Category Archives: Science & Technology

Two More Lizard Species Becoming Common South Florida Neighbors

combine-Brown-Basilisk-Jungle-Runner-Florida

The Brown Basilisk and the Jungle Runner are becoming very common in South Florida

If you live in South Florida then you’re probably already very used to seeing the small anole lizards that run across your sidewalk pretty much anywhere and everywhere.  You’re probably also by now very used to seeing the large green iguana’s that have exploded in population over the past decade or so.   There’s also the Northern Curly Tail Lizards and the Cuban Anole that have become more and more common over that same timeframe.   And there are dozens of other exotic species of lizards that are occasionally seen here and there in select areas of South Florida.   But if you live in Dade or Broward County, you have probably started to see two more reptiles species that are becoming very common.

One is called the Brown Basilisk, which is often called the “Jesus Lizard” because of its ability to run across water when it feels threatened.  They get to be about 2 feet long and have a very distinctive crest on the back of their head that makes them look somewhat alien.

Brown-Basilisk-1

The one in the picture is one I caught swimming in my pool… He had apparently jumped in to get away from my dogs and was not able to make it over the edge of the pool to make good on his escape. He was surprisingly docile and let me hold him and take a few pictures before I let them go.  They are completely harmless, eating insects and occasionally other smaller lizards.

The second species becoming very common is called a Jungle Runner, also called an Ameiva or Dwarf Tegu.  These aren’t as common as the Brown Basilisk but I am starting to see them all over Central Broward County. They get to be about around two feet long and have a very distinctive color pattern including a almost luminescent Blue tail.

Jungle-runner-1 Jungle-runner-4

This particular Jungle Runner was the latest of about six that my dogs have caught in our back yard.  His misfortune enabled me to get some good close up pictures of what are normally a very fast lizard that won’t normally let humans get very close.  These lizards may be fast but my dogs coordinate their attack and have been very successful at keeping down their population in my back yard.   They are having much more success outside my back yard and I’m starting to see them run across streets and sunbathing on sidewalks throughout Broward.   Like the Brown Basilisk, the Jungle Runner is completely harmless to humans.

These are just two examples of dozens of invasive reptile species that can be found with active breeding populations in South Florida. But these two species have been particularly good at establishing themselves to a point where there is no getting rid of them.

And now I’m going to be a little irresponsible and say that I’m glad they are here to stay. I love the diversity of animals that can be found in South Florida. I love that visitors can come down here and see stuff that cannot be seen anywhere else in the country.  It adds to the exotic allure of Miami and of South Florida in general as a tourist attraction when visitors know they can come down here and possibly see a huge Burmese Python in addition to the expected Alligator.  So welcome to the neighborhood Brown Basilisk and Jungle Runner…you help keep South Florida living interesting!

Ed Ruth

Great Article for Understanding The Large Hadron Collider

This is a great article for anyone wanting a simple, technobabble-limited explanation as to what exactly the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is and what it’s trying to accomplish: READ ARTICLE

The LHC is the worlds largest, most powerful particle accelerator.

It really is an engineering marvel and will hopefully make some amazing discoveries.

Ed Ruth

 

 

 

 

Space Marketplace: Creating An Orbital, Moon & Asteroid-Mining Customer Base

We may be reaching a convergence of technologies that will soon create a space industry straight out of Sci-Fi books.

Building the Space Marketplace:

Let’s begin by defining the Space Marketplace.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll state that the Space Marketplace refers to the collective market established as humans build a presence in orbit and beyond.  This market will include various reasons for a manned space presence (exploration, research and for-profit ventures such as mining, satellite maintenance and tourism), the transportation of workers and materials to orbit and beyond and will also include meeting the living and job-related needs of those workers.

Mining Materials In Space:

When you mine something on Earth, you do so because you know there is a market for the materials you are mining.  The same must be true for Asteroid/Moon mining.   So what kind of customer base is present or could be quickly created to create a market for materials mined from an Asteroid or the Moon?

ASTEROID MINING

Don’t think that just because the Moon is closer that it will necessarily get mined before asteroids.  There is a huge cost in getting raw materials up front Planet Earth to the moon.  And It is likely that resistance from the scientific community will hold up mining the moon for at least the first decade or so.  During that time, raw materials from an asteroid would be very valuable to a growing moon colony.  So even though the Moon is a much closer (normally) and much bigger target for mining, we may see a lot more activity from Asteroid mining that Moon Mining in the near future.

Chris Lewicki, President of space mining firm Planetary Resources, recently said that it currently costs nearly $2 Billion per year to launch enough water (approximately six tons per person) to sustain the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  How hard would it be to find interested companies if NASA offered a 10 year contract at $1.5 Billion per year to any company that could demonstrate the consistant ability to provide water to the Space Station?

And that water would have more value than just meeting the biological needs of the ISS  crew.  Hydrogen and Oxygen separated from the water could supply other spacecraft with necessary fuel and water for their crews.  Build enough of a market and you’ll have a manned orbital fuel station.  The company hauling mined water from an asteroid would be an obvious customer.

Another customer could be the crews and vehicles of orbital power stations.  Bothe US Military and the Japanese government have expressed near-term plans for creating orbital power stations.  The US Military wants to be able to beam energy to anywhere they set up a mobile base of operations.  And Japan, with their limited island real estate, sees orbital power stations as a clean method of supplying their power needs without using valuable land.

Another possible customer would be the company or companies that are paid to remove the millions of pieces of orbital debris that currently endanger our satelites, ISS, etc.  This problem will only get worse as we increase the use of space so there will definitely be one or more companies that get multi-billion dollar contracts for removing that danger.  Whether the vehicles used to intercept that debris are autonomous/teleoperated or manned, they will need maintenance, fuel, etc.

