TWIE 80: Harvesting Dead Satellites

This Week in Engineering - Harvesting dead satellites for parts; flying sphere drone; floating wind turbines; mechanical pixel displays; NASA requests lunar no-fly-zone; and holographic radar for windmills.

Harvesting dead satellites for parts -

Flying sphere drone -

Floating wind turbines -

Mechanical pixel displays -

NASA requests lunar no-fly-zone -

Holographic radar for windmills -

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Harvesting dead satellites for parts
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has started the Phoenix Program, which aims to develop technology for a new robotic spacecraft that can repurpose defunct satellites. The robot will need sophisticated arms to grip, cut and reassemble parts that were not meant to be disassembled in space, allowing us to reuse big, bulky antennas with new, small "satlets" that are light and easy to launch. All I know is I don¦t want my GPS nav system depending on some kind of frankensatellite, that resents its cruel, heartless creator. "You have reached your destination. Please, kill me. It wasn¦t meant to be like this... Recalculating."

Flying sphere drone
The Japan Defence Ministry has unveiled a hovering, spherical flying machine, capable of flying vertically or horizontally up to forty miles per hour, and with three on-board gyro sensors, it can even compensate when it is hit by an obstacle in mid-air. Amazingly, the drone was made with off-the-shelf parts valued at about fourteen hundred US dollars. I want to stress that this sphere that flys and has a mind of its own was in no way inspired by the 1979 movie Phantasm. It¦s only a coincidence that the interns on the project happened to be dwarf zombies dressed like jawas.

Floating wind turbines
Boston-based Altaeros has won the ConocoPhillips Energy Prize for Compelling Renewable Energy Projects, with their helium-filled balloon wind turbine, which floats at up to two thousand feet, where winds are up to eight times stronger than at lower altitudes. A single turbine may eventually generate enough power for about forty homes, but the easily-shipped lightweight machine¦s main usage would be for remote villages or military bases. Fascinating technology, and a new enemy for Don Quixote. "Dost not see? A monstrous giant of infamous repute whom I intend to encounter. " (Tether cut.) Well, that was anticlimactic.

Mechanical pixel displays
Researchers at National Chiao Tunk University in Taiwan are working on an energy-efficient display with pixels made of tiny moving parts manipulating an iridescent surface -- one that, like a soap bubble, changes color from different viewing angles. The so-called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, are made from thirty microns of zirconium dioxide coated with an even thinner layer of silver, and a thin-film transistor that tilts to different angles when a voltage is applied. So, wait, our ultra-modern TV¦s are going to be mechanical? Why not have a little figurine come out of the TV every hour and whack a bell for my amusement? On second thought, that¦s still more entertaining than Leno.

NASA requests lunar no-fly-zone
It won¦t be long before commercial spaceflights land on the moon, and NASA has requested that in order to preserve lunar artifacts left by Apollo missions, to please don¦t disturb the historical landing sites. NASA scientists are interested in how solar wind and ultraviolet radiation have affected things left at the sites, like the flag left at Tranquility Base, or the bags of exrement they left behind. Specifically, have bacteria in the astronaut feces mutated as a result of the high radiation? And I would like to nominate "lunar fecal examiner" as the only employee at all of NASA that can¦t brag to family and friends about how awesome his job is.

Holographic radar for windmills
Wind power has been criticised because air traffic radar has trouble differentiating windmills from airplanes, and as a result, several wind projects have stalled. Now, startup Aveillant has developed 3-D holographic radar which, unlike traditional narrow-beam scanning radar, continuously maintains 3-D tracking, allowing it to distinguish stationary turbines from moving aircraft. Ooh, bad news for anybody who was go