The Future of Computing: Towards a Quantum Internet

quantun_internetFor decades, the dream of quantum computing – a system that makes direct use of quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to perform operations on data- has been just that. Much the same is true of principles that expand on this concept, such as quantum encryption and a quantum internet. But thanks to ongoing studies and experiments by researchers and scientists, that dream may be closer to fruition than ever.

This time the progress comes from a research team out of Professor Nicolas Gisin lab’s in the physics department at the University of Geneva. The team achieved the teleportation of the quantum state of a photon – this time, the photon’s polarization – to a crystal-encased photon more than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away. The distance breaks the previous record of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) set 10 years ago by the same team using the same method.

quantum_crystalThis is the latest in a series of experiments the group, led by physicist Félix Bussières, have conducted over the last decade in an effort to better understand quantum data transfer. In this particular experiment, the researchers stored one photon in a crystal, essentially creating a solid-state memory bank. They sent another photon of a different wavelength 25 km away through optical fiber, whereupon they had it interact with a third photon.

Because the first two photons were entangled – a quantum property whereby particles can speak to each other across an infinite distance – the interaction sent the data to the photo stored in the memory bank, where the team was able to retrieve it. Or as the team explained, using pool balls as an anology:

It is a bit like a game of billiards, with a third photon hitting the first which obliterates both of them. Scientists measure this collision. But the information contained in the third photon is not destroyed – on the contrary it finds its way to the crystal which also contains the second entangled photon.

quantum-entanglement3This is all in keeping with the concept of quantum teleportation – the moving of quantum data from one location to another without having to travel the distance between them. That means that the speed at which data moves isn’t necessarily limited by the constraints of space and time. In that sense, it’s easier to think of this kind of teleporting not as a “beam me up” scenario, but as a kind of instantaneous awareness between two points.

While this may not sound as exciting as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ansible communicator, the Alcubierre warp drive, or the “Star Trek”-style transporter, it opens up startling possibilities. For instance, in addition to bringing us closer to hard drives that can store quantum bits (aka. qubits), this is a major step in the direction of a quantum internet and encryption- where information is sent around the world instantaneously and is extremely secure.

quantum-teleportation-star-trails-canary-islands-1-640x353This also opens doors for space exploration, where astronauts in space, rovers on Mars, and satellites in deep space will be able to communicate instantly with facilities here on Earth. For non-quantum physicists, the novel aspect of this experiment is that the team achieved teleportation of data across the kind of optic fiber that forms the basis of modern-day telecommunications, which means no major overhaul will be needed to make quantum internet a reality.

As physicists continue to push the boundaries of our understanding about the quantum world, we’re getting closer to translating these kinds of advancements in market applications. Already, quantum computing and quantum encryption are making inroads into the sectors of banking security, medical research and other areas in need of huge computing muscle and super-fast information transfer.

^With the rise of a potential quantum Internet on the horizon, we could see the next jump in communication happen over the next couple of decades. So while we’re a long way off from trying to pry quantum teleportation and entanglement from the grip of the theoretical realm, scientists are making headway, if only a handful of kilometers at a time. But every bit helps, seeing as how routing stations and satellites can connect these distances into a worldwide network.

In fact, research conducted by other labs have not only confirmed that quantum teleportation can reach up to 143 km (89 miles) in distance, but that greater and greater properties can be beamed. This distance is especially crucial since it happens to be close to what lies between the Earth and a satellite in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). In short, we humans could construct a quantum internet using optic cables or satellites, mirroring the state of telecommunications today.

And when that happens, get ready for an explosion in learning, processing and information, the likes of which has not been seen since the creation of the printing press or the first internet revolution!

Sources: cnet.com, technologyreview.com, nature.com

News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):


Sources:
nasa.gov, extremetech.com, techtimes.com

News From SpaceX: Falcon 9 Completes Second Test Flight

falcon-9-reusable-test2In yet another impressive feat from Elon Musk’s private space company, the Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket completed it’s second test on Friday April 2nd, 2014. In this latest test of the reusable rocket system, the Falcon 9 effectively quadrupled its height from its last test. Having reached 250 meters during its last test flight, the rocket now reached a full kilometer and then descended safely back to Earth and achieving a soft landing.

