Category Archives: space exploration

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).

Outer space telescopes made of micro- and nanoparticles (smart dust)

Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT is located in New York state) are working on a project that would see ‘smart dust’ used as a telescope in outer space. From a Dec. 1, 2014 news item on,

Telescope lenses someday might come in aerosol cans. Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology and the NASA [ National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Jet Propulsion Laboratory are exploring a new type of space telescope with an aperture made of swarms of particles released from a canister and controlled by a laser.

These floating lenses would be larger, cheaper and lighter than apertures on conventional space-based imaging systems like NASA’s Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, said Grover Swartzlander, associate professor at RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and Fellow of the Optical Society of America. Swartzlander is a co-investigator on the Jet Propulsion team led by Marco Quadrelli.

A Dec. 1, 2014 RIT news release by Susan Gawlowicz, which originated the news item, describes the NASA project and provides more details about the technology,

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program is funding the second phase of the “orbiting rainbows” project that attempts to combine space optics and “smart dust,” or autonomous robotic system technology. The smart dust is made of a photo-polymer, or a light-sensitive plastic, covered with a metallic coating.

“Our motivation is to make a very large aperture telescope in space and that’s typically very expensive and difficult to do,” Swartzlander said. “You don’t have to have one continuous mass telescope in order to do astronomy—it can be distributed over a wide distance. Our proposed concept could be a very cheap, easy way to achieve large coverage, something you couldn’t do with the James Webb-type of approach.”

An adaptive optical imaging sensor comprised of tiny floating mirrors could support large-scale NASA missions and lead to new technology in astrophysical imaging and remote sensing.

Swarms of smart dust forming single or multiple lenses could grow to reach tens of meters to thousands of kilometers in diameter. According to Swartzlander, the unprecedented resolution and detail might be great enough to spot clouds on exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system.

“This is really next generation,” Swartzlander said. “It’s 20, 30 years out. We’re at the very first step.”

Previous scientists have envisioned orbiting apertures but not the control mechanism. This new concept relies upon Swartzlander’s expertise in the use of light, or photons, to manipulate micro- or nano-particles like smart dust. He developed and patented the techniques known as “optical lift,” in which light from a laser produces radiation pressure that controls the position and orientation of small objects.

In this application, radiation pressure positions the smart dust in a coherent pattern oriented toward an astronomical object. The reflective particles form a lens and channel light to a sensor, or a large array of detectors, on a satellite. Controlling the smart dust to reflect enough light to the sensor to make it work will be a technological hurdle, Swartzlander said.

Two RIT graduate students on Swartzlander’s team are working on different aspects of the project. Alexandra Artusio-Glimpse, a doctoral student in imaging science, is designing experiments in low-gravity environments to explore techniques for controlling swarms of particle and to determine the merits of using a single or multiple beams of light.

Swartzlander expects the telescope will produce speckled and grainy images. Xiaopeng Peng, a doctoral student in imaging science, is developing software algorithms for extracting information from the blurred image the sensor captures. The laser that will shape the smart dust into a lens also will measure the optical distortion caused by the imaging system. Peng will use this information to develop advanced image processing techniques to reverse the distortion and recover detailed images.

“Our goal at this point is to marry advanced computational photography with radiation-pressure control techniques to achieve a rough image,” Swartzlander said. “Then we can establish a roadmap for improving both the algorithms and the control system to achieve ‘out of this world’ images.”

You can find out more about NASA’s Orbiting Rainbows project here.

I just mentioned rainbows and optics with regard to Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century cleric who ‘unwove’ rainbows, in a Dec. 1, 2014 posting (scroll down about 60% of the way).

NASA, super-black nanotechnology, and an International Space Station livestreamed event

A super-black nanotechnology-enabled coating (first mentioned here in a July 18, 2013 posting featuring work by John Hagopian, an optics engineer at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA’s] Goddard Space Flight Center on this project) is about to be tested in outer space. From an Oct. 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

An emerging super-black nanotechnology that is to be tested for the first time this fall on the International Space Station will be applied to a complex, 3-D component critical for suppressing stray light in a new, smaller, less-expensive solar coronagraph designed to ultimately fly on the orbiting outpost or as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite.

