Category Archives: space exploration

Fly me to the moon using 17th century science

Apparently the first serious scientific thinking about space exploration (in Europe?) was written almost four hundred years ago by John Wilkins, a priest in the Church of England. This year, 2014, marks the four hundredth anniversary of Wilkins birth on January 1 and provides the occasion for a paper, Fly me to the moon? by Allan Chapman, historian and professor at Oxford University (UK).

From a Jan. 14, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily about this Jacobean space exploration programme,

The seventeenth century saw unprecedented changes in our understanding of the universe, spurred on by the invention of the telescope and the opportunity to study stars and planets in detail for the first time. Figures like Galileo are famous for their work not just in astronomy but in scientific experiments of many kinds that challenged established ideas and helped lead to the final demise of an Earth-centred view of the cosmos.

Now historian Prof. Allan Chapman of Wadham College, University of Oxford, has investigated a less well-known pioneer, John Wilkins, who was born 400 years ago this month. His achievements include a plan for ‘mechanical’ space travel, the popularisation of astronomy, managing to negotiate the politics and privations of the English Civil War and helping to found the Royal Society. Prof. Chapman will describe Wilkins’ life in a presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday 10 January [2014].

The January ?, 2014 Royal Astronomical Society press release, which originated the news item, adds some details about Wilkins,

John Wilkins was born in Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, on 1 January 1614. A graduate of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, before travelling widely in the UK and to Germany to meet contemporary scholars. In 1638 he published ‘The Discovery of a New World’ and then in 1640 ‘A Discourse Concerning a New Planet’. The frontispiece of the later book shows his affinity for the Copernican model of the Solar system, with the Polish astronomer and Galileo both prominent. Just as significantly, the illustration shows the stars extending to infinity, rather than being in a then conventional ‘fixed sphere’ just beyond Saturn.

With the two works, Wilkins used clear, concise English to popularise a new understanding of the universe, arguing passionately against the theories of Aristotle that dated back 2000 years. He understood how these ancient ideas (for example that it was in the nature of heavy objects to fall, whereas light materials like smoke would rise) had been fundamentally undermined by scientific discoveries. The model of the cosmos had completely changed over the course of the century since Copernicus.

He [Chapman] sees John Wilkins as one of the first people to understand the power of mass communication for astronomy and as an intellectual ancestor of the late Sir Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan. “Wilkins was a pioneer of English language science communication. Anybody who could read the Bible or enjoy a Shakespeare play could relate to Wilkins’ vision of the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo.’

Remarkably, Wilkins also speculated on space travel in his 1640 work. He considered the problems of travel to the Moon, including overcoming the gravitational pull of the Earth, the coldness of space and what the ‘sky voyagers’ would eat during a journey that he thought would take about 180 days.

In 1648, after becoming Master of Wadham College in Oxford, Wilkins expanded these ideas in ‘Mathematical Magick’, a book which describes machines and how systems of gears, pulleys and springs make at first sight insurmountable tasks possible. There he discusses a ‘flying chariot’, a ship like vehicle with bird’s wings, powered by springs and gears that would carry the astronauts on their six month journey. Robert Hooke’s posthumous diary suggests that he and Wilkins may even have built a model of this aircraft. [emphasis mine]

Chapman comments, “John Wilkins was the first person to discuss space travel from a scientific and technological perspective rather than as an aspect of fantasy literature. In his writing he initiates a ‘Jacobean Space Programme’, a serious proposal for travelling to other worlds”.

Here’s an image Chapman has created to illustrate what he believes was Wilkins vision for space travel,

http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins [downloaded from http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins]

Wilkins and Robert Hooke fly to the Moon from Wadham College. Wilkins left no picture of his “Flying Chariot”, so Prof. Chapman assembled components from written descriptions into this drawing. Credit: A. Chapman.[downloaded from http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins]

As one might expect from an historian, Chapman contextualizes Wilkins’ accomplishments within the major political events of the day,

1642 saw the onset of the English Civil War, a conflict that led to the abolition of the Anglican Church, the beheading of King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. A consummate diplomat, Wilkins even managed to marry Cromwell’s sister, took on the post at Wadham after opponents of Cromwell were purged and yet made the College a centre of tolerance that hosted a club of scientists.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1659, Wilkins was removed from his next post as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge but nonetheless went on to found and become Secretary of the Royal Society and was appointed Bishop of Chester in 1668. He died in 1671.

While it’s too late to attend Chapman’s Jan. 10, 2014 talk and there doesn’t seem to be an online video of the talk, there’s Chapman’s 6 pp. paper, Fly me to the moon? for anyone who want’s to know more.

Simon Fraser University’s (Canada) gecko-type robots and the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands has tested Simon Fraser University researchers’ (MENRVA group) robots for potential use in space according to a Jan. 2, 2014 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News online website,

Canadian engineers, along with researchers from the European Space Agency, have developed lizard-inspired robots that could one day be crawling across the hulls of spacecrafts, doing research and repair work.

The science-fiction scenario is a step closer to reality after engineers from B.C.’s Simon Fraser University created a dry adhesive material that mimics the sticky footpads of gecko lizards.

