Manned Solar Plane Will Attempt Flight Around the World

A man who circled the globe in a balloon in 1999 has a new global adventure planned. Bertrand Piccard has unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered plane he hopes to fly around the world. Until now, only unmanned solar airplanes have been flown, but Piccard’s HB-SIA would be manned. The glider-like plane has solar panels covering the wings, and the wingspan of the prototype reaches 61m, while the entire vehicle weighs only 1,500 kg. The first tests of the plane will be done to prove it can fly at night. Piccard says he wants to demonstrate the potential of renewable energies.

Piccard just unveiled the prototype, and he hopes to attempt a flight across the Atlantic by 2012.

Solar and battery technology is just now maturing enough to enable solar flight. In 2007 the UK defence company Qinetiq flew an unmanned aerial vehicle called the Zephyr unmanned for 54 continuous hours during tests.

The HB-SIA. Credit: BBC
The HB-SIA. Credit: BBC

But Piccard and his company, Solar Impulse are working on what they believe to be a breakthrough design, using super-efficient solar cells, batteries, motors and propellers to get it through the dark hours and composite materials to keep it extremely light.

Although the vehicle is expected to be capable of flying non-stop around the globe, Piccard will in fact make five long hops, sharing flying duties with project partner Andre Borschberg.

“The aeroplane could do it theoretically non-stop – but not the pilot,” said Piccard told the BBC. “We should fly at roughly 25 knots and that would make it between 20 and 25 days to go around the world, which is too much for a pilot who has to steer the plane. In a balloon you can sleep, because it stays in the air even if you sleep. We believe the maximum for one pilot is five days.”

More info on Solar Impulse.. And just for your interest, here’s an article about the biggest plane in the world.

Source: BBC

5 Spinoffs from the Hubble Space Telescope

As we wait (impatiently) for the Hubble Space Telescope to return to action following its repair and updating by the STS-125 astronauts, it is easy to think about how Hubble has impacted society. Hubble has become a household name, bringing astronomy to the masses with its dramatic images of the cosmos. It has also changed our understanding of the universe. But there’s more ways that HST has impacted the world. Various technologies developed for the famous orbiting telescope have helped create or improve several different medical and and scientific tools. Here are five technology spinoffs from Hubble:

Micro-Endoscope for Medical Diagnosis:

Micro-endoscope. Credit: NASA
Micro-endoscope. Credit: NASA

The same technology that enhances HST’s images are now helping physicians perform micro-invasive arthroscopic surgery with more accurate diagnoses. Hubble technology helped improve the micro-endoscope, a surgical tool that enables surgeons to view what is happening inside the body on a screen, eliminating the need for a more invasive diagnostic procedure. This saves time, money and lessens the discomfort patients experience.

CCDs Enable Clearer, More Efficient Biopsies

A biopsy from HST CCD technology. Credit: NASA
A biopsy from HST CCD technology. Credit: NASA

Charge coupled devices (CCDs) used on the HST to convert light into electronic files—such as a distant star’s light directly into digital images—have been adapted to improve imaging and optics here on Earth. When scientists realized that existing CCD technology could not meet scientific requirements for the Hubble’s needs, NASA worked with an industry partner to develop a new, more advanced CCD. The industry partner then applied many of the NASA-driven enhancements to the manufacture of CCDs for digital mammography biopsy techniques, using CCDs to image breast tissue more clearly and efficiently. This allows doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery.

Mirror Technology Increases Semiconductor Productivity, Performance

Hubble mirror technology helps superconductors. Credit: NASA
Hubble mirror technology helps superconductors. Credit: NASA

The semiconductor industry has benefitted from the ultra-precise mirror technology that gives the HST its full optical vision and telescopic power. This technological contribution helped improve optics manufacturing in microlithography—a method for printing tiny circuitry, such as in computer chips. The system uses molecular films that absorb and scatter incoming light, enabling superior precision and, consequently, higher productivity and better performance. This translates into better-made and potentially less costly computer circuitry and semiconductors.

Software Enhances Other Observatories

Hubble software used by other observatories. Credit: NASA
Hubble software used by other observatories. Credit: NASA

With the help of a software suite created by a NASA industry partner in 1995, students and astronomers were able to operate a telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory Institute via the Internet. The software is still widely in use for various astronomy applications; using the CCD technology, the software locates, identifies, and acquires images of deep sky objects, allowing a user to control computer-driven telescopes and CCD cameras.