The super-black carbon-nanotube coating, whose development is six years in the making, is a thin, highly uniform coating of multi-walled nanotubes made of pure carbon about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair. Recently delivered to the International Space Station for testing, the coating is considered especially promising as a technology to reduce stray light, which can overwhelm faint signals that sensitive detectors are supposed to retrieve.

An Oct. 24, 2014 NASA news release by Lori Keesey, which originated the news item, further describes the work being done on the ground simultaneous to the tests on the International Space Station,

While the coating undergoes testing to determine its robustness in space, a team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will apply the carbon-nanotube coating to a complex, cylindrically shaped baffle — a component that helps reduce stray light in telescopes.

Goddard optical engineer Qian Gong designed the baffle for a compact solar coronagraph that Principal Investigator Nat Gopalswamy is now developing. The goal is [to] build a solar coronagraph that could deploy on the International Space Station or as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite — a much-needed capability that could guarantee the continuation of important space weather-related measurements.

The effort will help determine whether the carbon nanotubes are as effective as black paint, the current state-of-the-art technology, for absorbing stray light in complex space instruments and components.

Preventing errant light is an especially tricky challenge for Gopalswamy’s team. “We have to have the right optical system and the best baffles going,” said Doug Rabin, a Goddard heliophysicist who studies diffraction and stray light in coronagraphs.

The new compact coronagraph — designed to reduce the mass, volume, and cost of traditional coronagraphs by about 50 percent — will use a single set of lenses, rather than a conventional three-stage system, to image the solar corona, and more particularly, coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These powerful bursts of solar material erupt and hurdle across the solar system, sometimes colliding with Earth’s protective magnetosphere and posing significant hazards to spacecraft and astronauts.

“Compact coronagraphs make greater demands on controlling stray light and diffraction,” Rabin explained, adding that the corona is a million times fainter than the sun’s photosphere. Coating the baffle or occulter with the carbon-nanotube material should improve the component’s overall performance by preventing stray light from reaching the focal plane and contaminating measurements.

The project is well timed and much needed, Rabin added.

Currently, the heliophysics community receives coronagraphic measurements from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO).

“SOHO, which we launched in 1995, is one of our Great Observatories,” Rabin said. “But it won’t last forever.” Although somewhat newer, STEREO has operated in space since 2006. “If one of these systems fails, it will affect a lot of people inside and outside NASA, who study the sun and forecast space weather. Right now, we have no scheduled mission that will carry a solar coronagraph. We would like to get a compact coronagraph up there as soon as possible,” Rabin added.

Ground-based laboratory testing indicates it could be a good fit. Testing has proven that the coating absorbs 99.5 percent of the light in the ultraviolet and visible and 99.8 percent in the longer infrared bands due to the fact that the carbon atoms occupying the tiny nested tubes absorb the light and prevent it from reflecting off surfaces, said Goddard optics engineer John Hagopian, who is leading the technology’s advancement. Because only a tiny fraction of light reflects off the coating, the human eye and sensitive detectors see the material as black — in this case, extremely black.

“We’ve made great progress on the coating,” Hagopian said. “The fact the coatings have survived the trip to the space station already has raised the maturity of the technology to a level that qualifies them for flight use. In many ways the external exposure of the samples on the space station subjects them to a much harsher environment than components will ever see inside of an instrument.”

Given the need for a compact solar coronagraph, Hagopian said he’s especially excited about working with the instrument team. “This is an important instrument-development effort, and, of course, one that could showcase the effectiveness of our technology on 3-D parts,” he said, adding that the lion’s share of his work so far has concentrated on 2-D applications.

By teaming with Goddard technologist Vivek Dwivedi, Hagopian believes the baffle project now is within reach. Dwivedi is advancing a technique called atomic layer deposition (ALD) that lays down a catalyst layer necessary for carbon-nanotube growth on complex, 3-D parts. “Previous ALD chambers could only hold objects a few millimeters high, while the chamber Vivek has developed for us can accommodate objects 20 times bigger; a necessary step for baffles of this type,” Hagopian said.

