Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

Mars_exploreWith the exploration of Mars continuing apace and a manned missions looming, there has been an explosion of interest in the idea of one day settling the planet. As the non-profit organization known as Mars One can attest, many people are  interested in becoming part of a mission to colonize the Red Planet. In fact, when they first went public, some 200,000 people signed on to become part of the experience.

The fact that the trip would be one-way and that the  plans for getting them there did not yet exist was not an deterrent. But if a recent study from MIT is to be believed, those who choose to go will and have the experience televised will be in for a rather harsh experience. According to a feasibility study produced by researchers at the Institute, the plan has potentially deadly and astronomically expensive flaws.

mars_revelationspaceAfter analyzing the Mars One mission plan, the MIT research group found that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days. The other astronauts would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The analysis also concludes that 15 Falcon Heavy launches – costing around $4.5 billion – would be needed to support the first four Mars One crew.

The technology underpinning the mission is rather nebulous; and indeed, that’s where the aerospace researchers at MIT find a number of potentially catastrophic faults. While the technology to set up a colony on Mars does technically exist, most of it is at a very low technology readiness level (TRL) and untested in a Mars-like environment. And the prediction that things will be worked out with time and crowdfunding does not appear to be sufficient.

Mars_one2Mars One will rely heavily on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – squeezing water from Martian soil and oxygen from the atmosphere. But these technologies are still a long way off large-scale, industrial use by a nascent human colony on Mars. NASA’s next Mars rover will have an ISRU unit that will make oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere of CO2 – but that rover isn’t scheduled to launch until 2020, just two years before the planned launch of Mars One.

Originally, Mars One’s sign-up list included some 200,000 candidates. That number has now been whittled down to 705 – a fairly even mix of men and women from all over the world, but mostly the US. Several teams of four astronauts (two men, two women) will now be assembled, and training will begin. The current plan is to send a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the first team of four to Mars in 2022 – just eight years from now. 

spaceX-falcon9The whole thing will be televised as a reality TV show, an instrinsic part of the plan since much of the funding is expected to come from media sponsors and advertisers. In the interim, a number of precursor missions – supplies, life-support units, living units, and supply units – will be sent to Mars ahead of the human colonizers. More colonists will be sent fairly rapidly thereafter, with 20 settlers expected by 2033.

The new feasibility study was led by Sydney Do, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done similar studies on other space missions. Do and his team ran a computer simulation based on publicly available information about the Mars One plan and the kinds of technologies it would rely on. The researchers entered data about the crew’s age, weight and activities to find out how much food, oxygen and water they would need.

Mars_GreenhouseThey took into account information from Mars One, such as its plan that “food from Earth will only serve as emergency rations” and the astronauts will mainly eat fresh food they grow themselves. The simulation monitored conditions in the Mars One habitat over 26 months – the amount of time between spaceships from Earth that would resupply them – or until the death of a crew member, whichever came first.

The results of their study were presented in a paper at the International Astronomic Union conference in Toronto last month. They suggest that serious changes would need to be made to the plan, which would either call for the astronauts to grow all their plants in a unit isolated from the astronauts’ living space to prevent pressure buildup in the habitats, or import all food from Earth instead of growing it on Mars.

mars_one2The researchers recommend the latter, as importing all the necessary food along with the first wave of colonists (not including the costs of development, operations, communications, and power systems) would cost $4.5 billion and require 15 Falcon 9 Heavy Rockets to transport it. Comparatively, flying all the equipment needed for the astronauts to grow their own food indefinitely which cost roughly $6.3 billion.

On top of all that, Do and his research staff have concluded that the project will not be sustainable financially. While Mars One says each subsequent manned mission will cost $4 billion, Do’s study found that each mission would cost more than the one before, due to the increasing number of spare parts and other supplies needed to support an increasing number of people.

mars_roverNaturally, Mars One replied that they are not deterred by the study. CEO and co-founder Bas Landorp – who helped develop the mission design – said the plan was based on the company’s own studies and feedback from engineers at aerospace companies that make space systems, such as Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin. He added that he and his people are “very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible”.

In any case, the study does not claim that the plan is bogus, just that it may be overreaching slightly. It’s not unreasonable to think that Mars One could get people to Mars, but the prospects for gradually building a self-sustaining colony is a bit farfetched right now. Clearly, more time is needed to further develop the requisite technologies and study the Martian environment before we start sending people to live there.