One very interesting possible addition to the Space Marketplace could be customers that buy Bigelow space modules to create their own private space station for either tourism or research.  It is also likely that any resources which were extracted from either the Moon or asteroids would need some sort of refining and manufacturing facility.  It seems likely that it would be best to have both Moon-mined resources (obviously) and asteroid-mined resources processed and turned into usable materials from a Moon facility.  This is because you could much more easily construct and maintain a much larger facility on the Moon that you could in orbit.  Eventually, large orbital manufacturing facilities would be better for handling asteroid -mined resources but I believe the more immediately possible scenario is a lunar facility.

As a final note on potential customers in the Space Marketplace, there is the possibility that other nations might go it alone on their own space stations.  Assuming we are going to at some point allow more cooperation with the Chinese space efforts, they too could become a customer when they set up their proposed space station.

I think those represent the possible target markets in the near future for buying materials harvested from Asteroids or the Moon.  There is the possibility that a manned Mars might be able to use materials harvested from an Asteroid.  And the Moon itself would be eventually the largest customer but only for those materials harvested from the Moon.

MOON MINING

Helium-3 – The need for this material is one of the factors that will determine how fast Moon mining becomes a reality.  If Helion Energy, a start-up company trying to achieve commercial Magneto-Inertial Fusion, is successful and maintains their timeline, then we could see companies clamoring for transportation to and living facilities for mining Helium-3 in less than 10 years.  If they are not and we have to wait the perpetual “30 years from now” that seems to be the norm when asked when the big government fusion projects will become viable, then this will be a question for a later generation.

Aside from Helium-3 and water, there are other abundant materials that could be mined on the Moon.  Magnesium, Aluminum, Platinum, Silicon, Iron and Titanium could all be mined from the Moon.  And since it takes 20 times less energy to launch a given mass from the surface of the Moon to Earth orbit versus lauhing that same mass from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit, there is a large financial incetive to establishing Moon mining operations soon.

Building a Business Case for Space Mining

So once you’ve established that there is a market for mining materials in space, what’s the next step to getting a business to actually do so?  Before you start breaking out business plans and contacting investors, you should probably make sure you have a legal basis for where you plan on doing business and that you will actually have the legal ownership rights of whatever it is you mine.  Some of those questions may have recently been answered when the US government said it would give the FAA the power to use its existing licensing structure to authorize lunar mining operations.  There are still some international law issues to work out regarding previously signed space treaties but this recent decision should give businesses the comfort level they need to begin building a case for setting up shop on the Moon.

Space Market Service Providers:

We’ve looked at some of the potential customers in the Space Market.  Now let’s look at who might be the actual service providers to that market.  One easy way to see who the potential players are is to take a look at who currently has or is trying to get the ISS cargo supply contracts.  That gives us names like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, SpaceDev, Boeing, etc that we know are likely to be providing services in the Space Marketplace.  But what about companies that don’t even exist yet that could provide services we haven’t seen yet because the market hasn’t matured enough yet to need them?  What about a company that services the large constellations of satellites proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX?  Or how about a company that decides to buy a few Bigelow BA 2100 modules and put them together to produce an orbital hydroponic garden to supply food to space station and Moon workers?

Technology Convergence: A large variety of technologies are coming together at the same time to create an opportunity for space industry development.  There are the major advances …but there are also small ones that might seem like not much until you add them all together.  Things like a new artificial leaf that can use photosynthesis to produce oxygen just like a real leaf but without needing all the dirt, water, etc. to make it work.   Many different advances in space propulsion, Solar cell efficiency, materials science, laser communications,  3-D Printing, etc are all maturing and will make what is currently impossible a reality in the not-too-distant future.

 

AUTHOR: Ed Ruth

SOURCES:

The Power of Helium-3: http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2014/4132helium3.html

Legal Ownership of Space Assets: http://www.space.com/26644-moon-asteroids-resources-space-law.html

http://theconversation.com/why-we-should-mine-the-moon-34285

Can Congress Grant Ownership of Space Assets: http://io9.com/can-congress-grant-private-companies-the-right-to-mine-1621149768

Next Lunar Steps:
http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/20/us-space-moon-idUSKBN0FP0N920140720

Mining Asteroids and the New Space Economy: http://online.wsj.com/articles/dean-larson-mining-asteroids-and-exploiting-the-new-space-economy-1408662987

Artificial Leaf Produces Oxygen: http://www.allvoices.com/article/17576224

The companies vying to turn asteroids into filling stations:
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29334645

The Next Goldmine: http://www.designntrend.com/articles/26969/20141123/modern-gold-rush-is-mining-on-asteroids-the-new-frontier.htm

 

Brain Implants Will Repair and Augment Us in the Near Future

 

Brain-implants-pictureBrain Implants, machines that will be surgically implanted into a person’s brain to perform one or more functions, are going to be reality in the very near future.  And the technology has gotten far enough for us to at least categorize what many of these implants will possibly do once we’ve developed them.  We understand that most if not all will fall into two main categories:  Restorative Implants and Enhancement Implants.

The structure of the human brain and the functions that each of the major sections of the brain enable us to identify the types of implants that might be implanted in specific areas.

CEREBRUM:  As the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum will also be the site in which the largest assortment of implants will be located.

Restorative Cerebrum Implants:  The brain implants would mainly be used for restoring or repairing damage caused disease or trauma.  For instance, an implant that can return muscle control, motor reflex and speech to a strok victim.  Or an implant in the Temporal Lobe to return lost memories.

