Tag: tomorrow

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine completes first hot-fire test

Blue Origin was a bit of a mystery to the public for quite awhile. After all, unlike competitor SpaceX, the company haven't always been welcoming to the scrutiny that comes with inviting the media in. But that changed in early 2016, when reporters were invited into the space tourism company's headquarters for the first time. Since then, Jeff Bezos' company has been more open with the public, and yesterday it tweeted about a new milestone. The company's BE-4 engine successfully completed a hot-fire test. The engine was fired at 50 percent power for three seconds, according to Ars Technica.

People have derided Blue Origin for its focus on suborbital space tourism with the New Shepard launch vehicle, and that's indeed been one of the company's major pushes. But the space company has also been developing New Glenn, a two- and three-stage behemoth rocket that will be able to take people and cargo to orbit and possibly beyond. A configuration of seven BE-4 engines will power the first and second stages of New Glenn. With this test, Blue Origin has at once made a statement that it is to be taken seriously within the sphere of orbital spaceflight and also that it's one step closer to producing these engines.

BE-4 is the the most powerful rocket engine developed since Rocketdyne's RS-68 engine (even more than SpaceX's Raptor engine), which is used in United Launch Alliance's Delta IV rockets. However, these engines are incredibly expensive to produce, which is why ULA wants to retire the Delta IV line. As a replacement, the company is developing the Vulcan rocket, and it has made steps towards committing to using Blue Origin's BE-4 engine. Aerojet Rocketdyne is lobbying for the ULA to use its AR1 engine, but development is far behind the BE-4. The United Launch Alliance needs an engine as quickly as possible, so this successful test fire may just have cemented Blue Origin's case.

Via: Popular Mechanics

Source: Twitter, Ars Technica

NASA study will help identify potentially habitable planets

NASA has already found tons of exoplanets around nearby stars, and will spot countless more once the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches. The problem is that scientists aren't exactly sure which planet-star combinations are most likely to support life. A new NASA study has found that planets orbiting small stars like Trappist-1 could retain their oceans for billions of years, even if they're quite close -- provided the star emits just the right amount of infrared radiation.

For the foreseeable future, astronomers will be scanning red dwarf stars for habitable planets, rather than other types like our sun. That's because they're easier to find and small enough that the wobble of small, Earth-like planets is detectable. On top of that, the amount of light dip is noticeable when a planet passes in front, and scientists can detect the composition of its atmosphere based on how much starlight it absorbs.

Because of that, scientists are obviously very concerned about which red dwarf stars and planets can support life. That's where the new study, done by a team from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, comes in.

If a planet is too cold, any water will freeze into ice, making life formation challenging. If it's too hot, water will evaporate and rise up into the stratosphere, where it will get broken into hydrogen and oxygen by the star's UV (ultraviolet) light. The latter state, called a "moist greenhouse," eventually leads to the loss of all oceans, killing any chances for life.

Artist's conception of the Trappist-1 system (NASA)

Unlike on Earth, planets on red dwarf systems are often tidally locked, with the same side always pointing toward the star. That leads to extreme heating on one side and cooling on the other, but luckily, such planets zip around their stars quick enough to create a circulating atmosphere. That atmosphere can be enough to keep the planet at the right temperature for liquid water, while blocking it from evaporating into the stratosphere.

Using a new, advanced 3D atmospheric model, the NASA and Tokyo-based researchers simulated the atmospheric circulation on a planet in a hypothetical red dwarf system. "We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state," Fujii said.

Until now, scientists figured that if a planet's surface was too warm, around 150 degrees F, it would create an ocean-destroying moist greenhouse state. However, the team found that on red dwarf, Trappist-1 type planets, that wasn't necessarily the case. If a star emitted enough near-infrared radiation, it could kick off a moist greenhouse effect, even at temperatures around those at the Earth's topics.

However the model showed that, surprisingly, if an exoplanet was closer to its parent star, the infrared heating would increase moisture in the atmosphere more gradually. That means that, contrary to findings from previous models, it could remain habitable.

If the study proves valid, it will help narrow down habitable exoplanet candidates. Scientists can first measure the radiation of a star, knowing that cooler stars emit more near-infrared radiation. Then, if possible, they could measure its planet's atmospheric composition using spectroscopic methods. Those methods mostly target a planet's stratosphere, so the presence of water -- unlike what you might think -- could be negative for life.

"As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state," said co-author Anthony Del Genio from NASA. "If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state." If so, the planet is likely shedding water quickly -- so the oceans, and any potential life in them, could be doomed.