Mars_simulationOh well, people can dream can’t they? But the research and development are taking place. And at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that a manned mission to Mars will be happening, along with additional robot missions. These will help lay the groundwork for eventual settlement. It’s only a question of when that could happen…


The Future of Space: Smart, Stretchy, Skintight Spacesuits

biosuitSpacesuits have come a long way from their humble origins in the 1960s. But despite decades worth of innovation, the basic design remains the same – large, bulky, and limiting to the wearer’s range of movement. Hence why a number of researchers and scientists are looking to create suits that are snugger, more flexible, and more ergonomic. One such group hails from MIT, with a skin-tight design that’s sure to revolutionize the concept of spacesuits.

The team is led by Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who previewed her Biosuit – playfully described by some as a “spidersuit” – at the TEDWomen event, held in San Fransisco in December of 2013. Referred to as a “second skin” suit, the design incorporates flexible, lightweight material that is lined with “tiny, muscle-like coils.”

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuitSpeaking of the challenges of spacesuit design, and her team’s new concept for one, Dava Newman had the following to say in an interview with MIT news:

With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.

Granted, Newman’s design is the first form-fitting spacesuit concept to see the light of day. Back in the 1960’s, NASA began experimenting with a suit that was modeled on human skin, the result of which was the Space Activity Suit (SAS). Instead of an air-filled envelope, the SAS used a skin-tight rubber leotard that clung to astronaut like spandex, pressing in to protect the wearer from the vacuum of space by means of counter pressure.

SAS_spacesuitFor breathing, the suit had an inflatable bladder on the chest and the astronaut wore a simple helmet with an airtight ring seal to keep in pressure. This setup made for a much lighter, more flexible suit that was mechanically far simpler because the breathing system and a porous skin that removed the need for complex cooling systems. The snag with the SAS was that materials in the days of Apollo were much too primitive to make the design practical.

Little progress was made until Dava Newman and her team from MIT combined modern fabrics, computer modelling, and engineering techniques to produce the Biosuit. Though a far more practical counter-pressure suit than its predecessor, it was still plagued by one major drawback – the skintight apparatus was very difficult to put on. Solutions were proposed, such as a machine that would weave a new suit about the wearer when needed, but these were deemed impractical.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-0The new approach incorporates coils formed out of tightly packed, small-diameter springs made of a shape-memory alloy (SMA) into the suit fabric. Memory alloys are metals that can be bent or deformed, but when heated, return to their original shape. In this case, the nickel-titanium coils are formed into a tourniquet-like cuff that incorporates a length of heating wire. When a current is applied, the coil cinches up to provide the proper counter pressure needed for the Biosuit to work.

Bradley Holschuh, a post-doctorate in Newman’s lab, originally came up with the idea of a coil design. In the past, the big hurdle to second-skin spacesuits was how to get astronauts to squeeze in and out of the pressured, skintight suit. Holschuh’s breakthrough was to deploy shape-memory alloy as a technological end-around. To train the alloy, Holschuh wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight coils and heated them to 450º C (842º F) to fashion an original or “trained” shape.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-3 When the coil cooled to room temperature, it could be stretched out, but when heated to 60º C (140º F), it shrank back into its original shape in what the MIT team compared to a self-closing buckle. As spokespersons from MIT explained:

The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.

In order to maintain it without continually heating the coils, however, the team needs to come up with some sort of a catch that will lock the coils in place rather than relying on a continuous supply of electricity and needlessly heating up the suit – yet it will still have to be easy to unfasten. Once Newman and her team find a solution to this problem, their suit could find other applications here on Earth.

Image converted using ifftoanyAs Holschuh explained, the applications for this technology go beyond the spacesuit, with applications ranging from the militarized to the medical. But for the moment, the intended purpose is keeping astronauts safe and comfortable:

You could [also] use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield. If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it… An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance. We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.

Considering the ambitious plans NASA and other government and private space agencies have for the near-future – exploring Mars, mining asteroids, building a settlement on the Moon, etc. – a next-generation spacesuit would certainly come in handy. With new launch systems and space capsules being introduced for just this purpose, it only makes sense that the most basic pieces of equipment get a refit as well.

