News

The Antimatter Mystery Continues

Matter and antimatter are almost identical, but their one crucial difference, an opposite charge, can cause mutual annihilation when the two are mixed. So if there's plenty of matter here in the world, where is its counterpart? When the universe formed, matter and antimatter should have been produced in equal amounts. To study antimatter, scientists at the CERN laboratory (located just outside of Geneva) have produced antihydrogen atoms in a vacuum. The researchers used strong, magnetic fields to trap the antihydrogen and prevent it from coming into contact with matter. The experiment has shown that it is possible to isolate antihydrogen atoms for about a tenth of a second, a long enough time to study them. A New York Times article this week, too, highlighted the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a project led by MIT professor and Nobel laureate Samuel Chao Chung Ting. Come February, the device will sit on the space station and look for cosmic rays, detecting high-energy particles and sorting them by their electrical charges. Researchers are clearly working hard to solve the antimatter mystery. In fact, Yasunori Yamazaki of Japan's RIKEN research centre announced, "antimatter will not be able to hide its properties from us much longer." You hear that, antimatter? You may annihilate ordinary matter in a flash of energy upon contact, but we're coming for you.

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Not Just Playing Around

Like many other alluring things on this Earth, video games can toe the line between good and evil. They are notoriously addicting (sometimes to their users' detriment) — but that quality also allows them to function as a successful medium in rehabilitation and therapy applications. “There are some people who claim that playing video games contributes to attention deficit, that it rewires our brains,” said NASA Langley Research Center scientist Alan Pope. “Well, if that’s the case, then let’s decide how we want video games rewiring our brain.” Pope and his team are developing “Mindshift” gaming technology that helps users learn how to control stress and sharpen their ability to concentrate. A former version of this NASA-developed technology has also been commercialized into a game for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Read more about the technology here. It appears that games may indeed “rewire” our brains — for better or for worse. In a recent University of Oxford experiment, healthy volunteers viewed a film that included traumatic images of injury from a variety of sources. After waiting for 30 minutes, 20 volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, 20 volunteers played Pub Quiz, a word-based quiz game, for 10 minutes, and a final set of 20 volunteers did nothing. Subjects who played Tetris reportedly experienced significantly fewer flashbacks of the film, while those who played Pub Quiz actually experienced significantly more flashbacks, in comparison to the control group of volunteers who did nothing. This surprised me, because I had guessed that the games would have a neutral or beneficial effect on the subjects — certainly not a negative effect, as in the case of the word-based game. Could it be the visual component of Tetris that, at least in this particular experiment, made it a better candidate for reducing the incidence of traumatic flashbacks? Whatever the reason, it's nice to have an excuse to play a bit of Techtris (NASA Tech Briefs’ version of Tetris) — strictly to pay tribute to the game’s potentially therapeutic qualities, of course.

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Cleared for Takeoff

You just know somebody’s going to make a movie about this. On October 22, New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson, presided over the dedication of what could become the world’s first commercial spaceport. And what is a spaceport, you ask? Think of it as an airport for space travelers, and apparently they’re building one in New Mexico. Why? Because billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is planning to start offering weekly sightseeing jaunts into space soon and his spacecraft – the imaginatively dubbed SpaceShipTwo – is going to need someplace to take off and land. Branson’s always had a keen sense of humor. In 1972, at the height of the sexual revolution, he named his fledgling company “Virgin.” But this latest endeavor appears to be no joke. His new company, Virgin Galactic, is already taking reservations. Before you rush off to book yours, you should probably know that tickets cost $200,000 apiece, but if you can come up with a $20,000 deposit they will gladly add your name to the list of 340 other so-called “Virgin Galactic astronauts” they claim have already signed up. There’s no word yet on what their frequent flier program will offer, but you can book a flight either directly with Virgin Galactic or through one of their authorized local ticket agents. And no, I’m not making that last part up. Spaceport America, as the new facility is called, is located in the middle of the New Mexico desert not far from the White Sands Missile Range in an area the Spanish conquistadors named Jornada del Muerto. Loosely translated, that means “Journey of the Dead Man.” I’m thinking Branson’s marketing people might want to work on that one. And while they’re at it, they might want to take a look at the nearest town, a little place 30 miles west of Spaceport America called Truth or Consequences. I kid you not; look it up. And yes, the town was named after that old television show. So far, there isn’t much to show at Spaceport America other than a two-mile long runway and the early stages of terminal construction, but when it’s completed the $200-million facility will reportedly encompass a 47,000 sq. ft. double-height hangar; administration and support facilities for both Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (c’mon, you didn’t really think they could pull this off without creating another government agency, did you?); and a modern, environmentally friendly terminal housing an operational training area, spacesuit changing rooms, a departure lounge, and celebration areas. The facility will also house a state-of-the-art control room and a restaurant, probably because they won’t be offering in-flight meals…much like most other airlines today. There’s no word yet on whether TSA will be handling security for the intrepid travelers. Hopefully not. Removing your shoes could be a real pain in a spacesuit. All kidding aside, if anybody can pull this thing off, Richard Branson can. His record speaks for itself. A dyslexic who left school at the age of 16, Branson has since turned himself into one of the richest businessmen in the world. He has the money to make things happen, and he’s not afraid to put it where his mouth is. In 2009 he signed a 20-year lease making Virgin Galactic the anchor tenant at Spaceport America. The cost? A cool $1-million per year for the first five years, with additional payments based on the number of launches the company makes. That’s probably small change compared to what he’s investing in the design and development of the company’s state-of-the-future-art spacecraft. The brainchild of Burt Rutan, arguably one of the most gifted, forward-thinking aircraft designers the world has ever known, the vehicles will feature such advanced technology as hybrid rocket motors and a unique feathered re-entry system that Virgin Galactic claims “does away with the need for sophisticated computer driven flight control systems or the need to rely on pilots” for a “heat free re-entry followed by a glide runway landing.” There’s also the WhiteKnightTwo, the twin-fuselage “mothership” designed to ferry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of 50,000 feet for launch. None of that technology comes cheap. Most entrepreneurs would consider getting a business devoted to space tourism off the ground (no pun intended) challenging enough, but not Branson. He’s already thinking ahead. If his company can transport amateur astronauts into space, why not professional astronauts? With the impending demise of the space shuttle program, America’s astronauts are going to need some way to get back and forth to the International Space Station. Branson and company may have a solution to that problem. But that’s still a ways off. For now the goal is giving wings to the well-heeled adventurers of the world. Personally, I hope he succeeds. I’ll probably never get the opportunity to go, but if I did, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a $200,000, 2.5-hour joyride into space than by cutting loose in a town called Truth or Consequences. Now that’s an adventure!

