TWIE 151: Million-Year Data Storage

This Week in Engineering - Mars rover 2020; synthetic spider silk; autonomous carrier landing; extracting fuel from shipwrecks; million-year data storage; and human-powered helicopter.

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Mars rover 2020
NASA’s Mars 2020 Science Definition Team has released a report with details about the next rover, which will search for signs of past, not current, life -- what mission planners call the “next logical step” in the search for extraterrestrial life.  The rover will use a sky crane for landing, just like Curiosity, but will include the ability to drill core samples--not just powder like Curiosity--and will be able to collect samples for a future as-yet-undefined sample return mission, which could occur as early as the mid-2020s or possibly 2030s.  No decision regarding a power source has been made, although the baseline design for planning is the same as Curiosity’s: a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG.

Synthetic spider silk
Japanese company Spiber has debuted a new type of synthetic thread modeled after spider silk.  Named Qmonos, after the Japanese word for spider web, the new material has the tensile strength of steel, but with the flexibility of rubber.  Unlike other attempts to synthesize spider silk, the Spiber process abandoned the process of the spider’s little-understood spinnerets, which rearrange proteins into silk.  The threads could be used to strengthen materials, while keeping them very light, including applications in car parts or medicine.  I’m gonna use it like real spider silk -- to advertise at the county fair: That’s “Some Pig”.

Autonomous carrier landing
The US Navy’s X-47B stealth drone has become the first unmanned aerial vehicle to land on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier.  Nicknamed “Salty Dog 502,” the plane successfully landed aboard the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier off the Virginia coast, using GPS for navigation and responding to turbulence and air currents without human assistance.  Made by Northrop Grumman, the drone is part of the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration, and will not be used for military operations.  So, first they automate away the ticket counters, now the pilots.  How do we still have stewardesses?

Extracting fuel from shipwrecks
When ships sink, the fuel they carry typically leaks into the water, creating an environmental hazard.  Now, the Marine Research Institute Netherlands, or MARIN, together with the EU Commision, have created DIFIS, a system to capture fuel before it leaks into the ocean.  The system has a funnel attached to anchor blocks, a riser tube and a buffer bell, and would be deployed 30-50m below the surface once the seafloor around a wreck has been mapped.  After installation, the system should be capable of operation without any human assistance.

Million-year data storage
Researchers from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre and the Eindhoven University of Technology have stored a 300 kB text file into nanostructured glass, a format capable of 360 TB per disc that could last over a million years.  Using a femtosecond laser, the data is recorded in three layers of self-assembled nanostructured dots created in fused quartz, separated by five microns.  The information is encoded in five dimensions: three spatial dimensions as well as size and orientation.  The research could help preserve culturally important digital information.  I say, one file that needs to survive the zombie apocalypse is this animated kitten gif.  Aww!

Human-powered helicopter
Congratulations to AeroVelo, for winning the $250,000 Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter prize.  The prize was awarded to the first team to accomplish a flight duration of 60 s reaching an altitude of 3m, while staying in a 10m x 10m area.  AeroVelo’s Atlas