Augmenting Cerebrum Implants:

  • Cognitive Enhancement:  Super-enhanced memory recall, on-demand photographic memory through implants in the Temporal Lobe.
  • Sensory Enhancement: Brain implants that would most likely be placed in the Occipital Lobe to offer night vision, telescopic vision, video recording through your eyes, vision into different spectrums (ultraviolet or infrared for example), enhanced hearing; Internal compass letting us always know which direction we’re heading.
  • Increased Reaction Time:  An implant into the Frontal Lobe enhancing processing speed to the Perietal Lobe to enable someone able to have a much faster than normal reaction speed.
  • Direct Brain-to-Brain communications:  It would almost be like telepathy, with two or more people being able to communicate with each other using their brain implants.
  • Neural Net:  An Internet for brains.  The brain implant would enable access to the Internet for data retrieval and uploading.

Before we are able to build these types of brain implants, we will need to better understand how the brain codes, stores, recalls, and uses information.

Spinal Cord:  Although this is not part of the brain and would thus seem to be a subject for another article, I would be remiss if I did not address implants that interact directly with the brain via the Central Nervous System.  This exciting category of implants could one day soon enable paralyed individuals to once again walk.

WHERE THE TECH IS TODAY:  There are already brain implants in use today.  Pacemakers for the brain that help control Parkensins Disease have been around since 1997.  Thousands of people walk around with Cochlear Implants that restore their hearing.  And we are at the early stages of using implants to restore the movement to  paralyzed people.  And there are many other exciting projects that are closing in on the useof brain implants to either restore or enhance functionality:

Electrodes: This first part of the process is also the most important.  How do you bridge the natural with the artifical?  Electrodes connect the brain to the implant but in doing so can cause scarring and are attacked by the immune system as a foreign body.  Current technologies wrap them in materials that enable them to smoothly slide through tissue or cover them in neurotransmitters and encourage surrounding neurons to grow new connections.  Hydrogels, like those used in contact lenses are under development.  It is possible that stem cells from a person that is going to receive the implants could be grown into neural connectors so that the brain accepts the implant as a natural extension of itself.

Powering the Brain Impant:  The implant will need power to run whatever functions it has.  Current technology is geared towards that types of wireless charging seen on cell phone charging pads.  But there is also some research being currently conducted to use body chemistry as a method of powering the implant.

Controlling Artificial Limbs:  Direct brain control of artificial limbs has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past year as patients have had electrodes implanted into their brains that interface.

Brain Communication:  You know that inner voice of yours?  You talk to yourself and it’s such a personal thing that it almost seems hard to imagine that everyone else is doing the same thing?  What if that inner voice could be projected and heard by others?  Some of you might say that would result in you getting slapped a lot.  But there are some interesting opportunities that are being investigated that could take advantage of this ability.  Scientists at the University of California, Berkley, are trying to build a prosthesis that can read your inner voice and convert it to speech.  This would enable those you cannot speak because of paralysis to communicate.  It could also possibly be combined with other technology, such as a wireless broadband brain implant, to enable non-verbal communication between two or more people with such implants.

The field of brain implants is rapidly growing.  The ever-increasing capabilities of medical imaging are enabling researchers to map brain activity as it relates to motor and sensory actions in ways that have never before been possible.  As we increase our knowledge of how the brain works, we will find amazing ways to augment ourselves beyond what nature ever intended.

 

Author: Ed Ruth

RESOURCES:

Brain Implants:
http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/the-future-is-android/index.html

Brain Decoder Can Read Your Inner Voice:
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429934.000-brain-decoder-can-eavesdrop-on-your-inner-voice.html#.VFNoE2fphC8

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/528131/cracking-the-brains-codes/

Figuring out how the brain works:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/12/opinion/the-trouble-with-brain-science.html?_r=3

http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/17/5_brain_advances_for_the_next_decade_108659.html

http://www.kavlifoundation.org/science-spotlights/nanotechnology-and-challenge-building-powerful-new-tools-brain-research#.U5M6-HaaZQw

http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/17/5_brain_advances_for_the_next_decade_108659.html

Michio Kaku: Advances in Neuroscience: http://online.wsj.com/articles/michio-kaku-the-golden-age-of-neuroscience-has-arrived-1408577023

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/stephen-hawking-transcendence-looks-at-the-implications-of-artificial-intelligence–but-are-we-taking-ai-seriously-enough-9313474.html

Scientists find secret of reversing bad memories
Bad memories could be reversed after scientists discovered the part of the brain which links emotions to past events: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11059605/Scientists-find-secret-of-reversing-bad-memories.html
First Human Brain-to-Brain Communication
http://www.gizmag.com/brain-to-brain-word-transmission/33674/

Cool Hoverbike Making Advances

Gizmag.com posted an update about the very cool Malloy Hoverbike.  It was recently announced that it had met its goals for fund raising on the Kickstarter.com Web site and as of today it was above the 150% mark of it’s original goal.  It’s not hard to see why there are so many “micro-investors” interested in this project.

From left: The new version of the Malloy Hoverbike, a cool drone version and the original version that got everyone talking!

Malloy Hoverbike – The new version, the original and a cool drone version

The Kickstarter.com Web page gives some great details about this very cool invention:

Malloy Hoverbike data which was posted on the Kickstarter.com Web site

 

The Star Wars fan in me wants to see this invention available immediately.  And it seems like the level of interest on Kickstarter.com may have attracted additional investors so that may happen sooner than we think.  All I can say is that it seems like the design has advanced significantly since it’s original design was unveiled in 2011.  The two rotor design was thought to have an inability to recover from sharp turns.  The quad design, advanced computer controls, autopilot and other features have already been added to the new design so it seems like a much safer product.  Can’t wait to see it in action!

Human Spaceflight in 2014: Where We are and Where We’re Headed

Gene Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon.  It is said that his last act in December of 1972 before climbing back into his lunar module was to carve his daughter’s initials into the lunar dust. Unless commercial space initiatives succeed, it is likely that the next person to see those initials will speak Chinese.

