Category Archives: space exploration

Watching a nanosized space rocket under a microscope

That is a silent video depicting the research. For anyone who may be puzzled, there’s an Aug. 8, 2016 news item on Nanowerk featuring the research announcement from Michigan Technological University (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers at the University of Maryland and Michigan Technological University have operated a tiny proposed satellite ion rocket under a microscope to see how it works (Nanotechnology, “Radiation-induced solidification of ionic liquid under extreme electric field”).

The rocket, called an electrospray thruster, is a drop of molten salt. When electricity is applied, it creates a field on the tip of the droplet, until ions begin streaming off the end. The force created by the rocket is less than the weight of a human hair, but in the vacuum of space it is enough to push a small object forward with a constant acceleration. Many of these tiny thrusters packed together could propel a spacecraft over great distances, maybe even to the nearest exoplanet, and they are particularly useful for Earth-orbiting nanosatellites, which can be as small as a shoe box. These thrusters are currently being tested on the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder, which hopes to poise objects in space so precisely that they would only be disturbed by gravitational waves.

An Aug, 8, 2016 Michigan Technological University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explains further,

these droplet engines have a problem: sometimes they form needle-like spikes that disrupt the way the thruster works – they get in the way of the ions flowing outward and turn the liquid to a gel. Lyon B. King and Kurt Terhune, mechanical engineers at Michigan Tech, wanted to find out how this actually happens.

“The challenge is making measurements of features as small as a few molecules in the presence of a strong electric field, which is why we turned to John Cumings at the University of Maryland,” King says, explaining Cumings is known for his work with challenging materials and that they needed to look for a needle in a haystack. “Getting a close look at these droplets is like looking through a straw to find a penny somewhere on the floor of a room–and if that penny moves out of view, like the tip of the molten salt needles do–then you have to start searching for it all over again.”

At the Advanced Imaging and Microscopy Lab at the University of Maryland, Cumings put the tiny thruster in a transmission electron microscope – an advanced scope that can see things down to millionths of a meter. They watched as the droplet elongated and sharpened to a point, and then started emitting ions. Then the tree-like defects began to appear.

The researchers say that figuring out why these branched structures grow could help prevent them from forming. The problem occurs when high-energy electrons, like those used in the microscope’s imaging beam, impact the fluid causing damage to the molecules that they strike. This damages the molten salt’s molecular structure, so it thickens into a gel and no longer flows properly.

“We were able to watch the dendritic structures accumulate in real time,” says Kurt Terhune, a mechanical engineering graduate student and the study’s lead author. “The specific mechanism still needs to be investigated, but this could have importance for spacecraft in high-radiation environments.”

He adds that the microscope’s electron beam is more powerful than natural settings, but the gelling effect could affect the lifetime of electrospray thrusters in low-Earth and geosynchronous orbit.

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

Radiation-induced solidification of ionic liquid under extreme electric field by Kurt J Terhune, Lyon B King, Kai He, and John Cumings. Nanotechnology, Volume 27, Number 37 DOI: Published 3 August 2016

© 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

First carbon nanotube mirrors for Cubesat telescope

A July 12, 2016 news item on describes a project that could lead to the first carbon nanotube mirrors to be used in a Cubesat telescope in space,

A lightweight telescope that a team of NASA scientists and engineers is developing specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations could become the first to carry a mirror made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin.

Led by Theodor Kostiuk, a scientist at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the technology-development effort is aimed at giving the scientific community a compact, reproducible, and relatively inexpensive telescope that would fit easily inside a CubeSat. Individual CubeSats measure four inches on a side.

John Kolasinski (left), Ted Kostiuk (center), and Tilak Hewagama (right) hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. The mirror is being tested for potential use in a lightweight telescope specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk

John Kolasinski (left), Ted Kostiuk (center), and Tilak Hewagama (right) hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. The mirror is being tested for potential use in a lightweight telescope specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk

A July 12, 2016 US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about Cubesats,

Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration; Earth observations; fundamental Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities. They also allow an inexpensive means to engage students in all phases of satellite development, operation and exploitation through real-world, hands-on research and development experience on NASA-funded rideshare launch opportunities.

