TWIE 133: Private-Sector Astronauts

This Week in Engineering - Another asteroid mining startup; spinning nanotubes into wires; Kepler’s sticky wheel; O.R. hand gestures; private-sector astronauts; and shocking alarm clock.

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Another asteroid mining startup
Back in April, Planetary Resources announced plans to mine near earth asteroids for water and metals. Now, new startup Deep Space Industries has joined the race, with plans for two types of unmanned, modular spacecraft that are small enough to launch with other missions. First, in 2015, 55-pound (FireFly÷ spacecraft will investigate near-earth asteroids for mining potential, and then, in 2016, 70-pound (DragonFly÷ craft will gather samples and return to Earth. The eventual goal is a factory in deep space equipped with a 3D printer that uses nickel-charged gas to print tools and equipment with the excavated metals. The venture¦s all-star investors include Google¦s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, filmmaker James Cameron and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

Spinning nanotubes into wires
Matteo Pasquali and colleagues from Rice University have manufactured carbon nanotubes into threads that can be spun like wires. Nanotubes are interesting for their strength, weight, and electrical conductivity, but they have proven notoriously difficult to align together, an arrangement that would vastly improve strength. Now, by dissolving nanotubes in chlorosulfonic acid and extruding them through a small filter, the Rice team was able to get millions of nanotubes to align, and even bind them up into spools of wire. Wait, we have a nanotube textile industry? Somebody, quick, make a Tron costume and get it on a Paris runway. Now, that¦s blue steel.

Kepler¦s sticky wheel
The Kepler space telescope, to date, has found an astonishing 2740 exoplanet candidates, with 105 confirmed, but now the mission has been switched into safe mode, after a stabilizing wheel showed signs of increased friction. Launched in 2009, the telescope is less than half way through its estimated 7.5-year mission, which could be ended if the wheel problem persists. Mission managers hope that during the ten-day safe mode, internal lubricants might be redistributed and fix the problem. Well, that¦s just my grandpa¦s first rule of engineering -- ain¦t nothin¦ can¦t be fixed with more lubrication and/or duct tape.

O.R. hand gestures
Surgeons often need to review medical images during a surgery, but using a traditional keyboard or mouse takes time and might spread infection. Now, a team of researchers from Purdue University are developing a new HMI system that uses depth-sensing cameras from a Microsoft Kinect to interpret hand gestures as commands for an MRI display. The ten gestures included rotate, browse in any direction, adjust brightness, and zoom in and out. The system also incorporates context into its algorithm for interpreting gestures, including favoring certain commands and images in particular phases of a surgery, reducing false gesture recognition rates from 20.8% down to 2.3%.

Private-sector astronauts
Space-bound American astronauts currently must hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket, but in the future, they will be flying spacecraft from private American companies. Now, NASA has announced that the crews of the first manned private sector space missions will not be NASA astronauts, but commercial test pilot employees instead. While NASA is providing funds and facilities for the companies, they want the risk of the first missions to be borne by the companies, and not by astronauts who were uninvolved with the spacecraft¦s development. Hey space CEOs, I say, send your lead test engineer. Because nothing says, (Are you sure about quality assurance?÷ like: (Welcome aboard!÷

Shocking Alarm clock
Sankalp Sinha has developed the singNshock touchscreen-controlled alarm clock, which integrates a digital music player so you can wake up to your favorite songs, and also an optional shock pulse delivered when the off button is hit. The