All posts in “Science”

NASA picks a dozen science and tech projects to bring to the surface of the Moon

With the Artemis mission scheduled to put boots on lunar regolith as soon as 2024, NASA has a lot of launching to do — and you can be sure none of those launches will go to waste. The agency just announced 12 new science and technology projects to send to the Moon’s surface, including a new rover.

The 12 projects are being sent up as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which is — as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized strongly — part of an intentional increase in reliance on private companies. If a company already has a component or rover or craft ready to go and meeting a program’s requirements, why should NASA build it from scratch at great cost?

In this case the selected projects cover a wide range of origins and intentions. Some are repurposed or spare parts from other missions, like the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment. LuSEE is related to the Park Solar Probe’s STEREO/Waves instrument and pieces from MAVEN, re-engineered to make observations and measurements on the moon.

moonrangerOthers are quite new. Astrobotic, which was also recently awarded an $80 million contract to develop its Peregrine lunar lander, will now also be putting together a rover, which it calls MoonRanger (no relation to the NES game). This little bot will autonomously traverse the landscape within half a mile or so of its base and map it in 3D.

The new funding from NASA amounts to $5.6M, which isn’t a lot to develop a lunar rover from scratch — no doubt it’s using its own funds and working with its partner, Carnegie Mellon University, to make sure the rover isn’t a bargain bin device. With veteran rover engineer Red Whittaker on board, it should be a good one.

“MoonRanger offers a means to accomplish far-ranging science of significance, and will exhibit an enabling capability on missions to the Moon for NASA and the commercial sector. The autonomy techniques demonstrated by MoonRanger will enable new kinds exploration missions that will ultimately herald in a new era on the Moon,” said Whittaker in an Astrobotic news release.

The distance to the lunar surface isn’t so far that controlling a rover directly from the surface is nearly impossible, like on Mars, but if it can go from here to there without someone in Houston twiddling a joystick, why shouldn’t it?

To be clear, this is different from the upcoming CubeRover project and others that are floating around in Astrobotic and Whittaker’s figurative orbits.

“MoonRanger is a 13 kg microwave sized rover with advanced autonomous capabilities,” Astrobotic’s Mike Provenzano told me. “The CubeRover is a 2 kg shoebox sized rover developed for light payloads and geared for affordable science and exploration activities.”

While both have flight contracts, CubeRover is scheduled to go up on the first Peregrine mission in 2021, while MoonRanger is TBD.

Another NASA selection is the Planetary Science Institute’s Heimdall, a new camera system that will point downward during the lander’s descent and collect super-high-resolution imagery of the regolith before, during, and after landing.

heimdall

“The camera system will return the highest resolution images of the undisturbed lunar surface yet obtained, which is important for understanding regolith properties. We will be able to essentially video the landing in high resolution for the first time, so we can understand how the plume behaves – how far it spreads, how long particles are lofted. This information is crucial for the safety of future landings,” said the project’s R. Aileen Yingst in a PSI release.

The regolith is naturally the subject of much curiosity, since if we’re to establish a semi-permanent presence on the Moon we’ll have to deal with it one way or another. So Projects like Honeybee’s PlanetVac, which can suck up and test materials right at landing, or the Regolith Adherence Characterization, which will see how the stuff sticks to various materials, will be invaluable.

RadSatg Deployed w Crop

RadSat-G deployed from the ISS for its year-long mission to test radiation tolerance on its computer systems.

Several projects are continuations of existing projects that are great fits for lunar missions. For example, the lunar surface is constantly being bombarded with all kinds of radiation, since the Moon lacks any kind of atmosphere. That’s not a problem for machinery like wheels or even solar cells, but for computers radiation can be highly destructive. So Brock LaMere’s work in radiation-tolerant computers will be highly relevant to landers, rovers, and payloads.

LaMere’s work has already been tested in space via the Nanoracks facility aboard the International Space Station, and the new NASA funding will allow it to be tested on the lunar surface. If we’re going to be sending computers up there that people’s lives will depend on, we better be completely sure they aren’t going to crash because of a random EM flux.

The rest of the projects are characterized here, with varying degrees of detail. No doubt we’ll learn more soon as the funding disbursed by NASA over the next year or so helps flesh them out.

Team studies drone strikes on airplanes by firing them into a wall at 500 MPH

Bird strikes are a very real danger to planes in flight, and consequently aircraft are required to undergo bird strike testing — but what about drones? With UAV interference at airports on the rise, drone strike testing may soon be likewise mandatory, and if it’s anything like what these German researchers are doing, it’ll involve shooting the craft out of air cannons at high speed.

