Space-junk Cleanup

Most people might never have thought about this, but there is a lot of junk in space, orbiting Earth. According to the Royal Institution in London, there are about 20,000 pieces of tracked space debris, ranging from larger than an apple to as big as a school bus. There are far more objects smaller than that, including millions of pieces of debris too tiny to track. While some of this is from natural sources, most of it has been put into orbit by humans, from old space missions to decommissioned satellites. This junk puts other satellites and astronauts at risk from collisions. The Kessler syndrome is a proposed scenario that relates to this. It basically states that there might come a time when the density of space junk might be so high that collisions between the orbital debris might start a chain reaction which could quickly get out of control and destroy most of the current satellites and make launching new ones almost impossible.

To deal with this problem, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has launched a satellite, the Kounotori 6, with a cable that’s as long as six football fields into orbit — and when it’s deployed, it’ll test an idea to knock out orbital debris.

tether_wide-7df993d119ce90551d025d339eae7818a9df96e7-s1600-c85Reels aboard the Kounotori 6 craft will deploy the 700-meter (2,296 feet) tether, essentially unspooling a clothesline in space that could help clean up the pieces of potentially hazardous space debris that are tracked by systems on Earth. The Kounotori’s cable is a promising candidate to deorbit the debris objects at low cost.

As illustrated by a video, the Japanese agency’s plan is to use the electrified tether, counter-weighted by a 20 kilogram (44-pound) end mass, to slow down and redirect space junk into a safe but fiery reentry into the atmosphere.

According to the video, the tether will be able to change its position relative to the Kounotori craft by the use of force that’s generated by an electric current and the Earth’s magnetic field. The video also depicts the tether being attached to a large piece of debris so the space trash can be guided down into a destructive reentry.

According to JAXA, the Kounotori is scheduled to dock at the International Space Station on Dec. 14; the tether won’t be unleashed until the Kounotori leaves the space station bearing a new cargo of waste and after the test, the entire craft will burn up on reentry.



What if we could have machines that could change shape and size and adapt to any environment to accomplish a wide array of tasks? This was exactly the question that drove a team of researchers at MIT to design and develop the M-Blocks.

These brightly colored blocks may look like children’s toys, but these cubes are actually spinning robots that can connect together to build modular machines. There’s no assembly required, the blocks, can do it themselves. The acrobatic boxes, have no external parts. And yet they can spin, somersault and snap together to create all kinds of shapes, depending on the job at hand.

Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute; when the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube, which causes it to jump in the desired direction. Along each of the edges and on every face of the M-Blocks, there are cleverly arranged permanent magnets that allow any two cubes to attach to each other or to flip around into a new configuration without breaking the connection. The movement is controlled by the amount of energy that is in the flywheel.

The cubes themselves are made of 2-inch blocks of aluminum hollowed out to make the box frame, filled with the motor and brains, and then plated with colorful plastic sides 3-D-printed at the lab. The bright colors also serve a purpose. The colors are useful for debugging because you can easily see what each cube does when they are being tested.

According to the researchers, their ultimate goal is to make extremely tiny versions of these robots that could join together to form complex shapes or could break down into individual cubes to traverse into hard to reach locations. They also plan to embed complex algorithms into the cubes so that they may be able to work completely autonomously and wouldn’t need any human intervention to carry out their tasks and choose specific orientations in which they need to connect.

It’s interesting to note how with this technology we are one step closer to the things that we had previously only seen in sci-fi movies, like the Transformers and the Terminator. This technology has potential for a lot of real world applications though from quick prototyping to having a large number of machines available in just one. It would be interesting to see how this develops in the future.


The Joy Experience

Australian health insurer Medibank has launched an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream View, in collaboration with a group of neuropsychologists at Melbourne-based VR developers Liminal.

The program is called Joy experience and it was designed entirely in 3D using Google’s Tilt Brush. Joy experience provides hospitalized patients with a virtual experience that attempt to relieve loneliness and isolation, particularly for patients that are expected to have a long stay and have restricted

From the comfort of their hospital bed, users are transported to a natural Australian landscape, around a campfire with a group of people and a sleeping dog. They can then choose from a selection of stories to be read to them by the people around them. The Joy experience was designed specifically with less able users with debilitating injuries in mind. It requires limited movement or interaction and thus can be easily used by most patients.

For the Joy experience, Liminal also encompassed several elements of neuroscience and neuropsychology to benefit the user on a deeper level. Rather than just a random setting, the elements that make up the virtual environment were chosen based on positive psychological and physical effects they could have on the user.

Virtual reality has practical applications for treating a number of psychological conditions, and helping with rehabilitation, exposure therapy, or specific phobias. As the technology grows, more and more medical professionals are starting to show more interest in it and are finding innovative uses for it to help patients find comfort and care.



