Category: Technology

Space telescope capable of images 1,000 times sharper than Hubble


Aragoscope – artist’s conception

The Hubble space telescope has given us decades of incredible images, but it’s reaching the end of its service life and the question is, what will come after? One possibility is the Aragoscope from the University of Colorado Boulder, which uses a gigantic orbital disk instead of a mirror to produce images 1,000 times sharper than the Hubble’s best efforts.

The Aragoscope is named after French scientist Francois Arago who first noticed how a disk diffracted light waves. The principle is based on using a large disk as a diffraction lens, which bends light from distant objects around the edge of the disk and focuses it like a conventional refraction lens. The phenomenon isn’t very pronounced on the small scale, but if the telescope is extremely large, it not only becomes practical, but also extremely powerful.

When deployed the Aragoscope will consist of an opaque disk a half mile in diameter parked in geostationary orbit behind which is an orbiting telescope keeping station some tens to hundreds of miles behind that collects the light at the focal point and rectifies it into a high-resolution image…

The new orbital telescope was selected last June by NASA as one of 12 proposals for its NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program – each of which received US$100,000 to fund nine-months of research for projects ranging from capturing asteroids to sending submarines to the lakes of Titan. The Aragoscope is now up for being one of six projects that will receive an additional US$500,000 in April.

The team sees the Aragoscope as a way to penetrate farther into the universe to observe phenomena like black hole event horizons, or turned on the Earth to pick out objects the size of a rabbit. The next phase of the project involves testing the concept. This will involve laboratory work using a one-meter disk set several meters from a telescope. If this is successful, a more dramatic demonstration will use a disk set on a mountain top while a telescope mounted on a helicopter tries to focus on the star Alpha Centauri.

“Pick out objects the size of a rabbit”, eh? I recall a scientist cautioning me BITD when the US and USSR were involved in a race to develop spy satellites with the finest resolution. He told me if I was going to have sex outdoors – make sure it was under a tree.

I hope someone offers an app which automatically notifies everyone whenever our government turns the Aragoscope around to face Earth instead of deep space.

The largest vessel the world has ever seen – is a factory

The Prelude
Click to enlarge

Climbing onto the largest vessel the world has ever seen brings you into a realm where everything is on a bewilderingly vast scale and ambition knows no bounds.

Prelude is a staggering 488 meters long and the best way to grasp what this means is by comparison with something more familiar.

Four football pitches placed end-to-end would not quite match this vessel’s length – and if you could lay the 301 meters of the Eiffel Tower alongside it, or the 443 meters of the Empire State Building, they wouldn’t do so either.

In terms of sheer volume, Prelude is mind-boggling too: if you took six of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, and measured the total amount of water they displaced, that would just about be the same as with this one gigantic vessel.

Under construction for the energy giant Shell, the dimensions of the platform are striking in their own right – but also as evidence of the sheer determination of the oil and gas industry to open up new sources of fuel…

Prelude…pioneers a new way of getting gas from beneath the ocean floor to the consumers willing to pay for it.

Until now, gas collected from offshore wells has had to be piped to land to be processed and then liquefied ready for export…Usually, this means building a huge facility onshore which can purify the gas and then chill it so that it becomes a liquid – what’s known as liquefied natural gas or LNG – making it 600 times smaller in volume and therefore far easier to transport by ship.

And LNG is in hot demand – especially in Asia, with China and Japan among the energy-hungry markets.

To exploit the Prelude gas field more than 100 miles off the northwest coast of Australia, Shell has opted to bypass the step of bringing the gas ashore, instead developing a system which will do the job of liquefaction at sea.

Hence Prelude will become the world’s first floating LNG plant – or FLNG in the terminology of the industry.

RTFA for the economics behind the decision – because, push comes to shove, there is no other primary reason for the construction of this behemoth. Optimizing profit is the name of the only game Shell plays.

Pentagon questions niche vessels — anyone think Congress cares?

The Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian said the U.S. Navy needs more ships with the protection and firepower to survive an advanced adversary, not just “niche platforms,” weeks after she ordered cuts in the $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship program.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox’s remarks in a San Diego speech…in part reflect Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s concerns about the ship designed for shallow coastal waters, said a defense official who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations at the Pentagon.

Addressing the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the Naval Institute, Fox said “the threats to surface combatants continue to grow — not just from advanced military powers, but from the proliferation of more advanced, precise anti-ship munitions around the globe. Clearly, this puts a premium on underseas capabilities — submarines — that can deploy and strike with relative freedom of movement.”