Source: NASA, Arxiv

Amazon’s largest wind farm yet is up and running in Texas

Greenpeace slammed Amazon earlier this week for its environmental practices -- namely, the fact that it doesn't disclose much about its energy use or materials. But today, the company announced that its largest wind farm yet is up and running. The Amazon Wind Farm Texas, located in Scurry County, Texas, includes over 100 turbines and will generate enough clean energy to power more than 330,000 homes.

This isn't Amazon's first foray into clean energy. The Amazon Wind Farm Texas is among 18 others across the US, and the online retailer has another 35 in planning stages. Not only are they offsetting their carbon footprint, at least somewhat, but they're providing more jobs and contributing to local economies. Kara Hurst, Amazon's Worldwide Director of Sustainability, cites a company-wide goal of eventually powering their infrastructure using solely renewable energy.

It's not clear whether this specific press release is a response to Greenpeace's actions, but Amazon is clearly interested in garnering as much good will as possible, and they're going about it in a great way. People can feel however they want about the company, but it's hard to argue with a project like this. The wind farms also make clear that the retail giant is interested in many more endeavors than solely selling you more stuff than you need and delivering it within two days.

Source: BusinessWire

When VR meets human emotions (and sometimes, hallucinations)

By its very nature, virtual reality is an immersive medium. But for Rama Allen, that bar is higher. The interactive artist and Executive Creative Director at The Mill has made a name for himself leading inter-disciplinary teams of designers, filmmakers, coders, editors, engineers and VFX artists to create new kinds of cinematic experiences. At the inaugural Engadget Experience, a tech-art installation happening in LA next month, Allen will share some of his strangest creations, including a collaboration with an emotional AI; a VR experience that uses biometrics for levitation; a sculpting tool for the human voice; and a mixed-reality galactic journey to spread peace across the universe. Buy your tickets here, and hurry because discounted pricing ends next week, on October 27th. We'll see you in LA!

Alphabet invests $1 billion in Lyft

Last month, we reported on rumors that Alphabet, Google's parent company, was considering investing in Lyft. Now, Lyft has announced that CapitalG, which is Alphabet's growth investment fund, is leading a $1 billion financing round in the car-sharing company. This brings Lyft's total valuation to $11 billion

Alphabet's interest in Lyft isn't that surprising, if you think about it. It's already clear that Alphabet is interested in self-driving cars, as the company owns Waymo. And back in May, Waymo and Lyft announced the two companies would work together on self-driving cars. Following that, Lyft announced it would develop its own autonomous driving technology, stating that it was "core" to its business. Alphabet's interest makes sense if we stop thinking about Lyft as a ride sharing service and more of a self-driving car company.

As Uber has been plagued by woe after woe of its own making, Lyft has been quietly rising as an increasingly used alternative. This round of funding may help put the company on equal footing as Uber's rival, rather than constantly being thought of as a second-place finisher.

Source: Lyft

The way scientific units are calculated is changing

Scientific units are set to receive their biggest shake-up since the inception of the modern metric system in 1960. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) -- one of three committees that oversees this type of stuff -- is presently looking into revising the ampere, the kilogram, the kelvin, and the mole. The higher-ups at the General Conference on Weights and Measures will then conduct a final vote on the recommendations next year, before ordering them into effect in May 2019. Although it may not impact everyday measurements, the redefinition is crucial for scientists, who require the utmost accuracy for their work.

Ever pondered the precision of the international system of units (SI)? (Why should you? You're not going to be called on to measure the temperature in the Large Hadron Collider any time soon). You may be in need of a refresher, then. The kilogram is defined as the lump of platinum-iridium locked in a vault in Paris. The artefact is known to fluctuate in weight (due to surface contamination), making it tricky to define its exact mass.

But, it made the cut for its inclusion in the broader redefinition of units with the acceptance of the so-called watt balance method in 2015. This approach essentially compares mechanical power with electromagnetic power using two methods -- which measure speed as well as experimental values relating the voltage and current in Planck's constant.

An ampere (the base unit of electric current, often shortened to "amp") is presently defined by an imaginary experiment involving the force between two infinite wires. In the near future, the unit could be measured using an electron pump. Meanwhile, the mole is the unit for the amount of substance in a system with as many elementary entities as there are atoms in 0.012 kilograms of carbon-12. In just a couple of years, it could be defined using the silicon sphere (the device that gives scientists Avogadro's constant).