Optics Tool Sharpens Record-Breaking Ice Skates

Hubble technology helps Olympic skaters. Credit: NASA
Hubble technology helps Olympic skaters. Credit: NASA

Current Olympic record-holding speed skater Chris Witty raced her way to a gold medal in the 1,000-meter at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Witty and other American short- and long-track speed skaters used a blade-sharpening tool designed with the help of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and technology from HST. NASA had met with the U.S. Olympic Committee and helped to develop a new tool for sharpening speed skates, inspired by principles used to create optics for the HST. Speed skates sharpened with this new instrument demonstrated a marked improvement over conventionally sharpened skates.

More information on other NASA Spinoffs.

NASA Creates a New NEBULA: Cloud Computing Project

NASA has developed a new cloud computing project based on open source components that provides high capacity computing, storage, and networking. Called NEBULA, the space agency said the cloud project could be used in support of space missions, as well as for education, public outreach and input, and collaborations. NASA said NEBULA is a more open Web strategy designed to give the public greater participation in the space program.

Currently, the NEBULA cloud is being used to host a website,

On that site, NASA says the “fully-integrated nature of the NEBULA components provides for extremely rapid development of policy-compliant and secure web applications, fosters and encourages code reuse, and improves the coherence and cohesiveness of NASA’s collaborative web applications.” It integrates open source components into a seamless, self-service platform.

“Built from the ground up around principles of transparency and public collaboration, Nebula is also an open source project,” according to NASA.

NASA describes Nebula as a combination of infrastructure, platform, and software as a service, and the space agency has created an IT architecture in support of that. An article in Information Week says the components include the Eucalyptus software developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Lustre file system deployed on 64-bit storage nodes, the Django Web application framework, the SOLR indexing and search engine, and an integrated development environment. Nebula will be compatible with Amazon Web Services, which means AWS-compatible tools will work with it and Nebula virtual servers can run on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud.

In a paper written by Chris Kemp, CIO of NASA’s Ames Research Center Kemp of NASA Ames, he says NEBULA could be used for an overhaul of NASA’s many websites, consolidating into a “single facility” with a Web application framework that would include templates for user-generated blogs, wikis, and other content.

Kemp wrote that such an approach would support the public’s desire to be more actively engaged with NASA and its space missions.

Sources: NEBULA, Information Week

Dextre vs. HAL

As Endeavour departs from the International Space Station on Monday, the space shuttle crew leaves behind a two-armed robot, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), which the astronauts affectionately refer to as Dextre. Any reference to robots in space brings to mind other famous, albeit fictitious, machines that have interacted with humans on board a spacecraft. And, with the recent passing of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, one famous machine named HAL particularly comes to mind, especially when you factor in that Dextre is what’s called a “telemanipulator.” Any chance the space station crew needs to worry about the robot lurking right outside their hatch?

Endeavour crewmember Rick Linnehan said, don’t worry, there is no comparison between Dextre and HAL, the famous malfunctioning computer who killed astronauts in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“I’m a big Arthur C. Clarke fan and I have to tell you Dextre just isn’t as smart as HAL,” said Linnehan in new conference from the ISS on Sunday. “He’s built to be brawn not brains and he’s going to serve a big purpose up here in terms of moving a lot of hardware around.”

HAL 9000.  Image credit:  Wikipedia

Dextre, the two-armed, $200-million robot will reduce the amount of time astronauts must spend outside the space station, and could eliminate the need for up to a dozen spacewalks a year, said Daniel Rey, head of the Canadian technical team that prepared Dextre for his mission on board the space station.

“He will free up astronauts so they can do more science and more research rather than maintenance,” said Rey. Dextre will perform exterior construction and tasks like changing batteries and handling experiments outside the space station. Dextre also comes equipped with a tool holster which allows the robot to change equipment as needed “like any good handyman.”

Rey also concurred that 3.7-meter robot Dextre can’t be compared to HAL. “He doesn’t have an artificial intelligence. . .he can be remote controlled from the ground or from the space station.” Dextre will be able to manipulate items “from the size of a phone book to a phone booth,” Rey added.

As for HAL, in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he maintains all systems on an interplanetary voyage, plays chess, and has a special penchant for lip reading. Those capabilities just aren’t in Dextre’s database. However, HAL was programmed with the objective to ensure mission success. That’s one area where HAL and Dex do have something in common.

Original News Source: NASA TV and the Canadian Press