“This approach is an example of ‘biomimicry,’ taking engineering solutions from the natural world,” said Michael Henrey of Simon Fraser

I have written about an earlier version (so I assume) of this called a Tailless Timing Belt Climbing Platform (TBCP-11) robot in a Nov. 2, 2011 posting, which features a video. As for Abigaille as the robot is currently named, here’s more from the CBC news item,

“Experimental success means deployment in space might one day be possible,” said Laurent Pambaguian of the ESA.

The adhesive was placed on the footpads of six-legged crawling robots, nicknamed Abigaille. Each leg has four degrees of motion, Henrey said, meaning these crawling robots should be able to handle environments that a wheeled robot can’t.

“For example, it can transition from the vertical to horizontal, which might be useful for going around a satellite or overcoming obstacles on the way,” he said.

The Jan. 2, 2014 European Space Agency news release, which originated the news item, describes the gecko’s special abilities and why those abilities could be useful in space,

A gecko’s feet are sticky due to a bunch of little hairs with ends just 100–200 nanometres across – around the scale of individual bacteria. This is sufficiently tiny that atomic interactions between the ends of the hairs and the surface come into play.

“We’ve borrowed techniques from the microelectronics industry to make our own footpad terminators,” he [Michael Henrey of Simon Fraser University] said. “Technical limitations mean these are around 100 times larger than a gecko’s hairs, but they are sufficient to support our robot’s weight.”

Interested in assessing the adhesive’s suitability for space, Michael tested it in ESA’s Electrical Materials and Process Labs, based in the Agency’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, with additional support from ESA’s Automation and Robotics Lab.

“The reason we’re interested in dry adhesives is that other adhesive methods wouldn’t suit the space environment,” Michael notes.

“Scotch, duct or pressure-sensitive tape would collect dust, reducing their stickiness over time. They would also give off fumes in vacuum conditions, which is a big no-no because it might affect delicate spacecraft systems.

“Velcro requires a mating surface, and broken hooks could contaminate the robot’s working environment. Magnets can’t stick to composites, for example, and magnetic fields might affect sensitive instruments.”

Here’s what one of these robots looks like,

‘Abigaille’ wall-crawler robot Courtesy: European Space Agency

‘Abigaille’ wall-crawler robot Courtesy: European Space Agency

You can find out more about Simon Fraser University’s (located in Vancouver, Canada) climbing robots here on the Menrva Group webpage. which features both the gecko-type (also called Tank-style robots) and spider-inspired robots.

Vicki Colvin’s Rice University team create a super duper antioxidant from catalytic converters found in cars

It sounds like a very exciting development but so far all the talk is about potential in an Oct. 16, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Scientists at Rice University are enhancing the natural antioxidant properties of an element found in a car’s catalytic converter to make it useful for medical applications.

Rice chemist Vicki Colvin led a team that created small, uniform spheres of cerium oxide and gave them a thin coating of fatty oleic acid to make them biocompatible. The researchers say their discovery has the potential to help treat traumatic brain injury, cardiac arrest and Alzheimer’s patients and can guard against radiation-induced side effects suffered by cancer patients.

Their nanoparticles also have potential to protect astronauts from long-term exposure to radiation in space and perhaps even slow the effects of aging, they reported.

The Oct. 15, 2013 Rice University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

Cerium oxide nanocrystals have the ability to absorb and release oxygen ions — a chemical reaction known as reduction oxidation, or redox, for short. It’s the same process that allows catalytic converters in cars to absorb and eliminate pollutants.

The particles made at Rice are small enough to be injected into the bloodstream when organs need protection from oxidation, particularly after traumatic injuries, when damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) increase dramatically.

The cerium particles go to work immediately, absorbing ROS free radicals, and they continue to work over time as the particles revert to their initial state, a process that remains a mystery, she said. The oxygen species released in the process “won’t be super reactive,” she said.

Colvin said cerium oxide, a form of the rare earth metal cerium, remains relatively stable as it cycles between cerium oxide III and IV. In the first state, the nanoparticles have gaps in their surface that absorb oxygen ions like a sponge. When cerium oxide III is mixed with free radicals, it catalyzes a reaction that effectively defangs the ROS by capturing oxygen atoms and turning into cerium oxide IV. She said cerium oxide IV particles slowly release their captured oxygen and revert to cerium oxide III, and can break down free radicals again and again.

Colvin said the nanoparticles’ tiny size makes them effective scavengers of oxygen.

“The smaller the particles, the more surface area they have available to capture free radicals,” Colvin said. “A gram of these nanoparticles can have the surface area of a football field, and that provides a lot of space to absorb oxygen.”

None of the cerium oxide particles made before Rice tackled the problem were stable enough to be used in biological settings, she said. “We created uniform particles whose surfaces are really well-defined, and we found a water-free production method to maximize the surface gaps available for oxygen scavenging.”

Colvin said it’s relatively simple to add a polymer coating to the 3.8-nanometer spheres. The coating is thin enough to let oxygen pass through to the particle, but robust enough to protect it through many cycles of ROS absorption.

In testing with hydrogen peroxide, a strong oxidizing agent, the researchers found their most effective cerium oxide III nanoparticles performed nine times better than a common antioxidant, Trolox, at first exposure, and held up well through 20 redox cycles.

“The next logical step for us is to do some passive targeting,” Colvin said. “For that, we plan to attach antibodies to the surface of the nanoparticles so they will be attracted to particular cell types, and we will evaluate these modified particles in more realistic biological settings.”