This comes just two weeks after SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9’s on a supply mission to the ISS, which included the soft landing of its stage one rocket. Unfortunately, high sea waves prevented a boat from meeting the rocket on its ocean-based pad. And so, the rocket landed in the ocean, hovering for a few seconds before toppling into the sea. Still, the fact that the rocket was able to make it back to just above sea level was good news, and confirms that SpaceX is that much closer to the dream of reusability.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeIn the coming months, SpaceX plans to conduct more tests. In addition to reaching higher altitudes, they will also be testing the rocket’s retractable landing legs, and working more with unpowered guidance. According to the description that came with the recently-released video of the 1000m test:

F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.

This is also good news for NASA, which officially announced the cessation of cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency in early April. While their inability to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into orbit (and bring them home) has allowed NASA to apply greater pressure on the federal government to fund its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system. However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had a more mocking suggestion.

NASA_trampolineAfter initially joking that American astronauts would be left stranded on the ISS, he also recommended that NASA try using a trampoline to reach orbit. The joke was naturally irrelevant, since day-to-day operations involving the ISS are not going to be affected by these sanctions. Still, the inability to rely on Russian Soyuz’s in the near future will mean that US satellites – which are used for everything from GPS to spying – will be undeployable for the time being.

It also means that orbit conducted in Low-Earth Orbit will be complicated. As such, a reusable rocket system, be it NASA’s own or an external contractor’s (in this case, SpaceX) will give the US sanctions against Russia additional weight. It will also ensure that the dream of cost-effective space travel, which is intrinsic to everything from colonizing the Moon and Mars to establishing a Space Elevator and asteroid mining, will be become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

The sky is no longer the limit, people! And be sure to enjoy this video of the F9R 1000 meter test flight.


Source: 
space.IO9.com, (2)

News from Space: Space Elevator by 2035!

space_elevator2Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.

The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.

space_elevatorThe central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.

This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.

terraforming-mars2The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.

Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.

carbon-nanotubeThe proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.

To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.

Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp
Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp

One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.

By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.

space_elevator1In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.

Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.

Source: extremetech.com

The Future is Here: The Holodeck Video Trainer

VIPE1A current obsession of military planners is keeping up with the latest in battlefield challenges while also dealing with troop reductions and tightened budgets. Video games are one solution, providing soldiers with  training that does not involve real munitions or loss of equipment. Unfortunately, most of these games do not provide a real-world immersive feel, coming as close to the real thing as possible while still being safe.

Hence why the the Army Contracting Command enlisted the help of Northrop Grumman this past January to integrate their Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) “Holodeck” into the US Army’s training program. Much like the CAVE2, a VR platform created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois, this latest holodeck is a step towards fully-realized VR environments.

VIPE_HolodeckUsing commercial, off-the-shelf hardware combined with gaming technology, the VIPE Holodeck virtual training system provides users with a 360 degree, high-fidelity immersive environment with a variety of mission-centric applications. It can support live, virtual and constructive simulation and training exercises including team training, cultural and language training and support for ground, air and remote platform training.

Last year, the VIPE Holodeck took first place in the Federal Virtual Challenge – an annual competition led by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center – for the system’s Kinect integration navigation sensor, which gives users the ability to crawl, walk, run, stop, jump, and move side to side in the virtual environment.

?????????????????????????????????According to Northrop, the VIPE Holodeck moves ahead of other virtual simulators thanks to its advanced situational training, where service members can walk through an area in the replicated virtual environment and prepare for what they may encounter in real life. This works not only for infantry and target practice, but for vehicle drivers and police officers looking to simulate various situations they are likely to encounter.

To enhance that training, operators can drop threats into the environment, including IEDs and enemy shooters, as well as signals that should tip them off to potential threats and see how they respond before they actually find themselves in that situation. This sort of versatile, multi-situational complexity is precisely what the Army is looking for.

VIPE3Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, deputy commanding general at the Army Combined Arms Center, said during the AUSA Aviation symposium earlier this month:

For us to be able to execute realistic training — good training — we have to be able to bring that operational environment [into the virtual world]. We want to get away from having multiple environments, virtual gaming and instruction, and go to one synthetic environment, get to a lower overhead and integrate the full operations process … according to the common operating picture.