Kobi: The all-in-one yard work robot

As winter rolls in and the temperatures get colder, home owners are forced to first clear away falling leaves outside their houses and then later move on to shoveling snow off of the driveway.

Fortunately, things might just be changing next year. A single robot might be able to handle all of your yard work throughout the year.

The Kobi Company is introducing the world’s first 3-in-1 autonomous robot that can mow the lawn, clean up leaves and remove snow. The company has created Kobi, an autonomous electric robot that has three different modules which can easily be snapped into place to allow it to do all sorts of tasks from, mowing the lawn, to clearing snow.

Yard work is usually strenuous and it can sometimes be dangerous as well. People can be injured by the yard equipment which usually has sharp edges and is bulky. Each year hundreds of people are injured while shoveling snow from their driveways and there have also been cases of people getting heart attacks from the stress the task puts on their bodies. While a robot that can mow your lawn and remove your leaves is convenient, Kobi’s biggest advantage is snow removal. The robot is autonomous so users can stay warm, cozy, and safe inside their homes, knowing that all required tasks will be taken care of and in case of an unexpected error, they will be notified by an app. Kobi is even more beneficial for people who are unable to perform yard work due to health issues.

The first time Kobi is used, you simply use an app to direct it around your driveway and yard so it can memorize the boundaries it needs to operate in. You also give it instructions on where to dump the leaves and snow. Like many autonomous robots, it uses sensors and GPS to navigate. It also has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and mobile data connectivity, so it can communicate with your smartphone, as well as monitor the weather forecast in order to catch the earliest, lightest snowflakes as soon as a storm begins.

The $4,000 base-model robot can handle most yards and driveways on a single charge, although users with especially large yards will have to buy more powerful batteries. It can even climb moderate hills, up to a 40 percent slope.

The Kobi Company is confident that the robot is safe and accurate. It is smart enough to stay within the assigned boundaries and built-in safety features, such as a camera and ultrasonic sensors, will detect any objects that might get in the robot’s path.

Since Kobi runs on electricity, it is more environmentally friendly than the usual gas-powered lawn equipment commonly used today. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lawn mowers are responsible for five percent of all air pollution in the US.

Unfortunately, Kobi isn’t quite ready just yet. It’s is still in development and won’t be available for purchase until early 2017.


Self-lacing Shoes

Years ago, Marty McFly’s power-laces from Back to the Future: Part II wowed audiences with the crazy idea of shoes that tie themselves. Now it seems that this certain piece of technology wont be part of science fiction for much longer. Nike recently announced that they were coming out with their version of the self-tying shoes, the HyperAdapt 1.0, which hits stores later this month. The highlight of the shoe is the lacing motor, which allows the shoe to be as tight or as loose as the wearer wants. The HyperAdapt 1.0 will be available for purchase in select US stores only, by November 28, 2016 and are expected to command a hefty price tag.

The laces are made of standard 200-pound-test fishing line, which are connected to a lacing motor that adjust for foot shape. This is what Nike calls its “adaptive lacing” technology. When you place your foot on the shoe, sensors in the shoe automatically adjust laces depending on the specific foot. Two buttons near the top of the shoe can be used to adjust the tightness of the whole shoe. The shoe has LED lights on the sides and back. The lights aren’t there just for show. They actually change color to indicate the amount of charging that still remains and when the shoes need to be recharged. The shoe’s batteries will need to be charged for three hours and once fully charged, should last up to two weeks.

But aside from the excitement of buying Marty McFly’s futuristic shoes, is there really any practical use of buying shoes that can tie themselves? As it turns out, there are many applications.

As the video shows, the shoes were designed specifically to meet the needs of athletes. Shoe tightness can be easily controlled via the buttons, so athletes need not torture their feet with tight lacing at the start of the game and can easily change the tightness to meet the changing needs throughout the game.

The shoes can also help non-athletes. They can be a great asset for people who may have difficulty tying their shoes. That includes people with disabilities and others who may lack fine motor control. While the technology is likely not going to replace velcro, it does give a stylish, high-tech option to replace traditional laces.

Plasma Actuator Wings

Plasma is the lesser known fourth state of matter that constitutes a large part of the matter found in the universe but is a lot rarer here on Earth. There has been great interest in plasma in the scientific community for a while now but now researchers are looking at a new application for it; in airplane wings.

Modern airplanes are able to soar through the air at great speeds, but the same air that allows them to fly also causes friction and resistance. Researchers are looking at technology that would use devices called plasma actuators to create plasma which would allow them to control the flow of air with great precision. This would give them control of the type and direction of the flow of air and also allow them to dynamically make changes at a very fast pace.