Colvin is most excited by the potential to help cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy.

“Existing radioprotectants have to be given in incredibly high doses,” she said. “They have their own side effects, and there are not a lot of great options.”

She said a self-renewing antioxidant that can stay in place to protect organs would have clear benefits over toxic radioprotectants that must be eliminated from the body before they damage good tissue.

“Probably the neatest thing about this is that so much of nanomedicine has been about exploiting the magnetic and optical properties of nanomaterials, and we have great examples of that at Rice,” Colvin said. “But the special properties of nanoparticles have rarely been leveraged in medical applications.

“What I like about this work is that it opens a part of nanochemistry — namely catalysis — to the medical world. Cerium III and IV are electron shuttles that have broad applications if we can make the chemistry accessible in a biological setting.

“And of all things, this humble material comes from a catalytic converter,” she said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s paper,

Antioxidant Properties of Cerium Oxide Nanocrystals as a Function of Nanocrystal Diameter and Surface Coating by Seung Soo Lee, Wensi Song, Minjung Cho, Hema L. Puppala, Phuc Nguyen, Huiguang Zhu, Laura Segatori, and Vicki L. Colvin. ACS Nano,  DOI: 10.1021/nn4026806 Publication Date (Web): September 30, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

Finally, here’s an image which illustrates a cerium oxide nanosphere,

Oleylamine (red dots) and oleac acid (blue) layers serve to protect a cerium oxide nanosphere that catalyzes reactive oxygen species by absorbing them and turning them into less-harmful molecules. The finding could help treat injuries, guard against radiation-induced side effects of cancer therapy and protect astronauts from space radiation. (Credit: Colvin Group/Rice University)

Oleylamine (red dots) and oleac acid (blue) layers serve to protect a cerium oxide nanosphere that catalyzes reactive oxygen species by absorbing them and turning them into less-harmful molecules. The finding could help treat injuries, guard against radiation-induced side effects of cancer therapy and protect astronauts from space radiation. (Credit: Colvin Group/Rice University)

Good luck to Colvin and her team as they try to take this exciting discovery from the laboratory to real life.

I have mentioned Colvin here before including this July 18, 2012 posting which features Colvin, as well as, silver nanoparticles and Neitzsche.

Super-black nanotechnology, space exploration, and carbon nanotubes grown by atomic layer deposition (ALD)

Super-black in this context means that very little light is reflected by the carbon nanotubes that a team at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have produced. From a July 17, 2013 NASA news release (also here on EurekAlert),

A NASA engineer has achieved yet another milestone in his quest to advance an emerging super-black nanotechnology that promises to make spacecraft instruments more sensitive without enlarging their size.

A team led by John Hagopian, an optics engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has demonstrated that it can grow a uniform layer of carbon nanotubes through the use of another emerging technology called atomic layer deposition or ALD. The marriage of the two technologies now means that NASA can grow nanotubes on three-dimensional components, such as complex baffles and tubes commonly used in optical instruments.

“The significance of this is that we have new tools that can make NASA instruments more sensitive without making our telescopes bigger and bigger,” Hagopian said. “This demonstrates the power of nanoscale technology, which is particularly applicable to a new class of less-expensive tiny satellites called Cubesats that NASA is developing to reduce the cost of space missions.”

(It’s the first time I’ve seen atomic layer deposition (ALD) described as an emerging technology; I’ve always thought of it as well established.)  Here’s a 2010 NASA video, which  provides a good explanation of this team’s work,

With the basic problem being less data due to light reflection from the instruments used to make the observations in space, the researchers determined that ALD might provide carbon nanotubes suitable for super-black instrumentation for space exploration. From the NASA news release,

To determine the viability of using ALD to create the catalyst layer, while Dwivedi [NASA Goddard co-investigator Vivek Dwivedi, University of Maryland] was building his new ALD reactor, Hagopian engaged through the Science Exchange the services of the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN), Australia’s largest nanofabrication research center. The Science Exchange is an online community marketplace where scientific service providers can offer their services. The NASA team delivered a number of components, including an intricately shaped occulter used in a new NASA-developed instrument for observing planets around other stars.

Through this collaboration, the Australian team fine-tuned the recipe for laying down the catalyst layer — in other words, the precise instructions detailing the type of precursor gas, the reactor temperature and pressure needed to deposit a uniform foundation. “The iron films that we deposited initially were not as uniform as other coatings we have worked with, so we needed a methodical development process to achieve the outcomes that NASA needed for the next step,” said Lachlan Hyde, MCN’s expert in ALD.

The Australian team succeeded, Hagopian said. “We have successfully grown carbon nanotubes on the samples we provided to MCN and they demonstrate properties very similar to those we’ve grown using other techniques for applying the catalyst layer. This has really opened up the possibilities for us. Our goal of ultimately applying a carbon-nanotube coating to complex instrument parts is nearly realized.”

For anyone who’d like a little more information about the Science Exchange, I posted about this scientific markeplace both on Sept. 2, 2011 after it was launched in August of that year and later on Dec. 19, 2011 in a followup about a specific nano project.