Human space flight efforts can be categorized into government and commercial space programs.  On the government side (by which I mean the US Government), America has spent the last few years in the embarrassing position of having to pay the Russians almost $70 million each to fly our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS).  With it’s structure long ago completed, 2014 news on the ISS was mostly limited to resupply, crew transfers and scientific experiments.  In January it was announced that ISS operations would be funded until at least 2024.  House and Senate members from both sides of the political spectrum have protected their constituencies by ensuring the continued financing of the SLS, a huge rocket under development for as yet unidentified missions.

NASA is also continuing development of the Orion spacecraft, completing ocean retrieval missions with the US Navy.  NASA also completed the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans which will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.  To give some basis for the development of both systems, the Obama Administration cobbled together an asteroid retrieval mission that may be of dubious scientific value but would be exciting and would provide valuable data and experience for commercial asteroid endeavors.  Also, DARPA recently announced first phase contracts awarded to several companies for the development of the XS-1 experimental space plane.  And there are some other interesting government sponsored human spaceflight projects including a commissioned design of a futuristic starship using the “faster-than-light” travel Alcubierre drive. There was also continued work on a fusion propulsion system., and an interesting announcement about a successful test of what is supposed to be an impossible means of propulsion that may turn out to be something revolutionary or may go the way of Cold Fusion.  These are interesting and deserve funding and any other support we can give.  But every government space program seem to have some inherent faults that make them incapable of reaching our goals.

NASA’s concept Starship, the XLS Enterprise

All government space initiatives have two inherent problems.  First, a program implemented by one administration is often not the priority of the next administration.  Often, the Office of President of the United States gets filled by someone from the opposite party of the previous administration and they are all too quick to defund the previous administrations initiatives.  This, by the way, is a serious defect that is not suffered by China or Russia and which could lead to America one day falling seriously behind the competition.

The second defect is more institutional.  It is a sad fact that both NASA and the US Air Force are both so committed to safety and reliability that they establish levels of bureaucracy that ensure  no project is done on time or on budget.  Each example of progress requires so much testing, signing off from one agency to another or other paperwork that the next step is held in limbo for months or even years.  They do not have investors clamoring for ROI so there is no rush for advancement.  There is no competition so there is no drive for completion or incentive for constant improvement of their product.

Clearly, NASA is not capable of leading a sustained course of human spaceflight development.   It requires an organization that does not totally change focus every four to eight years.  It requires a mindset that embraces competition, profit margins, innovative product improvement and the acceptance of a risk level that would not happen in a government agency.  With that said, let’s examine some commercial/non-government human spaceflight programs that are active in 2014.

SUB-ORBITAL AND ORBITAL

A very robust commercial launch industry is active in 2014.

NASA_Commercial_Crew

SpaceX – SpaceX racked up some serious wins in 2014 both in space and in court.  Among their several successful launches, SpaceX had their first controlled landings of the first stage of their rockets, a key milestone in their efforts to bring down the costs of launches dramatically by reusing the rockets.  In July of 2014, the Air Force confirmed that all three of it’s recent Falcon 9 launches were successful, a strong step towards their ability to win Air Force certification that would allow it to compete with United Launch Alliance for launches of national security payloads.  SpaceX successfully sued the Air Force in 2014 to enable them to compete for those missions.  One of the biggest milestones for SpaceX in 2014 was repeated demonstrations of their ability to perform soft-landings of their first stage of the Falcon 9.  This should cut many more millions off of launch costs and make the Falcon 9 a leader in commercial space.

Boeing – The CST-100 Space Taxi continues development.  Boeing has done reentry and launch abort testing and a lot of PR in 2014.

Virgin Galactic – Richard Branson continues to insist commercial launches are “just around the corner” and has a wait list of 650 people that have already paid the deposit for the flight.   In May of 2014, VG announced they had changed the fuel to enhance engine performance.  In June, the company reached an agreement with NASA  to fly 12 technology experiments on SpaceShipTwo ‘s first commercial research flight.

XCOR Aerospace – This company’s 30ft-long, two-seater Lynx space plane could beat VG’s initial commercial flight and do so at a fraction of the cost.  In July 2014, DARPA selected XCOR (partnered with Masten Space Systems) as one of the teams that will be working on a new experimental space plane.

Sierra Nevada Corporation – The Dreamchaser craft was initially based on a NASA initiative but subsequent years of refinement have made it a very interesting candidate for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.  In August of 2014, they revealed the first completed composite airframe, made in conjunction with Lockheed.  They also announced a joint agreement with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to collaborate missions and technologies.

Blue Origin – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ secretive company has been developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and potentially orbital space.  It is also actively pursuing the development of a reusable orbital vehicle.  They have teamed up with Boeing as one of the teams working with DARPA on the experimental space plane project.

Bigelow Aerospace – This company’s main focus is the development of expandable space habitats.  The company is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be added to the ISS in 2015 as a test module.  Bigelow has recently hired former NASA astronauts that will be the be the crew of a private space station that Bigelow plans to launch sometime after 2017.  Rather than developing a launch capability, they plan on using the winner of NASA’s commercial crew program to launch and retrieve their crews.  Their habitats could also be used on the Moon and Bigelow Aerospace made news in July 2014 when it requested the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST) conduct a “payload review” which would give US government recognition of ownership by the company and other U.S. firms of resources they extract from the Moon.

Ad Astra Rocket Company – They continue the development of their VASIMR propulsion system.

Space Adventures – This space tourism company arranged all eight of the orbital space flights completed by private citizens and offers circumlunar and suborbital flights with the hope that one of the above companies will be able to supply the hardware to complete such trips.

The British Skylon space plane uses a HOTOL (Horizontal Take Off and Landing) system similar to a regular plane.