Tiny plasma actuators fitted in airplane wings could help planes control the flow of air going around the wings. This would allow airplanes to fly safer and with greater efficiency and greater stability and control. Research has shown that plasma actuators can be used to speed, slow or divert air flows in ways that can cut down drag, fuel use, and CO2 emissions by as much as twenty five percent. Some experts even think that these devices might someday completely replace conventional flight control systems such as flaps and ailerons.
The image shows a prototype wing fitted with plasma actuators.plasma-flaps

The following demonstration clearly shows the difference that the plasma actuators make as the air flows around the airfoil.ellipticalsillygraywolf-size_restricted

Plasma as a tool for directing airflow is particularly appealing on tiny electric-powered aircraft, like drones, where space is very limited and hence lower fuel costs would eliminate the need for large fuel tanks.

Airplanes aren’t the only things that can benefit from this technology though. More immediately, researchers are looking to place plasma actuator on the huge, vulnerable, and costly blades of wind turbines to improve their efficiency, extend their lifetimes, and even help them more effectively cope with gusting winds.

Well this technology is still in development and is nowhere near perfect yet so for now, we can only imagine what fancy new plasma-using aircraft might await in our future.


Solar Sails

Hundreds of years ago, man stood at a sandy beach gazing out longingly at the endless expense of ocean that lay before, yearning to unravel the mysteries that this unknown real might hold. He then built a boat, equipped it with a sail and harnessed the power of the wind to propel him into the unknown.

About 400 years ago, a man named Johannes Kepler had a similar longing but his focus was not the ocean. He gazed up at the night sky and dreamed of a day when mankindUntitled would be able to journey towards the stars. While studying comets, Kepler made an observation that intrigued him a lot. He observed that the tails of comets were always turned to a side as if blown there by the wind. He hypothesized that there was a “solar wind” blowing in space which caused this phenomenon to occur. He further proposed a plan to use this solar wind to propel space crafts in space much like sails on traditional sail boats.

Today we know that Kepler’s idea of a solar wind was wrong but he wasn’t completely wrong when it comes to the idea of solar sails. It turns out that we actually do not need a “solar wind” to propel a space craft in space; the light from the sun is enough to do it. Confused? Let me elaborate. As you might or might not know, light acts as both a particle and a wave. So when we take a closer look at the particulate nature of light, we realize that the photons in light (light particles) have momentum, which is basically a property of all moving objects. If we were to fit a space craft with a solar sail, the light particles would bounce off of the sail and thus transfer their momentum to the sail. This in turn would cause the spacecraft to accelerate.

Now on Earth this effect would be completely insignificant but in space, where most of the major forces are completely neutralized, this phenomenon would be far more significant.

Solar sails would solve a major problem in long distance space travel. The space craft would not have to worry about running out of fuel since its fuel is the sunlight which is readily available. It has also been calculated that even though the initial acceleration of a solar sail powered space craft would be far lower than a traditional spacecraft, over a longer period of time, the solar sailed powered space craft would be able to achieve higher velocities than a traditional space craft could.

There has been much research on solar sails over the years but until recently there were far too many constraints holding the technology back. The most major one was the lack of materials light enough to make the sail. The material also had to be extremely reflective. Luckily, there has been much progress in material sciences in the past decade which have allowed actual light sail powered space crafts, like IKAROS, pictured above, to be built and launched into space, proving the viability of this technology. Only time will tell how the sience of solar sails will pan out the the affects it will have on space exploration.



3D Printing Pens

As the interest in 3D printing technology grows across the world, manufacturers are starting to branch out and try new ideas in hope of finding the next big innovation. One such idea is the 3D printing pen.

3D printing pens, as he name suggests, are simply just handheld devices that act as tiny 3D printers. In appearance, they resemble a regular pen, though slightly larger. Most models take a regular PLA filament that is fed through the back and slowly eject it out of a nozzle at the front tip. The main difference between a 3D printing pen and a regular 3D printer is other than the obvious size is that a regular 3D printer takes a 3D model as an input and uses it to print out a plastic model by controlling a nozzle and moving it in all three axis using motors, while a 3D printing pen takes no input and is moved directly by the user’s hand. In this way, using a 3D printing pen can literally be thought of as drawing in three dimensions instead of flat two dimensional pictures.

Obviously, this opens up a multitude of possibilities for a large number of different groups of people. Artists and other creators now have a completely new medium to work with, using which they can create intricately beautiful and interesting objects. The bonsai tree being created using a 3D printing pen in this video perfectly exemplifies this.

Scientists and engineers can also benefit from this technology as they now have an even faster means of basic prototyping than regular 3D printing as this method does not require a CAD model to first be created.

It would be interesting to see how this technology further develops with more advances in the field of 3D printing and how different people will leverage this technology to do interesting and innovative things.