But looking ahead, the applications for this type of technology are virtually (no pun!) limitless, never mind the fact that we are realizing something directly out of Star Trek. Northrop says it’s also exploring options for VIPE as a stepping stone to live-training within the medical field, as well as law enforcement and first responders for situations such as live-shooter or hostage scenarios.

ESO2Immersive virtual reality also figures quite prominently in NASA’s and other space agencies plans for future exploration. Given that manned missions are expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous, mission planners are investigating Telexploration as a possible alternative. Here, orbiters and rovers would transmit visual information in real-time, while VR decks would be used to give the appearance of being on location.

As Ryan Frost, Northrop’s program manager for the VIPE Holodeck, put it:

The great thing about virtual reality and gaming technology [is that] it’s moving so rapidly that really it has endless possibilities that we can do. If you can think it, we can create it, eventually.

And be sure to check out this video from Northrop Grumman showing the VIPE Holodeck in action:


Sources:
wired.com, northropgrumman.com

The Future of Space Travel: Stamp-Sized Thrusters

MIT_microthrustersReducing the cost of space missions is one of the greatest challenges facing engineers and technicians today. With a myriad of planned missions, ranging from everything to a settlement on the Moon, sending satellites to Near-Earth asteroids, and manned missions to Mars, the goal of making space travel more affordable is a persistent and important one.

As it stands, most efforts are directed towards created craft that are either reusable, repurposed, or simply don’t rely on big, expensive and disposable rockets to get them into orbit. But another angle at bringing the cost of missions down is focusing on the size of the space craft themselves. If they could be shrunk down to the point where they are no larger than a paperweight, sending them into space could be done on the cheap.

cubesatAlready we are seeing this idea at work with CubeSats, a new breed of satellites that are roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube. Over the past decade, dozens of these satellites have been sent into space, often as part of University projects. Since most sensor and survey equipment is now small enough that it can fit into a shoebox, the CubeSat design is ideal for departments that cannot afford to mount multimillion dollar space missions.

Expanding on this concept, MIT’s Poalo Lozano, a professor and the director of the Institute’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, has unveiled a new type of “microthruster” which, when added to the scaled-down satellites, could radically reduce the cost of space missions even further.  Roughly the size of a stamp, these tiny ion-engines would prolong the use of satellites by ensuring they could maneuver in space.

CubeSatsUp until now, CubeSat’s have had a limited life expectancy as their orbits inevitably decay and they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. But by equipping them with an Electrospray Propulsion System (iEPS), these pint-sized satellites would be able to conduct life-saving maneuvers that would extend their period of service and give them new functionality.

The thrusters are basically a liquid-fuel system that, when a voltage is applied, emit a stream of ions through tiny nozzles that propel the satellite forward. According to Lozano, four of these thrusters could provide attitude control and main propulsion for standard solar-powered “1U” CubeSat, which measures about 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side and weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds).

europa-lander-2But more exciting are the long-term prospects created by the addition of these tiny thrusters. For the price of sending a large spacecraft, a fleet of CubeSats could be dispatched to explore the moons of Jupiter. Other possible missions include clearing the massive pile of orbital debris floating around the Earth, de-orbiting satellites at the end of their service lives, and correcting atmospheric drag in low Earth orbit.

Part of what makes plans like these so feasible is the fuel-to-weight ratio it allows for spacecraft, something which astronauts and space agencies always have to take into account. As the Space Propulsion Laboratory claims on their website:

Less than 150 g of propellant would be required by a 1U CubeSat to reach Earth’s escape velocity from [low Earth orbit] and explore interplanetary space.

cubesats2Other possibilities arise from the fact that iEPS units require very little in the way of fuel, so even scaled-up versions can be fitted to small satellites to provide cost-effective and fuel-efficient thrust. Scientists in Switzerland, for instance, say they can send a shoebox-size satellite to the moon in six months with only a few drops of fuel.

As Professor Lozano said, in regards to the long term plans for the iEPS concept:

The goal is to make [CubeSats] do most of the things we already do with big satellites, except in a less expensive way. People have very big plans for these very small spacecraft.

cubesats1But in reality, even the outer Solar System is not limit when it comes to this scaled-down satellite technology. Looking even further abroad, tiny satellites could be sent into deep space to map out what lies between our Solar System and other stars, or investigate the mysteries of the Milky Way. Asteroid prospecting could also benefit from small, cost-effective probes that are capable of navigating between rocks.

