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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Generating Electricity from Heat via Sound

An idea recently put into use in the Score-Stove to generate electricity from waste heat may provide the 3rd world, and possibly extra-terrestrial explorers, with electricity. The thermo-acoustic engine was first demonstrated by LANL researchers Scott Backhaus and Greg Swift in 1999 and has a theoretical basis in the Stirling engine. Unlike Mr. Sterling's engine, the thermo-acoustic engine does not move a piston, but instead uses temperature differences to generate soundwaves which move a microphone-like component at one end to produce electricity. The Score-Stove's engine claims to have no moving parts, and creates 150W from the stove's waste heat.

Thermo-Acoustic Engines have an overall efficiency of nearly 30%, which is high compared to the RTGs used on Curiosity, whose thermoelectric converters have an overall efficiency of 6%. The lower efficiency of thermoelectric converters is offset by the lack of moving parts and experience using them, in turn making thermoelectric converters much more reliable than other alternatives, such as a Sterling Engine. The commercialization and expanded use of thermo-acoustic engines could allow them to be used in future missions. The higher efficiency translates into less fuel being needed, which means the engine can be light and cost less to launch.

Back on Mars, the weather yesterday in Gale crater was a high of 0°C with a low of -73°C. The pressure remains constant at 7.4 hPa (7.3 mili-atm), while the wind continues to come from the east at 7.2kph.

- posted by Jim @ 11:33 EST

(permanent link)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gathering Better Structural Data

The Group for Fibre Optic at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne has developed a method of using fiber optic cables to give fine spacial details about fatigue, temperature, and other physical measurements. Previous methods could only resolve data-points every meter, whereas this new method can give data spaced by centimeters. Resolving such fine spacial detail will allow more accurate predictions of stress points in infrastructure (e.g.: tunnels and bridges) which will better guide preventative maintenance, saving both money and, possibly, lives. The team envisions their new method being able to be embedded in smaller (than a bridge) devices, such as appliances, engines, robots, and pipes. The team also claims that their method can monitor changes in pressure and magnetic fields.

Having the ability to monitor a structure in such detail would give a ship crew or colonists the same advantages that it gives engineers on Earth: a chance to fix an issue before it becomes bad.

- posted by Jim @ 00:00 EST

(permanent link)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Better Methods to Protect Astronauts' Bones

In 2008 the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED), was delivered to the ISS. A new study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research compared data from 2006 to 2007 before the ARED was installed and after. They found that a diet with enough calories and Vitamin D, in addition to resistance training was able to maintain bone mineral density.

"After 51 years of human spaceflight, these data mark the first significant progress in protecting bone through diet and exercise," said Scott M. Smith, NASA nutritionist at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston and lead author of the publication. It's been thought that resistance training would be key to help remodel bone (bone is constantly broken down and the rebuilding of the bone is called remodeling). "The increase in both bone breakdown and formation suggests that the bone is being remodeled, but a key question remains as to whether this remodeled bone is as strong as the bone before flight," said Dr. Jean Sibonga, bone discipline lead at Johnson and coauthor of the study. These studies are currently underway, along with studies to find the best combination of diet and exercise for long-term missions.

- posted by Jim @ 00:00 EST

(permanent link)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

NASA selects NIAC Phase I and II Finalists

Early last month NASA chose 18 teams to recieve Phase I and II funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. From new methods for doing sample-return to more reliable life-support systems the teams have proposed a varied selection of technologies that will aid future NASA missions. The award for a Phase I project is $100,000 for one year and for Phase II projects is approximately $500,000 over two years.

Quick update on the new Red Colony: as I mentioned previously, I have been working on the forum. I completed the heavy lifting for it today and now am working on incorporating the new design that Alex has made into my now-working back-end. We're anticipating the integration to take a week. From there our plan is to do one to two weeks of internal testing. Once we're happy with the new site, we will ask a few people who have been keeping in contact with us to test it for a week. If that goes well, then we launch. Keep checking in, this is going to be happening soon!

One question many of you are probably asking is "why are they rewriting Red Colony?" The answer very simply boils down to that the current Red Colony was designed around the idea that Alex, Brian, and I (Jim) would be the only people that would ever need to do anything with the site. The new revision, amount many important improvements, will make it stupidly simple for us to delegate fine-grained control to trusted members of the community. This will help prevent stagnation of the site, and hopefully promote more community involvement.