Getting back to super-black nanotechnology, here’s what the NASA team produced, from the news release,

During the research, Hagopian tuned the nano-based super-black material, making it ideal for this application, absorbing on average more than 99 percent of the ultraviolet, visible, infrared and far-infrared light that strikes it — a never-before-achieved milestone that now promises to open new frontiers in scientific discovery. The material consists of a thin coating of multi-walled carbon nanotubes about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair.

Once a laboratory novelty grown only on silicon, the NASA team now grows these forests of vertical carbon tubes on commonly used spacecraft materials, such as titanium, copper and stainless steel. Tiny gaps between the tubes collect and trap light, while the carbon absorbs the photons, preventing them from reflecting off surfaces. Because only a small fraction of light reflects off the coating, the human eye and sensitive detectors see the material as black.

Before growing this forest of nanotubes on instrument parts, however, materials scientists must first deposit a highly uniform foundation or catalyst layer of iron oxide that supports the nanotube growth. For ALD, technicians do this by placing a component or some other substrate material inside a reactor chamber and sequentially pulsing different types of gases to create an ultra-thin film whose layers are literally no thicker than a single atom. Once applied, scientists then are ready to actually grow the carbon nanotubes. They place the component in another oven and heat the part to about 1,832  F (750 C). While it heats, the component is bathed in carbon-containing feedstock gas.

Congratulations to the team, I gather they’ve been working on this light absorption project for quite a while.

Do you think we’re sexy? Canadian five dollar bill ‘launched’ from outer space

I’m a bit late to this party as the new bills were launched, so to speak, from outer space by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, along with the usual suspects. In at least one quarter, there’s more than a hint of envy regarding our sexy new $5 bill. From the May 1, 2013 article by Kadim Shubber for UK Wired,

Though it pains us to say it, Canada may have “out cooled” the UK (but just this once).

Canada’s new $5 note features an astronaut, a view of Earth from space, and, yes, space robots. The UK’s new £5 note will feature… Sir Winston Churchill.

Canada’s Financial Post, in an Apr. 28, 2013 piece about both new bills, noted this,

Focus groups consulted about the proposed images for the new bank note series thought the space motif of the new five-dollar bill looked childish.

Others were left scratching their heads over the depiction of Dextre, a Canadian robotic handyman on board the International Space Station.

Some people wrongly assumed Dextre was the name of an astronaut shown on the bill, while others had no clue who the name referred to.

Here’s what the fuss is all about (you can find a larger image at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bankofcanada/8694157272/_),

$5—back/verso

Here’s more about the launch from the Apr. 30, 2013 Bank of Canada news release,

While orbiting more than 350 kilometres above Earth, Commander Hadfield gave Canadians their first look at the new $5 polymer note. It features images of Canadarm2 and Dextre – robotics innovations used to build and maintain the Space Station and that symbolize Canada’s ongoing contribution to the international space program.

“I try to inspire young Canadians to aim high. This new $5 bill should do the same,” Commander Hadfield said. “By giving prominence to Canadian achievements in space, this bank note reminds us that not even the sky is the limit.”

The front of the $5 note features a portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada from 1896 to 1911.

One of the Canadian leaders in our robotics space exploration programme is MDA, which was founded in Richmond, BC. From MDA’s space exploration webpage,

MDA’s robotic systems have enabled human spaceflight for nearly three decades, assembling space infrastructure, servicing space assets, supporting spacewalks, and safe berthing of visiting space vehicles. With exploration entering a new era of deeper space transportation and commercial crew and cargo services, MDA’s next generation robotic systems and advanced technologies are being developed to meet the future needs of human space infrastructure.

As global space agencies turn their attention to the next steps in planetary exploration, MDA has developed a broad portfolio of advanced planetary technology spanning robotics, vision, instruments, and complete rover vehicles to support future international missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

MDA’s solutions have helped advance the boundaries of robotic exploration, from vision systems for orbital rendezvous and proximity operations, to robotic arms and mechanisms aboard every one of NASA’s Mars rovers and landers, and planetary science instruments that include the Phoenix Meteorological Station, MSL’s APXS spectrometer currently en route to Mars, and the OLA mapping LIDAR for NASA’s OSIRIS-REX asteroid mission.

You can find out more about Canadarm2 and DEXTRE on the MDA website. As for the new $5 and $10 bills, they will be put into circulation in November 2013.

I last mentioned in Hadfield in connection with a National Film Board of Canada Space School in my Apr. 22, 2013 posting.

Canada’s National Film Board launches Space School for 11 – 15 year olds and TRIUMF celebrates award-winning photo

Exciting news from the National Film Board of Canada arrived in my mailbox this morning (Monday, Apr. 22, 2013),

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) have teamed up to create NFB Space School, a free and fun interactive learning experience for families and classes alike that engages young Canadians in the wonders of space exploration by giving them their own front-row seat to CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s historic mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Designed for youth between the ages of 11 and 15, NFB Space School helps kids discover more about space, science, technology and leadership, reigniting a wonder about our universe through cutting-edge interactive features.

The out-of-this-world new website will blast off with an online launch from Halifax’s Discovery Centre, featuring a 20-minute Q&A with Commander Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the ISS, via a live downlink from 12:10 p.m. to 12:30 p.m., Atlantic Time [8:10 - 8:30 am PDT]. Commander Hadfield will answer questions from Halifax-area school children and media while he orbits the Earth aboard the ISS. [This event has occurred.]