And be sure to check out this video of Dava Newman showing her Biosuit at the TEDWomen conference last year:


Ending Cancer: Cancer-Hunting Nanoparticles

cancer_hunting_nanoparticleWhen it comes to diseases and conditions that have long been thought to be incurable – i.e. cancer, diabetes, HIV – nanoparticles are making a big impact. In the case of HIV, solutions have been developed where gold nanoparticles can deliver bee venom or HIV medication to cells of the virus, while leaving healthy tissue alone. As for diabetes and cancer, the same concept has proven useful at both seeking out and delivering medication to the requisite cells.

However, a new breakthrough may be offering cancer patients something more in the coming years. In what appears to be a promising development, researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) Cancer Center have created a multi-tasking nanoparticle shown to be effective both in the diagnosis of a tumor and attacking its cells – a flexibility that could lead to new treatment options for cancer patients.

gold_nanoparticlesOne of the big challenges in developing multitasking nanoparticles is that they are traditional designed with one purpose in mind. They are constructed using either inorganic or organic compounds, each with strengths of their own. Inorganic nanoparticles, such those made from gold, are effective in imaging and diagnostics. Organic nanoparticles, on the other hand, are biocompatible and provide a safe method of drug delivery.

The nanoparticles developed at UC Davis are made from a polymer composed of organic compounds porphyrin and cholic acid, which is produced by the liver. The researchers then added cysteine – an amino acid that prevents it from releasing its payload prematurely – to create a fluorescent carbon nanoparticle (CNP). The team then tested the new nanoparticle with a range of tasks, both in vitro and in vivo (aka. in a solution of cells and in living organisms).

cancer_killing_laserThey found the particle was effective in delivering cancer-fighting drugs such as doxorubicin (commonly used in chemotherapy). In addition, they found that while applying light (known as photodynamic therapy), the nanoparticles release reactive molecules called singlet oxygen that destroy tumor cells, while heating them with a laser (known as photothermal therapy) provided another way for the particles to destroy tumors.

One notable finding was that the release of a payload sped up as the nanoparticle was exposed to light. The researchers claim this ability to manipulate the rate at which the particles release chemotherapy drugs from inside the tumor could help to minimize toxicity. This is a big plus considering that all known cancer treatments – i.e. chemotherapy, medication, radiation – all come with side effects and have a high risk causing damage to the patient’s healthy tissue.

NanoparticlesIn relation to imaging and phototherapy, the nanoparticle remained in the body for extended periods and bonded with imaging agents. And because CNPs are drawn more to tumor tissue than normal tissue, it helps to improve contrast and light them up for MRI and PET scans. This effectively makes the UC Davis nanoparticle a triple threat as far as cancer treatments are concerned.

As Yuanpei Li, research faculty member from the UC Davis Cancer Center, explains it:

This is the first nanoparticle to perform so many different jobs. From delivering chemo, photodynamic and photothermal therapies to enhancing diagnostic imaging, it’s the complete package.

The team is now focusing on further pre-clinical studies, with a view to advancing to human trials if all goes to plan. And this is not the only breakthrough inolving cancer-fighting nanoparticles to be made in recent months. Back in April, scientists at MIT reported the creation a revolutionary building block technique that’s enabled them to load a nanoparticle with three drugs, and claim it could be expanded to allow one to carry hundreds more.

MIT_nanoparticleTypical nanoparticle designs don’t allow for scaling, since they call for building a nanoparticle first, then encapsulating the drug molecules within it or chemically attaching the molecules to it. Attempting to add more drugs makes assembling the final nanoparticle exponentially more difficult. To overcome these limitations, Jeremiah Johnson, an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, created nanoparticle building blocks that already included the desired drug.

Called “brush first polymerization,” the approach allows the researchers to incorporate many drugs within a single nanoparticle and control the precise amounts of each. In addition to the drug, each tiny building block contains a linking unit enabling it to easily connect to other blocks, and a protective compound to ensure that the drug stays intact until it enters the cell.

MIT_nanoparticle1The approach not only allows different drug-containing blocks to be assembled into specific structures, but it also enables each drug to be released separately via different triggers. The team has tested its triple threat nanoparticles, containing drugs typically used to treat ovarian cancer – such as doxorubicin, cisplatin and camptothecin – against lab-grown ovarian cancer cells.