Under this particular R&D effort, Kostiuk’s team seeks to develop a CubeSat telescope that would be sensitive to the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelength bands. It would be equipped with commercial-off-the-shelf spectrometers and imagers and would be ideal as an “exploratory tool for quick looks that could lead to larger missions,” Kostiuk explained. “We’re trying to exploit commercially available components.”

While the concept won’t get the same scientific return as say a flagship-style mission or a large, ground-based telescope, it could enable first order of scientific investigations or be flown as a constellation of similarly equipped CubeSats, added Kostiuk.

With funding from Goddard’s Internal Research and Development program, the team has created a laboratory optical bench made up of three commercially available, miniaturized spectrometers optimized for the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelength bands. The spectrometers are connected via fiber optic cables to the focused beam of a three-inch diameter carbon-nanotube mirror. The team is using the optical bench to test the telescope’s overall design.

The news release then describes the carbon nanotube mirrors,

By all accounts, the new-fangled mirror could prove central to creating a low-cost space telescope for a range of CubeSat scientific investigations.

Unlike most telescope mirrors made of glass or aluminum, this particular optic is made of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin. Sub-micron-size, cylindrically shaped, carbon nanotubes exhibit extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties, and are efficient conductors of heat. Owing to these unusual properties, the material is valuable to nanotechnology, electronics, optics, and other fields of materials science, and, as a consequence, are being used as additives in various structural materials.

“No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin,” said Peter Chen, a Goddard contractor and president of Lightweight Telescopes, Inc., a Columbia, Maryland-based company working with the team to create the CubeSat-compatible telescope.

“This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard,” he continued. “The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues (Kostiuk, Tilak Hewagama, and John Kolasinski) are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program.”

The use of a carbon-nanotube optic in a CubeSat telescope offers a number of advantages, said Hewagama, who contacted Chen upon learning of a NASA Small Business Innovative Research program awarded to Chen’s company to further advance the mirror technology. In addition to being lightweight, highly stable, and easily reproducible, carbon-nanotube mirrors do not require polishing — a time-consuming and often times expensive process typically required to assure a smooth, perfectly shaped mirror, said Kolasinski, an engineer and science collaborator on the project.

To make a mirror, technicians simply pour the mixture of epoxy and carbon nanotubes into a mandrel or mold fashioned to meet a particular optical prescription. They then heat the mold to to cure and harden the epoxy. Once set, the mirror then is coated with a reflective material of aluminum and silicon dioxide.

“After making a specific mandrel or mold, many tens of identical low-mass, highly uniform replicas can be produced at low cost,” Chen said. “Complete telescope assemblies can be made this way, which is the team’s main interest. For the CubeSat program, this capability will enable many spacecraft to be equipped with identical optics and different detectors for a variety of experiments. They also can be flown in swarms and constellations.”

There could be other applications for these carbon nanotube mirrors according to the news release,

A CubeSat telescope is one possible application for the optics technology, Chen added.

He believes it also would work for larger telescopes, particularly those comprised of multiple mirror segments. Eighteen hexagonal-shape mirrors, for example, form the James Webb Space Telescope’s 21-foot primary mirror and each of the twin telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, contain 36 segments to form a 32-foot mirror.

Many of the mirror segments in these telescopes are identical and can therefore be produced using a single mandrel. This approach avoids the need to grind and polish many individual segments to the same shape and focal length, thus potentially leading to significant savings in schedule and cost.

Moreover, carbon-nanotube mirrors can be made into ‘smart optics’. To maintain a single perfect focus in the Keck telescopes, for example, each mirror segment has several externally mounted actuators that deform the mirrors into the specific shapes required at different telescope orientations.

In the case of carbon-nanotube mirrors, the actuators can be formed into the optics at the time of fabrication. This is accomplished by applying electric fields to the resin mixture before cure, which leads to the formation of carbon-nanotube chains and networks. After curing, technicians then apply power to the mirror, thereby changing the shape of the optical surface. This concept has already been proven in the laboratory.