The Littoral Combat Ship, made in two versions by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and Austal Ltd. (ASB), is a lightly armed vessel intended for roles from submarine-hunting to mine-sweeping. Questions have been raised about its mounting costs and survivability in combat. Last month, Fox directed the Navy to truncate the program to 32 ships after 2019 rather than the 52 previously planned by 2026…

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, has written that the Littoral Combat Ship “is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat” because its designs don’t include features “necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants.” The Navy has acknowledged the vessels are being built to the service’s lowest level of survivability

In other words, don’t send it to refuel in Yemen.

Fox also warned against the “natural tendency to hang on to combat forces at the expense of enablers,” such as electronic warfare and other countermeasures.

“In many respects the U.S. Navy has been so dominant for so long at sea that I worry we never really embraced these solutions,” she said. “The time to start investing in the next generation of electronic warfare is now.”

The average chickenhawk in Congress still thinks they’re watching rerun episodes of “Victory at Sea” with a soundtrack by Richard Rogers. All they care about is how many government jobs end up on their home turf – producing non-consumable goods.

Perish the thought we spend some pile of money on education, infrastructure or healthcare. That would be socialism.

Could salty potatoes build a food revolution?

A team of researchers in the Netherlands has discovered that potatoes can grow in earth fed by salty sea water.
The development could spark a revolution in the way food is produced in land previously considered unsuitable for agriculture.

Anna Holligan reports from the Dutch island of Texel.

While researchers think of islands and saltwater coasts – my first response went straight to inland geologies like New Mexico. Most underground water, aquifers, here, are of brackish water.

Nice to know we can do more than raise shrimp and crawdads.

New plastic recycling process uses half the energy and no water


Shutterstock

A Mexican startup has developed a new method of recycling plastic that does away with water and only consumes half the energy of previous systems. At the same time, it produces plastic pellets of equal or better quality,  resulting in an environmentally friendlier process that also promises to be significantly cheaper.

Plastic recycling can turn discarded bottles and other scrap into a myriad of useful objects, helping produce anything from polyester clothes to 3D printing filaments and even diesel. However, it is a long, laborious affair that consumes plenty of resources  –  especially water. Among other things, the plastic needs to be thoroughly washed to get rid of impurities, carefully dehydrated inside an oven, and then water-cooled once again as the newly-formed plastic filaments are cut into small pellets.

According to Marco Adame, the new method that his startup has come up with can produce pellets of equal or better quality using just half of the energy by getting rid of the need for these temperature extremes, while also doing away with the need for water altogether. The system uses special walls that, on contact, are able to both mold the plastic into the desired pellet shape and cool those pellets at the same time…

Adame says that using his technique, the same machines are able to process styrofoam, polystyrene and ABS, which together make up about 90 percent of all plastics. The improved versatility would mean less space would be needed for operation.

Bravo! One industry that has always availed itself of recycling capabilities is the plastics industry. A lot of the tech translated over from both the tradition of physical re-use of rubber goods and the comparatively easy chemistry that touched the physical properties of recycling plastic.

Removing water requirements and using less energy in the process is an unexpected twofer.

French post office intends to use drone delivery

Amazon and Google may have some catching up to do. It turns out the mail service of France, La Poste, has already successfully field-tested a service that can fly a package to a remote area, drop it off and return home…

News reports say from France say the test took place near the town of Pourrières, which is in the southern region of Provence. La Poste has not specified when the service will be in full swing, but suggested that it anticipates using Géodrone to provide service to residents in remote mountainous and maritime regions.

The Géodrone project represents another impressive achievement for France’s emerging unmanned aircraft industry. Earlier this year, drone enthusiasts in the Alps conducted a Star Wars-style pod race in a French forest with the permission of the local government. Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has showed how an ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim in under two minutes.

Such experiments stand in marked contrast to what is occurring in the United States, where a dysfunctional rule-making process at the Federal Aviation Administration has brought drone deployment to a virtual stand-still, even as American companies are clamoring to use them for business purposes. The U.S. approach also differs markedly from Canada, where authorities have issued hundreds of permits to use drones in everything from farming to real estate to TV production.

The FAA has claimed that go-slow approach is essential to ensure the safety of civilization.

OK, I changed that last word. You get the idea.

CERN ready to continue the search for exotic particles


Click to enlargeMartial Trezzini/European Pressphoto Agency

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is once again getting ready to smash protons together, hoping to find evidence of elusive and exotic particles that have never been detected before.

The largest and fastest particle accelerator in the world, located in Geneva, will officially start up again in March. When it is turned on, scientists and engineers say the two beams of protons that fly around its 17-mile loop at close to the speed of light will collide with nearly double the energy of the previous run.

The collider’s first stint of proton smashing led to the discovery of the Higgs boson or Higgs particle — a long theorized but never before seen subatomic particle. It exists for just a fraction of a second, and yet its discovery helps explain the existence of all the mass in the universe.

