TWIE 142: Asteroid Capture

This Week in Engineering - Asteroid capture; dark matter evidence; drones study volcanoes; filtering flood waters; hovercraft golf cart; and spider web identification.

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Asteroid capture
Next week, President Obama will be releasing his 2014 federal budget request, and sources say it will include $105 million for a new NASA mission to pull a near-earth asteroid into orbit around the moon. The target asteroid would be about twenty-five feet long and weigh around 500 tons, and a robotic spacecraft would capture it and drag it into a lunar orbit. Astronauts will later fly to the asteroid in an Orion capsule delivered by a Space Launch System rocket in order to study it and collect samples. The plan is to develop the asteroid-grabbing spacecraft by 2017, to have the asteroid in lunar orbit by 2019, and to send astronauts by 2021.

Dark matter evidence
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -- a $2 billion cosmic ray detector attached to the international space station -- has detected an excess of anti electrons -- or, positrons -- which could be evidence of dark matter, a mysterious substance more abundant in the universe than matter. One of the popular theories is that dark matter is made of weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, which may be their own anti-particle. If so, the when two WIMPs collide, they annihilate each other, releasing both an electron and a positron. Future AMS experiments should characterize the source of the positrons, which might be dark matter, or might be other sources like pulsars. I hope they've really found the essence of dark matter. Actually, I just hope it doesn't turn out to be midichlorians.

Drones study volcanoes
A team from NASA's Ames Research Center has sent three electric powered unmanned aerial vehicles to study the Turrialba volcano in Costa Rica, which has been putting out an 11,000-foot plume containing carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, steam and other materials. While a conventional piloted aircraft could be damaged by the ash, the drones' electric engines were fine. The drones measured ash concentrations and levels of gasses within the plume, to help scientists better predict volcanic computer models. Man, first drones fly in Afghanistan, now volcanoes -- they go everywhere I don't want to be. Fly one to my Monday morning staff meeting, and make it a hat trick!

Filtering flood waters
When an area is devastated by flooding, finding clean drinking water is often the highest priority, as flood waters often carry diseases and microbes that can lead to life threatening infections. To prepare for future disasters, the Thai government has undertaken the Solar Operating System, or SOS, water project -- a portable system which can filter 2000 L of clean drinking water per day. The unit can run on batteries or solar power, and contains a filter coated with silver nanoparticles that kills bacteria rather than just collect them. The nanofilter project was started as a response to Thailand's massive flooding of 2011.

Hovercraft golf cart
Golf pro Bubba Watson has appeared in a video, set on a golf course, in which he drives a hovercraft instead of a cart. Since a hovercraft, which floats on a bubble of air, boasts a lighter ground pressure than even walking, it can ride over the fairway and even the green without causing damage, unlike a cart. It can also glide over water hazards. The video is just an advertisement for Oakley, not a product demonstration, and hovercraft are not expected at any golf courses in the foreseeable future. Too bad -- if they had hovercraft, that might convince me to try that pretty-boy yuppie sport. Yick, do I really have to dress like I'm in marketing?

Spider web identification
Carlos Travieso from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain has led a team to develop pattern recognition techniques that can identify the species of spider that spun a particular web. By focusing on the more complex center of the web, and using comp