TWIE 97: Space Launch on a Maglev Train

This Week in Engineering - Electron microscope images living organism; space launch on a maglev train; robot squirrel tests snakes; super-fast 3D micro-printer; sending messages with neutrinos; and lightning rod lasers.

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Electron microscope images living organism
Scanning electron microscopes have never been conducive to living organisms, since the process entails putting the subject in a vacuum and bombarding it with electron beams. But now, Yasuhito Ishigaki of Kanazawa Medical University, having noticed ticks survive inside a vacuum drying chamber, has filmed SEM video of a living, moving tick, making it the first-ever living thing to be scanned. I think it¦s amazing that an organism can survive in there, and also unfortunate, because it¦s the one bloodsucking animal I most want dead, dead, DEAD!

Space launch on a maglev train
Launching rockets into space is very expensive. So Dr. George Maise, with Dr. James Powell, has invented the Startram orbital launch system, a maglev (or superconducting magnetic levitation) train that accelerates down a vacuum sealed tunnel for 5 minutes up to orbital velocities, and then shoots out at an altitude 12 miles high, travelling at 20,000 MPH. Technologies needed include a plasma window to keep air out of the tunnel exit, and, in order to hold up the tunnel, more magnetic levitation from carrying 200 million amperes down the tube. The cost could top $60 billion, but benefits of the project include drastically reduced cost of space launches, and, oh yeah, being the coolest freaking thrill ride on the planet.

Robot squirrel tests snakes
Biologists at San Diego State University and the University of California-Davis have been studying interactions between rattlesnakes and ground squirrels using a controlled environment and a robot squirrel. The robot is made from a taxidermied squirrel that is stored with (and smells like) a real squirrel, and is warmed for a heat signature the snake can see. The researchers found that the snake is less likely to strike when the squirrel wags its tail. See? Snakes are nothing to be afraid of -- just wag your big, bushy tail, Dr. Jones!

Super-fast 3D micro-printer
Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology have sped up two-photon lithography, a high-resolution 3D printing method that hardens a liquid resin with two photons from a laser beam, by improving the control of mirrors that guide the beam. Speed increased from millimeters per second to an astonishing 5 meters per second. The team showed off their technology by creating a 285-micron Indy car in just four minutes. I say, next we make a model train set that runs on the head of a pin, can¦t be seen by the naked eye, and is therefore no fun to operate.

Sending messages with neutrinos
Researchers from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State have transmitted and received a message through 780 feet of bedrock by sending and detecting a beam of neutrinos. The high-energy beam, produced by the Fermilab particle accelerator and received by the MINERvA detector, but neutrinos are so nonreactive, only about one in ten billion is detected. It¦s not a feasible form of communication yet, but neutrinos are an interesting study. They might not be faster than light, but they¦re faster than your wireless provider. Stupid AT&T -- 4G my a--

Lightning rod lasers
French researchers have tested using a laser beam to control the strike of simulated lightning in a laboratory. The lasers, operating at femtosecond pulses, ionize a pathway that helps guide the electrical discharge. The team found that they could change the path of lightning even if the discharge had already begun. These results are only in the lab, but I¦m going to need the power to control actual lightning bolts, if I¦m ever going to get back to 1985.