Last week, private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic test fired the hybrid rocket engine on SpaceShipTwo. Carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo brought the ship up to 46,000 ft, where it was dropped, and fired off its hybrid rocket engines for 16 seconds before gliding back to Earth. The company is planning to begin suborbital test flights this year, and passenger flights next year. When fully operational, SpaceShipTwo will hold two pilots and six passengers, who will pay $200,000 a seat.
Students at NASA’s Goddard engineering summer boot camp program have created the Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, or GROVER, an 800 lb solar-powered autonomous tank for analyzing Greenland’s ice sheets. To come up with the project, the students asked Goddard glaciologist Lora Koenig what she would want in a rover, and she eventually became the science advisor for the team. The rover is equipped with ground-penetrating radar, and will be used to study the effects of warm weather on ice sheets at a far lower cost than satellite or airplane missions. That’s a student project? The only way it could me more awesome is if it deployed to the remote ice world of Hoth.
Norwegian trash shortage
Oslo is an environmentally-conscious city with incinerator plants that burn garbage to create heat and electricity -- in fact, roughly half the city, including most of the schools, are heated by garbage incineration. But since the Norwegian plants need more garbage than the country produces, they have started importing garbage from other countries to use as fuel, and with other European countries building similar plants, an international garbage commodity market has been created. I say, sure, Norwegians turn garbage into fuel, but we Americans turn it into compelling reality television.
Gravitational wave hunt
Einstein’s general theory of relativity long ago predicted the existence of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by massive objects, which have yet to be observed. Now, two experiments, scheduled to come online as early as 2017, will try to detect gravitational waves -- Advanced LIGO (or Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) and Advanced Virgo. As the Earth passes through gravitational waves, tiny changes in distance could be observed. In order to successfully detect such waves, a laser interferometer would have to be sensitive enough to detect a change of one billionth of a nanometer over a one kilometer distance.
A team of researchers led by John A. Rogers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has created a new wide-angle camera lens modeled after the eyes of insects. Previous designs used multiple lenses to focus on a single flat chip, but this one has a curved electronic retina covered by an inflated rubber sheet with 180 ommatidia, or individual lenses. The research may someday be used to improve the optics of surveillance drones. Mimicking actual bugs to make a bug-eye lens? It’s better than my idea of mimicking Marty Feldman.
Robot lands on ceilings
A joint research project between the University of Maryland’s Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory and Stanford’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab has created Microquad, a quadrotor that can land and cling to a ceiling or wall. The clinging force is provided by the same dry adhesion inspired by gecko feet, and it can detach instantly on command, and will eventually work on a wide variety of surfaces. I say, gecko feet are a great inspiration for clinging to walls. Way better than my robots, inspired by overcooked spaghetti.