“This technology can potentially enable very large-area technically active optics in space,” Chen said. “Applications address everything from astronomy and Earth observing to deep-space communications.”

Dexter Johnson provides some additional tidbits in his July 14, 2016 post (on his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] about the Cubesat mirrors.

Testing technology for a global quantum network

This work on quantum networks comes from a joint Singapore/UK research project, from a June 2, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

You can’t sign up for the quantum internet just yet, but researchers have reported a major experimental milestone towards building a global quantum network — and it’s happening in space.

With a network that carries information in the quantum properties of single particles, you can create secure keys for secret messaging and potentially connect powerful quantum computers in the future. But scientists think you will need equipment in space to get global reach.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the University of Strathclyde, UK, have become the first to test in orbit technology for satellite-based quantum network nodes.

They have put a compact device carrying components used in quantum communication and computing into orbit. And it works: the team report first data in a paper published 31 May 2016 in the journal Physical Review Applied.

A June 2, 2016 National University of Singapore press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The team’s device, dubbed SPEQS, creates and measures pairs of light particles, called photons. Results from space show that SPEQS is making pairs of photons with correlated properties – an indicator of performance.

Team-leader Alexander Ling, an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at NUS said, “This is the first time anyone has tested this kind of quantum technology in space.”

The team had to be inventive to redesign a delicate, table-top quantum setup to be small and robust enough to fly inside a nanosatellite only the size of a shoebox. The whole satellite weighs just 1.65-kilogramme.

Towards entanglement

Making correlated photons is a precursor to creating entangled photons. Described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”, entanglement is a connection between quantum particles that lends security to communication and power to computing.

Professor Artur Ekert, Director of CQT, invented the idea of using entangled particles for cryptography. He said, “Alex and his team are taking entanglement, literally, to a new level. Their experiments will pave the road to secure quantum communication and distributed quantum computation on a global scale. I am happy to see that Singapore is one of the world leaders in this area.”

Local quantum networks already exist [emphasis mine]. The problem Ling’s team aims to solve is a distance limit. Losses limit quantum signals sent through air at ground level or optical fibre to a few hundred kilometers – but we might ultimately use entangled photons beamed from satellites to connect points on opposite sides of the planet. Although photons from satellites still have to travel through the atmosphere, going top-to-bottom is roughly equivalent to going only 10 kilometres at ground level.

The group’s first device is a technology pathfinder. It takes photons from a BluRay laser and splits them into two, then measures the pair’s properties, all on board the satellite. To do this it contains a laser diode, crystals, mirrors and photon detectors carefully aligned inside an aluminum block. This sits on top of a 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres printed circuit board packed with control electronics.

Through a series of pre-launch tests – and one unfortunate incident – the team became more confident that their design could survive a rocket launch and space conditions. The team had a device in the October 2014 Orbital-3 rocket which exploded on the launch pad. The satellite containing that first device was later found on a beach intact and still in working order.

Future plans

Even with the success of the more recent mission, a global network is still a few milestones away. The team’s roadmap calls for a series of launches, with the next space-bound SPEQS slated to produce entangled photons. SPEQS stands for Small Photon-Entangling Quantum System.

With later satellites, the researchers will try sending entangled photons to Earth and to other satellites. The team are working with standard “CubeSat” nanosatellites, which can get relatively cheap rides into space as rocket ballast. Ultimately, completing a global network would mean having a fleet of satellites in orbit and an array of ground stations.

In the meantime, quantum satellites could also carry out fundamental experiments – for example, testing entanglement over distances bigger than Earth-bound scientists can manage. “We are reaching the limits of how precisely we can test quantum theory on Earth,” said co-author Dr Daniel Oi at the University of Strathclyde.