Finally, the Kelvin -- the base unit for temperature -- relates to little more than water: The triple point of water to be exact. The redefinition would rely on the Boltzmann constant, which scientists measured using a dielectric-constant gas thermometer. By grounding the SI on an invariable foundation of constants, scientists should be able to pin down their definitions for good. Roll on, 2019.

Source: BIPM

UK government could force petrol stations to install EV chargers

The UK's network of motorway services and petrol stations will be required to install chargers for electric cars, under plans announced by Transport Minister John Hayes. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which was first announced during the Queen's Speech in June but yesterday had its first reading in Parliament, outlines new powers that will help boost the uptake of electric vehicles across the UK.

According to the government, the new network of charging stations will need to be "smart," which means they can interact with the grid in order to manage demand across the UK. Operators will also be required to provide clear information on the location and operating hours of their points, as well as the available charging options, how much they cost and whether they are working order or already in use.

Ministers are clear that "all UK motorway services and large petrol retailers" will need to be on board and that the government will be given powers to "make it compulsory for chargepoints to be installed across the country." The Bill itself lists both of these pledges but clearly state that the "regulations may impose requirements" on both large fuel retailers and service area operators. This may allow the government to step in if new installations are behind targets, but some petrol station operators are already taking positive steps. Shell, for example, has already begun installing chargepoints on forecourts, which might mean ministers won't need to use these new powers.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill also makes provisions for the UK's self-driving future. It reiterates a lot of what was shared during the Queen's Speech, in that the all drivers of automated cars will need to be separately covered when the driver is in manual control and when the car is driving itself. Victims of accidents involving an automated vehicle will must also "have quick and easy access to compensation." Car owners will be made liable for accidents if they've modified the software on their vehicle or have failed to install important updates.

The government says it plans to invest £1.2 billion in the electric and driverless car industry, ensuring that local authorities get the money they need to install charging stations in residential streets, where electric cars are often parked on the street.

"We want the UK to be the best place in the world to do business and a leading hub for modern transport technology, which is why we are introducing the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill in Parliament and investing more than £1.2 billion in the industry," Transport Minister John Hayes said. "This bill will aid the construction of greater infrastructure to support the growing demand for automated and electric vehicles as we embrace this technology and move into the future."

Via: Gov.uk

Source: Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (PDF)

The robots that will sweep Earth’s skies

After six years in space, China's first orbital station, the Tiangong-1 (aka the "Heavenly Palace") has finally outlived its operational limits and begun its descent back to Earth. It's expected to re-enter the atmosphere in a few months, whereupon a majority of the 9.3-ton station should burn up before reaching the surface. This is how defunct satellites are supposed to be disposed of. Unfortunately, until very recently, that hasn't often been the case.

For the past 50 years, we've been filling Low Earth Orbit with defunct satellites, launch vehicle upper stages, and various bits of broken spacecraft (including frozen water, coolant and paint flecks). Most of this comes from failed launches or spent experiments. In 1963, for example, the US military unloaded 480 million needle-sized antennas into orbit to see if they'd act as a crude radio reflector array. The idea was that radio signals from Earth would bounce up into the atmosphere and bounce back down off of them, enabling longer distance radio service. Though satellite communications have since made this technology obsolete, those antennas are still up there, just floating around waiting to go full-on Gravity with a passing satellite.

By the start of the 21st century, LEO had become increasingly crowded with satellites -- more than 7,000 have been launched since Sputnik first circled the globe -- though only 1,500 of them remain active. That number is expected to swell to more than 18,000 man-made objects in orbit in the coming decades as private industry begins sending up communications and observation satellites in addition to national governments. In fact, of the 98 launches that took place worldwide in 2016, nearly half carried private communications satellites.

Today, there are an estimated 20,000 pieces of debris bigger than a softball in Low Earth Orbit and another 50,000 the size of a marble. We're not sure how much junk smaller than that is in orbit -- it could be on the magnitude of tens of millions -- because we lack the technology to track them from the ground. This trend is sure to cause havoc if we don't start cleaning up after ourselves.

In some ways it already has. In 2007, China destroyed its Fengyun-1C weather satellite with a ballistic missile as a show of force to the international community. Doing so spread more than 3,000 pieces of debris throughout LEO. America's response a few months later, blew a defunct spy satellite to smithereens, though a majority of that debris field reportedly re-entered the atmosphere. Two years later, in 2009, a defunct Russian satellite crashed into an American Iridium satellite, spreading another 2,000 bits of space junk.