NFB Space School is launching with two modules, Mission and Leadership, featuring exclusive footage of Hadfield training for his historic mission, along with interactive videos and quizzes. The site will be updated with new modules on such subjects as astronomy, history and astrobiology.

Available in both English and French, NFB Space School is also ideal for classroom use, with additional educational resources available through the NFB’s subscription-based educational portal, CAMPUS, in September 2013.

NFB Space School is a unique partnership between the NFB, one of the world’s leading digital content hubs and Canadian pioneer in online streaming for educators, and the CSA, committed to leading the development and application of space knowledge for the benefit of Canadians and humanity. Paul McNeill is the creative lead and producer of NFB Space School. Graham MacDougall is the interactive strategist, with interactive design, development and programming by Halifax-based web developers theREDspace. Ravida Din is the executive producer for the NFB. NFB Space School was developed and produced by the NFB’s Atlantic Centre in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

To learn more about the Expedition 34/35 mission and the CSA’s activities, visit Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut Mission page. For up-to-the-minute updates, follow the Canadian Space Agency and Chris Hadfield on social media.

I was a little disappointed I didn’t receive the announcement a little sooner as I would have liked to view the livestream interview with Hadfield. It’s easy to forget just how big Canada is and that four hour time difference really has an impact when you’re on the ‘wrong’ end of the country.

It was a great idea to launch the school with a live event with Hadfield communicating from the space station. Unfortunately, there’s no follow through on the rest of the website.  For two suggestions/examples. (a) An ‘explorer’  doesn’t get to amass enough points answering the quizzes to perhaps get a special session with Hadfield or someone else on the space station. (b) There aren’t any projects where a student could create their own space film and submit it for a contest. In all, this interactive site is curiously unidirectional. Information is pumped out and the participant/student answers quizzes, very much like school.  In the end, the Space School seems to be designed more for teachers than explorers of all ages (but especially those from the ages of  11 to 15). Anyway, it’s early days yet for the school and hopefully there are already some changes being planned.

Now, here’s a bit of news from the pacific end of the country. TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for nuclear and particle physics, has been recognized with a second place standing in an international photography exhibition, the second Global Particle Physics Photowalk. From the TRIUMF Apr. 19, 2013 news release,

TRIUMF is pleased to announce and congratulate local contestant Andy White, a 3rd year Visual Arts student at UBC from North Vancouver, who was awarded 2nd place in the juried competition for his winning photo of TIGRESS.

Along with studying art and photography at school, Andy is also a competitive Javelin thrower on the varsity track & field team. His spirited nature served him well in this competition. “I come from quite an Arts-based background and really don’t have much involvement with science, yet I have always been fascinated by technology so I was eager to get involved. This would be my first time visiting TRIUMF and I had no idea what to expect,” explained Andy.

What he found during his visit to TRIUMF was TIGRESS, a nuclear physics spectrometer, in the ISAC-II building. This equipment allows researchers to study the structure of the nucleus and the forces that hold it together by analyzing rare nuclear reactions.

“What drew me to TIGRESS was its element of fine craftsmanship, colour and shape. I chose to photograph it symmetrically and end-on to reveal these features as they were best presented,” said Andy.

Greg Hackman, research scientist at TRIUMF, is responsible for the operation and maintenance of TIGRESS. “This is a gamma-ray detector designed for nuclear structure experiments and specifically to make optimal use of ISAC,” says Greg. “The function entirely drove the form.”

Andy muses, “It was great connecting the arts with science, and this photowalk offered me a unique challenge to present technology in a creative way. What is most fascinating is our human capability to create such instruments, and this is what I intended to bring forward in my images.”

To decipher the science behind TIGRESS, as displayed in Andy’s photo, Science Division Head Reiner Kruecken explains, “Instruments like TIGRESS allow us to peak into the femto-world of the atomic nucleus and deduce what is happening in this otherwise invisible world which is only the size of one millionth of a millionth of a millimeter. What you see in the photo from inside to outside are Germanium crystals and two layers of so-called BGO shield detectors. These shield detectors look toward the center of the array where we induce nuclear reactions and show us something about the structure and dynamics in atomic nuclei.”

Just as physicists are enticed by symmetries in nature as they unleash mysteries of the universe, photographers are drawn to symmetries in their subjects as they create alluring images to captivate their audience.

Here’s White’s award-winning photograph,

Credit: Andy White

Credit: Andy White

Interactions.org, one of the event organizers, has provided more detail about this international event in an Apr. 18, 2013 news release,

In September 2012, hundreds of amateur and professional photographers had the rare opportunity to explore and photograph accelerators and detectors at particle physics laboratories around the world.