Outside of the US, there is the very interesting Skylon UK space plane project.  And the European Space Agency, convinced the SpaceX is about to make their Ariane rockets no longer commercially viable, is finally getting serious about building a next-generation rocket.  India and Japan are both ramping up their space programs, with stated goals of manned space programs.  In Russia, they recently conducted the maiden launch of the new Angara rocket, the first new Russian rocket since the Soviet era.  Russia announced in July 2014 that they are starting to phase out the old Soyuz rocket in favor of the newer Soyuz-2 rocket.

THE MOON:

The US’s formal plan for human moon exploration ended when President Obama ended the Constellation program.

Google’s Moon Prize: Google Lunar X Prize. It’s literally NASCAR on the moon, happening live, transmitting back here to Earth.” Technically, the $20 million grand prize would go to the first rover to roll more than 500 meters (three-tenths of a mile) on the moon and send back HDTV video.  While not directly involving human space flight, the competition has the obvious intent of spurring development on the Moon.  Such steps are needed to get the initial knowledge and experience needed to begin mining the moon.

Golden Spike:  This company plans on using spacecraft developed by the companies listed above to provide Moon trips to paying customers.  These customers could be nations wanting to explore or companies wanting to set up shop to begin using lunar resources.

China’s recent moon rover is just their latest step in their stated goal of putting a manned base on the moon.

MARS:

While there is basically no movement in the government sector regarding a manned mission to Mars, NASA did have some advances regarding Mars in 2014.  MOXIE, the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment is a device developed by NASA to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen for breathing and for rocket fuel purposes.  And the continued development of the SLS could be associated with efforts to put humans on Mars if it actually ever gets used.  In the meantime, NASA’s rovers continue to excite and to find items of interest that will no doubt one day be examined by humans.

The distance of Mars limits the current amount of commercial activity but there are a couple of commercial projects dedicated to getting humans to Mars.  Inspiration Mars, founded by First-Space-Tourist Dennis Tito aims to have a flyby mission.  And Mars One hopes to have a permanent colony on Mars by 2025.

ASTEROIDS:

This is one human spaceflight subject that does have some government involvement.  President Obama implemented a program for a future rendezvous with an asteroid.  It’s scientific usefulness has been hotly debated and, as mentioned above, no one knows if it’ll ever be more than just an ongoing excuse for continued funding of the SLS rocket system.  Also government related, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, a bill that would establish property rights for future private asteroid miners.

On the commercial space side of things, there are a few interesting organizations working towards manned asteroid missions.  Planetary Resources has built an awesome team and an equally awesome list of investors to get towards their goal of eventually mining asteroids for profit.  Also with an eye on profiting from the incredible resources locked in asteroids is Deep Space Industries, which plans to launch a fleet of small semi-automated probes to track and analyze target asteroids.

THE FUTURE:

So what and where do all of these developments get us in the foreseeable future?  One begins to see a convergence of technologies advancing to the point where they may combine to create a maturing space industry.  A Bigelow module space station that acts as a base for companies using VASIMR engine-powered spacecraft that remove space debris or even crewed vehicles that provide in-orbit servicing on satellites could become a quick reality.  After years of stagnation, it is an exciting time for human space flight.

Ed Ruth

SOURCES:

http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/four-decades-after-apollo-11-moon-trips-are-making-comeback-n163366
 
 
 
 
 
 
http://tbo.com/list/columns-mackinnon/cuts-to-space-program-leave-us-adrift-20140728/
http://www.space.com/26644-moon-asteroids-resources-space-law.html
http://www.wtsp.com/story/tech/science/2014/07/14/spacex-falcon-launch/12619449/
Mars: http://www.theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2014/aug/05/mars-space-race-humans-red-planet
Angara Failed Launch: http://thespacereporter.com/2014/06/russias-troubled-space-industry/

Creating a Second Planet For Humanity: Terraforming Mars

If I could ever sit down with Bill Gates, I’d tell him “Give me 10 minutes of your time and I’ll tell you how you can turn your current paragraph or two mention in history into something greater than even Alexander the Great or Ghengis Khan. Listen to me and I’ll show you how children a thousand years from now will know your name and praise your accomplishments.  They will do so because you did something almost inconceivable….you gave all of humanity a second planet to call home.  Millions of humans will wake up each morning on a planet they call home and do so knowing that you made it possible.” The answer to “How?” is through what is known as “Terraforming” and the planet is Mars.

What Is Terraforming?  The term “Terraforming” refers to the concept of changing another planet in various ways to make it hospitable to Earth life.  It would involve changing the atmospheric pressure, atmospheric composition, soil, water, etc so as to be as Earth-like as possible.  In the case of Mars, which has a very small percentage of our atmospheric needs, we would need to vastly increase the barometric pressure by initiating various types of greenhouse effects, change the soil so it is living soil capable of growing plants, etc.   Changing an entire planet would obviously be the largest project ever undertaken by mankind.

How Can It Be Done?  There are a lot of articles that will tell you that Terraforming is possible but would take a thousand years or more.  I don’t think this is true at all.  Most of the options proposed for Terraforming usually involve technology that can be used to warm the planet, build up the atmospheric pressure, etc.   Those would work and they would take a long time to do so.  And while these techniques should also be implemented, the first and most important step is the introduction of life to Mars.  This has always been perceived as a step “down the line” in Terraforming after having first completed many other steps.  But the recent confirmation of huge amounts of water locked beneath Mars surface shows that this should be the first step.  We humans like to think we’re powerful but time and again Mother Nature reminds us just how powerful she is.  We can use that power to bring life to Mars.