And when the technology is scaled down even further, perhaps even to the nano level, millions of tiny probes could be sent out into space to study dark matter, high-energy particles, and seek out new life. Combined with new technologies like space penetrators, entire solar systems and even galaxies could be seeded with tiny space sats. Exciting possibilities indeed!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video on CubeSat’s, courtesy of Singularity HUB:


Sources:
news.cnet.com, web.mit.edu, singularityhub.com

Typhoon Haiyan From Space

typhoon_haiyanEarlier this month, the Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the island nation of the Philippines, leaving an enormous amount of death and destruction in its wake. According to NASA, the typhoon struck with winds that exceeded 379 kilometers per hour (235 mph), while the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center indicates that it has since sustained wind speeds of over 315 kilometers per hour (95 MPH).

Classified as a Category 5 monster storm on the U.S. Saffir-Simpson scale, Haiyan is reported to be the largest and most powerful storm ever to make landfall in recorded human history. The current estimates claim that some 5000 people have died so far, with the final toll expected to be far higher.

haiyan_8_november_2013_0019_utc_0-566x580Given the enormous scale of this typhoon, many of the clearest pictures of it have come from space. Since it first made landfall on Friday, November 8th, many detailed images have been captured by NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the India’s newly-launched Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and even from the ISS – courtesy of astronaut Karen Nyberg.

According to NASA, the most detailed data on the storm came from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which captured visible, microwave and infrared data on the storm just as it was crossing the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. In addition to gauging wind speed, the satellite was also able to measure precipitation rates and temperature fluctuations.

typhoon_haiyan1Far from simply documenting this tragedy, the high resolution imagery and precise measurements provided by these and other satellites have been absolutely essential to tracking this storm and providing advance warning. Whereas thousands have died in the effected areas, some 800,000 more have been evacuated from the central region of the country.

Coincidentally, NASA’s Goddard Flight Center has just finished assembling the next generation weather satellite known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), an observatory that is scheduled to replace the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. GPM is equipped with advanced, higher resolution radar instruments and is vital to the continued effort of providing forecasts and advance warning of extreme super storms.

typhoon_haiyan2In the midst of tragedies like Hurricane Sandy and Haiyan, not to mention the escalating risk of super-storms associated with Climate Change, it is good to know that there are silver linings, such as advanced warning and sophisticated instruments that can keep us apprised of the threats we face. For more information on Super Typhoon Haiyan and how you can aid in the recovery, check out the Internationa Red Cross’ website.

And be sure to check out this video of Haiyan as it made landfall, as captured by the Russian weather satellite Electro-L:


Source: universetoday.com, bbc.co.uk , icrc.org

News From Space: Walk on Mars with VR

oculus-rift-omni-treadmill-mars-nasa-640x353Virtual Reality, which was once the stuff of a cyberpunk wet dream, has grown somewhat stagnant in recent years. Large, bulky headsets, heavy cables, and graphics which were low definition and two-dimensional just didn’t seem to capture the essence of the concept. However, thanks to the Oculus Rift, the technology known as Virtual Reality has been getting a new lease on life.

Though it is still in the development phase, the makers of the Oculus Rift has mounted some impressive demos. Though still somewhat limited – using it with a mouse is counter-intuitive, and using it with a keyboard prevents using your body to scan virtual environments –  the potential is certainly there and the only question at this point is how to expand on it and give users the ability to do more.

Oculus-RiftOne group that is determined to explore its uses is NASA, who used it in combination  with an Omni treadmill to simulate walking on Mars. Already, the combination of these two technologies has allowed gamers to do some pretty impressive things, like pretend they are in an immersive environment, move, and interact with it (mainly shooting and blowing things up), which is what VR is meant to allow.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, went a step beyond this by combining the Omni and a stereoscopic 360-degree panorama of Mars to create a walking-on-Mars simulator. The NASA JPL team was able to give depth to the image so users could walk around an image of the Martian landscape. This is perhaps the closest normal folks will ever get to walking around on a “real” alien planet.

omni_treadmillAlong with the Martian terrain, JPL created a demo wherein the user could wander around the International Space Station. The JPL team also found that for all the sophisticated imagery beamed back to Earth, it is no substitute for being immersed in an environment. Using a rig similar to the Rift and Omni could help researchers better orient themselves with alien terrain, thus being able to better plan missions and experiments.