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

Generation and Analysis of Correlated Pairs of Photons aboard a Nanosatellite by Zhongkan Tang, Rakhitha Chandrasekara, Yue Chuan Tan, Cliff Cheng, Luo Sha, Goh Cher Hiang, Daniel K. L. Oi, and Alexander Ling. Phys. Rev. Applied 5, 054022 DOI: Published 31 May 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

NASA calling for submissions (poetry, video, art, music, etc.) for space travel

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made an open call for art works that could be part of the the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft mission bound for Bennu (an asteroid). From a Feb. 23, 2016 NASA news release on EurekAlert,

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in September and travel to the asteroid Bennu. The #WeTheExplorers campaign invites the public to take part in this mission by expressing, through art, how the mission’s spirit of exploration is reflected in their own lives. Submitted works of art will be saved on a chip on the spacecraft. The spacecraft already carries a chip with more than 442,000 names submitted through the 2014 “Messages to Bennu” campaign.

“The development of the spacecraft and instruments has been a hugely creative process, where ultimately the canvas is the machined metal and composites preparing for launch in September,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It is fitting that this endeavor can inspire the public to express their creativity to be carried by OSIRIS-REx into space.”

A submission may take the form of a sketch, photograph, graphic, poem, song, short video or other creative or artistic expression that reflects what it means to be an explorer. Submissions will be accepted via Twitter and Instagram until March 20, 2016. For details on how to include your submission on the mission to Bennu, go to:

“Space exploration is an inherently creative activity,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “We are inviting the world to join us on this great adventure by placing their art work on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, where it will stay in space for millennia.”

The spacecraft will voyage to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) and return it to Earth for study. Scientists expect Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of the water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth.

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona, Tucson leads the science team and observation planning and processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver is building the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

I wonder why the Egyptian mythology as in Osiris and Bennu. For those who need a refresher on the topic, here’s more from the Osiris entry on Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

Osiris (/oʊˈsaɪərᵻs/, alternatively Ausir, Asiri or Ausar, among other spellings), was an Egyptian god, usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and the dead, but more appropriately as the god of transition, resurrection, and regeneration.

Then there’s this from the Bennu entry on Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

The Bennu is an ancient Egyptian deity linked with the sun, creation, and rebirth. It may have been the inspiration for the phoenix in Greek mythology.

You can find out more about Bennu, the asteriod, on its webpage, The long Strange Trip of Bennu on the NASA website (which also features a video animation), Note: A link has been removed,

… Born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years and dismembered by the gravity of planets, asteroid Bennu had a tough life in a rough neighborhood: the early solar system. …

“We are going to Bennu because we want to know what it has witnessed over the course of its evolution,” said Edward Beshore of the University of Arizona, Deputy Principal Investigator for NASA’s asteroid-sample-return mission OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer). The mission will be launched toward Bennu in late 2016, arrive at the asteroid in 2018, and return a sample of Bennu’s surface to Earth in 2023.

“Bennu’s experiences will tell us more about where our solar system came from and how it evolved. Like the detectives in a crime show episode, we’ll examine bits of evidence from Bennu to understand more completely the story of the solar system, which is ultimately the story of our origin.”

As for the spacecraft, you can find out more about OSIRIS-REx here.

Getting back to the artwork, Sarah Cascone has written a Feb. 22, 2016 posting for artnet news, which features the call for submissions and some work which already been submitted (Note: Links have been removed),

The near-Earth asteroid Bennu will become the first extra-terrestrial art gallery, with the space agency inviting the public to contribute works of art that are inspired by the spirit of exploration.

The project will follow other important moments in space art history, which include work by Invader traveling aboard the International Space Station, conceptual artwork on the UKube-1 satellite, and even a bonsai tree launched into space.

Here’s a selection of the artworks being embedded in Cascone’s posting,

Daughter’s is spacebound! Fitting tribute to a pioneering, star-loving musician @OSIRISREx

For more inspiration, check out Cascone’s Feb. 22, 2016 posting.

Good luck!