We can breath life into Mars and Terraform it much more quickly by introducing a wide assortment of organisms to the planet that could rapidly reproduce. In short order, there could be billions of organisms on Mars feeding, growing, reproducing and doing their part to make Mars habitable to humans. They might expelling soil-enriching waste as they feed or oxygen as they breath. And as they continue to grow in numbers, each successive generation would make it easier to introduce even more diverse and higher order life forms. We might start out with bacteria, fungus and lichens and soon be ready for worms and other more complex organisms that could speed up the creation of soil capable of supporting life.

Using Extremophiles and Genetically Modified Organisms To Speed Up Terraforming.

The first act would be introducing life forms that could survive the radiation and low atmospheric pressure currently found on Mars. That radiation and low pressure would kill almost every life form currently found on Earth.  But there are a number of Extremophile organisms on Earth that can handle those conditions (an “Extremophile” is an organism that can survive or even thrive under conditions that would kill most other lifeforms).   Some of the organisms that could be sent unmodified to Mars include the list generated by the Planetary Society for their Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, an experiment which unfortunately failed to correctly launch in 2011.  The list includes:

– Bacillus safensis: Discovered in JPL’s ‘clean’ room: Spacecraft Assembly Facility. This orgamism might already be on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity.
– Deinococcus radiodurans: This organism is extremely resistant to radiation, able to survive a dose of 5,000 Gy.
– Bacillus subtilis, strain MW01
– Bacillus subtilis, strain 168
– Haloarcula marismortui
– Methanothermobacter wolfeii: Mars Express has discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere. M. wolfeii is a methane-producing organism.
– Pyrococcus furiosus: P. furiosus thrives at about 100°C
– Fungus – Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast)
– Plantae – Arabidopsis thaliana (‘mouse-ear cress’)
– Tardigrades (‘water bears’): Tardigrades are found in mosses and lichens and feed on plant cells, algae, and small invertebrates. There are over 1,150 species of tardigrades and several could be chosen to go to Mars for colonization but Milnesium Tardigradum in particular has shown a hardiness for surviving in vacuum with high radiation exposure.

That list shows the starting point for introducing a living ecosystem to Mars but there are literally hundreds of others that could be great candidates for introduction to Mars.   The first step would be to spend a few years while your preparing launch systems to selectively breed the hardiest members of each species to maximize their extremophile characteristics to the greatest extent possible. Launch those members on landers that act as both drill stations (see below about depositing subterranean bacteria) and heater stations for surface species.

The next step would be to genetically modify species to thrive in the Mars environment.  Imagine a lichen designed to grow a hardened top that enables it to handle the cold and radiation at the poles.  Imagine a fungus designed to withstand cold and radiation that multiplies so fast you can practically see it grow.  Picture it spreading across the poles of Mars, releasing carbon dioxide in ever increasing amounts and being a food source for a variety of other modified organisms.  Dozens of types of organisms could be introduced quickly, perhaps hundreds if it turns out there are warm sections underground near volcanic activity or liquid water flows.

Terraforming from Above and Below

One of the most important step that could be taken would be to attack Mars from beneath.  We need to learn more about subsurface Mars.  It appears there are no tectonics but there are volcanoes.  Are there warm areas underground suitable for growing life?  Are there liquid water bodies underground?  These would be ideal areas for introducing life to the planet.  Release engineered bacteria and other organisms needed to start creating “living soil” underground where they can live off the water we know is there and reproduce and injecting them underground at various drill points so the organisms can be protected from radiation.  And if there is liquid water flowing underground and we don’t detect any native life in it, then that opens up huge alternatives such as introducing whole ecosystems of the type of species found in Antarctic waters.  Provide some subterranean lighting and Algae, kelp, etc could be immediately introduced without any modifications necessary!

A concurrent step, and one which should be implemented along with technology steps such as heater stations is the introduction of selectively bred surface lichen and fungi at the polar areas. These areas are known to have moisture at the surface. Ideally, the lichen would be bred/modified to handle and perhaps even feed off radiation and be modified to have an extremely high growth rate. The heater stations would be small nuclear powered stations that emit heat just like a heater lamp but at a much greater distance. These would be surface islands of life providing warmth to enable the lichens to establish themselves and spread. Some of the stations could possibly produce perfluorocarbons (PFCs) to create a high-powered greenhouse effect. The enhanced stations would be fed martian soil through telepresence-operated excavation equipment. The combined actions of the surface and subsurface organisms with the heater stations would release large amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, further enhancing the affects.

Technology Assist:  There are a lot of proposed options for using technology to Terraform Mars that could be be used concurrently with the steps listed above that would greatly enhance the ability of life to establish itself on Mars.  Triggering (possibly with nuclear explosions at key fault locations) several of the immense shield volcanoes found on Mars would release millions of tons of ash into the thin atmosphere, greatly enhancing the creation of a Greenhouse affect.   A similar affect could happen by crashing multiple asteroids into Mars but the technological know-how for this option is probably to far away to be an option.  These steps might sound extreme but they would likely speed up the thickening of a Martian atmosphere by many years and would further assist the introduced Terraforming species as they try to establish themselves and reproduce.

Getting back to our highly-unlikely hypothetical conversation with Mr. Gates, I would close by telling him that the most important thing he could do to make this happen is to not open it up for debate.  There will always be Mars purists that will demand we leave Mars uncontaminated.  Listening to them would indefinitely hold up initiating the Terraforming process.  Once the various species we send to Mars are reproducing on their own, the purists would have no argument left.  So the initial launches,  launched from international waters under a corporation filed in a country not limited by the Outer Space Treaty, eliminate the politics and start a process that cannot be stopped once started.  Get the life on Mars and once the yelling from the Mars purists is over, then we could seriously begin working on giving humanity a second home.