The results demonstrated the new nanoparticles’ ability to destroy cancer cells at a higher rate than those carrying fewer drugs. As Johnson explained it:

This is a new way to build the particles from the beginning. If I want a particle with five drugs, I just take the five building blocks I want and have those assemble into a particle. In principle, there’s no limitation on how many drugs you can add, and the ratio of drugs carried by the particles just depends on how they are mixed together in the beginning… We think it’s the first example of a nanoparticle that carries a precise ratio of three drugs and can release those drugs in response to three distinct triggering mechanisms.

In this case, the cisplatin is delivered the instant the particle enters the cell, as it reacts to the presence of an antioxidant found in the cells called glutathione. When the nanoparticle encounters a cellular enzyme called esterases it releases the second drug, camptothecin. Shining ultraviolet light triggers the release of the remaining doxorubicin, leaving behind only the biodegradable remnants of the nanoparticle.

nanoparticle_cancertreatmentThe researchers believe this approach can potentially be used to link hundreds of building blocks to create multidrug-carrying nanoparticles, and pave the way for entirely new types of cancer treatments, free from the damaging side effects that accompany traditional chemotherapy. The MIT team is currently working on making nanoparticles that can deliver four drugs, and are also engaged in tests that treat tumor cells in animals.

Until recently, the fight against cancer has been characterized by attrition. While treatments exist, they tend to be a balancing act – inflicting harm and poisoning the patient in small doses with the hope of killing the cancer and not the host. Smarter treatments that target the disease while sparing the patient from harm are just what is needed to turn the tide in this fight and bring cancer to an end.

Sources:, (2),,

Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.


News from Space: Time Capsule to Mars

Time_capsule_to_mars1The selfie is an apparent obsession amongst today’s youth, snapping pictures of themselves and posting them to social media. But for just 99 cents, people can send a picture of themselves to the Red Planet as part of the Time Capsule to Mars (TC2M) – a student-led, crowdfunded project that aims to send three CubeSat microsatellites to the planet containing digital messages from tens of millions of people from all around around the world.

The objective of the TC2M – a project of Explore Mars – mission is to inspire people throughout the globe and allow them a personal connection with space exploration in the same spirit of the Apollo missions. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.

Mars_exploreWith the help and support of NASA, MIT, Stanford University and Deep Space Industries (among others), the student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.

In terms of sending media content, people currently have the option of uploading only images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months, TC2M claims that participants will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.

Time_capsule_to_mars2Emily Briere, a mechanical engineering student who is heading the project, explained their aim thusly:

We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission. The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success.

The data will be carried by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested. The data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is extremely dense and could last for millions of years, hence making it ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thrusterThe technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system. But the most interesting technology of all will be in the form of its engines.

The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS), a microthruster developed at MIT that is essentially size of a penny (pictured above). Each spacecraft will be powered by 40 thruster pairs, which will generate thrust using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The ionic liquid propellant is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe a scaled-up version may one day bring humans to Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thruster1The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.

The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserved uncorrupted on the surface of the planet for a long, long time. As for how they intend to keep it stored until the day that manned missions can retrieve it, there are a few options on the table.

Time_capsule_to_marsOne option that is being considered is to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point – meaning it won’t disintegrate upon entry – and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.

A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored in a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. And as it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars3The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017. You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website. And for those interested in possibly contributing, stay tuned to find out how and where you can donate once the crowdfunding campaign is up and running.

So in addition to showcasing new spacecraft, new media technologies, this project is also an attempt to stimulate interest in the new age of space exploration – an age characterized by public access and involvement. It’s also an opportunity to make your mark on the Red Planet, a mark which will someday (if all goes to plan) be uncovered by a new generation of explorers and settlers.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals:


Powered by the Sun: Boosting Solar Efficiency

solar1Improving the efficiency of solar power – which is currently the most promising alternative energy source – is central to ensuring that it an becomes economically viable replacement to fossil fuels, coal, and other “dirty” sources. And while many solutions have emerged in recent years that have led to improvements in solar panel efficiency, many developments are also aimed at the other end of things – i.e. improving the storage capacity of solar batteries.

In the former case, a group of scientists working with the University of Utah believe they’ve discovered a method of substantially boosting solar cell efficiencies. By adding a polychromat layer that separates and sorts incoming light, redirecting it to strike particular layers in a multijunction cell, they hope to create a commercial cell that can absorb more wavelengths of light, and therefor generate more energy for volume than conventional cells.