Also, another important change is that we will, instead of curating articles and news, allow anyone to submit them to the site and have them appear in the fire hose. However, news and articles will have to be "approved" in order to appear on the front page. The hope is that we can find a balance between a fully curated site and a wiki-like site.

Another idea we're implementing in the new revision is have discussion integrated into article and news pages as well. We're hoping that in addition to the lively forum we had before, we can also encourage users to critique and debate ideas that someone or someones are proposing in an articles as well as new ideas brought up in news stories.

We are very excited about this new release, and a few other ideas for our organization. Alex and I cannot wait to see Red Colony bustling again!

- posted by Jim @ 03:32 EST

(permanent link)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Self-Portraits on Mars

Curiosity has been busy taking self-portraits. The MAHLI took a self-shot of the Remote Sensing Mast, which shoes the Mastcam and Chemcam on Sol 32 (Sept. 7, 2012). The clear dust-cover was shut when this image was taken. Just today NASA released a photograph made by stitching together many MAHLI images of the underside of the rover. The dust cover was opened for the first time when taking these images, showing that the camera's ability to take sharp images remains intact. "Wow, seeing these images after all the tremendous hard work that has gone into making them possible is a profoundly emotional moment," said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. "It is so exciting to see the camera returning beautiful, sharp images from Mars."

The camera's calibration target includes a 1909 Lincoln penny that Edgett purchased for this purpose. "We're seeing the penny in the foreground and, looking past it, a setting I'm sure the people who minted these coins never imagined," Edgett said. Coins have long been used by geologists to show the relative size of an object in a photograph.

"The folks who drive the rover's arm and turret have taken a 220-pound arm through some very complex tai chi, to center a penny in an image that's only a few centimeters across," said MAHLI Deputy Principal Investigator Aileen Yingst of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute. "They make the impossible look easy."

The weather at Gale Crater last Saturday had a high of -2C/28F and low of -73C/-99F. The pressure is 7.38mili-atm and winds from the E at 7.2kmh/4.5mph.

- posted by Jim @ 20:12 EST

(permanent link)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What Time is it?

As many know, a Martian day, or Sol, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than a Terrestrial day. This 2.7% difference can wear down a team on Mars-time both mentally and physically. The solution for the MER teams was to have a self-winding mechanical watch altered to run slightly slower by Garo Anserlian, master watch and clockmaker.

Not having $300 to spend when the MER's first landed and not being able to justify it now, Ara Kourchians open-sourced the software to make an electronic one based on a Ti Chronos ez430. The clock, which has built in RF communication, timers, alarms, accelerometer, barometer, and a temperature sensor, was reprogrammed to be accurate over the next few decades (or as accurate as the original clock would have been).

For those with smartphones, there are Mars clocks for BlackBerry ($0.99), iPhone (free), and Android (free). This is how the majority of Curiosity's team keeps Mars time. In an IAmA on Reddit, surface systems engineer Eric Blood said that "Some of us do [have wristwatches calibrated to Mars Time], but a lot of us have iPhone and Android apps with Mars time."

- posted by Jim @ 20:57 EST

(permanent link)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Talks and Calibration

Today at 2pm EST, NASA is hosting a media conference on Curiosity's progress. The stream will be accessible at JPL's channel.

Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Richard Cook is lecturing at JPL's von Karman Auditorium at 10pm EST and will be broadcast live on JPL's channel as well.

Back at Sol 35 (Sep. 10, 2012), Curiosity continued self-tests, this time completing calibration of the APXS. The calibration target is carried at the front of the rover and is a small piece of basaltic rock from near Socorro, N.M.. The rock, held in a nickel mounting, was chosen because it is part of well-characterized rock on Earth and has low concentrations of sulfur, nickel, and chlorine, and is the hardest of the 200 candidates, making it an ideal calibration target. The absence of those 3 elements (S, Ni, and Cl) allows the team to account for the presence of dust on the sample. The opening is about 1.4" (3.5cm) in diameter.

- posted by Jim @ 09:30 EST

(permanent link)

Teleconference Updates

At 2pm EST NASA hosted a teleconference to update the public on the status of Curiosity.