Freeman Dyson Interview

Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest minds of our time in an excellent video interview

http://spectrum.ieee.org/video/aerospace/space-flight/famed-physicist-freeman-dyson-predicts-the-future

He begins his interview talking about the subject which he is most known for: space. He said the most fascinating thing he can imagine would be finding other intelligent life.  He thinks that alien microbes would be most likely found and possibly even in the near future.  He said in the next 50 years he expects much more advanced robotics to enable there to be a large number of robotic activity throughout our solar system. He was less impressed with our possibilities of putting humans much further out in the solar system in the next 50 years but he thought it highly likely in the next 100 years

His comments on energy were perhaps the least insightful of us otherwise very interesting interview. He did talk about advances in solar energy being particularly useful for currently under developed countries in providing their energy needs. He talks about how he used to think very highly on the prospects of nuclear energy but does not anymore. He basically does not discuss fusion, the perpetually 30-Years-Away technology.  Maybe he’s just been disappointment with the number of times it’s showed promise and then failed.

I particularly enjoyed his comments on climate change and the dismissal of those who believe they understand climate models and the effects of carbon dioxide.  He described them as being arrogant and presumptuous of their knowledge of the effects of climate change and he dismissed the efforts they propose that would hurt our economy is around the world.

When he was asked what he thinks the most fascinating things will be next 50 years he, as a humble genius should, said that the most fascinating things will be the things that he doesn’t think of and the catch us totally by surprise

He in particular thought that it would be a very interesting to see the advances in biotechnology in which technology advances mix with our understanding of genomes.

As to be expected of such a great mind, it was a great interview.

The State of Nanotechnology in 2014

They are the tiny machines with unlimited potential.  Read one story and you’ll come away thinking they are the savior technology.  The technology that will cleanse our brains of the plaque of old age; the technology that will build new materials unimaginable today.  But read another story and they are our doom.  They will replicate uncontrollably and destroy humanity.  They are at once seen as the technology with the greatest promise and the greatest peril known to man.  And yet, ask most people what nanotechnology is or where it is going and most will tell you they’ve never heard of it or have only heard of it on a science fiction show or movie.

I don’t know if it will save us or destroy us.  But I do know that some fascinating advances over the past year or so have taken the technology out of the realm of science fiction and presented us with a much clearer picture of what we will have as scientific fact in the very near future.  So rather than write another droll article about whether nanotechnology will save us or destroy us, I thought it better to show exactly where the technology stands in the middle of 2014.

Before I begin, a simple overview of nanotechnology.  The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative defines “nanotechnology” as anything smaller than 100 nanometers with novel properties.  A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, roughly the width of three or four atoms.  The average human hair is about 25,000 nanometers wide so this gives you an idea as to how small we are talking about when we say nanotechnology.  To me, the definition is correct but a bit vague and of little help to those trying to understand its use in the real world.  For the purposes of this article, let’s agree that nanotechnology consists of tiny, even microscopic, technology that presumably has some designed function other than the destruction of humanity.

There is a branch of nanotechnology that deals more with nano particles (gold nanoparticles and quantum dots for example) that do not have much if any function beyond their material properties.  But this article centers more on nano-sized machines, often called “nanoprobes”, with functionality one would expect from machines.  For this technology to have any utilization capability, it has to have a few functional requirements.  These can be broken down as:

a)  They need to be tiny;  And I mean real small.  Small enough that they can cruise through your veins without you even noticing.   As I mentioned above, the word “Nanotechnology” technology refers to technology that is 100 nanometers or smaller.

b) They need to be able to maneuver;  Such technology would have limited use if it just floated around in an uncontrollable manner.  There are some applications that do not necessarily need guided probes so this is a requirement dependent on usage.

c) They need to be able to communicate;  Again the technology would be of limited use if it could not be given commands and preferably also have the capability of communicating with those around it to coordinate actions.  The ultimate goal would be to create probes with built-in wireless telemetry, so they could communicate information to each other and to their human operators.  I include nano-scale data storage in this category.

d) They need to be able to perform a function; The nanoprobe is presumably designed for some function.  That function might be assembly, disassemble, exploration, reproduction or other functions.  The nature of each unit’s functionality would dictate the structure (scaffolds, motors, pincers, delivery capsules, sensors, cameras, etc) of the unit.

e) They need to be powered;  Nanoprobes must have a power source if they are to have movement, communications and functionality.

There are many very interesting nanotechnology systems that have been proposed or are in development.  Examples include:

  • Medical Nanoprobes:  Probes small enough to be steered through the body.  They could find and clear cancer cells, treat or possibly even cure Diabetes and scrub our brains of the plaque responsible for Alzheimer’s Disease.  They could deliver drugs to specific parts of the body at a cellular level.  Therapeutic probes could be used to restore eyesight or hearing by repairing or rerouting nerve paths.  The technology could even be used to enhance sensory capabilities and strengthen bone and muscle mass.  Implanted biosensors could manage glucose levels, monitor vital signs and signal emergencies before you’re even aware you have a problem.  Nanotechnology could even be used for gene therapy, manipulating DNA to fix genetic issues.
  • Electronic Nanotechnology: 3-D Holography with no glasses that looks like something out of Star Wars; Clothing with nanofibers batteries, super-efficient lighting and photovoltaics and many other nano-technology related advances will be seen in the electronics industry.   Semiconductor nano particles known as “quantum dots” are now being used in flat-panel TVs and light bulbs.  Micro-Satellites that are 90 percent smaller than today’s systems will soon be taking advantage of the greatly reduces size of electronics.  They will also have much smaller power requirements meaning that solar arrays, already becoming more efficient, will be able to power capabilities far beyond most of today’s satellites.
  • Military:  Micro-drones that look like insects, Ironman-like armor and superstrong materials able to withstand blasts and even self-heal.
  • Material production:  While the main focus of this article is on nanoprobe technology, it is a fact that nanotechnology machines are enabling the production of new materials that will have a large and varied impact on our lives.  Nanotechnology can allow us to make multiwall carbon nanotube material at what amounts to 100-gigapascal tensile strength, which is 20 times stronger than the strongest carbon fiber made today.  Carbon Nanotubes, Graphene, Carbon sequestering filters, Hyperbolic metamaterials and many other materials that don’t mean much to the average reader in today’s world are going to be real game changers in the future.