EMSpectrumTraditionally, solar cell technology has struggled to overcome a significant efficiency problem. The type of substrate used dictates how much energy can be absorbed from sunlight — but each type of substrate (silicon, gallium arsenide, indium gallium arsenide, and many others) corresponds to capturing a particular wavelength of energy. Cheap solar cells built on inexpensive silicon have a maximum theoretical efficiency of 34% and a practical (real-world) efficiency of around 22%.

At the other end of things, there are multijunction cells. These use multiple layers of substrates to capture a larger section of the sun’s spectrum and can reach up to 87% efficiency in theory – but are currently limited to 43% in practice. What’s more, these types of multijunction cells are extremely expensive and have intricate wiring and precise structures, all of which leads to increased production and installation costs.

SolarCellResearchIn contrast, the cell created by the University of Utah used two layers — indium gallium phosphide (for visible light) and gallium arsenide for infrared light. According to the research team, when their polychromat was added, the power efficiency increased by 16 percent. The team also ran simulations of a polychromat layer with up to eight different absorbtion layers and claim that it could potentially yield an efficiency increase of up to 50%.

However, there were some footnotes to their report which temper the good news. For one, the potential gain has not been tested yet, so any major increases in solar efficiency remain theoretical at this time. Second, the report states that the reported gain was a percentage of a percentage, meaning that if the original cell efficiency was 30%, then a gain of 16% percent means that the new efficiency is 34.8%. That’s still a huge gain for a polychromat layer that is easily produced, but not as impressive as it originally sounded.

PolyChromat-640x353However, given that the biggest barrier to multi-junction solar cell technology is manufacturing complexity and associated cost, anything that boosts cell efficiency on the front end without requiring any major changes to the manufacturing process is going to help with the long-term commercialization of the technology. Advances like this could help make technologies cost effective for personal deployment and allow them to scale in a similar fashion to cheaper devices.

In the latter case, where energy storage is concerned, a California-based startup called Enervault recently unveiled battery technology that could increase the amount of renewable energy utilities can use. The technology is based on inexpensive materials that researchers had largely given up on because batteries made from them didn’t last long enough to be practical. But the company says it has figured out how to make the batteries last for decades.

SONY DSCThe technology is being demonstrated in a large battery at a facility in the California desert near Modeso, 0ne that stores one megawatt-hour of electricity, enough to run 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for an hour. The company has been testing a similar, though much smaller, version of the technology for about two years with good results. It has also raised $30 million in funding, including a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The technology is a type of flow battery, so called because the energy storage materials are in liquid form. They are stored in big tanks until they’re needed and then pumped through a relatively small device (called a stack) where they interact to generate electricity. Building bigger tanks is relatively cheap, so the more energy storage is needed, the better the economics become. That means the batteries are best suited for storing hours’ or days’ worth of electricity, and not delivering quick bursts.

solarpanelsThis is especially good news for solar and wind companies, which have remained plagued by problems of energy storage despite improvements in both yield and efficiency. Enervault says that when the batteries are produced commercially at even larger sizes, they will cost just a fifth as much as vanadium redox flow batteries, which have been demonstrated at large scales and are probably the type of flow battery closest to market right now.

And the idea is not reserved to just startups. Researchers at Harvard recently made a flow battery that could prove cheaper than Enervault’s, but the prototype is small and could take many years to turn into a marketable version. An MIT spinoff, Sun Catalytix, is also developing an advanced flow battery, but its prototype is also small. And other types of inexpensive, long-duration batteries are being developed, using materials such as molten metals.

Sumitomo-redox-flow-battery-YokohamaOne significant drawback to the technology is that it’s less than 70 percent efficient, which falls short of the 90 percent efficiency of many batteries. The company says the economics still work out, but such a wasteful battery might not be ideal for large-scale renewable energy. More solar panels would have to be installed to make up for the waste. What’s more, the market for batteries designed to store hours of electricity is still uncertain.

A combination of advanced weather forecasts, responsive fossil-fuel power plants, better transmission networks, and smart controls for wind and solar power could delay the need for them. California is requiring its utilities to invest in energy storage but hasn’t specified what kind, and it’s not clear what types of batteries will prove most valuable in the near term, slow-charging ones like Enervault’s or those that deliver quicker bursts of power to make up for short-term variations in energy supply.

