NASA Unveils Personal Aircraft

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Forget about jetpacks or flying cars. How about your own personal stealth aircraft? NASA has unveiled the Puffin, an experimental electrically propelled, super-quiet, tilt-rotor, hover-capable one-man aircraft. According to Scientific American, the 3.7-meter-long, 4.1-meter-wingspan craft is designed with lightweight carbon-fiber composites to weigh in at 135 kilograms (not including 45 kilograms of rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries.) The Puffin can cruise at 240 kilometers per hour, but for those high speed chases, can zoom at more than 480 kph. See video below.

Since it doesn’t have an air-breathing engine, the Puffin is not limited by thin air. So, basically, it doesn’t have a flight ceiling. The designers say it could go up to about 9,150 meters before its energy runs low enough to drive it to descend. With current state-of-the-art batteries, it has a range of just 80 kilometers if cruising, “but many researchers are proposing a tripling of current battery energy densities in the next five to seven years, so we could see a range of 240 to 320 kilometers by 2017,” says researcher Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He and his colleagues unveiled the Puffin design on January 20, 2010 at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

For takeoff and landing, the Puffin stands upright. But during flight the whole aircraft pitches forward, putting the the pilot in the prone position, like in a hang glider.

Of course, the original idea for this personal aircraft is for covert military operations. But if they can design them safe enough and cheap enough, everyone will want one. It could change our ideas about electric propulsion and personal aircraft.

By March, the researchers plan on finishing a one third–size, hover-capable Puffin demonstrator, and in the three months following that they will begin investigating how well it transitions from cruise to hover flight.

See SciAm for more info.

Hat tip to my sister Alice!

Anti-Gravity Treadmill Developed from NASA Technology

Ever wonder what it would be like to walk on the Moon or run on Mars? A treadmill developed using NASA technology can provide users the feeling of moving about in less than 1 G. Anti Gravity treadmills, sold under the name of Alter-G, are becoming common in hospitals, rehab centers, and sports facilities, and just about every professional sports team in North America has one. They are a bit pricey for individuals to afford, but athletes and physical therapists say the device is a fantastic addition to their exercise repertoire.

Anti G treadmills allow people to improve mobility and health, recover from injury and surgery more effectively, overcome medical challenges that limit movement, and enhance physical performance. Runners and other athletes use the anti gravity treadmills to maintain their fitness level after a minor injury, without adding stress to their injury.

The Alter-G treadmill creates a seal around the user’s waist and then inflates to create a pressurized environment that can take away up to 80% of the user’s body weight, lessening the pounding to the joints.
The technology was first proposed for use on the space station to actually increase the amount of gravity felt by the body by using differential air pressure in space to mimic the Earth’s gravity to prevent bone loss and muscle deterioration.

G-Trainer.  Credit: NASA
G-Trainer. Credit: NASA

Ames Research Center scientist, Robert Whalen, who came up with the idea said the anti-G trainer evolved directly from his original idea of how to add weight to an astronaut’s body during treadmill exercise in the low gravity of space. On Earth, it works just the opposite, giving users an astronaut-like experience.

A variety of patients—whether suffering from brain injury, neurological disorders, athletic injuries, or other stresses on the joints such as arthritis or morbid obesity—now use the NASA-derived technology in physical therapy.

In order for the G-Trainer to control air pressure effectively, users first have to don specially designed shorts which attach to a waist-level enclosure. After the person’s lower body is sealed in an enclosure – basically a big plastic bag around the treadmill, the system performs a calibration, adjusting to the person’s size and weight. Then running speed and incline can be chosen, along with what percent of weight should be removed. If a patient desires more unloading—more weightlessness—a button is simply pressed on a touch screen, and the air pressure increases, lifting the body, reducing strain, and further minimizing impact on the legs.

Prices run from USD $24,000 to $75,000 or leases for about $500 a month.

For more information:

Alter-G website
NASA Spinoffs

Designing a Better Astronaut Glove

If you can build a better mousetrap, then you can certainly build a better glove for astronauts! Making a glove that both protects the hands of the astronauts in the harsh environment of space or on the Moon, and allowing them the dexterity to manipulate tools is a tough challenge for NASA. That’s why they are holding the second Astronaut Glove Challenge on November 19th, with a $400,000 prize for the best glove.

The layers of protection that an astronaut glove needs to have to shield against micrometeorites in space and insulate the hand of the wearer make for one rigid glove. The gloves are also pressurized, which makes them more rigid and further detracts from the mobility of an astronaut. NASA has held one previous competition to see who could build a better glove, in 2007, and the winner was Peter Homer, a former aerospace engineer. He took home the $200,000 prize last time, and is expected to return this year to compete against at least one other team. To read more about his story and see a video of his glove in operation, visit NASA’s page about him. Homer was also featured on Wired Magazine’s “Geek Dad” series, and a video interview is available here.

The last competition involved performing a series of tasks inside of a box that is under vacuum to measure how fatiguing to the fingers the glove was. The inside bladder of the glove was subjected to a burst test, in which it was pressurized to the point at which it bursts. The amount of force required to bend each finger of the glove was also measured.

These same rules will apply in this year’s competition, but the added challenge will be to perform all of these tests inside of an improved thermal micrometeorite garment, the outside layer of the glove that protects the astronaut’s hand from damage. This is basically a complete glove that is ready for operation in space.

