Archive for June, 2007

Scientists in Costa Rica set plasma engine record

June 14, 2007

imageScientists in Costa Rica have run a plasma rocket engine continuously for a record of more than four hours, the latest achievement in a mission to cut costs and travel time for spacecraft.

The Ad Astra Rocket Company, led by Costa Rican-born former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, said on Wednesday it hopes to use its rocket engines to stabilize space stations in a few years, and then to power a trip to Mars within two decades.

“The first objective is to move small spacecraft in low orbit by 2010,” Ad Astra executive director Ronald Chang-Diaz, the astronaut’s brother, told Reuters.

In December, the scientists ran the engine for two minutes but had to turn it off because it was overheating. They have spent much of the past six months designing cooling systems.

Scientists believe propulsion engines that run on plasma, a material composed of atoms stripped of electrons and found in high-pressure and -temperature environments like stars and lightning bolts, will be faster and cheaper than rockets currently used in space travel.

Source:  Reuters

Firm rockets into space tourism

June 14, 2007

Astrium space jet concept (BBC)The European aerospace giant EADS is going into the space tourism business.

Its Astrium division says it will build a space plane capable of carrying fare-paying passengers on a sub-orbital ride more than 100km above the planet.

The vehicle, which will take off from a normal airport, will give the tourists a three-to-five-minute experience of weightlessness at the top of its climb.

Tickets are expected to cost up to 200,000 euros (£135,000), with flights likely to begin in 2012.

Source:  BBC News

Design boost for European rover

June 13, 2007

ExoMars concept (Esa)The European Space Agency (Esa) is pushing forward with its design for a rover mission to send to Mars in 2013.Project teams have been authorised to investigate a concept that would launch a 205kg robot on a heavy-lift rocket.

The vehicle, expected to land in September 2014, would be equipped with a 16.5kg package of instruments to search for past or present life.

The concept is bigger – and much more expensive – than the one originally approved by space ministers in 2005.

Source:  BBC News

Acabion – why shouldn’t supercars look like this?

June 12, 2007

The Acabion certainly cuts a futuristic dash To many minds, the mere notion of a road-legal vehicle capable of 550km/h on a little over half-throttle would seem either absurd or insane, or both. To others, it would seem like fantasy beyond their wildest imagination.

But for that same vehicle to also achieve three litres/100km at more sensible speeds and have a small hybrid electric drive system to eke out fuel even further and produce less carbon dioxide at autobahn speeds than a Toyota Corolla diesel?

The performance figures mentioned so far are based on calculations, as the Acabion has only been run up to a none-too-slothful 358km/h in testing – a speed that, incidentally, takes only 20 seconds from standstill. (Top speeds will be limited to 450 and 470km/h – although, derestricted, they could, theoretically, hit a stupendous 596 and 646km/h respectively!)

Of course, at such speeds, tyres become a burning issue. At present the Acabion runs on conventional high-speed motorcycle rubber, but “new” and, it’s hoped, suitable tyres are being developed.

According to its creator, this combination of low weight, low drag and high power would only be equalled in performance terms – though obviously not in fuel economy – by a conventional supercar with 9000 to 11 500bhp.

Source:  Motoring

Light Fantastic: Flirting With Invisibility

June 12, 2007

Increasingly, physicists are constructing materials that bend light the “wrong” way, an optical trick that could lead to sharper-than-ever lenses or maybe even make objects disappear.

Last October, scientists at Duke demonstrated a working cloaking device, hiding whatever was placed inside, although it worked only for microwaves.

In the experiment, a beam of microwave light split in two as it flowed around a specially designed cylinder and then almost seamlessly merged back together on the other side. That meant that an object placed inside the cylinder was effectively invisible. No light waves bounced off the object, and someone looking at it would have seen only what was behind it.

Source:  New York Times

Meet Pleo. He’s going to crush Furby

June 12, 2007

robot_revenge.03.jpgPicture the scene: It’s the holiday buying season, and ever since summer, consumers have been itching to get their hands on a 6-inch-tall robot with a quirky personality that evolves as its owners interact with it.