Other NASA researchers have flown carbon nanotubes on the space station, but their samples were designed for structural applications, not stray-light suppression — a completely different use requiring that the material demonstrate greater absorption properties, Hagopian said.

“We have extreme stray light requirements. Let’s see how this turns out,” Rabin said.

The researchers from NASA have kindly made available an image of a baffle prior to receiving its super-black coating,

This is a close-up view of a baffle that will be coated with a carbon-nanotube coating. Image Credit:  NASA Goddard/Paul Nikulla

This is a close-up view of a baffle that will be coated with a carbon-nanotube coating.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard/Paul Nikulla

There’s more information about the project in this August 12, 2014 NASA news release first announcing the upcoming test.

Serendipitously or not, NASA is hosting an interactive Space Technology Forum on Oct. 27, 2014 (this coming Monday) focusing on technologies being demonstrated on the International Space Station (ISS) according to an Oct. 20, 2014 NASA media advisory,

Media are invited to interact with NASA experts who will answer questions about technologies being demonstrated on the International Space Station (ISS) during “Destination Station: ISS Technology Forum” from 10 to 11 a.m. EDT (9 to 10 a.m. CDT [7 to 8 am PDT]) Monday, Oct. 27, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The forum will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The Destination Station forums are a series of live, interactive panel discussions about the space station. This is the second in the series, and it will feature a discussion on how technologies are tested aboard the orbiting laboratory. Thousands of investigations have been performed on the space station, and although they provide benefits to people on Earth, they also prepare NASA to send humans farther into the solar system than ever before.

Forum panelists and exhibits will focus on space station environmental and life support systems; 3-D printing; Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) systems; and Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).

The forum’s panelists are:
– Jeffrey Sheehy, senior technologist in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate
– Robyn Gatens, manager for space station System and Technology Demonstration, and Environmental Control Life Support System expert
– Jose Benavides, SPHERES chief engineer
– Rich Reinhart, principal investigator for the SCaN Testbed
– Niki Werkeiser, project manager for the space station 3-D printer

During the forum, questions will be taken from the audience, including media, students and social media participants. Online followers may submit questions via social media using the hashtag, #asknasa. [emphasis mine] …

The “Destination Station: ISS Technology Forum” coincides with the 7th Annual Von Braun Memorial Symposium at the University of Alabama in Huntsville Oct. 27-29. Media can attend the three-day symposium, which features NASA officials, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operation William Gerstenmaier and Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill. Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, will be a special guest speaker. Representatives from industry and academia also will be participating.

For NASA TV streaming video, scheduling and downlink information, visit:

For more information on the International Space Station and its crews, visit:

I have checked out the livestreaming/tv site and it appears that registration is not required for access. Sadly, I don’t see any the ‘super-black’ coating team members mentioned in the news release on the list of forum participants.

ETA Oct. 27, 2014: You can check out Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 24, 2014 posting on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website for a little more information

Lunar spelunking with robots at Vancouver’s (Canada) June 24, 2014 Café Scientifique

Vancouver’s next Café Scientifique is being held in the back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), on Tuesday, June 24,  2014 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the meeting description (from the June 18, 2014 announcement),

Our speaker for the evening will be John Walker, Rover Development Lead of the Hakuto Google Lunar X-Prize Team.  The title and abstract of his talk is:

Lunar Spelunking

Lava tubes, or caves likely exist on the surface of the moon. Based on recent images and laser distance measurements from the surface of the moon, scientists have selected candidates for further study.

Governmental space agencies and private institutions now have plans to visit these potential caves and investigate them as potential lunar habitat sites, as early as 2015.

I will present some of these candidates and my PhD research, which is supporting a Google Lunar X-Prize team’s attempt to survey one of these caves using robots.

I wasn’t able to find much about John Walker bu there is this Facebook entry noting a talk he gave at TEDxBudapest.

As for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, running a Google search yielded this on June 22, 2014 at 0945 hours PDT. It was the top finding on the search page. links to the site were provided below this definition:

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video,…

You can find the Google Lunar XPRIZE website here. The Hakuto team, the only one based in Japan (I believe), has a website here. There is some English language material but the bulk would appear to be Japanese language.