In the InterActions Physics Photowalk, ten of the world’s leading particle physics laboratories offered special behind-the-scenes access to their scientific facilities:

Brookhaven National Laboratory
 (New York, USA)
Catania National Laboratory
 (Catania, Italy)
Chilbolton Observatory
 (Hampshire, UK)
Daresbury Laboratory
 (Cheshire, UK)
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
 (Illinois, USA)
Frascati National Laboratory
 (Frascati, Italy)
Gran Sasso National Laboratory
 (Gran Sasso, Italy)
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
 (Oxfordshire, UK)
TRIUMF
 (Vancouver, Canada)
United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre
 (Edinburgh, UK)

Participating photographers submitted thousands of photos for local competitions. Each laboratory selected local winners, and advanced these top photographs to two global competitions. [emphasis mine]

More than 1,250 photography enthusiasts voted online to name the global people’s choice winners. [emphasis mine] Nino Bruno’s photograph of a tunnel connecting the underground halls of INFN’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory garnered the most votes, followed closely by Enrique Diaz’s side view of the STAR detector at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Steve Zimic’s photograph of the tunnel that houses Brookhaven’s RHIC accelerator.

A panel of international judges also selected three winners. [emphasis mine] The judges—photographers Stanley Greenberg from the United States, Roy Robertson from the United Kingdom, Andrew Haw from Canada and Luca Casonato from Italy—awarded the top prize to Joseph Paul Boccio’s detailed photograph of the KLOE detector at INFN’s Frascati National Laboratory, second prize to Andy White’s photo capturing the color and symmetry of the TIGRESS detector at the Canadian laboratory TRIUMF, and third prize to Helen Trist’s photograph of data storage at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. [emphasis mine]

There are prizes for the winners,

The winning photographs will be featured in upcoming issues of the particle physics publications the CERN Courier and symmetry and the Italian popular science magazine Le Scienze. The participating laboratories will also feature the global winners and their local Photowalk selections in temporary exhibits.

I wonder if White and other local contestants will be have their photos displayed not just in Vancouver (Canada) where TRIUMF is located but perhaps also at some of the member institutions across the country.

Prosthetics and the human brain

On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe  have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.

First, there’s the ‘wheelchair’ research, from the Mar. 6, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

People with spinal cord injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile limbs.

The human brain can learn to treat relevant prosthetics as a substitute for a non-working body part, according to research published March 6 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Mariella Pazzaglia and colleagues from Sapienza University and IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia of Rome in Italy, supported by the International Foundation for Research in Paraplegie.

The researchers found that wheelchair-bound study participants with spinal cord injuries perceived their body’s edges as being plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair, independent of time since their injury or experience with using a wheelchair. Patients with lower spinal cord injuries who retained upper body movement showed a stronger association of the wheelchair with their body than those who had spinal cord impairments in the entire body.

According to the authors, this suggests that rather than being thought of only as an extension of the immobile limbs, the wheelchairs had become tangible, functional substitutes for the affected body part. …

As I mentioned in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting,

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot? [you can find the article here: http://www.economist.com/node/21560986]),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

According to the Mar. 6, 2013 news release on EurekAlert from the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the open access article by Pazzaglia and her colleagues can be found here (Note: I have added a link),

Pazzaglia M, Galli G, Scivoletto G, Molinari M (2013) A Functionally Relevant Tool for the Body following Spinal Cord Injury. PLOS ONE 8(3): e58312.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058312

At almost the same time as Pazzaglia’s work,  a “Mind-controlled Exoskeleton” is announced in a Mar. 7, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Every year thousands of people in Europe are paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Many are young adults, facing the rest of their lives confined to a wheelchair. Although no medical cure currently exists, in the future they could be able to walk again thanks to a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton being developed by EU-funded researchers.

The system, based on innovative ‘Brain-neural-computer interface’ (BNCI) technology — combined with a light-weight exoskeleton attached to users’ legs and a virtual reality environment for training — could also find applications in there habilitation of stroke victims and in assisting astronauts rebuild muscle mass after prolonged periods in space.

The Mar. 7, 2013 news release on CORDIS, which originated the news item, offers a description of the “Mindwalker” project,

‘Mindwalker was proposed as a very ambitious project intended to investigate promising approaches to exploit brain signals for the purpose of controlling advanced orthosis, and to design and implement a prototype system demonstrating the potential of related technologies,’ explains Michel Ilzkovitz, the project coordinator at Space Applications Services in Belgium.

The team’s approach relies on an advanced BNCI system that converts electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the brain, or electromyography (EMG) signals from shoulder muscles, into electronic commands to control the exoskeleton.

The Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Movement Biomechanics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) focused on the exploitation of EEG and EMG signals treated by an artificial neural network, while the Foundation Santa Lucia in Italy developed techniques based on EMG signals modelled by the coupling of neural and biomechanical oscillators.

One approach for controlling the exoskeleton uses so-called ‘steady-state visually evoked potential’, a method that reads flickering visual stimuli produced at different frequencies to induce correlated EEG signals. Detection of these EEG signals is used to trigger commands such as ‘stand’, ‘walk’, ‘faster’ or ‘slower’.

A second approach is based on processing EMG signals generated by the user’s shoulders and exploits the natural arm-leg coordination in human walking: arm-swing patterns can be perceived in this way and converted into control signals commanding the exoskeleton’s legs.

A third approach, ‘ideation’, is also based on EEG-signal processing. It uses the identification and exploitation of EEG Theta cortical signals produced by the natural mental process associated with walking. The approach was investigated by the Mindwalker team but had to be dropped due to the difficulty, and time needed, in turning the results of early experiments into a fully exploitable system.

