China Wants to Make a Mark in Space—But It’ll Need a Little Help

In a China Global Television Network video from 2003, taikonaut Yang Liwei leans back in his orbital capsule, the overstuffed stripes of his spacesuit legs filling the frame. His helmet shield is up, so the viewer can gaze into his eyes as he speaks: “Greetings to people around the world!” His eyes move leftward, out of the frame. “Greetings to my colleagues in space!” he says.

Liwei was China’s first astronaut, reaching orbit decades after US and Soviet space-farers. Not that it’s a competition. (Space is for peace and cooperation … right?) Nevertheless, when it comes to space exploration, China has mostly medaled bronze. Third country to achieve independent human spaceflight. Third to send women to space using homemade technology. Third to staff a crewed space station. Third to slide a probe in for a soft landing on the moon.

China has so far stuck to replicating the successes of other nations’ space programs. But the country has big ambitions. In 2016, read more

How Bright are LED Flashlights? And What the Heck is a Lumen?

It seems like I have been slightly obsessed with flashlights for quite some time. Perhaps it started when the Maglite lights became popular in the ’80s. It was that mini Maglite that ran on 2 AA batteries that I really liked. It was small enough that you could carry around and bright enough that it could actually be useful. When I was a bit older, I would even build and modify my own flashlights. One of my favorites was an underwater light I used for cave diving. It ran on a large lead-acid battery and powered a 25 Watt projector bulb. That thing was great (but not super portable).

These days, you can get some of these super-bright LED lights. They’re cheap and they last a long time, so I guess there’s no more point to trying to find the best flashlight anymore. But there’s always a point to doing some physics! So my next step is to analyze the brightness—that’s what I do.

The flashlight I have is listed at 900 lumens. But what the heck is a lumen?

Really, read more

Scientists Know How You’ll Respond to Nuclear War—and They Have a Plan

It will start with a flash of light brighter than any words of any human language can describe. When the bomb hits, its thermal radiation, released in just 300 hundred-millionths of a second, will heat up the air over K Street to about 18 million degrees Fahrenheit. It will be so bright that it will bleach out the photochemicals in the retinas of anyone looking at it, causing people as far away as Bethesda and Andrews Air Force Base to go instantly, if temporarily, blind. In a second, thousands of car accidents will pile up on every road and highway in a 15-mile radius around the city, making many impassable.

That’s what scientists know for sure about what would happen if Washington, DC, were hit by a nuke. But few know what the people—those who don’t die in the blast or the immediate fallout—will do. Will they riot? Flee? Panic? Chris Barrett, though, he knows.

When the computer scientist began his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of read more

Would Delivery Drones Be All That Efficient? Depends Where You Live

If the idea of swarms of delivery drones dropping packages all over our cities started out as a joke, for some reason the punchline hasn’t landed yet. Amazon applied for a patent in 2015 for a command center, like a beehive, plopped into your city, which isn’t a worrying metaphor at all. Google has its own program in the works, which at least for the moment involves delivering burritos. Again, if this is a joke, it’s got a very long fuse.

Forget about the insane logistics of such a system for a moment, or if you’d even be keen on drones swarming your town. The big question is: Would this actually be a better, more efficient way to go about things than traditional delivery trucks? Without a real system in place, that’s tough to answer.

But today in Nature Communications, a group of researchers have taken a shot at modeling the energy efficiency of delivery drones, and compared it to read more

When Modeling the Mississippi River, a Supercomputer Won’t Do

The Mississippi River—it’s a big deal, OK? The combined ports of South Louisiana and New ­Orleans move more cargo, ton for ton, than any other US port. So figuring out the Mississippi’s hydrodynamics—the way its water, silt, and sand ebb and flow—matters. Matters so much, in fact, that Louisiana has dropped $18 million on a 10,800-square-foot model of Big Muddy’s sinuous meanders. It’s made of 216 panels of high-density foam, carved to match mapping data down to a quarter-millimeter tolerance.

Sure, the Center for River Studies could have just simulated all this in a supercomputer, built from spreadsheets and algebra. And that’s typically what happens nowadays: IRL models of natural phenomena are the exception. But when you can watch in an hour how the river bottom could transform in the course of, say, a year—and directly observe the potential effects on navigation—the impact is more immediate.

“We can bring out students, politicians, and fishers who are tired of seeing PowerPoint or don’t believe computer models,” says civil engineer Clint Willson.

