Mind Control

Mind over machine. Science fiction has predicted for decades that one day we would be able to control things by hooking our brains up to computers that would just make it all happen. And now it has happened: a paralyzed woman has used her mind to control a robot arm and make it bring a coffee cup to her lips to drink. This is not just cool; it is a promise of incalculable benefit to severely handicapped people everywhere, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

The work was developed by scientists at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center, Harvard Medical School and other institutions. The AP story gives more information.

Mine the Asteroids!

The gold rush has officially begun: the mining of the asteroids. Science fiction writers have been predicting it for decades.* Now some seriously hard-hitting billionaires and technical people are joining forces to make it happen, through a privately funded initiative called Planetary Resources, Inc. Investors include filmmaker and explorer James Cameron (yes, he who just dove the Mariana Trench), the founders of the X-Prize Foundation, Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, Jr., and others. Technical people include—well, for example, the chief engineer is Chris Lewicki, who was Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions.

They’re seriously planning to robotically explore and mine near-Earth asteroids, seeking precious metals, such as platinum-family metals, and water (very precious in space, very expensive to lift into orbit). From the Planetary Resources website:

“Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids. Water is the essence of life and exists in plentiful supply on asteroids. Access to water and other life-supporting volatiles in space provides hydration, breathable air, radiation shielding and even manufacturing capabilities. Water’s elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used to formulate rocket fuel.”

Here’s a summary of a recent report suggesting that the technology to do this is available or nearly so. 

I think this is one of the most exciting developments in space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. For more details, visit the Planetary Resources website. For a highly readable but expert analysis, read Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog post: Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it.

I’m not an investment speculator, but if they were selling shares, I’d be in for a share today.

*My own short story, Dog Star, is based on the premise that we’ll be actively mining near-Earth asteroids; also, on the smarts of border collies.

Cameron Dives the Mariana Trench!

Filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, The Abyss) has become the third human in history to travel seven miles down into the deepest part of the ocean—the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. He’s the first to do it alone, as leader of the Deepsea Challenge mission.

I was eleven when the Trieste made the first, two-man, dive in 1960. I’ve often wondered why nobody ever went back (just as I’ve wondered why we haven’t returned to the Moon). Well, now this team has done it, and it’s the first of a planned series of dives. Whereas the Trieste got just twenty minutes of bottom time and never returned, Cameron and the submersible Deepsea Challenger spent a couple of hours there, gathering samples and shooting 3D video. Here’s the first of many video clips about the National Geographic sponsored mission:

When I blogged, just days ago, about two separate planned expeditions, I had no idea that Cameron’s dive was imminent. And I almost missed it when it happened. The story was buried in the Boston Globe, and it’s too early for it to be in any of my science mags. In my previous forays to the Deepsea Challenge site, I’d failed to notice the prominent box where you can sign up for email updates. I’ve fixed that. But I can’t help wondering: Why aren’t stories like this front-page news? If I were running the world, they would be! Because, by God, this is exciting stuff. What a time to be alive!

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Would you go to the bottom of the sea in this craft?

Image: Virgin Oceanic

Only two humans have ever traveled to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, seven miles down in the Pacific Ocean off the Philippine Islands. That happened more than fifty years ago, when Lieutenant Don Walsh of the U. S. Navy and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard descended into the depths in the U.S. Navy bathyscaph Trieste, in 1960. (Nine years before the first humans set foot on the Moon.) I’m sure others have dreamed of it. (I have.)

Sometimes it takes a really rich person to pursue this kind of dream. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, is one such person. He’s paying for the completion of Virgin Oceanic’s one-man submersible, in which explorer Chris Welsh will attempt the first manned follow-up to the historic Trieste dive. It looks cool as hell. But can it survive the crushing depth of the Challenger Deep? Read about it here.

And if they don’t make it, maybe James Cameron and his Deepsea Challenger will. (See their very cool website.)

My New Galaxy Tab!

My birthday was over a month ago, but I’m reveling in a belated gift that’s cool as hell: my new Android tablet, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. I was offered a choice, and I spent a while looking at the iPad and various other Android devices, and this one rose to the top. Why this over the iPad, especially since I have quite a few friends who own and love their iPads? It was mostly the more open operating system. Apple designs great devices, no question; I just don’t like their closed, control-freak approach to everything. The Android system is a little more like the Wild West of outer space—room to move, and plenty of expansion going on. Also, Angry Birds is free in the Android store.

It took me a while to figure out the ropes, but now that I’ve settled on some good apps and learned some of the quirks, I can say that it’s great for all these things:

  • Ebook reader, with a variety of ebook apps (so far I like Aldiko best, ahead of FBReader and Kindle app)
  • Portable way to read the Boston Globe (which recently introduced a new online edition)
  • Web browsing, especially in the Dolphin browser, which is speedier and easier than either Firefox or the included “Browser”
  • Movie player (I look forward to enjoying this little reward on my next writing retreat. I’ve been converting a bunch of my DVDs for future watching.)

It’s okay for checking email and syncing contacts and calendar with my laptop. I haven’t messed with that enough yet to give it a proper evaluation.

I suspect I’ll like it for typing quick notes to myself, etc. I haven’t really tried writing on it. Hard to see how that would work too well without a separate keyboard. But I could see using it to review and proof and do light editing.

Sadly, I can’t watch Netflix movies—not because the device can’t do it, but because my Netflix plan (2/mo.) is too cheapo to allow it. That’s all about to be history anyway, I guess; I’m sure not going to subscribe separately for DVD service and streaming movies at 3-4 times what I’m paying now. The one place where the Android, sadly, is behind iPad is Hulu streaming. That hasn’t arrived yet. I’m sure it will.

This whole field is really taking off, with all the Androids and especially the new Kindle Fire. (Too small for much of what I described above, but I’ll bet it’s going to be a really fine reading device.)

Now, if only ebook sales would take off with all the new hardware to view them on!

Spaceship Two Does the Wobble Dance

posted in: Flying, space, technology 0

Here’s a video of a recent test flight of Spaceship Two, which by this time next year could be offering rides into space to the public. (Got $200,00 I could borrow? I’m good for it. I promise.) The amazing thing about this video isn’t the test flight per se; it’s the mode of reentry. Watch it, and you’ll see the spaceship raising its tail feathers and bobbing like a badminton shuttlecock—intentionally!

I’m going to try to tweak this so that it’ll fit on my page here. But if you want to read it with some explanation, view it here, again courtesy of the Bad Astronomy blog.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launches Dragon Into Space

I almost missed seeing this in the Globe’s electronic edition, but Space.com clued me in. SpaceX successfully launched another Falcon 9 rocket, and this time it had a mockup of their Dragon spacecraft on top. The Dragon, which is slated to eventually transport cargo and possibly crew to the International Space Station, went into orbit for a couple of rounds and safely reentered for a Pacific Ocean splashdown. This made Paypal / SpaceX / Tesla Motors tycoon Elon Musk ecstatic. It made me pretty happy, too. With the space shuttle coming up on retirement, the sooner we have less expensive, privately operated spacecraft hitting the Up and Out, the better.

I also have to smile that the Falcon rocket series is named after the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars, and the Dragon capsule is named for Puff the Magic Dragon. Check out the great pix of the flight at http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-120810a.html.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7