Tesla Motors, one company developing the latter type, hopes to make them affordable by producing them at a huge factory. And developments and new materials are being considered all time (i.e. graphene) that are improving both the efficiency and storage capacity of batteries. And with solar panels and wind becoming increasingly cost-effective, the likelihood of storage methods catching up is all but inevitable.



The Future is Here: Roombot Transforming Furniture

roombots_tableRobotic arms and other mechanisms have long been used to make or assemble furniture; but thus far, no one has ever created robots that are capable of becoming furniture. However, Swiss researchers are aiming to change that with Roombots, a brand of reconfigurable robotic modules that connect to each other to change shape and transform into different types of furniture, based on the needs and specifications of users.

Created by the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the self-assembling Roombots attach to each other via connectors which enables them to take on the desired shape. The team’s main goal is to create self-assembling interactive furniture that can be used in a variety of ways. They were designed primarily for the sake of helping the disabled or elderly by morphing to suit their needs.

roombots_unpackLike LEGO bricks, Roombots can be stacked upon each other to create various structures and/or combined with furniture and other objects, changing not only their shape, but also and functionality. For instance, a person lying down on a Roombot bed could slowly be moved into a seated position, or a table could scoot over to a corner or tilt itself to help a book slide into a person’s hands. The team has solved a number of significant milestones, such as the having the Roombots move freely, to bring all this multi-functionality closer.

Each 22 cm-long module (which is made up of four half-spheres) has a wireless connection, a battery, and three motors that allow the module to pivot with three degrees of freedom. Each modules also has retractable “claws” that are used to attach to other pieces to form larger structures. With a series of rotations and connections, the modules can change shape and become any of a variety of objects. A special surface with holes adapted to the Roombots’ mechanical claws can also allow the modules to anchor to a wall or floor.

roombots_configThe Roombots can even climb up a wall or over a step, when the surface is outfitted with connector plates. They’re are also capable of picking up connector plates and arranging them to form, say, a table’s surface. Massimo Vespignani, a PhD student at BioRob, explained the purpose of this design and the advantages in a recent interview with Gizmag:

We start from a group of Roombot modules that might be stacked together for storage. The modules detach from this pile to form structures of two or more modules. At this point they can start moving around the room in what we call off-grid locomotion…

A single module can autonomously reach any position on a plane (this being on the floor, walls, or ceiling), and overcome a concave edge. In order to go over convex edges two modules need to collaborate…

The advantage would be that the modules can be tightly packed together for transportation and then can reconfigure into any type of structure (for example a robotic manipulator)…

We can ‘augment’ existing furniture by placing compatible connectors on it and attaching Roombots modules to allow it to move around the house.

roombots_boxThe range of applications for these kind of robotics is virtually infinite. For example, as seen in the video below, a series of Roombots as feet on a table that not only let it move around the room and come to the owner, but adjust its height as well. Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorob, envisions that this type of customization could be used for physically challenged people who could greatly benefit from furniture that adapts to their needs and movements.

As he said in a recent statement:

It could be very useful for disabled individuals to be able to ask objects to come closer to them, or to move out of the way. [They could also be used as] ‘Lego blocks’ [for makers to] find their own function and applications.

Meanwhile, design students at ENSCI Les Ateliers in France have come up with several more ideas for uses of Roombots, such as flower pots that can move from window to window around a building and modular lighting components and sound systems. Similar to the MIT’s more complex self-assembling M-Blocks – which are programmable cube robots with no external moving parts – Roombots represent a step in the direction of self-assembling robots that are capable of taking on just about any task.

roombotsFor instance, imagine a series of small robotic modules that could be used for tasks like repairing bridges or buildings during emergencies. Simply release them from their container and feed them the instructions, and they assemble to prop up an earthquake-stricken structure or a fallen bridge. At the same time, it is a step in the direction of smart matter and nanotechnology, a futuristic vision that sees the very building blocks of everyday objects as programmable, reconfiguring materials that can shape or properties as needed.

To get a closer, more detailed idea of what the Roombot can do, check out the video below from EPFL News:


News from Space: Universe’s Evolution Mapped in Detail

universe_expansionScientists have come up with the best computer model to date of the universe, one which maps the evolution of the cosmos in unprecedented detail. Known as Illustris, this virtual cosmos – which was created by U.S., English and German researchers using a network of supercomputers – includes details never before achieved in a simulation. All told, the numerical-based model covers the 13-billion-year evolution of the universe, beginning just 12 million years after the Big Bang took place.