The work being done at Fraunhofer EMI in Freiburg is meant to establish some basic parameters for how these things ought to be tested.

Bird strikes, for example, are tested by firing a frozen poultry bird like a chicken or turkey out of an air cannon. It’s not pretty, but it has to be done. Even so, it’s not a very good analogue to a drone strike.

“From a mechanical point of view, drones behave differently to birds and also weigh considerably more. It is therefore uncertain, whether an aircraft that has been successfully tested against bird strike, would also survive a collision with a drone,” explained Fraunhofer’s Sebastian Schopferer in a news release.

The team chose to load an air cannon up with drone batteries and engines, since those make up most of any given UAV’s mass. The propellers and arms on which they’re mounted are generally pretty light and will break easily — compared with a battery weighing the better part of a kilogram, they won’t add much to the damage.

drone testing

The remains of a drone engine and battery after being propelled into the plate on the left at hundreds of miles per hour.

The drones were fired at speeds from 250 to 570 miles per hour (115 to 255 meters per second by their measurement) at aluminum plates of up to 8 millimeters of thickness. Unsurprisingly, there was “substantial deformation” of the plates and the wingless drones were “completely destroyed.” Said destruction was recorded by a high-speed camera, though unfortunately the footage was not made available.

It’s necessary to do a variety of tests to determine what’s practical and what’s unnecessary or irrelevant — why spend the extra time and money firing the drones at 570 when 500 does the same level of damage? Does including the arms and propellers make a difference? At what speed is the plate in danger of being pierced, necessitating additional protective measures? And so on. A new rig is being constructed that will allow acceleration (and deceleration) of larger UAVs.

With enough testing the team hopes that not only could such things be standardized, but simulations could be built that would allow engineers to virtually test different surfaces or materials without a costly and explosive test rig.

With a fresh $10 million in the bank, DotLab hopes to bring endometriosis test to market

Thirty-three-year-old founder of personalized medicine company DotLab, Heather Bowerman, wants to shake up the women’s health industry with what she believes to be a better, cheaper, less painful test for endometriosis.

Her company has just completed a Yale University -led validation study and raised $10 million in Series A funding from CooperSurgical, TigerGlobal Management, Luxor Capital Group and the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati to bring a new, non-invasive diagnostic test to market.

DotEndo

Endometriosis is an often painful disorder in which tissue begins to grow outside of the uterus and into a woman’s ovaries, fallopian tubes and pelvis. The disease may affect up to one in 10 women of childbearing years and about half of all women who experience infertility, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

However, even with clear symptoms of the disease, doctors often try to test for endometriosis as a last resort. The only way currently to test for it is through an invasive laparoscopic procedure, which comes with risks like internal bleeding, infections and hernia.

Called DotEndo the new DotLab test eliminates that risk with a simple diagnostic test. “The rationale for using our test is to test as early as possible and also to use it non-invasively,” Bowerman told TechCrunch.

The CEO was also quick to point out DotEndo is not a genetic test, as there are plenty of tests out on the market helping women discover possible genetic markers around fertility. Rather, it’s a physician-ordered diagnostic test you would take through a lab to find out if you have this specific disease.

“The revolutionary technology behind DotLab’s endometriosis test could improve the lives of the hundreds of millions of women affected by this debilitating disease which has been under-researched and deprioritized for too long,” Bowerman said in a statement.

While there has been some innovation in the space lately — U.S. regulators just approved a new pill to treat endometriosis pain — Bowerman is right in that we definitely still have a long way to go in diagnosing and curing the disease and that will take a lot more capital from investors in the future.

Meanwhile, the next step for DotLab will be to get its test into the hands of physicians, with the hope they recommend DotEndo right off the bat to patients exhibiting symptoms.

NASA’s Dragonfly will fly across the surface of Titan, Saturn’s ocean moon

NASA has just announced its next big interplanetary mission: Dragonfly, which will deliver a Mars Rover-sized flying vehicle to the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn with tantalizing life-supporting qualities. The craft will fly from place to place, sampling the delicious organic surface materials and sending high-resolution pictures back to Earth.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026, taking eight years to reach Titan and land (if all goes well) in 2034. So there will be plenty more updates after this one!

The craft will parachute through Titan’s hazy atmosphere and land among its dune-filled equatorial region. It’s equipped with drills and probes to investigate the surface, and of course cameras to capture interesting features and the surrounding alien landscape, flying from place to place using a set of rotors like a drone’s.