Science and the movies (Bond’s Spectre and The Martian)

There’s some nanotechnology in the new James Bond movie, Spectre, according to Johnny Brayson in his Nov. 5, 2015 (?) article for Bustle (Note: A link has been removed),

James Bond has always been known for his gadgets, and although Daniel Craig’s version of the character has been considerably less doohickey-heavy than past iterations, he’s still managed to make use of a few over the years, from his in-car defibrillator in Casino Royale to his biometric-coded gun in Skyfall. But Spectre, the newest Bond film, changes up the formula and brings more gadgets than fans have seen in years. There are returning favorites like a tricked out Aston Martin and an exploding watch, but there’s also a new twist on an old gadget that allows Bond to be tracked by his bosses, an injected microchip that records his every move. …

To Bond fans, though, the technology isn’t totally new. In Casino Royale, Bond is injected with a microchip that tracks his location and monitors his vital signs. However, when he’s captured by the bad guys, the device is cut out of his arm, rendering it useless. MI6 seems to have learned their lesson in Spectre, because this time around Bond is injected with Smart Blood, consisting of nanotechnology that does the same thing while flowing microscopically through his veins. As for whether it could really happen, the answer is not yet, but someday it could be.

Brayson provides an introduction to some of the exciting developments taking place scientifically in an intriguing way by relating those developments to a James Bond movie. Unfortunately, some of  his details  are wrong. For example, he is describing a single microchip introduced subcutaneously (under the skin) synonymously with ‘smart blood’ which would be many, many microchips prowling your bloodstream.

So, enjoy the article but exercise some caution. For example, this part in his article is mostly right (Note: Links have been removed),

However, there does actually exist nanotechnology that has been safely inserted into a human body — just not for the purposes of tracking.  Some “nanobots”, microscopic robots, have been used within the human eye to deliver drugs directly to the area that needs them [emphasis mine], and the idea is that one day similar nanobots will be able to be injected into one’s bloodstream to administer medication or even perform surgery. Some scientists even believe that a swarm of nanobots in the bloodstream could eventually make humans immune to disease, as the bots would simply destroy or fix any issues as soon as they arrive.

According to a Jan. 30, 2015 article by Jacopo Prisco for CNN, scientists at ETH Zurich were planning to start human clinical trials to test ‘micro or nanobots’ in the human eye. I cannot find any additional information about the proposed trials. Similarly, Israeli researcher Ido Bachelet announced a clinical trial of DNA nanobots on one patient to cure their leukemia (my Jan. 7, 2015 posting). An unsuccessful attempt to get updated information can found in a May 2015 Reddit Futurology posting.

The Martian

That film has been doing very well and, for the most part, seems to have gotten kudos for its science. However for those who like to dig down for more iinformation, Jeffrey Kluger’s Sept. 30, 2015 article for Time magazine expresses some reservations about the science while enthusing over its quality as a film,

… Go see The Martian. But still: Don’t expect all of the science to be what it should be. The hard part about good science fiction has always been the fiction part. How many liberties can you take and how big should they be before you lose credibility? In the case of The Martian, the answer is mixed.

The story’s least honest device is also its most important one: the massive windstorm that sweeps astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) away, causing his crew mates to abandon him on the planet, assuming he has been killed. That sets the entire castaway tale into motion, but on a false note, because while Mars does have winds, its atmosphere is barely 1% of the density of Earth’s, meaning it could never whip up anything like the fury it does in the story.

“I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself some leeway,” Weir conceded in a statement accompanying the movie’s release. …

It was exceedingly cool actually, and for that reason Weir’s liberty could almost be forgiven, but then the story tries to have it both ways with the same bit of science. When a pressure leak causes an entire pod on Watney’s habitat to blow up, he patches a yawning opening in what’s left of the dwelling with plastic tarp and duct tape. That might actually be enough to do the job in the tenuous atmosphere that does exist on Mars. But in the violent one Weir invents for his story, the fix wouldn’t last a day.

There’s more to this entertaining and educational article including embedded images and a video.

