News

Would you ride in a Hyperloop?

This week's Question: MIT recently unveiled its prototype design for SpaceX founder Elon Musk's Hyperloop, a high-speed ground transport system that could theoretically send passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour. The university researchers will test their small prototype pod at SpaceX’s Hyperloop Test Track this summer. SpaceX initially envisioned using a cushion of air to transport the Hyperloop pod. MIT’s team, however, employs a magnetic levitation system, which incorporates two arrays of 20 neodymium magnets to keep the pod levitating at 15 mm. While MIT’s design is not big enough to fit a human body, the team told BBC News that scaling up the size would be straightforward once testing of the prototype pod is completed. The team still needs to address the development of turning and further test the braking system. What do you think? Would you ride in a Hyperloop?

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NASA and FAA Demonstrate Wireless Communication with Aircraft

For the first time ever, a team of engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center conveyed aviation data -- including route options and weather information -- to an airplane over a wireless communication system for aircraft on the ground. The demonstration, conducted with the Federal Aviation Administration demonstrated two technologies that could change airport operations worldwide.

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Royal Navy Uses Pilotless Aircraft to Navigate Through Ice

A tiny pilotless aircraft, built by the University of Southampton, launched from the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS Protector for the first time to assist with navigating through the Antarctic. The 3D-printed aircraft, along with a quadcopter, scouted the way for the survey ship so she could find her way through the thick ice of frozen seas. It’s the first time the Royal Navy has used unmanned aerial vehicles in this part of the world.

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Camouflage Really Does Reduce Chances of Being Eaten

A ground-breaking study not only confirms the assumption that camouflage protects animals from the clutches of predators, but it also offers insights into the most important aspects of camouflage. The research by scientists from the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge investigated the camouflage of ground-nesting birds in Zambia, using sophisticated digital imaging to demonstrate how they would appear from the perspective of a predator. Martin Stevens from Exeter University who, along with Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge, co-led the project said: "Despite such a long history of research, ours is the first study to directly show how the degree of camouflage an individual has, to the eyes of its predators, directly affects the likelihood of it being seen and eaten in the wild." The team studied a variety of ground-nesting birds, whose eggs would stay in a fixed location throughout the month-long period needed for incubation. This allowed the scientists to accurately compare both the adult birds, and their eggs, to their chosen backgrounds, as well as monitor which nests had been found by predators such as banded mongooses, birds, and vervet monkeys. The team used specially calibrated digital cameras and computer models of animal vision to view the nests as the predators might see them. This ranged from the sophisticated color vision of birds, which can see ultraviolet wavelengths, to the relatively poor color vision of mongooses, which only see blues and yellows. The research shows that the eggs of species that flee the nest as predators approach, such as plovers and coursers, are more likely to survive to hatching if they match the background more closely when exposed to view by their fleeing parent. In nightjars, however, which conceal their eggs by remaining motionless over them when predators approach, it was the appearance of the adults that was most important for their survival: nightjars that match the background pattern are more likely to save their eggs from being eaten.

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Scientists Watch Bacterial Sensor Respond to Light

A number of important biological processes, such as photosynthesis and vision, depend on light. But it’s hard to capture responses of biomolecules to light because they happen almost instantaneously. Now, researchers have made a giant leap forward in taking snapshots of these ultrafast reactions in a bacterial light sensor. Using the world’s most powerful X-ray laser at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, they were able to see atomic motions as fast as 100 quadrillionths of a second – 1,000 times faster than ever before. “We’re the first to succeed in taking real-time snapshots of an ultrafast structure transition in a protein, in which a molecule excited by light relaxes by rearranging its structure in what is known as trans-to-cis isomerization,” says the study’s principal investigator, Marius Schmidt from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The technique could benefit studies of light-driven, ultrafast atomic motions. For example, it could reveal: How visual pigments in the human eye respond to light, and how absorbing too much of it damages them. How photosynthetic organisms turn light into chemical energy – a process that could serve as a model for the development of new energy technologies. How atomic structures respond to light pulses of different shape and duration – an important first step toward controlling chemical reactions with light. “The new data show for the first time how the bacterial sensor reacts immediately after it absorbs light,” says Andy Aquila, a researcher at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. “The initial response, which is almost instantaneous, is absolutely crucial because it creates a ripple effect in the protein, setting the stage for its biological function. Only LCLS’s X-ray pulses are bright enough and short enough to capture biological processes on this ultrafast timescale.”

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Researchers Develop Thin, Flexible Sheet Camera

A team led by Shree K. Nayar, T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia Engineering, has developed a novel sheet camera that can be wrapped around everyday objects to capture images that cannot be taken with one or more conventional cameras. The team designed and fabricated a flexible lens array that adapts its optical properties when the sheet camera is bent. This optical adaptation enables the sheet camera to produce high-quality images over a wide range of sheet deformations. "Cameras today capture the world from essentially a single point in space," says Nayar. "While the camera industry has made remarkable progress in shrinking the camera to a tiny device with ever increasing imaging quality, we are exploring a radically different approach to imaging. We believe there are numerous applications for cameras that are large in format but very thin and highly flexible." If such an imaging system could be manufactured cheaply, like a roll of plastic or fabric, it could be wrapped around all kinds of things, from street poles to furniture, cars, and even people's clothing, to capture wide, seamless images with unusual fields of view. This design could also lead to cameras the size of a credit card that a photographer could simply flex to control its field of view. The new "flex-cam" requires two technologies: a flexible detector array and a thin optical system that can project a high-quality image on the array. One approach would be to attach a rigid lens with fixed focal length to each detector on the flexible array. In this case, however, bending the camera would result in "gaps" between the fields of views of adjacent lenses. This would cause the captured image to have missing information or appear "aliased." To solve this problem, the Columbia Engineering team developed an adaptive lens array made of elastic material that enables the focal length of each lens in the sheet camera to vary with the local curvature of the sheet in a way that mitigates aliasing in the captured images. This inherent optical adaptation of the lens is passive, avoiding the use of complex mechanical or electrical mechanisms to independently control each lens of the array.

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Astronomers Use Imaging Software to See Peanut Shell Galaxy

Astronomers at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, have discovered an unusually shaped structure in two nearby disc galaxies. The Swinburne team recently developed new imaging software, making it possible to observe the double "peanut shell shape" formed by the distribution of stars bulging from the centers of these galaxies. The results are published in a new paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the researchers realized that two of the galaxies they were studying (NGC 128 and NGC 2549) were quite exceptional. They are roughly 200 and 60 million light years away respectively, in the constellations of Pisces and Lynx, and they displayed a peanut shell configuration at two separate layers within the galaxies' three-dimensional distribution of stars. "Ironically, these peanut-shaped structures are far from peanut-sized," says Swinburne's Professor Alister Graham, co-author of the research. "They consist of billions of stars typically spanning up to a quarter of the length of the galaxies." Although the “bulges” of both galaxies were already known to display a single peanut shell pattern, astronomers had never before observed the fainter second structure in any galaxy. "They resemble two peanut shells, with one neatly nested within the other; this is the first time such a phenomenon has been observed," says Bogdan Ciambur, the Ph.D. student who led the investigation. "We expect the galaxies' surprising anatomy will provide us with a unique view into their pasts. Deciphering their history can tell us about transformations that galaxies like our own Milky Way might experience."

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