"It's a serious, serious challenge," Launchspace founder, Marshall Kaplan, told Space.com in 2013. "This is not a U.S. problem... it's everybody's problem. And most of the people that produced the debris, the serious offenders, like Russia, China, and the United States, are not going to spend that kind of money. It's just not a good investment."

"We've reached the point of no return," he continued. "The debris will continue to get worse in terms of collision threats... even if not another satellite were launched, the problem will continue to get worse."

This cascade of collisions is known as the Kessler Syndrome, named for former head of NASA's space debris program, Donald Kessler. He mathematically proved in the 1970s that there is a saturation point of how much stuff we can place into LEO. Once we reach that critical mass, the items in that orbit are sure to set off a massive collision cascade, even if we don't place any additional objects in that orbit. "If we're not at the critical mass, we're pretty close to it," Kessler told The Atlantic in 1998.

But it's not just our satellite communications that are in danger of being destroyed, all that space trash poses serious threats to manned missions as well. In 1983, a fleck of paint travelling at around 17,000 MPH, struck the windshield of the Challenger space shuttle and left a pea-sized pit. This happened with such startling regularity (read: literally during every mission) that NASA took to orbiting the shuttle upsidedown and backwards (relative to its direction of travel) so that the rockets would take the brunt of the impacts rather than the crew cabin.

The ISS isn't much better off. That 2009 collision between the Russian and American satellites forced the ISS crew to scramble for safety aboard the Soyuz spacecraft should a piece of debris blast through the station's hull.

Despite the dangers, there's plenty we can do to mitigate the damage that this debris does. The first step is to know what, and how much of it, we're dealing with. The Department of Defense has established the Space Surveillance Network to do just that. The SSN is able to track objects as small as 2 inches across at LEO and as small as 3 feet in geosynchronous orbit -- around 21,000 of them in total.

The system doesn't track each item continuously but rather uses a predictive method that calculates their orbital momentum so ground-based observers can "check in" with individual objects by pointing their telescopes to where and when the item should be overhead. All together, the DoD's array of sensors and telescopes, which are spread from Hawaii to Greenland to the Indian Ocean, observe around 80,000 satellites (and pieces thereof) every day.

Of course, simply knowing where these debris fields are doesn't alleviate the threat that they pose. We've got to come up with a means of inciting that space junk to fall back to the surface. And while nobody has managed to successfully deploy an orbital debris reclamation system yet, a number of space agencies are working on everything from magnetized wire lanyards and gigantic nets to "space brooms" and kamikaze robo-grapplers.

In 2012, NASA granted North Carolina-based Star Technology and Research $1.9 million to develop the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE). This device, upon reaching orbit, would unfurl a 6-mile long tether which generates an attractive field as it moves through the Earth's magnetic field. When the EDDE encounters a piece of space junk it captures it in a large net and drops the ensnared garbage into a lower orbit where the thicker atmosphere pulls it out of orbit. This is essentially the same process that JAXA's Kounotori 6 spacecraft was attempting when a technical glitch caused that mission to fail earlier this year.

The European Space Agency has floated a similar idea except that in addition to, or even perhaps instead of, their orbital garbage truck would hunt its quarry using a tethered harpoon. It's part of the ESA's e.Deorbit mission which is scheduled to launch in 2021. The harpoon, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, is just one of the proposed capture methods that will be tried during that mission.

Accurately piercing the hull of a defunct satellite using a space harpoon in microgravity is as technically challenging as it sounds. So rather than try to spear and reel in derelict objects, the startup Swiss Space Systems (S3), has devised a robotic grappler that clamps onto debris and drags it into the atmosphere. Dubbed the Clean Space One project, this 66-pound janitor satellite would be about the size of a breadbox. After being launched from the European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle in 2018, the CSO is tasked with tracking and capturing a non-operational Swisscube satellite, then dragging it back to Earth. The mission is expected to cost around $16 million.

One problem persistent debris capturing satellites like the ESA's e.Deorbit face is maintaining a steady supply of propellent. You don't want your janitor satellite to become another piece of debris simply because it ran out of power. Texas A&M University is working on a clever solution to that issue with the Space Sweeper with Sling-Sat (4S). This satellite would first capture a piece of debris then whip around, slinging the trash into the atmosphere while pushing itself into the path of its next target. By repeating this process, the 4S should be able to hop from one bit of trash to the next without having to expend an expensive and limited supply of fuel.