The creature goes on to sell 50 million units, earning a stunning $1.2 billion.

That all happened in 1998, with a toy called Furby. But if its co-creator Caleb Chung has his way, a similar story will unfold this year. After many delays, Chung’s sequel to Furby — a robotic dinosaur called Pleo — is scheduled to go on sale this summer. This time, however, the company waiting to reap the rewards is not toy giant Hasbro. It’s Chung’s 35-person startup, Ugobe.

Chung has spent two years sweating Pleo’s details. He’s gone through four versions of the polymer skin. He’s tweaked the tail until it can wag with the same torque as the neck. He replaced metal gears with plastic ones halfway through the manufacturing process so Pleo would move more quietly.

The delays were worth it, Chung insists. “If we were Mattel, we would have shipped this last Christmas,” he says. “But that’s not how you start a world-changing company.” Ugobe, financed to the tune of $11 million, is raising another $10 million to develop the half-dozen designs Chung has up his sleeve, including robots that could crawl the earth long after Pleo has gone extinct.

Source:  CNN Money

Eco-home that could cut family fuel bills

June 12, 2007

zero carbon houseBuilt from wood and kitted out with solar panels, wind turbines and state-of-the-art insulation, versions of this eco-home will soon be springing up all around the country.

According to its makers, the four-bedroomed townhouse will be the first environmentally friendly family home to be mass-produced in Britain and is designed to cut energy bills by up to 80 per cent.

That could save a typical family of four more than $1,600 a year in fuel costs.

However, one crucial detail – the price – is still missing. The builders say it is too soon to estimate the cost of producing the design commercially.

The prototype Sigma house, unveiled yesterday, is one of the first to be awarded a “near-zero” carbon emission certificate by the Government.

Source:  Daily Mail

Drug offers hope for Parkinson’s

June 11, 2007

The progression of Parkinson’s disease could be slowed or even stopped by a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, a study in Nature suggests.

Tests on mice at Northwestern University in Chicago showed isradipine can rejuvenate the brain neurons which are dying in Parkinson’s patients.

The disease, which mainly affects those aged over 40, leads to tremors and ultimately the inability to walk. Parkinson’s charities welcomed the study but said they were early results.

Source:  BBC News

Carpool lanes for airplanes?

June 11, 2007

12-second delayThe 1950s-era radar survellience network for airline traffic is in dire need of a technological overhaul as passenger traffic is expected to jump 78% to nearly 1.3 billion annually by 2025.

But modernizing highways in the sky with a precise satellite-based system carries a staggering $40-billion price tag, and the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to persuade Congress and the airlines to help pay for it.

Advocates say the proposed modernization — which includes satellite technology along with a system that would allow public agencies and private airlines to share information and new navigation procedures — is expected to improve efficiency and increase safety.

Federal officials plan to use signals from satellites to create something akin to carpool lanes in the skies for airlines that equip their aircraft with the new technology.

Last year was the worst in history for flight delays, with planes stranded on the ground for hours in well publicized incidents in Texas, Colorado and New York. Although inclement weather played a major role, carriers complain that the patchwork of technologies that make up the existing air traffic network contributes to severe delays.

Source:  Los Angeles Times

U.S. Army Speeds production of FCS Robot

June 11, 2007

The Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program managers are accelerating development of a backpackable next-generation version of the PackBot called the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV).

Being developed in partnership with Boeing, the SUGV was to have been fielded in 2010 or 2012, but now is slated to deploy next year.

“The SUGV is being developed with the same basic digital architecture that is in the PackBot, so we expect to add all of the different mission capabilities,” said Bob Bell, director of iRobot’s FCS program. “It has high-performance visible and infrared cameras. It won’t have the EOD’s [Explosive Ordnance Disposal’s] 7-foot arm; it will have an 18- to 20-inch arm. It will be able to look at and pull the cover off an IED, but it won’t be able to carry it away.”

The Army used a prototype SUGV in a February FCS experiment at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Source:  Defense News