Regardless of which method is used, the BNCI signals have to be filtered and processed before they can be used to control the exoskeleton. To achieve this, the Mindwalker researchers fed the signals into a ‘Dynamic recurrent neural network’(DRNN), a processing technique capable of learning and exploiting the dynamic character of the BNCI signals.

‘This is appealing for kinematic control and allows a much more natural and fluid way of controlling an exoskeleton,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

The team adopted a similarly practical approach for collecting EEG signals from the user’s scalp. Most BNCI systems are either invasive, requiring electrodes to be placed directly into brain tissue, or require users to wear a ‘wet’ capon their head, necessitating lengthy fitting procedures and the use of special gels to reduce the electrical resistance at the interface between the skin and the electrodes. While such systems deliver signals of very good quality and signal-to-noise ratio, they are impractical for everyday use.

The Mindwalker team therefore turned to a ‘dry’ technology developed by Berlin-based eemagine Medical Imaging Solutions: a cap covered in electrodes that the user can fit themselves, and which uses innovative electronic components to amplify and optimise signals before sending them to the neural network.

‘The dry EEG cap can be placed by the subject on their head by themselves in less than a minute, just like a swimming cap,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

Before proceeding any further with details, here’s what the Mindwalker looks like,

© MINDWALKER (downladed from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

© MINDWALKER (downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

After finding a way to collect the EEG/EMG signals and interpret them, the researchers needed to create the exoskeleton (from the CORDIS news release),

The universities of Delft and Twente in the Netherlands proposed an innovative approach for the design of the exoskeleton and its control. The exoskeletonis designed to be sufficiently robust to bear the weight of a 100 kg adult and powerful enough to recover balance from external causes of instability such as the user’s own torso movements during walking or a gentle push from the back or side. Compared to other exoskeletons developed to date it is relatively light, weighing less than 30 kg without batteries, and, because a final version of the system should be self-powered, it is designed to minimise energy consumption.

The Mindwalker researchers achieved energy efficiency through the use of springs fitted inside the joints that are capable of absorbing and recovering some of the energy otherwise dissipated during walking, and through the development of an efficient strategy for controlling the exoskeleton.

Most exoskeletons are designed to be balanced when stationary or quasi-static and to move by little steps inside their ground stability perimeter, an approach known as ‘Zero moment point’, or ZMP. Although this approach is commonly used for controlling humanoid robots, when applied to exoskeletons, it makes them heavy and slow – and usually requires users to be assisted by a walking frame, sticks or some other support device when they move.

Alternatively, a more advanced and more natural control strategy can replicate the way humans actually walk, with a controlled loss of balance in the walking direction.

‘This approach is called “Limit-cycle walking” and has been implemented using model predictive control to predict the behaviour of the user and exoskeleton and for controlling the exoskeleton during the walk. This was the approach investigated in Mindwalker,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

To train users to control the exoskeleton, researchers from Space Applications Services developed a virtual-reality training platform, providing an immersive environment in which new users can safely become accustomed to using the system before testing it out in a clinical setting, and, the team hope, eventually using it in everyday life.

By the end of this year, tests with able-bodied trial users will be completed. The system will then be transferred to the Foundation Santa Lucia for conducting a clinical evaluation until May 2013 with five to 10volunteers suffering from spinal cord injuries. These trials will help identify shortcomings and any areas of performance improvement, the project coordinator says.

In the meantime, the project partners are continuing research on different components for a variety of potential applications. The project coordinator notes, for example, that elements of the system could be adapted for the rehabilitation of stroke victims or to develop easy-to-use exoskeletons for elderly people for mobility support.

Space Applications Services, meanwhile, is also exploring applications of the Mindwalker technology to train astronauts and help them rebuild muscle mass after spending long periods of time in zero-gravity environments.

There’s more about the European Commission’s Seventh Programme-funded Mindwalker project here.

Parallel with these developments in Europe, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University has stated that he will have a working exoskeleton (Walk Again Project)  for the kickoff by a paraplegic individual for the opening of the World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil in 2014. I mentioned Nicolelis and his work most recently in a Mar. 4, 2013 posting.

Taken together, this research which strongly suggests that people can perceive prostheses as being part of their bodies and exoskeletons that are powered by the wearer’s thoughts, we seem to be edging closer to a world where machines and humans become one.

NASA, nano, and the race to space

“NASA’s Relationship with Nanotechnology: Past, Present and Future Challenges” has just been published by Rice University’s (located in Texas) Baker Institute for Public Policy. The paper claims that the US National  Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) needs to invest more money in nanotechnology research or risk being eclipsed by other countries in the ‘race to space’.

The Oct. 16, 2012 news release from Rice University provides more information,

The paper sheds light on a broad field that holds tremendous potential for improving space flight by reducing the weight of spacecraft and developing smaller and more accurate sensors.

This area of research, however, saw a dramatic cutback from 2004 to 2007, when NASA reduced annual nanotechnology R&D expenditures from $47 million to $20 million. NASA is the only U.S. federal agency to scale back investment in this area, the authors found, and it’s part of an overall funding trend at NASA. From 2003 to 2010, while the total federal science research budget remained steady between $60 billion and $65 billion (in constant 2012 dollars), NASA’s research appropriations decreased more than 75 percent, from $6.62 billion to $1.55 billion.