Looking to the long run, this kind of technology could be a means for creating “telexploration” (or Immersive Space Exploration) – a process where astronauts would be able to explore alien environments by connecting to rover’s or satellites camera feed and controlling their movements. In a way that is similar to teleconferencing, people would be able to conduct true research on an alien environment while feeling like they were actually in there.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedAlready, scientists at the Mars Science Laboratory have been doing just that with Curiosity and Opportunity, but the potential to bring this immersive experience to others is something many NASA and other space scientists want to see in the near future. What’s more, it is a cheap alternative to actually sending manned mission to other planets and star systems.

By simply beaming images back and allowing users to remotely control the robotic platform that is sending them, the best of both worlds can be had at a fraction of the cost. Whats more, it will allow people other than astronauts to witness and feel involved in the process of exploration, something that social media and live broadcasts from space is already allowing.

As usual, it seems that the age of open and democratic space travel is on its way, my friends. And as usual, there’s a video clip of the Oculus Rift and the Omni treadmill bringing a walk on Mars to life. Check it out:


Sources:
extremetech.com, engadget.com

News from SpaceX: More Tests and the Coming Launch

spaceX_elonmuskElon Musk just can’t get enough of the spotlight lately! But that’s the price you pay for being a billionaire, innovator, genius-type person! And barely a week after announcing his idea for the Hyperloop high-speed train, it now seems that SpaceX is once again making the news, thanks to its latest test of the Grasshopper reusable rocket system as well as their planned launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

For those unfamiliar with the Grasshopper, this is a proposed reusable rocket system that Musk and SpaceX created with the hopes of bringing the costs associated with space launches down considerably. Since September 2012, the rocket has been put through successive tests, reaching higher and higher altitudes and safely making it back to the ground.

grasshopper_lateraldivertIn this latest test, the rocket successfully performed a “lateral divert test”. In all previous tests, the rocket lifted off vertically from a launch pad and then used its Merlin-1D engine to ease itself back down to the pad. However, in actual launch situations, the rocket wont simply be traveling up and down. When it comes time to land, a considerable amount of lateral steering will be necessary to line it back up with the launch site.

This is what the test, which took place on Tuesday, August 13th, amounted to. It began with the Grasshopper reaching its previously-achieved altitude of 250 meters, but then continued with the rocket moving an additional 100 m (328 ft) to one side. It was subsequently still able to land safely back at the center of the launch pad, compensating for its lateral diversion.

According to SpaceX: “The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.” What’s more, it places the company that much closer to the realization of a truly reusable rocket system, something which will drastically cut costs for future space missions.

And of course, they were sure to catch the entire test on video:


But equally important for this rising company that seeks to privatize space travel was the announcement that they have are moving ahead with plans to launch their Falcon Heavy rocket system by late 2013 or early 2014. At present, the Falcon is the most power rocket system in the world, overshadowed only by the now retired – but soon to be reserviced – Saturn V booster that put the Apollo astronauts into space and on the Moon.

spaceX-falcon9As Musk himself said of the rocket:

Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.

Fully loaded, the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry payloads of 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds or 53,070 kg) into orbit, and is made up of two engine stages. The first stage consists of a Falcon 9 rocket, with a nine-engine cores, followed by two additional nine-engine cores attached to either side. In addition, the Merlin engines have been upgraded to handle the additional weight, and are being tested at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas.

flacon-heavy-3At liftoff the 69.2m (227 ft) long Falcon Heavy will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the thrust of fifteen Boeing 747’s taking off at the same time. SpaceX claims that this gives the Falcon Heavy more than twice the performance of the next most powerful vehicle – the Delta IV Heavy operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX also says that with more than twice the payload of the Delta IV but at one third the cost, the Falcon Heavy sets a new world record in terms of economy at approximately US$1,000 per pound to orbit. This is in keeping with Musk’s promise to bring the associated costs of space travel and exploration down, hopefully one day to his goal of $500 per pound.

 

spaceX_solararrayWith the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft to orbit, SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy on the commercial market for US$80–$125 million, which compares to the $435 million per launch the U.S. Air Force has budgeted for four launches in 2012. So in effect, Musk’s company is offering a money-saving alternative to both the public and private sector.