NASA has been holding several challenges with some hefty prizes to incite development in space-related technology. The Centennial Challenge program most recently gave away prizes for the Power Beaming Challenge and the Lunar Lander Challenge. The prize will be provided by NASA, but the competition is managed by Volanz Aerospace Inc. of Owings, Md. and sponsored by Secor Strategies, LLC of Titusville, Fla.

Good luck to all the competitors, and may the best glove win!

Source: NASA, Astronaut Glove Challenge

Infrared Spectroscopy

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Infrared spectroscopy is spectroscopy in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is a vital part of infrared astronomy, just as it is in visual, or optical, astronomy (and has been since lines were discovered in the spectrum of the Sun, in 1802, though it was a couple of decades before Fraunhofer began to study them systematically).

For the most part, the techniques used in IR spectroscopy, in astronomy, are the same or very similar to those used in the visual waveband; confusingly, then, IR spectroscopy is part of both infrared astronomy and optical astronomy! These techniques involve use of mirrors, lenses, dispersive media such as prisms or gratings, and ‘quantum’ detectors (silicon-based CCDs in the visual waveband, HgCdTe – or InSb or PbSe – arrays in IR); at the long-wavelength end – where the IR overlaps with the submillimeter or terahertz region – there are somewhat different techniques.

As infrared astronomy has a much longer ground-based history than a space-based one, the terms used relate to the windows in the Earth’s atmosphere where lower absorption spectroscopy makes astronomy feasible … so there is the near-IR (NIR), from the end of the visual (~0.7 &#181m) to ~3 &#181m, the mid (to ~30 &#181m), and the far-IR (FIR, to 0.2 mm).

As with spectroscopy in the visual and UV wavebands, IR spectroscopy in astronomy involves detection of both absorption (mostly) and emission (rather less common) lines due to atomic transitions (the hydrogen Paschen, Brackett, Pfund, and Humphreys series are all in the IR, mostly NIR). However, lines and bands due to molecules are found in the spectra of nearly all objects, across the entire IR … and the reason why space-based observatories are needed to study water and carbon dioxide (to take just two examples) in astronomical objects. One of the most important class of molecules (of interest to astronomers) is PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – whose transitions are most prominent in the mid-IR (see the Spitzer webpage Understanding Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons for more details).

Looking for more info on how astronomers do IR spectroscopy? Caltech has a brief introduction to IR spectroscopy. The ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has several dedicated instruments, including VISIR (which is both an imager and spectrometer, working in the mid-IR); CIRPASS, a NIR integrated field unit spectrograph on Gemini; Spitzer’s IRS (a mid-IR spectrograph); and LWS on the ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (a FIR spectrometer).

Universe Today stories related to IR spectroscopy include Infrared Sensor Could Be Useful on Earth Too, Search for Origins Programs Shortlisted, and Jovian Moon Was Probably Captured.

Infrared spectroscopy is covered in the Astronomy Cast episode Infrared Astronomy.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrared_spectroscopy
http://www2.chemistry.msu.edu/faculty/reusch/VirtTxtJml/Spectrpy/InfraRed/infrared.htm
http://www.chem.ucla.edu/~webspectra/irintro.html

WiFi in Space Coming Soon?

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Although current astronauts are Twittering and blogging from space, it’s a cumbersome process as the ISS, shuttle and Soyuz do not have internet access. Instead, they have to downlink their information to mission control, where someone posts it to the web. But if future commercial space travelers or astronauts living on the Moon want to blog, Tweet and share their experiences real-time, will it be possible? Well, a group of engineers are working on applying the same wireless systems that keep our mobile phones, laptops and other devices connected to the web to a new generation of networked space hardware. They say that wireless technologies will likely be important part of future space exploration, not only for human communication but for transfer of data and commands.

The Wireless Working Group (WWG) of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Services (CCSDS) is a group of engineers that coordinates wireless research among global space agencies and promotes interoperability of spacecraft data systems.

Multiple microsensors like this one could be scattered across planetary surfaces to gather more information than a single lander could provide. The microsensors would then configure a wireless network to assemble data for its relay back to Earth.  Credit:  ESA
Multiple microsensors like this one could be scattered across planetary surfaces to gather more information than a single lander could provide. The microsensors would then configure a wireless network to assemble data for its relay back to Earth. Credit: ESA

They say that wireless sensor nodes placed throughout a spacecraft might function as a networked nervous system, yielding a wealth of currently inaccessible structural or environmental data to mission controllers. Similar nodes scattered across a planetary surface would generate a much higher scientific return than a single lander could, configuring a network to combine their findings for relaying to Earth.

And establishing ‘plug and play’ wireless networking between multiple spacecraft could enable the seamless transfer of data and commands. This would work for formation-flying satellite constellations and orbiter-lander-rover combinations , but proximity networks could be set up by any spacecraft within signal range as easily as a laptop plugs into a WiFi network.

Of course, the technology is still being developed and having Wifi in space isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but engineers say the underlying technologies are already with us, in the protocols delivering wireless connectivity to homes, offices and public places.

“This research is an example of us ‘spinning in’ technology developed elsewhere into the space sector,” said ESA data handling engineer Jean-François Dufour, who is part of the CCSDS. “Commercial wireless protocols such as the IEEE 802.11 family of standards for computer WiFi or sensor networking standards such as IEEE 802.15.4 are already available so we are assessing how they might transfer to the space environment.”

Source: ESA