New Horizons Probe Reaches Pluto

July 14th, 2015 | Space

Pluto New Horizons NASA

On January 16, 2006, the New Horizons space probe left Earth on a voyage to Pluto. 9 years, 5 months, and 29 days later, the spacecraft has successfully made it 3+ billion miles to the distant “planet.” The image above was shared via NASA’s Instagram page and represents the first look at the planet up close and personal.

via Phil Plait:

“The color is real! The reddish hue is due to tholins, organic (carbon-based) molecules crated when methane, abundant on Pluto, is hit by ultraviolet light from the Sun. This breaks apart the simple molecule and allows it to reform into more complex molecules.”

The folks at NPR’s Skunkbear put together this short tribute video to honor the journey:

And here’s a quick 1 minute informational video to catch you up on the key statistics of the mission:

Look forward to many more detailed images in the days to come.


Decaying Soviet Space Program by Ralph Mirebs

June 16th, 2015 | Space

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The Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the desert of Kazakhstan, was the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. It turned 60-years-old earlier this month, and I would say that it’s seen better days. Russian photographer and urban explorer, Ralph Mirebs, gained access to the defunct facility and captured these somber photos of a decaying Soviet space program.

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As you can see, there are remnants of two Buran spacecrafts still in the hangar. One of them, OK-1K2, nicknamed Ptichka (Little Bird), was almost ready for spaceflight in 1992, but the program was shutdown right before it was ready for launch.

You can find more photos and information at Ralph Mirebs’ site.

Wanderers by Erik Wernquist

June 12th, 2015 | Space

Wanderers by Erik Wernquist

Wanderers is a beautiful short film by Erik Wernquist. The visuals depict humanity’s future expansion into the Solar System replete with colonies on Mars, astronauts floating through Saturn’s rings, and humans hiking across Europa’s frozen oceans. Erik’s renderings are stunning. As Phil Plait pointed out at Slate:

“Nothing in there is impossible; no faster than light travel, no wormholes. Even the space elevator shown towering over Mars and the huge cylindrical rotating colony in space (did you notice the Red Sea in it?) are problems in engineering, not physics. We can build them.”

Humanity has an exciting future ahead. I hope our species can work toward this reality.


BMW S54 Engine – Organized Neatly

June 11th, 2015 | Robot

BMW S54 engine

The BMW S54 was a high performance engine with these features:

1. Increased cylinder bore to 87 mm (from 86.4 mm) for a new total displacement of 3,246 cc (from 3,201 cc)
2. Modified camshafts
3. High pressure Double VANOS continuously variable valve timing system with faster operation at high rpm
4. Increased compression to 11.5:1 (from 11.3:1)
5. More advanced BMW/Siemens MSS 54 engine management control
6. Finger-type rocker arms for reduced reciprocating mass and friction
7. One-piece aluminum head casting for lighter weight
8. Scavenging oil pump to maintain pressure during heavy cornering

An unknown source broke the entire engine down and laid it out carefully for us to enjoy. Now we just need someone to label each part for our didactic purposes.


Robots That Can Recover from Injuries

May 27th, 2015 | Robot

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Robots That Can Recover from Injuries

In a new report from Nature, research from evolutionary roboticist, Josh Bongard, at the University of Vermont in Burlington demonstrates a self-correcting hexapod.

From the article:

“After a fault, such as the loss of one of its feet or a stuck knee, the robot uses its on-board camera to detect that something is slowing it down or preventing it from walking straight. Rather than attempting to diagnose the problem, the robot simply tries out new patterns of motion until it finds one that enables it to restore an acceptable level of performance.”

Robots working in disaster areas may become injured and having this ability to quickly self-correct walking patterns can be crucial for success of a mission. Of course, the robot is not really learning with evolutionary algorithms or through techniques like deep learning. Instead, the robot is pre-programmed to with around 13,000 walking patterns that the robot can quickly cycle through in the event of injury.

The programming also helps the robot with unusual terrains in which a new walking pattern may be more efficient. This will help walking robots become more autonomous in natural terrains.


Robotic Butterfly by Festo

May 20th, 2015 | Robot

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The German company, Festo, has a history of making incredible, biomimetic robots in their laboratories. We have featured kangaroos, dragonflies, and jellyfish in the past. They’ve also made Air-Penguins, Air-Ray, robotic birds, and the Airacuda. The butterfly may seem less ambitious than those efforts, but the butterflies can swarm in the air while avoiding collisions.

Each butterfly weighs a little over an ounce and has a wingspan of 20 inches. They consist of nothing more than a couple of motors, batteries, infrared markers, and soft, elastic wings.

The robots were not developed to sell but represent continued research efforts towards making ultralight, networked robotics systems. I think the company should focus on these creations and move them to market. I want one!

You can read more about the specs here.


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