For those fascinated by the long-term potential of space travel, this is certainly exciting news. By cutting the costs of placing satellites, supplies and people in orbit, many things are being made feasible that were previously impossible. This includes conducting more research in orbit, the ability to create space-based solar arrays (a very cool solution to our current power problems and the limitations of Earth-based solar power) and perhaps even begin work on a Moon settlement.

solar_system1Beyond that, there are the growing possibilities of commercial space travel, space tourism, and even setting our sights father afield with manned missions to the Moon, prospecting missions to the asteroid belt, and surveying probes to Jupiter’s Moons and to the very edge of the Solar System. Possibly even beyond…

Exciting times we live in, when the impossible is slowly becoming possible!

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), spacex.com

 

News from Space: The Slingatron

slingatronPlacing things into orbit is something humanity has been doing since the 1940’s, beginning with Germany’s V2 Rockets, then giving way to artificial satellites like Sputnik in the 1950’s. These efforts really came into their own during the 1960’s and since, when manned missions reached high orbit and even the Moon. But despite all these  milestones, little has been done to address the problems of cost.

Ever since space travel began in earnest, the only way to send satellites, supplies and shuttle craft into orbit has been with rockets. Even at its cheapest, a space launch can still cost an estimated $2000 per pound per mission, due to the fact that the rockets employed are either destroyed or rendered unusable once they’ve completed their mission.

slingatron-20Attempts to create reusable launch systems, like the SpaceX Grasshopper, is one solution. But another involves “slinging” payloads into orbit, rather than launching them. That’s what HyperV Technologies Corp. of Chantilly, Virginia is hoping to achieve with their design for a “mechanical hypervelocity mass accelerator”, otherwise known as a “slingatron”.

Invented by Derek Tidman in the 1990s, the slingatron replaces rockets with a more sophisticated version of the sling. However, the principle differs somewhat in that the device uses something far more sophisticated than circumferential force. In the end, the name cyclotron might be more apt, which is a very simple particle accelerator.

 

slingatron-11Utilizing a vacuum tube and a series of magnetic/electostatic plates of opposing charges, an atomic particle (such as a proton) is introduced and sent back and forth as the polarity of the plates are flipped. As the frequency of the flipping is increased, the proton moved faster and faster in a series of spirals until it reaches the rim and shoots out a window at extremely high velocity.

The slingatron achieves the same result, but instead uses a spiral tube which gyrate on a series of flywheels along its length. As the slingatron gyrates, a projectile is introduced and the centripetal force pulls the projectile along. As the projectile slides through larger and larger turns of the spiral, the centripetal forces increase until the projectile shoots out the muzzle, traveling at several kilometers per second.

slingatron-13Ultimately, the goal here is to build a slingatron big enough to fire a projectile at velocities exceeding 7 km/s (25,000 km/h, 15,600 mph) to put it into orbit. With rapid turnarounds and thousands of launches per year while all of the launch system remains on Earth, the developers claim that the slingatron will offer lower costs for getting payloads into orbit.

However, there are weaknesses to this idea as well. For starters, any projectile going into space will also need to be fitted a small set of rockets for final orbit insertion and corrections. In addition, the G-forces involved in such launches would be tremendous – up to 60,000 times the force of gravity – which means it would be useless for sending up manned missions.

slingatron-15In the end, only the most solid state and hardened of satellites would have a chance of survival. The developers say that a larger slingatron would reduce the forces, but even with a reduction by a factor of 10,000, it would still be restricted to very robust cargoes. This makes it an attractive options for sending supplies into space, but not much else.

Still, given the costs associated with keeping the ISS supplied, and ensuring that future settlements in space have all the goods and equipment they need, a series of slingatrons may be a very viable solution in the not-to-distant future. Combined with concepts like the space penetrator, which fired bullet-like spaceships into space, the cost associated with space travel may be dropping substantially in coming decades.

All of this could add up to a great deal more space traffic coming to and from Earth in the not-too-distant future as well. I hope we have the foresight to construct some “space lanes” and keep them open! And in the meantime, enjoy this video interview of Dr. F. Douglas Witherspoon explaining the concept of the slingatron:

Source: gizmag.com