Scientists are not sure what they will find this time around, but some possibilities include particles associated with dark energy and dark matter, as well as particles that could provide evidence for a theory known as supersymmetry. This theory holds that there is a mirror universe made up of invisible particles that have mass but do not react with light, and that correspond to particles that we can detect…

For the last two years the collider has been undergoing repairs and changes in preparation for its next, super-powered run. Already it has already been cooled to its normal operating temperature of 1.9 degrees Kelvin, or -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit.

I surprised we haven’t yet suffered the onslaught of popsci/junksci Talking Heads predicting the end of the world as soon as the the ON-switch is thrown at CERN.

Not that it requires any original thought. Less-than-competent conspiracy nuts have been predicting a human-made end of the earth since the first nuclear reaction. I don’t doubt the Leyden Jar provoked as much fear and trepidation. You’d think the expanding base of real knowledge would diminish fear-mongers.

But, then, who would be left to vote for Prohibition?

Kipstr will record the NFL game you’re watching when you fall asleep

If you’ve ever sat down to watch a program on TV only to wake up as the closing credits are rolling, there’s a new wearable device in which you may be interested. Kipstr makes sure you don’t miss your show by dozing off. The wristband recognizes if you fall asleep, and starts recording.

Kipstr was created by Manchester Creative Studio students Ryan Oliver and Jonathan Kingsley, who are 15 and 14 years old respectively. The UK-based pair were taking part in Virgin Media’s Switched on Futures scheme aimed at developing digital skills.

The device uses a pulse-oximeter to monitor the wearer’s heart rate while they are watching TV. When its spark core chip detects that the wearer’s heart rate has fallen, it communicates with their TiVo box to begin recording the remainder of the program that is being watched. The Kipstr can also be used to trigger the program to start playing again when it detects that the wearer has woken up…

 Ryan Oliver [15] and Jonathan Kingsley [14]

Virgin Media suggests that the Kipstr could also be used for monitoring the emotional responses of users to different TV programs, tagging the programs appropriately for future reference. Similarly, it could be used to control other devices in the home when the wearer falls asleep, such as turning off lights or the heating to save money.

Should be no big deal to set this up to communicate with systems other than OTA, e.g., cable boxes, DirecTV DVRs.

Kudos to the kiddos.

New teaching model may be a game changer

Hundreds of students have just completed new courses in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Active Learning Initiative (ALI), part of a strategic effort by the college to embrace engaged learning models and emerging technologies…

ALI uses a “flipped classroom” approach: Knowledge transfer happens before class, through assigned reading material or videos. Class time is then used for “deliberate practice,” applying the new knowledge via problem-solving and reasoning to give students experience making and testing predictions and solving problems. Studies have shown that the deliberate practice model is the quickest path to expert-level mastery of a given skill set.

“Because the College of Arts and Sciences teaches foundational courses that all undergraduate students throughout the university take, we have the unique opportunity to impact undergraduate education throughout Cornell with this initiative,” says Gretchen Ritter… “We’re harnessing the passion and commitment from both faculty and alumni to institute these initiatives and expand our efforts to other foundational courses throughout the college.”

Physics and biology, the pilot departments for ALI, each converted large course sequences to the new model and reach almost 3,000 students. Jed Sparks, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and ALI project lead for biology, said the initiative is “not fixing bad or broken classes but ones that are well-received – making something that works well work even better.”

Advanced students in ALI courses benefit from the deeper level at which the courses operate beyond basic knowledge transfer; midrange students have more opportunity to develop expert-level skills through greater exposure to more material; and the least prepared students benefit from improved opportunities to engage the course material, develop and practice skills, and close achievement gaps more quickly…

Developing the curricula for the pilot classes requires re-examining lecture objectives and what material should be covered, says Sparks. “For the active learning model to be successful, the teacher must have very clearly in mind what the teaching objectives for the class are. It requires them to teach in a more deliberate and intentional way. It’s transformative.”

The new learning model expects more of students as well as teachers, says Arias. “They must have the discipline to do their preparation before class, but by doing so, we can take them further and deeper than we could before…”

Another benefit of response technologies is direct, frequent pedagogical assessment, says Lisa Sanfilippo, a teaching support specialist for the biology initiative. “Ongoing assessment is a key element of active learning,” she says.

RTFA for notes of methods and tech used not only for assessment of the teaching; but, students to self-evaluate, peer-evaluation. Both ends of the dialectic utilizing not only purpose-designed devices/systems like iClicker; but, with any smart device.

Sounds fascinating. Sounds like something I would have enjoyed BITD – and still may.

As ever, my first concern will be to examine how well any portion of this new system can be translated down to younger age groups, public schools not funded as well as Cornell, students from a broader demographic than folks who end up at one of the primo universities in the country. Every class needs a better education.