News

NASA Launches Radiometer to Measure Earth's Soil Moisture

NASA’s newest, more technologically advanced radiometer instrument detects microwave energy from space, allowing scientists to study how much water is in the Earth's soil.Soil moisture is an important measurement for weather forecasting, drought and flood predictions, and agriculture. All types of soil emit microwave radiation, but the amount of water changes how much of the energy is emitted. The drier the soil, the more microwave energy; the wetter the soil, the less energy. Radiometers measure the radiation, and scientists use the data to calculate water content. The new radiometer launches into orbit aboard the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite. SMAP carries two instruments to measure how much water is in the soil. In addition to the radiometer, which detects naturally emitted energy, a microwave radar will send a signal to the ground that will bounce back to the satellite with information after it encounters and interacts with the soil. To collect signals from the surface for both the radiometer and radar, SMAP has a 20-foot-wide mesh antenna that rotates 14 times per minute – the largest such spinning antenna in space. A receiver then interprets both sets of signals.The two instruments complement each other: the radiometer provides an accurate measurement of a large block of land, while the radar provides finer detail of the soil moisture in smaller parcels."Combine the two together, use the best of both, and you come up with a pretty accurate soil moisture product at a spatial resolution of 6 miles," said Peggy O’Neill, SMAP deputy project scientist.SourceAlso: Learn about the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission.

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Implantable Neurostimulator Alleviates Dry Eye

Stanford Biodesign fellows are testing two tiny devices that stimulate natural tear production. The technologies deliver micro-electrical pulses to the lacrimal gland.

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New Actuators and Motors Key to Improved Robot Responders

Sandia National Laboratories is developing technology that will dramatically improve the endurance of legged robots, helping them operate for long periods while performing the types of locomotion most relevant to disaster response scenarios. One area of focus is battery life – an important concern in the usefulness of robots for emergency response. The first robot Sandia is developing is a fully functional research platform that allows developers to try different joint-level mechanisms that function like elbows and knees to quantify how much energy is used. The key to the testing is Sandia’s novel, energy-efficient actuators, which move the robots’ joints. The actuation system uses efficient, brushless DC motors with very high torque-to-weight ratios, very efficient low-ratio transmissions, and specially designed passive mechanisms customized for each joint to ensure energy efficiency. Electric motors are particularly inefficient when providing large torques at low to a crouching robot. A simple support element, such as a spring, would provide torque, reducing the load on the motor. Source:

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Launch System Engine Gets a New “Brain”

The engine controller unit on the RS-25 – formerly known as the space shuttle main engine – helped propel all of the space shuttle missions to space. It allows communication between the vehicle and the engine, relaying commands to the engine and transmitting data back to the vehicle. The controller also provides closed-loop management of the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine's health and status. The engine controller unit needed a "refresh" to provide the capability necessary for four RS-25 engines to power the core stage of NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to deep space. An engineering model RS-25 controller is being tweaked and tested at NASA Marshall. At one of the center's test facilities, engineers are simulating the RS-25 in flight, using real engine actuators, sensors, connectors, and harnesses. A second engineering model controller and RS-25 engine also recently were installed on a test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Pending final preparation and activation work, the engine test series is anticipated to begin this year. Source:

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Robotic Handoff Aids Space Station Installation

On Jan. 22, 2015, robotic flight controllers successfully installed NASA’s Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS) aboard the International Space Station through a robotic handoff — the first time one robotic arm on station has worked in concert with a second robotic arm. CATS will collect data about clouds, volcanic ash plumes, and tiny airborne particles that can help improve our understanding of aerosol and cloud interactions and improve the accuracy of climate change models.CATS had been mounted inside the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft’s unpressurized trunk since it docked at the station on Jan. 12. Ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston used one of the space station’s robotic arms, called the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, to extract the instrument from the capsule. The NASA-controlled arm passed the instrument to a second robotic arm — like passing a baton in a relay race. SourceAlso: Learn about an Autonomous Response for Monitoring Volcanic Activity.

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Software Algorithm Finds Risks

At the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) this month, MIT researchers will present algorithms that represent significant steps toward “a better Siri” — the user-assistance application found in Apple products.One aspect of the software that distinguishes it from previous planning systems is that it assesses risk."It’s always hard working directly with probabilities, because they always add complexity to your computations,” said Cheng Fang, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “So we added this idea of risk allocation. We say, ‘What’s your budget of risk for this entire mission? Let’s divide that up and use it as a resource.’”The time it takes to traverse any mile of a bus route, for instance, can be represented by a probability distribution — a bell curve, plotting time against probability. Keeping track of all those probabilities and compounding them for every mile of the route would yield a huge computation. But if the system knows in advance that the planner can tolerate a certain amount of failure, it can, in effect, assign that failure to the lowest-probability outcomes in the distributions, lopping off their tails. That makes them much easier to deal with mathematically.SourceRead more Information Technology & Software tech briefs.

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Will we really wear wearables?

This week's Question: New smartwatches were showcased at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, including devices that run on operating systems and feature pedometers, sleep trackers, and audio players. Research firm Canalys forecasts that worldwide annual smartwatch shipments will grow from 8 million in 2014 to 45 million by 2017. An early 2014 Endeavour Partners survey of 6,223 US adults, however, revealed that one in ten adult consumers owns a wearable activity tracker, such as Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike+ Fuelband, or Misfit Wearables. Yet, more than half no longer continue to use them, and a third of respondents stopped using the modern activity trackers within six months of receiving them. What do you think? Will we really wear wearables?

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