The US National Aeronautics and Aerospace Administration’s outreach: an introductory nanotechnology video and a talk in Washington, DC

The US National Aeronautics and Aerospace Administration or NASA, as it’s popularly known, has released a Nanotechnology video as part of its NASA Edge series of videos. As it runs for approximately 29 mins. 31 secs. (I won’t be embedding it here where I usually draw the line at approximately 5 mins. running time.)

It is a good introductory video aimed at people who are interested in space exploration and nanotechnology but not inclined to listen to much scientific detail. There is a transcript if you want to get a sense of how much information is needed to watch this program with enjoyment,


FRANKLIN:  An inside and outside look…

BLAIR:  …at all things NASA.

CHRIS: On today’s show we’re going to be talking about nanotechnology.

BLAIR:  Which is technology that’s really small or as I like to say, co-host sized technology.

FRANKLIN: I think it’s a little bit smaller than cohost.  Maybe like the G.I. Joe with kung fu grip or maybe Antman size small.

BLAIR:  Alright, Antman I’ll buy but it’s probably even smaller than that, probably deeply embedded in wearables for Antman.

CHRIS: On today’s show, we going to look at nano sensors, nano wires, nano tubes, and composite over wrapped [sic] pressure vessels.


BLAIR: Which is really what’s interesting to me about the technology, it’s not a single technology with a single use.  It’s a technology that’s being applied all across industry in a lot of different areas and even across NASA.

FRANKLIN: And speaking of COPV’s, we are going to have Mia Siochi on the show today and she’s going to talk to us about how NASA is using nanotechnology in some upcoming tests.

CHRIS: But first up, I had a chance to talk with Steve Gaddis, who is going to give us the broad picture of nanotechnology.

CHRIS: We are here with Steve Gaddis the manager for the Game Changing Development program office. Steve, how are you doing?

STEVE: Doing good.

CHRIS: Steve, we had this whole technology campaign where the theme is Technology Drives Exploration.

STEVE: Absolutely, and I believe it.

CHRIS: What’s that mean Technology Drives Exploration?

STEVE: It means if you want to do these cool things that we haven’t done before, we have to develop the technologies to go do them. We can’t simply just keep doing what we’ve already done in the past, right? We have done some cool things but we want new missions. We want to go farther than we’ve been. We want to drill down. We want to bring things back. So, we need these new technologies.

CHRIS: Now with Game Changing you’re sort of a subset of the Space Technology Mission directorate at NASA headquarters.

STEVE: Right.

CHRIS:  What’s the focus on Game Changing as opposed to other technology subprograms?

STEVE:  We’re the disruptive program, we’re the DARPA like program at out of the nine.  However, all the programs, they’re looking for revolutionary and incremental developments in technology.  Our associate administrator really wants us to take some risk. He expects a certain amount of failure in the activities that were pursuing; the high pay off, high-risk type activities.  So he’d like to see the risk take place with us instead of maybe some of our sister programs where we’re demonstrating on orbit or we’re demonstrating on the International Space Station or we’re demonstrating on a ride with another government agency or the commercial crew type folks.

MEYYA: Nano sensors are a product of nanoscience and nanotechnology. When materials go to that small scale their properties are fundamentally different from bulk materials. So scientists all around the world have been working very hard trying to take advantage of this difference in properties between the bulk scale and the nano scale. And trying to make useful things, which are devices, systems, architectures, and materials for a wide variety of applications; touching upon every economic sector, which is electronics, computing, materials manufacturing, health, medicine, national security, transportation, energy storage, and I don’t want to leave out space exploration.

BLAIR: That’s a lot of stuff anyway. You mentioned space exploration, so I’m wondering; how are nanosensors being used by NASA?

MEYYA: The nanosensors are being developed to replace bulky instruments NASA has been using. No matter what you want to measure, whether you want to measure a composition of gas or vapor or if you want to measure radiation, historically we have always taken bulky instruments. Remember every pound of anything that we lift to near earth orbit it costs us about $10,000 a pound. The same 1-pound of anything would cost roughly about $100,000 a pound for Mars or other missions. So we have an incentive actually to miniaturize the size of the payload. So that’s why we want to move from bulky instruments to sensors. That’s one reason. The second reason is no matter where we go, okay, we don’t have utility companies sitting there waiting for us.  We have to generate our own power and we have to be very wise how we use that power.  The sensors not only are they small in size but they also consume very low power. That’s why over the last decade or so we’ve been working on developing nano-based chemical sensors, biosensors and radiation sensors.