But what if we didn't need to send new robots into orbit to capture the olds ones? In 2011, Raytheon BBN Technologies and the University of Michigan teamed up to devise the Space Debris Elimination (SPaDE) system. Rather than rely on satellites, SPaDE would puff concentrated bursts of atmospheric gas into the paths of LEO debris. The added friction from these gasses should be sufficient to slow the debris down enough that it falls back to Earth. Unfortunately, the SPaDE project never got beyond the drawing board.

Then again, why even expend the effort to drag dead satellites into the atmosphere when you can simply repurpose their functional (albeit unpowered) pieces? That's what DARPA hopes to do with its Phoenix project. This system would rely on a new class of microsatellites, dubbed "satlets", which would seek out and affix themselves to dead satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Each satlet would restore an essential satellite function (ie power, movement control or sensors) and share data, power and thermal management capabilities among themselves. By connecting these devices in different combinations, deactivated satellites could be resurrected and their operational lifespans drastically increased. DARPA expects to launch a demonstrator mission around 2020 and commercialize the technology shortly thereafter.

This mission could prove valuable for both the military and the commercial space industry, DARPA program Manager Gordon Roesler told Via Satellite in 2015, wherein a civilian firm would own and operate the satellites themselves and the military "could just pay a commercial operator for the service."

Despite the myriad capture options that these various systems offer, they all share one aspect in common: not one of them is ready to be put into service. It's not economically viable at this point to send up robots like the d.Deorbit to dispose of a single piece of space junk and likely won't be for years to come. What's more, the government may soon face a legal minefield in its cleanup efforts as more and more privately-owned satellites come to occupy and operate in LEO.

"Removal from orbit, collision avoidance, satellite servicing and repair, satellite recycling in orbit, debris storage locations, change to using a 'stable plane' at higher altitudes especially in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)... are all possibilities," Donald Kessler told Space.com in 2013. "Some are mutually exclusive and may not be appropriate at all altitudes, while others could combine to be more effective."

"I believe it is time that the international community takes a serious look at the future of space operations," he concluded. "There's need to begin a process to answer these questions and determine which path will most effectively provide a sustainable environment for spacecraft in Earth orbit."

EV chargers have started popping up at UK Shell stations

As promised, Shell is adding electric vehicle charging to its UK petrol stations. "Shell Recharge" is already already available at three locations in Holloway (London), Derby and Whyteleafe (Surrey). A further seven sites across Greater London and Reading will be opened up before the end of the year. Though this is welcome news for EV owners, 10 stations is but a fraction of the 1,000 that Shell currently operates in the UK. The company has a long way to go before it can match Tesla's Supercharger network, or the nationwide infrastructure offered by Ecotricity and Chargemaster's Polar scheme.

Still, it's a start. The 10 stations will offer 50 kW DC chargers with connections for combined charging system (CCS), Chademo and AC Type 2 (43kW). Every car is different, but Shell says its Recharge stations will take will take most batteries from zero to 80 percent in 30 minutes. Those figures are competitive with most public UK chargers, but are a long way off the 120 kW throughput offered by Tesla. Drivers will need to pay for their electricity using a payments app called Smoov. It will normally cost 49p per kWh, but until June 30th, 2018, that figure is being kept at 25p.

Via: EV Fleet World

Source: Shell (Press Release)

Where are VR and AR headed? We’ll explore at the Engadget Experience.

We're diving head-first into the world of virtual and augmented reality next month at the inaugural Engadget Experience. The event, which takes place at LA's Ace Hotel on November 14th, will bring together pioneering minds in these new mediums. (Tickets are available here.) It's almost impossible to discuss VR and AR without considering how far they've come over the past few years, and where they're headed in the future. That's what we'll be tackling in "The Big Picture," a panel discussion with Marcie Jastrow of the Technicolor Experience Center; Jen Dennis from Ridley Scott's RSA Films; and Ruthie Doyle from Sundance's New Frontier.

We'll tap into the panelists's diverse industry experience to explore the biggest issues facing AR and VR today; how they'll co-exist moving forward; and what, specifically, these new technologies offer that existing mediums don't. And that's just a start.

The VR and AR industry are still in their early stages. It's reminiscent of where the internet was in the '90s, long before it became an essential part of our lives. Call it the "West West" period -- an exciting time where the rules are still being written for new technology. As we explore the new opportunities in VR and AR, it's important that we keep an eye forward to avoid pitfalls, and make sure it's something normal people will actually want to use.