“The United States currently lacks a national space policy that ensures the continuity of research and programs that build on existing capabilities to explore space, and that has defined steps for human and robotic exploration of low-Earth orbit, the moon and Mars,” Matthews said [Kirstin Matthews, one of researchers and a co-author]. “With Congress and the president wrestling over the budget each year, it is vital that NASA present a clear plan for science and technology R&D that is linked to all aspects of the agency. This includes connecting R&D, with nanotechnology as a lead area, to applications related to the agency’s missions.”

H/T to R&D magazine where I first saw the news item which led me to the Rice University news release and paper.

I have read the paper, which was written by the research team of  Baker Institute science and technology policy fellow Kirstin Matthews, current Rice graduate student Kenneth Evans and former graduate students Padraig Moloney and Brent Carey, and found that much of the reasoning is based on the notion that nanotechnology research is fundamental to wining the ‘space race’. Strikingly, there is very little attempt to explain or justify this reasoning. It’s a little disconcerting and reminds me of joining a conversation that’s been in progress for some time and where the context has been long established  leaving the new participant struggling to catch up and in the position of asking ‘dumb’ questions. For example, how important is leading the ‘race to space’?

In general, this paper seems to reflect a fairly high level of anxiety about US scientific superiority (from the news release),

The authors said that to effectively engage in new technology R&D, NASA should strengthen its research capacity and expertise by encouraging high-risk, high-reward projects to help support and shape the future of U.S. space exploration

“Failure to make these changes, especially in a political climate of flat or reduced funding, poses substantial risk that the United States will lose its leadership role in space to other countries — most notably China, Germany, France, Japan and Israel — that make more effective use of their R&D investments,” Matthews said.

I sometimes think the current US interest in space exploration is a way of harkening back to the glory days of the 1960s where US scientific superiority was unassailable. Much of this superiority was based on the US successfully beating Russia in a race to place ‘a man on the moon’.

Where do buckyballs come from?

I’ve always wondered where buckyballs come from (as have scientists for the last 25 years) and now there’s an answer of sorts  (from the July 31, 2012 Florida State University news release Note: I have removed some links),

“We started with a paste of pre-existing fullerene molecules mixed with carbon and helium, shot it with a laser, and instead of destroying the fullerenes we were surprised to find they’d actually grown,” they wrote. The fullerenes were able to absorb and incorporate carbon from the surrounding gas.

By using fullenes  that contained heavy metal atoms in their centers, the scientists showed that the carbon cages remained closed throughout the process.

“If the cages grew by splitting open, we would have lost the metal atoms, but they always stayed locked inside,” Dunk [Paul Dunk, a doctoral student in chemistry and biochemistry at Florida State and lead author of the study published in Nature Communications] noted.

The researchers worked with a team of MagLab chemists using the lab’s 9.4-tesla Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer to analyze the dozens of molecular species produced when they shot the fullerene paste with the laser. The instrument works by separating molecules according to their masses, allowing the researchers to identify the types and numbers of atoms in each molecule. The process is used for applications as diverse as identifying oil spills, biomarkers and protein structures.

Dexter Johnson in his Aug. 6, 2012 posting on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) provides some context and commentary (Note: I have removed a link),

When Richard Smalley, Robert Curl, James Heath, Sean O’Brien, and Harold Kroto prepared the first buckminsterfullerene (C60) (or buckyball), they kicked off the next 25 years of nanomaterial science.

Here’s an artist’s illustration of  what these scientists have achieved, fullerene cage growth,

An artist’s representation of fullerene cage growth via carbon absorption from surrounding hot gases. Some of the cages contain lanthanum metal atoms. (Image courtesy National Science Foundation) [downloaded from Florida State University website]

 As I noted earlier I’m not alone in my fascination (from the news release),

Many people know the buckyball, also known by scientists as buckminsterfullerene, carbon 60 or C60, from the covers of their school chemistry textbooks. Indeed, the molecule represents the iconic image of “chemistry.” But how these often highly symmetrical, beautiful molecules with  fascinating properties form in the first place has been a mystery for a quarter-century. Despite worldwide investigation since the 1985 discovery of C60, buckminsterfullerene and other, non-spherical C60 molecules — known collectively as fullerenes — have kept their secrets. How? They’re born under highly energetic conditions and grow ultra-fast, making them difficult to analyze.

“The difficulty with fullerene formation is that the process is literally over in a flash — it’s next to impossible to see how the magic trick of their growth was performed,” said Paul Dunk, a doctoral student in chemistry and biochemistry at Florida State and lead author of the work.

There’s more than just idle curiosity at work (from the news release),

The buckyball research results will be important for understanding fullerene formation in extraterrestrial environments. Recent reports by NASA showed that crystals of C60 are in orbit around distant suns. This suggests that fullerenes may be more common in the universe than previously thought.

“The results of our study will surely be extremely valuable in deciphering fullerene formation in extraterrestrial environments,” said Florida State’s Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of C60 and co-author of the current study.

The results also provide fundamental insight into self-assembly of other technologically important carbon nanomaterials such as nanotubes and the new wunderkind of the carbon family, graphene.

H/T to Nanowerk’s July 31, 2012 news item titled, Decades-old mystery how buckyballs form has been solved. In addition to Florida State University, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (or MagLab), the CNRS  (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)Institute of Materials in France and Nagoya University in Japan were also involved in the research.