That’ll teach people what they can and can’t build (and where) along a waterway critical to the US economy but more and more subject to the severe effects of climate change.

This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired

How Ice Skaters Turn Physics Into Astonishing Spins

Many people don’t know too much about angular momentum—and that’s fine. But what about figure skaters? Whether they understand the concept of angular momentum doesn’t matter but they use it in one of the all time classic skating moves. You’ve seen it before. The skater starts off in a standing position and spins about the vertical axis. After a few rotations, the skater pulls both arm in closer to the body and spins faster. In physics, we call this conservation of angular momentum.

Just as an example, here is this same maneuver performed on a rotating platform instead of on ice.

Gif: Rhett Allain

Really, you can try something like this on your own. Sit on a nice spinning chair or stool. Start with your arms stretched out as you spin and then bring your arms in. Don’t barf.

But what exactly is angular momentum? In short, it is something that we can calculate that can be conserved. read more

Who’s Going to Buy the International Space Station?

For sale: orbiting space station. Room for eight. Fantastic views of Earth. Commercial opportunities for zero-g manufacturing, research lab, or floating hotel. Cost: $3 to 4 billion a year. Any takers?

President Trump’s new budget request, released Monday, directs NASA to leave behind the International Space Station and explore the moon as a first step toward reaching Mars. The spending plan ends funding of the International Space Station by 2025, replacing taxpayers’ money with revenue from private firms. It proposes $150 million to help get companies to transition to this brave new industrial park.

While NASA and space enthusiasts have been talking about privatizing the station for years, Monday’s announcement is the first time the idea has been officially endorsed by the White House. Advocates of a mission to Mars note that NASA is spending too much on keeping the ISS in orbit, and that it dilutes the mission of the space agency in terms of human space exploration. read more

Watch Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini Robot Open a Door

You could argue that the door handle has had a disproportionate influence on modern robotics. It was the humanoids of the Darpa Robotics Challenge, after all, that were tasked with opening doors, and it was those machines that helped drive robots to where they are now.

Today Boston Dynamics posted a video of its SpotMini quadruped robot extending an arm out of its head to turn a handle. With the dexterity of a tray-carrying butler, it uses its foot to prop the door ajar, then elbows it all the way open for its (armless) SpotMini friend to walk through. At face value, it’s a pretty incredible feat. But it’s also an interesting twist in the quest to make robots that get along with a world built by and for humans. Maybe the Darpa Robotics Challenge had it wrong with humanoids after all, and the best robots for rescue operations will look nothing like humans—or any other animal, for that matter.

At the moment, read more

Real Scientists Admit When They’re Wrong

What do you do when you discover you’re wrong? That’s a conundrum Daniel Bolnick recently faced. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and in 2009 he published a paper with a cool finding: Fish with different diets have quite different body types. Biologists had suspected this for years, but Bolnick offered strong confirmation by collecting tons of data and plotting it on a chart for all to see. Science for the win!

The problem was, he’d made a huge blunder. When a colleague tried to replicate Bolnick’s analysis in 2016, he couldn’t. Bolnick investigated his original work and, in a horrified instant, recognized his mistake: a single miswritten line of computer code. “I’d totally messed up,” he realized.

But here’s the thing: Bolnick immediately owned up to it. He contacted the publisher, which on November 16, 2016, retracted the paper. Bolnick was mortified. But, he tells me, it was the right thing to do.

Why do I recount this story? Because I think society read more

Space Photos of the Week: New Horizons Breaks a Record for Long-Distance Photography

This abstract glow isn’t just a regular old space photo—it was taken a record-breaking 3.79 billion miles away from Earth. NASA’s Pluto-grazing New Horizons spacecraft snapped this photo of the Wishing Well open galactic star cluster on its way toward its second destination, the Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69. For comparison, the runner-up for distance photography is the famous Pale Blue Dot, taken by the Voyager spacecraft while it was 3.75 billion miles away.

This stunning photo of Jupiter was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft on its tenth orbit on December 16. The planet’s odd zigzagged storms are on full display, along with a white cyclone. Jupiter looks huge in this photo, but it’s still hard to get a sense of scale—the white cyclone on the left is the size of an entire continent on Earth.

This Hubble image looks like an artfully crafted watercolor painting, but it’s a real photograph of galaxy NGC 7331, which is located 45 million light years away. NGC 7331 shares read more