While cosmologists have been developing and employing computer models of the universe for several decades, the outcome is usually a rough approximation of the universe that scientists observe in reality.  Illustris, however, has produced a universe that looks uncannily like the real on.  Among other things, it models how the universe expands, how galaxies are formed, their composition and distribution, and the mechanics of how stars and black holes are formed.

planck-attnotated-580x372Given all the recent breakthroughs in physics and cosmology, this ultra-detailed virtual model should come as no surprise. For example, this past April, scientists made not only made the first-ever observation of gravitational waves, they also processed data that is believed to be the first real indication of the existence of Dark Matter. In addition, the ESA’s Planck mission released the most detailed thermal imaging map of the universe last year that placed an accurate date on the universe’s age and confirmed the validity of the Big Bang Theory.

The Illustris creators say it represents “a significant step forward in modelling galaxy formation”, and provides a good visual representation of our ever-expanding (no pun!) understanding of the universe. A recent article that appeared last Wednesday in the journal Nature describes Illustris, and several videos (like those below) have been released that show the simulation in action. Check them out below:



Climate Crisis: Present Changes and Coming Impacts

climate-changeThis Tuesday, the Whitehouse received the latest draft of the Climate Assessment Report, a scientific study produced by the National Climate Assessment to determine the impacts of Climate Change. In addition to outlining the risks it poses to various regions in the US, the report also addresses the apparent increase in the number of severe weather events that have taken place in the past few years, and how these events affect local economies and communities.

According to the 840-page report, America is fast becoming a stormy and dangerous place, with rising seas and disasters effecting regions from flood-stricken Florida to the wildfire-ravaged West. The report concluded that Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” It also emphasized how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

Climate_Change_vulnerability_USHenry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT, was joined by other scientists and White House officials when he claimed that this is the most detailed and U.S.-focused scientific report on global warming. Above all, the most chilling claim contained within is the fact that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The report also examined the effects at the regional and state-level, compared with recent reports from the UN that examined North America as a single case study. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Jacoby pointed to a range of impacts of global warming that people see everyday, from the change in the growing season, to extreme heat, severe Atlantic storms and drought in some areas.

climate_change_variableweatherAs he explained, these changes are far more than just variable weather:

If you look at what’s happening to the Arctic ice at your northern border, you are seeing changes to the ice like you haven’t seen in hundreds of years. We’re seeing change on a scale that’s going beyond variability.

A draft of the report was released in January 2013, but this version has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science, 13 other government agencies, and was subject to public comment. It is written in a bit more simple language so people could realize “that there’s a new source of risk in their lives,” said study lead author Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Even though the nation’s average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it’s in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most. As the report’s co-author Katharine Hayhoe – a Texas Tech University climate scientist – put it, extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes. And it’s happening a lot more often lately.

climate_change_precipThe report says the intensity, frequency and duration of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and shifted northward since the 1950s, with heavy downpours increasing by 71 per cent in the northeast alone. Heat waves are projected to intensify nationwide, with droughts in the southwest expected to get stronger. Sea levels have risen 20 centimetres since 1880 and are projected to rise between 0.3 meters and 1.2 metres by 2100.

The report was also clear that the 2010’s have been a record-setting decade. For example, since January 2010, 43 of the lower 48 states have set at least one monthly record for heat, such as California having its warmest January on record this year. In the past 51 months, states have set 80 monthly records for heat, 33 records for being too wet, 12 for lack of rain and just three for cold, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal weather records.

climate_change_tempsAs she described it, America is basically in a boxing match, and is currently on the ropes:

We’re being hit hard. We’re holding steady, and we’re getting hit in the jaw. We’re starting to recover from one punch, and another punch comes.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Monday that the report includes “a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge that state and local decision-makers can take advantage of.” The report also stressed that climate change threatens human health and well-being in a number of ways. Those include smoke-filled air from more wildfires, smoggy air from pollution, more diseases from tainted food, water, mosquitoes and ticks.

climate_change_lossAnd then there’s more pollen because of warming weather and the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011, the report says. In other parts of the Midwest, the pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. And all of this has associated costs, not the least of which is in damages, insurance costs, and health care expenses.

