All posts in “Science”

IBM’s Verifier inspects (and verifies) diamonds, pills and materials at the micron level

It’s not enough in this day and age that we have to deal with fake news, we also have to deal with fake prescription drugs, fake luxury goods, and fake Renaissance-era paintings. Sometimes all at once! IBM’s Verifier is a gadget and platform made (naturally) to instantly verify that something is what it claims to be, by inspecting it at a microscopic level.

Essentially you stick a little thing on your phone’s camera, open the app, and put the sensor against what you’re trying to verify, be it a generic antidepressant or an ore sample. By combining microscopy, spectroscopy, and a little bit of AI, the Verifier compares what it sees to a known version of the item and tells you whether they’re the same.

The key component in this process is an “optical element” that sits in front of the camera (it can be anything that takes a decent image) amounting to a specialized hyper-macro lens. It allows the camera to detect features as small as a micron — for comparison, a human hair is usually a few dozen microns wide.

At the micron level there are patterns and optical characteristics that aren’t visible to the human eye, like precisely which wavelengths of light it reflects. The quality of a weave, the number of flaws in a gem, the mixture of metals in an alloy… all stuff you or I would miss, but a machine learning system trained on such examples will pick out instantly.

For instance a counterfeit pill, although orange and smooth and imprinted just like a real one if one were to just look at it, will likely appear totally different at the micro level: textures and structures with a very distinct pattern, or at least distinct from the real thing — not to mention a spectral signature that’s probably way different. There’s also no reason it can’t be used on things like expensive wines or oils, contaminated water, currency, and plenty of other items.

IBM was eager to highlight the AI element, which is trained on the various patterns and differentiates between them, though as far as I can tell it’s a pretty straightforward classification task. I’m more impressed by the lens they put together that can resolve at a micron level with so little distortion and not exclude or distort the colors too much. It even works on multiple phones — you don’t have to have this or that model.

[embedded content]

The first application IBM is announcing for its Verifier is as a part of the diamond trade, which is of course known for fetishizing the stones and their uniqueness, and also establishing elaborate supply trains to ensure product is carefully controlled. The Verifier will be used as an aide for grading stones, not on its own but as a tool for human checkers; it’s a partnership with the Gemological Institute of America, which will test integrating the tool into its own workflow.

By imaging the stone from several angles, the individual identity of the diamond can be recorded and tracked as well, so that its provenance and trail through the industry can be tracked over the years. Here IBM imagines blockchain will be useful, which is possible but not exactly a given.

It’ll be a while before you can have one of your own, but here’s hoping this type of tech becomes popular enough that you can check the quality or makeup of something at least without having to visit some lab.

Watch a laser-powered RoboFly flap its tiny wings

Making something fly involves a lot of tradeoffs. Bigger stuff can hold more fuel or batteries, but too big and the lift required is too much. Small stuff takes less lift to fly but might not hold a battery with enough energy to do so. Insect-size drones have had that problem in the past — but now this RoboFly is taking its first flaps into the air… all thanks to the power of lasers.

We’ve seen bug-sized flying bots before, like the RoboBee, but as you can see it has wires attached to it that provide power. Batteries on board would weigh it down too much, so researchers have focused in the past on demonstrating that flight is possible in the first place at that scale.

But what if you could provide power externally without wires? That’s the idea behind the University of Washington’s RoboFly, a sort of spiritual successor to the RoboBee that gets its power from a laser trained on an attached photovoltaic cell.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author of the paper describing the bot, Shyam Gollakota. He’s obviously very concerned with power efficiency — last month he and his colleagues published a way of transmitting video with 99 percent less power than usual.

There’s more than enough power in the laser to drive the robot’s wings; it gets adjusted to the correct voltage by an integrated circuit, and a microcontroller sends that power to the wings depending on what they need to do. Here it goes:

[embedded content]

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction,” explained lead author Johannes James.

At present the bot just takes off, travels almost no distance, and lands — but that’s just to prove the concept of an wirelessly-powered robot insect (it isn’t obvious). The next steps are to improve onboard telemetry so it can control itself, and make a steered laser that can follow the little bug’s movements and continuously beam power in its direction.

The team is headed to Australia next week to present the RoboFly at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.

First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage

The Insight launch earlier this month had a couple stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original but it’s still cool.

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.

That changed on May 5, when the Insight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home and inform mission control that all was well.

But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like Insight.

Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me that the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.

The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that Insight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will gaze (and drill) into the depths of the Red Planet

NASA’s latest mission to Mars, InSight, is set to launch early Saturday morning in pursuit of a number of historic firsts in space travel and planetology. The lander’s instruments will probe the surface of the planet and monitor its seismic activity with unprecedented precision, while a pair of diminutive cubesats riding shotgun will test the viability of tiny spacecraft for interplanetary travel.

Saturday at 4:05 AM Pacific is the first launch opportunity, but if weather forbids it, they’ll just try again soon after — the chances of clouds sticking around all the way until June 8, when the launch window closes, are slim to none.

InSight isn’t just a pretty name they chose; it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, at least after massaging the acronym a bit. Its array of instruments will teach us about the Martian interior, granting us insight (see what they did there?) into the past and present of Mars and the other rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.

Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been pushing for this mission for more than two decades, after practically a lifetime working at the place.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had in my life other than working in the tire shop during the summertime,” he said in a recent NASA podcast. He’s worked on plenty of other missions, of course, but his dedication to this one has clearly paid off. It was actually originally scheduled to launch in 2016, but some trouble with an instrument meant they had to wait until the next launch window — now.

InSight is a lander in the style of Phoenix, about the size of a small car, and shot towards Mars faster than a speeding bullet. The launch is a first in itself: NASA has never launched an interplanetary mission from the West coast, but conditions aligned in this case making California’s Vandenberg air base the best option. It doesn’t even require a gravity assist to get where it’s going.

“Instead of having to go to Florida and using the Earth’s rotation to help slingshot us into orbit… We can blast our way straight out,” Banerdt said in the same podcast. “Plus we get to launch in a way that is gonna be visible to maybe 10 million people in Southern California because this rocket’s gonna go right by LA, right by San Diego. And if people are willing to get up at four o’clock in the morning, they should see a pretty cool light show that day.”

The Atlas V will take it up to orbit and the Centaur will give it its push towards Mars, after which it will cruise for six months or so, arriving late in the Martian afternoon on November 26 (Earth calendar).

Its landing will be as exciting (and terrifying) as Phoenix’s and many others. When it hits the Martian atmosphere, InSight will be going more than 13,000 MPH. It’ll slow down first using the atmosphere itself, losing 90 percent of its velocity as friction against a new, reinforced heat shield. A parachute takes off another 90 percent, but it’ll still be going over 100 MPH, which would make for an uncomfortable landing. So a couple thousand feet up it will transition to landing jets that will let it touch down at a stately 5.4 MPH at the desired location and orientation.

After the dust has settled (literally) and the lander has confirmed everything is in working order, it will deploy its circular, fanlike solar arrays and get to work.

Robot arms and self-hammering robomoles

InSight’s mission is to get into the geology of Mars with more detail and depth than ever before. To that end it is packing gear for three major experiments.

SEIS is a collection of six seismic sensors (making the name a tidy bilingual, bidirectional pun) that will sit on the ground under what looks like a tiny Kingdome and monitor the slightest movement of the ground underneath. Tiny high-frequency vibrations or longer-period oscillations, they should all be detected.

“Seismology is the method that we’ve used to gain almost everything we know, all the basic information about the interior of the Earth, and we also used it back during the Apollo era to understand and to measure sort of the properties of the inside of the moon,” Banerdt said. “And so, we want to apply the same techniques but use the waves that are generated by Mars quakes, by meteorite impacts to probe deep into the interior of Mars all the way down to its core.”

The heat flow and physical properties probe is an interesting one. It will monitor the temperature of the planet below the surface continually for the duration of the mission — but in order to do so, of course, it has to dig its way down. For that purpose it’s installed with what the team calls a “self-hammering mechanical mole.” Pretty self-explanatory, right?

The “mole” is sort of like a hollow, inch-thick, 16-inch-long nail that will use a spring-loaded tungsten block inside itself to drive itself into the rock. It’s estimated that it will take somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 strikes to get deep enough to escape the daily and seasonal temperature changes at the surface.

[embedded content]

Lastly there’s the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, which actually doesn’t need a giant nail, a tiny Kingdome, or anything like that. The experiment involves tracking the position of InSight with extreme precision as Mars rotates, using its radio connection with Earth. It can be located to within about four inches, which when you think about it is pretty unbelievable to begin with. The way that position varies may indicate a wobble in the planet’s rotation and consequently shed light on its internal composition. Combined with data from similar experiments in the ’70s and ’90s, it should let planetologists determine how molten the core is.

“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said Banerdt in an earlier news release. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

In another space first, Insight has a robotic arm that will not just do things like grab rocks to look at, but will grab items from its own inventory and deploy them into its workspace. Its little fingers will grab handles on top of each deployable instrument and grab it just like a human might. Well, maybe a little differently, but the principle is the same. At nearly 8 feet long, it has a bit more reach than the average astronaut.

Cubes riding shotgun

One of the MarCO cubesats.

Insight is definitely the main payload, but it’s not the only one. Launching on the same rocket are two cubesats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These “briefcase-size” guys will separate from the rocket around the same time as Insight, but take slightly different trajectories. They don’t have the control to adjust their motion and enter an orbit, so they’ll just zoom by Mars right as Insight is landing.

Cubesats launch all the time, though, right? Sure — into Earth orbit. This will be the first attempt to send Cubesats to another planet. If successful there’s no limit to what could be accomplished — assuming you don’t need to pack anything bigger than a breadbox.

The spacecraft aren’t carrying any super-important experiments; there are two in case one fails, and both are only equipped with UHF antennas to send and receive data, and a couple low-resolution visible-light cameras. The experiment here is really the cubesats themselves and this launch technique. If they make it to Mars, they might be able to help send Insight’s signal home, and if they keep operating beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.

You can follow along with InSight’s launch here; there’s also the traditional anthropomorphized Twitter account. We’ll post a link to the live stream as soon as it goes up.