We’ve observed Titan from above via the Cassini mission, and we’ve even touched down on its surface briefly with the Huygens probe — which for all we know is still sitting there. But this will be a much more in-depth look at this fascinating moon.

Titan is a weird place. With rivers, oceans, and abundant organic materials on the surface, it’s very like Earth in some ways — but you wouldn’t want to live there. The rivers are liquid methane, for one thing, and if you’re familiar with methane, you’ll know that means it’s really cold there.

dragonfly gifNevertheless, Titan is still an interesting analogue to early Earth.

“We know that Titan has rich organic material, very complex organic material on the surface; there’s energy in the form of sunlight; and we know there’s been water on the surface in the past. These ingredients, that we know are necessary for the development life as we know it are sitting on the surface on Titan,” said principal investigator Elizabeth Turtle. “They’ve been doing chemistry experiments, basically, for hundreds of millions of years, and Dragonfly is designed to go pick up the results of those experiments.”

Don’t expect a flourishing race of methane-dwelling microbes, though. It’s more like going back in time to pre-life Earth to see what conditions may have resulted in the earliest complex self-replicating molecules: the origin of the origin of life, if you will.

dragonfly model

Principal investigator Elizabeth Turtle shows off a 1/4 scale model of the Dragonfly craft.

To do so Dragonfly, true to its name, will be flitting around the surface to collect data from many different locations. It may seem that something the size of a couch may have trouble lifting off, but as Turtle explained, it’s actually a lot easier to fly around Titan than to roll. With a far thicker atmosphere (mostly nitrogen, like ours) and a fraction of Earth’s gravity, it’ll be more like traveling through water than air.

That explains why its rotors are so small — for something that big on Earth, you’d need huge powerful rotors working full time. But even one of these little rotors can shift the craft if necessary (though they’ll want all eight for lift and redundancy).

We’ll learn more soon, no doubt. This is just the opening salvo from NASA on what will surely be years of further highlights, explanations, and updates on Dragonfly’s creation and launch.

“It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment,” said NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen. “Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission.”

Tiny Robobee X-Wing powers its flight with light

We’ve seen Harvard’s Robobee flying robot evolve for years: After first learning to fly, it learned to swim in 2015, then to jump out of the water again in 2017 — and now it has another trick up its non-existent sleeve. The Robobee X-Wing can fly using only the power it collects from light hitting its solar cells, making it possible to stay in the air indefinitely.

Achieving flight at this scale is extremely hard. You might think that being small, it would be easy to take off and maintain flight, like an insect does. But self-powered flight actually gets much harder the smaller, which puts insects among the most bafflingly marvelous feats of engineering we have encountered in nature.

Oh, it’s easy enough to fly when you have a wire feeding you electricity to power a pair of tiny wings — and that’s how the Robobee and others flied before. It’s only very recently that researchers have accomplished meaningful flight using on-board power or, in one case, a laser zapping an attached solar panel.

robobee chartThe new Robobee X-Wing (named for its 4-wing architecture) achieves a new milestone with the ability to fly with no battery and no laser — only plain full-spectrum light coming from above. Brighter than sunlight, to be fair — but close to real-world conditions.

The team at Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory accomplished this by making the power conversion and wing mechanical systems incredibly lightweight — the whole thing weighs about a quarter of a gram, or about half a paper clip. Its power consumption is likewise lilliputian:

Consuming only 110–120 milliwatts of power, the system matches the thrust efficiency of similarly sized insects such as bees. This insect-scale aerial vehicle is the lightest thus far to achieve sustained untethered flight (as opposed to impulsive jumping or liftoff).

That last bit is some shade thrown at its competitors, which by nature can’t quite achieve “sustained untethered flight,” though what constitutes that isn’t exactly clear. After all, this Dutch flapping flyer can go a kilometer on battery power. If that isn’t sustained, I don’t know what is.

In the video of the Robobee you can see that when it is activated, it shoots up like a bottle rocket. One thing they don’t really have space for on the robot’s little body (yet) is sophisticated flight control electronics and power storage that could let it use only the energy it needs, flapping in place.

That’s probably the next step for the team, and it’s a non-trivial one: adding weight and new systems completely changes the device’s flight profile. But give them a few months or a year and this thing will be hovering like a real dragonfly.

The Robobee X-Wing is exhaustively described in a paper published in the journal Nature.

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