Flooding alone may cost $325 billion by the year 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios, with $130 billion of that in Florida, the report says. Already the droughts and heat waves of 2011 and 2012 added about $10 billion to farm costs, the report says. Billion-dollar weather disasters have hit everywhere across the nation, but have hit Texas, Oklahoma and the southeast most often, the report says. And there is the impact on agricultural producers, which is also stressed:

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.

Climate_Change_vulnerability1Still, it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change, says the 840-page report, which the White House is highlighting as it tries to jump-start often stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases. However, if the U.S. and the world don’t change the way they use energy, the current effects will continue to intensify to the point where property damage, wildfires, storms, flooding and agricultural collapse will become untenable.

Already, the report has its detractors, many of whom appeared together for a Special Report segment on Fox News. In addition to commentator George Will questioning the scientific consensus – which accounts for 97% of the scientific community – Charles Krauthammer compared to the findings to a bargaining process, and ultimately condemned it as “superstition”. As he put it:

What we’re ultimately talking about here is human sin, through the production of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious and I’m waiting for science that doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

climate_change_denialNot to belabor the point, but superstition is what happens when people trust in rituals and practices that have no discernible effect whatsoever on a problem to protect themselves from said problem. Conducting research, performing field studies, and compiling statistics that cover hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years – this is called the scientific method. And Krauthammer would do well to realize that it is this same method that has done away with countless superstitious rituals throughout history.

He and other so-called skeptics (though a more accurate term is deniers) would also do well to understand the difference between superstition and a little thing known as cause and effect. For example, avoiding black cats, not walking under ladders, or sacrificing human beings to make the sun rise or the crops grow is superstition. Pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is known to have the effect of absorbing the sun’s thermal energy (aka. radiant forcing), is cause and effect.

See? Easily distinguished. But if there’s one thing that the “denial machine” has shown an affinity for, its remaining divorced from the scientific consensus. Luckily, they have been in full-retreat for some time, leaving only the most die hard behind to fight their battles. One can only hope their influence continues to diminish as time goes on and the problems associated with Climate Change get worse.

You can read the  full Climate Assessment Report here.

Sources:,,, (2),

News from Space: NASA’s Future Spacesuit

z-seriessuit1It’s no secret that the human race is poised on a new generation of space exploration and travel. With future missions based on towing asteroids to Earth, building settlements on the Moon, and walking on Mars, NASA and other space agencies are eying their aging hardware and looking for design modifications. From shuttles, to rockets, to capsules, everything is getting an overhaul. And now, NASA is looking to create the next generation of space suits, and is looking to the public’s for help.

They are called the Z-series, a revolutionary new suit that is designed for walking on Mars as well as floating around in space and performing spacewalks. This new series is expected to replace the current aging design, which has been in continuous use on both space flights and aboard the International Space Station since 1982. In addition to updated technology and functionality, the new spacesuit also has an updated look.

NASA_suitThe first design was unveiled back in December of 2012 with the Z-1, which bore a striking resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s own spacesuit. The new version (the Z-2 series), which has different joint designs and a more durable torso, also comes with a trio of “flashy” cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University, and were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even – supposedly – street fashion.

z-seriessuit2And unlike the current microgravity suits, the Z-series is designed for walking in extra-terrestrial environments where gravity is the norm (i.e. the Moon and Mars). Intrinsic to the new design is flexibility: it makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on quite differently. Whereas the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside.

As Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design explained:

There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit. A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there. You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin,” Jones explains.

z-seriessuit4As previously noted, anyone can help decide among the three cover designs by casting a vote on NASA’s website. One option, inspired by underwater creatures (and known as the “Biomimicry” suit), employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version – known as the “Technology” suit – pays homage to past spacesuits and uses light-emitting patches along with wire. The third option, inspired by “Trends in Society”, uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.

NASA says the final design is “reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future,” pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech. NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year. And they are hardly alone in looking to create suits that can handle the challenges of future exploration. For example, it’s also worth checking out this MIT professor Dava Newman sleek Mars spacesuit, aka. the “Spiderman Spacesuit”, that is currently in development.

In the meantime, check out this video from Ted Talks where Newman showcases her Spiderman suit. And be sure to head over to the Johnson Space Center’s website and cast your vote for what NASA’s next-generation spacesuit will look like.