There are many technological challenges and discoveries that will have to happen before many if not all of these systems become reality.   Significant advances have been recently made in the nanotechnology field that bring this technology much closer to fruition.

Nanoscale Production:  Producing uniform-sized technology at the molecular level is a necessary feature of producing nano machines but the techniques for doing so did not until recently exist.   Several advances are leading us towards this capability.  North Carolina State University recently revealed how they had developed a new method for making carbon nanofibers of specific sizes.  And the University of New York and the University of Melbourne have created a technique for using DNA strands to create specific 2-D shapes.   Arizona State University and University of Michigan scientists  have developed a similar 3-D artificial enzyme technology.  Georgia Institute of Technology researchers announced in an April 2014 study how they have developed a technique for the development of gear-like molecular-scale machines.  And recent advancements in molecular self-assembly advance our capabilities to produce molecular wires, memory units, etc.   So you can see there are some great strides being made in how to build the structure of nanotechnology machines.

Nanotechnology Controlled Movement: Several different methods have been developed or are in development to allow for controlled maneuvering of nanotechnology.  As with much of nanotechnology, many of the lines of research on how to give controlled movement to nanotechnology rely on copying what nature has designed.  Researchers at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) have designed a sperm-inspired micro-robots that have a sperm-like tail and whose forward movement is controlled with magnetic fields.  Another recently developed technique uses magnets to control the direct of tiny motors that can work within living cells.

Communication:  Nanotechnology needs to be able to receive instructions and, for certain functions, be able to transmit feedback to their human operator.

Maybe nanoprobes will have to use their movement capabilities to ensure they stay very close to each other so they can communicate with each other in a manner similar to neurotransmitters.  For example, a centralized small device the size of a pill could be either inserted or ingested and nanoprobes would then use that as a centralized processor and use their movement capabilities to ensure they stay with communication range of the device.  The micro-technology device would act as a network hub, receiving instructions from the human operator and the device would send that information out to the many nanoprobes.  The nanoprobes would communicate their location and functions to the device which would then be sent to the human operator.  This could also be an effective way of controlling nanotechnology within a body as they would have no functional capability without the hub device.

Nanoprobe Functionality:  The nanoprobes have to be able to provide some sort of useful functionality.   This functionality might include capabilities such as grabbing, cutting, sensing, video and transporting.  There are many recent advancements in this area including a very interesting development of nano-scale tools to include Biomolecular Tweezers, Optical Tweezers, Nanolasers.  Many researchers interested in creating functional nanoprobes have focused on Biomimetics, which takes advantage of the millions of years of refinement nature has put into the design of the functionality of plants and animals to design mechanical functionality that somewhat mimics natural designs.  This could include features such mimicking the gecko’s ability to walk up walls; waterstriders ability to walk on water; actuators and designer materials that mimic muscles; the photo receptive capabilities of algae; insect infrared sensing capabilities and other sensory functions.

Power:  Nanoprobes must have a power source if they are to have movement, communications and functionality.  Will they pull power from their surroundings in some electrochemical process or will they be battery powered.  Recent developments in nanoscale batteries make this a distinct possibility.  One awesome recent advance was announced by Vanderbilt’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory.  They have developed a supercapacitor that stores electricity by assembling electrically charged ions on the surface of a porous material, instead of storing it in chemical reactions the way batteries do.   Their supercapicitors can charge and discharge in minutes, instead of hours, and operate for millions of cycles, instead of thousands of cycles like batteries.  If this can be scaled down to nano-sized storage, then the probes will have their power source.  And if supercharged batteries aren’t the answer, there’s always the advancements being made in wireless recharging of nano-scale batteries.

There have been many other advances that don’t necessarily fall into the above categories but are important advances that take us that much closer to having nanoprobe technology.  And there are some big advances in nanotechnology that don’t relate to nanoprobes that are going to have as big if not bigger influences on our lives.  Advances like nanoscale imaging, that will improve our healthcare, antibacterial surfaces that will help reduce disease and water desalination that will give much of the world safe drinking water and eliminate the need for water wars.  Each are extremely important and will shape many aspects of our future.  As it stands now, nanotechnology seems much more likely to enhance our lives that it does to terminate them.   Let us hope that our ability to control these advances matches our ability to find innovative uses of this technology.

Ed Ruth

 

SOURCES:

http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=49616

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26136979

Biomimetics: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-06/ws-rul060514.php

Nanotechnology Energy Storage: http://www.myfoxorlando.com/story/25686820/nanotechnology-research-at-ucf-could-change-how-we-send-and-store-electricity

Nanotechnology-enhanced Human Bodies: http://www.policymic.com/articles/89803/here-s-a-surprising-look-at-how-nanotechnology-could-reengineer-our-bodies

Nano Particles: http://insurancenewsnet.com/oarticle/2014/05/21/house-science-space-and-technology-subcommittee-on-research-and-technology-hea-a-507699.html#.U5ODNHaaZQw

DNA Manipulation with Nanotechnology: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/244972.php

Nanotechnology Targets Cancer Cells: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/241875.php
And: https://gust.com/companies/medical_nanotechnologies

Nanotech Gears and Hinges: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140406162247.htm

Molecular Self-Assembly:  http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology-news/newsid=35908.php

Military Nanotechnology: http://www.local8now.com/news/headlines/US-special-forces-advances-Iron-Man-suit-project-260158651.html