The conference was kicked off with Jennifer Trosper, MSL Mission Mananger, re-assuring us that we are in the final Sol of characterization. Today, Sol 37 puts the team one day behind schedule, but, according to Trosper, in her experience on Pathfinder, which she noted lost 1 in 3 sols to unexpected events, and MER, which lost 1 in 10, that the MSL team is doing well. Thus far, Curiosity has shown that her arm can reach all of the calibration targets and "teach points," which are points that would be needed to be reached to fulfill the science mission, such as moving over the CheMin input.

Ms. Trosper also noted that over the next couple of days the MastCam will be pointed to the sun to watch the transits of Phobos and Deimos, and event that only happens twice a Martian Year. MastCam will take video of the transit, but will only transmit back a few frames to Earth. The rest will be stored until a later date because of constraints on bandwidth and the importance of engineering data at the moment.

Additionally, it was added that the RTGs are producing 115W of energy and the rover is kept between 7°C and 37°C, right where they should be. Also, the rover has driven 109m according to the odometer, but only 82m the way the crow flies. Glenelg is approximately 400m away and Curiosity can move 30m/sol to 40m/sol depending on the terrain and science-team needs.

Over the next two months, the team will attempt to move back to Earth-time. Currently the team is using Mars-time in order to maximize the time they have before needing to send commands to the rover from the time they get the downlink. Currently it takes approximately 8 hours to figure out what the team wants to do and another 8 hours to turn that into a sequence of commands. By Sol 90, it is hoped that the team will be fast enough to allow them to function on Earth-time.

As far as rover-operations go, the plan for the next month is to transition to a science-based mission from the current characterization one. The rover will start its trip to Glenelg, stopping along the way to do the first contact science with MAHLI and APXS. The rover will then move to a more sandy location in order to test scooping and using CheMin. After scooping is finished, the rover will continue towards Glenelg, stopping to run the first tests with the drill.

Recently, there have been worries over contamination of the drill because its case was opened to install a backup bit without the knowledge of the Planetary Protection Officer, Catharine Conley. In the conference, Dave Lavery, the MSL Program Executive, said "the mission has been been fully compliant with all the cleanliness requirements for the Gale Crater landing site, and in fact, the Curiosity Rover is the cleanest rover NASA ever sent to Mars." Mr. Lavery continued, "there would be no prohibitions against any sort of planned drilling activity."

Ralf Gellert, the APXS Primary Investigator, conveyed his happiness when the first image of the APXS showed that the APXS is physically in good condition and dust from the landing has not caked or otherwise inhibited the sensor. In the previous image and this one, the grey metal plate is the contact plate that will touch the soil and brace the detector and α-emitter, which are found in the circular section in the middle of the plate. Mr. Gellert then showed the spectrograph taken from the APXS imaging the calibration target (Which was talked about yesterday). The elements labeled in black are those found in the target; those in blue are from the air, Ar, and the detector casing, Zr. The elements marked in red, S and Cl are from bits of Martian dust that had settled on the target.

Mr. Gellert also stated that data has been collected during the day and the night, and both have good data. The importance of this statement, beyond having a working spectrometer, is that the APXS sensor is sensitive enough to pick up thermal noise in the sensor between the day and night. The MER detectors imaged at night and took 10 hours. Curiosity's APXS, being is 5× faster and able to be used during the day, will significantly speed up the rate at which science can be done.

Ken Edgett, the MAHLI Primary Investigator, was next to speak and showed an image of MAHLI with its 4 white LEDs on taken from MastCam. (Other images show the LEDs and MAHLI a little more clearly.) Mr. Edgett then showed an image of the dust cover of the CheMin instrument. This was followed by an image of the inside of the CheMin inlet and wind-gaurd. The image of the inlet is a composite of 8 images taken from the same location, but at different focal lengths. These images were combined on the rover before being transmitted back to Earth. When asked how to identify these types of images, Mr. Edgett said that some clues would be that the images are subframes, the presence of a grey, cartoony version of the image next to the composite, representing the range map, and the file name (though, he follows up, they havn't really explained the image title format yet).

During the Q&A session, Joy Crisp, MSL Deputy Project Scientist, fielded a question about the SAM, specifically the TLS, progress on analysing the composition of the air. The TLS is working well, and the team is working to remove any background data and will need one or two more runs before they are confident with their interpretation of the data.

The recording of the conference can be found on JPL's channel.

- posted by Jim @ 23:51 EST

(permanent link)

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