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New Energy-Efficient Design Brings the Heat

To provide an alternative to energy-inefficient, fume-heavy fire cooking, Paul Montgomery, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, is helping to design a better, cleaner stove for people in developing countries. Central to the design is a heat-powered fan. Here's how the process is more energy efficient: Montgomery's invention (still at the experimental stage) captures some of the stove's waste heat and converts it into sound waves in a thermo-acoustic engine. An electro-acoustic transducer then converts that acoustic energy into a tiny bit of electricity, which can charge a battery, provide lighting, and operate a fan directed at the combustion of the stove's biofuel. Take a look at Montgomery's paper where he explains his research. Also, while we're talking about cutting-edge inventions, make sure you check out this year's Create the Future design content winners. A profile of Salim Nasser's Rowheel Wheelchair Propulsion System and the rest of this year's "Create the Future" standouts are featured in this month's NASA Tech Briefs issue.

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Finally! My invisible cardigan is ready!

Designing a material to cloak objects from visible light has always been a challenge -- Trust me, I've tried it many times during my childhood. Published today, the New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society) details how Meta-flex, a new material designed by researchers from the University of St Andrews, overcomes the two biggest invisibility obstacles: 1) Making meta-atoms small enough to interact with light and 2) Creating meta-materials that can be detached from their hard surfaces in a way that makes them flexible. (Oh, so THAT's where I went wrong!) Download the team's research paper and see how it's done.

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R2's Excellent Adventure

When the Space Shuttle Discovery launches tomorrow, it will carry six human -- and one non-human -- crewmembers to the International Space Station. The non-human is Robonaut 2 (R2), which is set to become the first humanoid robot in space. R2 will be unpacked several months after it arrives, and tested on the station. He (or she – R2 is a little ambiguous right now) will become a permanent resident of the space station. After testing, software upgrades and various lower bodies can be added (currently, R2 has no legs), allowing R2 to move around and eventually work outside in the vacuum of space. Possible future uses for R2 are servicing communications, weather, and reconnaissance satellites; exploring asteroids and comets; and eventually visiting Mars and Mars’ moons. But for now, R2 will be content to serve the human astronauts he’s traveling with. R2 surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans. As R2 proves its mettle, the robot may graduate to station maintenance tasks, such as vacuuming or cleaning filters. But don’t think R2 is just a space station housekeeper. With upgrades, R2 could perform repairs on the exterior of the station or simply help astronauts as they work outside. Visit R2’s Facebook page, and watch a video on R2 as he prepares to join his crewmates.

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Analysts Add to Creo Conversation

Yesterday, after unveiling Creo, PTC's soon-to-arrive design application suite, the company arranged for a panel of analysts to address attendee questions about the product. The roundtable included Marc Halpern, Research VP at Gartner, Sanjeev Pal, Research Manager at IDC, and John MacKrell, a senior consultant at CIMdata. The trio spoke about potential challenges, as well as what they considered to be the most interesting Creo features. Here are a few bits from the discussion. On CAD challenges: "For me, the most exciting element of Creo is the idea of linking the configuration management, particularly from manufacturing bill of materials, to the CAD models, the digital mockups ... It's a very difficult problem, and I'm very much excited and look forward to seeing, once this goes out on the market, how it works. I give PTC a lot of credit for going after it." -- Marc Halpern "[Customers] don't want to restrict themselves to 'I'm working with this application, and I have a supplier or an acquired company, and we can't work together because they have a different CAD system.'" -- Sanjeev Pal, on Creo's potential to handle external CAD data. "One of the major problems, and anyone in an industrial setting understands this, is CAD data is highly underutilized today. It's way too complex ...The user interfaces are too complex. The operations are too complex, especially in the 3D format. If you can unlock that to the user community through simplified user interfaces and simplified operations, that is a great thing ...To expand the CAD use over to people like CAE analysts, for example, and allow them to do operations on the model more easily than they do today is really important." -- John MacKrell "If the interfaces are easier, you can simply hand it over to somebody on the factory and floor and even in the supply chain ... Those are the three areas -- manufacturing, sales, and supply chain -- that I see the greatest opportunities." -- Marc Halpern An attendee later pressed the panel on what the risks are of the emerging product suite: "I've been around this type of software for 30 years. I have never seen a major platform that didn't have risks ... When you shift these platforms, of course there's risk, considering the changes in architecture, the way data needs to be reorganized, and ways that algorithms now need to work. And I perceive that that's the biggest risk: Out of the box, come this summer, we'll have to see how good a job PTC does in terms of the quality and delivering out of the box something that is industrial strength. I give PTC the credit for putting their name on the line to move in this direction." -- Marc Halpern

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