CHRIS: When you are looking at these biosensors, are we looking primarily for crew health safety? What would they be used for?

JESSICA: What are the applications? We’ve developed them for crew health and diagnostic purposes. That’s our most recent project that we worked with the Game Changing Technology office on.  For that project, we developed this sensor to look at a variety of different protein biomarkers for cardiac health. When you’re in microgravity, there’s a lot of strain that’s placed on the heart, so, to monitor the health of the heart for our astronaut crew is critical.  That is the most recent technology we developed for them. We’ve also worked on this sensor looking at microbial contaminants in the water supply.  This is an environmental application for NASA to make sure that the water that the astronauts are drinking is actually safe to drink.

The scientists featured on the video podcast are:


Game Changing Nanotechnology
– Steve Gaddis
– Meyya Meyyappan
– Jim Gaier
– Azlin Biaggi​
– Tiffany Williams
– John Thesken
– Mia Siochi


The second outreach project is billed as a NASA event but it’s more of a science event being hosted by the Wilson Center (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) Science and Technology Innovation Program. From the July 1, 2015 Wilson Center announcement,

NASA’s New Horizons: Innovation, Collaboration and Accomplishment in Science and Technology

With the NASA New Horizons spacecraft on its final approach to its primary target – the icy dwarf planet Pluto – now is the perfect time to reflect on some of the knowledge we’ve already gained from the mission, and to anticipate the new discoveries that are waiting to be made!

We would like to take this opportunity to invite you to a series of short talks inspired by the mission. These talks will cover a number of topics including:

NASA’s and New Horizon’s impact within the world of research

How the Mendeley product suite aims to make life easier for researchers

The importance of open science and the impact it has on major scientific achievements

How a culture of ‘hacking’ can help to foster innovation and creativity

The benefits of making data available for public usage and its societal impact

Mendeley loves science. We help researchers to manage their reference materials, collaborate with their colleagues and discover new research. We’re excited about the possibilities that our work can help to unlock and we want to talk to other people who are excited about the same things.

Logistics are two tiered, first there are the talks and then are the refreshments,

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015
4:00pm – 6:00pm

6th Floor Board Room

Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000

Followed by drinks and conversation at The Laughing Man Tavern, 1306 G St NW, Washington, DC 20005 from 6:30pm to 9:30pm.

Complimentary drinks will be served from 6:30 until 7:30. Each ticket holder will also receive drinks tickets for later use. This event is on a first come, first served basis. All guests must be 21 years of age or older.

You can find more information about the event here and you can register here.  As for Mendeley, free reference manager and academic social network, it seems to be a sponsor for this event and you can find out more about the company here.

Reducing friction with snakeskin-inspired surface

A June 30, 2015 Institute of Physics press release (also on EurekAlert) explains how snakeskin may inspire a whole new generation of robots bound for outer space along with other more earth-bound applications,

Snakeskin-inspired surfaces smash records, providing an astonishing 40% friction reduction in tests of high performance materials.

These new surfaces could improve the reliability of mechanical components in machines such as high performance cars and add grist to the mill of engineers designing a new generation of space exploration robots.

The skin of many snakes and lizards has been studied by biologists and has long been known to provide friction reduction to the animal as it moves. It is also resistant to wear, particularly in environments that are dry and dusty or sandy.

Dr Greiner and his team used a laser to etch the surface of a steel pin so that it closely resembled the texture of snakeskin. They then tested the friction created when the pin moved against another surface.

In dry conditions, i.e. with no oil or other lubricant, the scale-like surface created far less friction – 40% less – than its smooth counterpart.

