to see go. Those ultimately selected will be assembled into teams of four, with at least six teams hoped to be prepared to launch in September 2022. But only one team will make the first trip to the Red Planet, and that team will be decided democratically.

The training process will take eight years, and will include simulated missions, practice in a restricted mobility environment, and lessons in electronics, equipment repair, basic and critical medical care. In 2016, the company plans to begin rocketing supplies to Mars, including spare parts, two rovers, and living units that can be assembled into a base once humans arrive.

It’s a testament to an age where commercial space flight is fast becoming a reality, and internet-based voting, crowdsourcing and information sharing can take the place of space agencies and government sanctioned research. Sure, it still sounds like a pipe dream, but the effort alone is impressive isn’t it? And given all the advances that are made every day, who’s to say what will and won’t be possible within the next few decades?

To read the application in detail, click here. And check out the video of Mars One’s proposed mission:

Source: wired.com, blastr.com