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Will Tomorrow's Supercomputers Be Superconducting?

Today, the list of the 500 fastest supercomputers is dominated by computers based on semiconducting circuitry. Ten years from now, will superconducting computers start to take some of those slots?

Last week, IARPA, the U.S. intelligence community’s high-risk research arm, announced that it had awarded its first set of research contracts in a multi-year effort to develop a superconducting computer. The program, called Cryogenic Computing Complexity (C3), is designed to develop the components needed to construct such a computer as well as a working prototype. 

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DARPA Prepares to Launch "Satlets"

Here comes the "zombie frankensatellite.” Or at least the very first piece of what DARPA needs to make it happen.

DARPA's Phoenix program grabbed a lot of attention in 2012 when it announced a plan to revive old satellites by mining them for parts and constructing a new satellite around them. 

Now, the pieces are coming together for the program’s first space launch. On Tuesday, Seattle-based launch broker Spaceflight announced that it has signed an agreement to carry Phoenix’s first spacecraft. It’s slated to launch some time in the third quarter of 2015 as a secondary payload on a rocket. Although Spaceflight has not yet identified the rocket provider for this launch and could not discuss it, I have been told by several people that the mission will go up on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

The first DARPA Phoenix spacecraft won’t be an orbiting satellite factory. Instead it will be an already completed spacecraft, called eXCITe, built from smaller parts. Constructed by NovaWurks, based in Los Alamitos, Calif., the spacecraft will be made out of a set of identical “satlets,” which the company dubs HiSats, for Hyper-Integrated Satlets. Each measures about 20 by 20 by 10 centimeters.

Each satlet is effectively a self-contained spacecraft, with its own computer, power, communications capabilites, and propulsion. But Talbot Jaeger, NovaWurks founder and chief technologist, says they’re designed to be combined together. He likens them to liver cells. Each one might be capable of performing the basic filtration functions of the liver, but they’re only really effective in aggregate. He did note that at least one vital piece of the spacecraft, the antenna, which is by necessity fairly large, would have to be launched as a payload that’s attached to the satlets.

At the moment, eXCITe is “not a fixed design. It can change depending on what payloads show up and what we can make work on our time frame,” says Jaeger. Depending on what comes in and when, eXCITe will contain anywhere between 10 and 20 satlets, he says. 

This is the kind of flexibility Jaeger is aiming for. The approach “frees us from thinking of just small spacecraft and just large spacecraft,” he says. “We now have something that can bridge that gap.” ​

This might sound like a far cry from an orbiting satellite construction and recycling operation. But it’s part of an overall plan to move away from monolithically-built spacecraft towards something far more modular and manipulable, program manager David Barnhart told me earlier this year. The Phoenix program is “all about how to address the cost of getting and doing things in space," he said.

Piggybacking on a rocket flight as a secondary payload is part of that as well, Barnhart told me.

The satlets will be doing just that on their first trip to space. The firm Spaceflight will carry the eXCITe into orbit on a ring-shaped spacecraft called SHERPA, modeled after the secondary satellite carrier developed by Moog for the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

This will also be the maiden voyage for SHERPA, which Spaceflight hopes to use going foward to ferry secondary payloads into orbit. On this first flight, SHERPA will release eXCITe, along with 1200 kg-worth of other payloads to fly off on their own.

”We’re building a spacecraft that deploys spacecraft,” says Adam Hadaller, mission manager for the upcoming flight. SHERPA has its own power, communications, and positioning gear. Future incarnations could also have propulsion to carry payloads to orbits that differ from the intended orbit of the primary spacecraft.

The smaller the satellite, the longer it takes for the drag of Earth’s atmosphere to pull it down. A SHERPA with thrusters could potentially carry smaller satellites down to a lower orbit, where the atmosphere is thicker, so they would burn up faster at the end of their mission and so not contribute as much to the problem of orbital debris, Spaceflight president Curt Blake. It’s appealing to think there’s a way to make it easier to get things into, and out of, space.

Follow Rachel Courtland on Twitter at @rcourt

Dutch Trains Prove Everything Is Better With Lasers

The combination of trains and lasers seems like it belongs in a really, really bad network TV adventure series straight out of the late 1970s or something. But no, it’s not Supertrain, because not even lasers could have helped Supertrain. What lasers can help are real trains, traveling on real tracks, that are covered with leaves. Leaves cause way more problems for trains than you’d think, but powerful train-mounted lasers can make everything better.

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Ralph Baer, Father of Video Games Is Dead

Ralph Baer, the engineer considered the father of the video game died on 6 December at age 92. He invented the “Brown Box” in 1966,  a hardware-based prototype game system that plugged in to your television.

Baer received the IEEE Edison Medal this year, the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2006, was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Halls of Fame in 2010 among other awards. Oddly enough, he was only elevated to the rank of IEEE Fellow in 2013.

For the whole story of Baer’s fascinating life and inventions see an obituary in our sister publication The Institute.

NASA's Orion Exploration Spacecraft Test Complete

Update 5 Dec 2015: 16:35 GMT The Orion spacecraft has successfully splashed down four hours and 24 minutes after launch at 16:29 GMT. NASA looks to offload flight data from the spacecraft’s many sensors before trucking it back to Florida, so that the space agency can begin analyzing the results in preparation for future test flights.

Update 5 Dec 2015: 16:11 GMT Orion launched on its first test flight at 12:05 GMT after being delayed from a planned launch on Thursday. The spacecraft successfully reached its planned peak altitude of 5,800 kilometers above Earth—about 15 times higher than the space station’s orbit—and is currently less than 10 minutes away from reentry.

Update 4 Dec 2014: 15:40 GMT NASA has aborted Thursday’s launch attempt after several delays involving windy conditions and valve problems on the Delta IV rocket. The next launch window is within 24 hours.

NASA’s next step toward sending astronauts to Mars is fast approaching with the first scheduled test flight of the Orion crew capsule on Thursday. The unmanned test flight aims to assess the spacecraft’s systems in the deep space radiation environment beyond low-Earth orbit and during reentry.

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Rocket Fuel from Human Waste

Getting rid of human waste has been a problem for NASA since the earliest days of space exploration. That’s why the U.S. space agency is funding researchers to figure out how to transform such waste into rocket fuel for future space missions.

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Electronic Jell-O

The future of medical diagnostics may come in the form of 3-D printed electronic Jell-O, according to an Australian chemist who’s working on developing edible sensors made out of materials like gelatin.

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Feel Invisible 3D Shapes With Blasts of Ultrasound

Virtual and augmented reality displays are getting very, very good at allowing us to see things that aren’t really there. When paired with a sensing system (like Kinect), we can even interact with these virtual objects. The missing piece here is touch: the ability to feel things that don’t actually exist. Using an array of focused ultrasound that can create patterns of turbulence in the air, computer scientists from the University of Bristol have been able to generate 3D shapes in midair that you can’t see, but that you can touch.

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New York State Gets Behind Oxyfuel Carbon Capture

In a somewhat startling development, New Yorkâ''s governor David Paterson announced on June 10 that the state will support construction of an experimental â''oxyfiredâ'' electric generation plant, in which coal will be burned in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, so that nitrogen emissions are eliminated and carbon capture simplified. Swedenâ''s Vattenfall and Franceâ''s Alstom are completing a similar demonstration plant in eastern Germany, as described in the â''winners & losersâ'' January issue of Spectrum, and Babcock & Wilcox has had a serious oxyfuel R&D program in the United States. But oxyfuel has not been the mainstream approach …

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