Lead researcher Dr Christian Greiner said: “If we’d managed just a 1% reduction in friction, our engineering colleagues would have been delighted; 40% really is a leap forward and everyone is very excited.”

Applications are likely to be in mechanical devices that are made to a micro or nano scale. Familiar examples include the sensors in car anti-lock braking systems, computer hard disk drives, and accelerometers in mobile phones, which enable the device to determine for example whether it’s in portrait or landscape mode.

“Our new surface texture will mainly come into its own when engineers are really looking to push the envelope,” Dr Greiner said.

The snakeskin surface could be used in very high-end automotive engineering, such as Formula 1 racing cars. It could also be used in highly sensitive scientific equipment, including sensors installed in synchrotrons such as the Diamond Light Source in the UK or the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and anywhere the engineering challenge is to further miniaturise moving parts.

There is interest in snakeskin-inspired materials from the robotics sector, too, which is designing robots inspired by snakes, which could aid exploration of very dusty environments, including those in space. This raises a new challenge for Dr Greiner’s team: to make a material that decreases friction in only one direction.

Anyone who has felt snakeskin will know that the scales all lie in the same direction and are articulated to aid the snake in its forward motion, while resisting backwards motion. The steel pins tested in this research mimic only the overall surface texture of snakeskin and reduce friction in at least two directions. Dr Greiner has made some progress with polymers that even more closely mimic snakeskin to reduce friction in only one direction. It is, he says, early days and this later work is not yet scheduled for publication.

The only caution is that this new surface doesn’t work well in an environment where oil or another lubricant is present. In fact, the snakeskin effect created three times more friction with lubricant than an equivalent smooth surface.

“This wasn’t a huge surprise,” Dr Greiner explained, “since we were looking to nature for inspiration and the species we mimicked – the royal python and a lizard called a sandfish skink – live in very dry environments and don’t secrete oils or other liquids onto their skin.”

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

Bio-inspired scale-like surface textures and their tribological properties by Christian Greiner and Michael Schäfer. Bioinspir. Biomim. 10 044001 doi:10.1088/1748-3190/10/4/044001 Published 30 June 2015

This paper is open access.

Canadian science media at June 28, 2015 SpaceX Dragon CRS-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station

The short story is that Elizabeth Hand, Digital Engagement Specialist, at Vancouver’s (Canada) Science World was selected to be a correspondent at the Cape Canaveral (Florida) Space X launch on June 28, 2015. There’s more in her June 24, 2015 posting on the Vancouver Sun newspaper blog network (Note: Links and some formatting niceties have been removed),

I [am] on my way to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to join a team of social media correspondents from all over the world as a representative of Science World British Columbia to view the June 28, 2015 SpaceX Dragon CRS-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station.

I  received the news that I had been offered an invite at my thirty-something birthday celebration dinner. It was the gift to end all birthday gifts—a once-in-a-lifetime space nerd adventure. Any rocket launch would have made me happy, but a launch from Cape Canaveral is a particularly special one. For me, in particular, because I grew up in Florida and I can remember standing outside in the school yard hoping to catch a glimpse of the space shuttles that moved the Americans to the stars in the 80’s and 90’s. I dreamed of going up with them.

I am excited to bring the curiosity and excitement of the kids in BC with me to the events. Kids of all ages are invited to send their questions about space and rockets to @scienceworldca and/or @bettyHand on both Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #whyspacematters. You can participate from home or from Science World, where, from June 24-28, kids can dress up in space suits and, with the help of our science facilitators, can snap photos and share their ideas and questions with me and the experts at NASA and SpaceX.

It’s not clear to me if she will be blogging live as well as using the vehicles (Twitter, etc.) mentioned in her posting*. It might be worth checking both the Vancouver Sun (Community Blogs Network) and Science World (blog) to see if she will be offering more substantive descriptions than are possible on the social media vehicles she mentioned.

* ‘posing’ corrected to ‘posting’ at 1115 hours on June 26, 2015.

ETA June 29, 2015: The rocket exploded nine minutes after launch (Daniel Terdiman’s June 28, 2015 posting for Fast Company).