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Ion Electrospray Engines Could Take Cubesats to the Moon and Beyond

CubeSats are one of the cheapest, most efficient ways to get to space. Each CubeSat unit measures just 10 centimeters on a side, which is usually enough room for solar panels, communications equipment, and a small science payload. It isn’t enough room for an engine, and generally, most CubeSats are dumped into orbit and left to fend for themselves, tumbling aimlessly until drag pulls them to earth after a few months or so. This makes them cheap for a spacecraft (usually a little over $100,000 each including launch costs), but places rather severe limits on what they’re able to accomplish.

In 2013, NASA funded three different groups to develop small, highly efficient propulsion systems specifically designed to enable spacecraft like CubeSats to orient themselves, maneuver, and even change their own orbits. The propulsion technology that NASA is interested in is called ion electrospray, and MIT’s prototype is a modular, eight-thruster unit just 21 millimeters thick that can change the velocity of a CubeSat by a staggering 100 meters per second.

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Can Hackers Commit the Perfect Murder By Sabotaging an Artificial Pancreas?

Robotic systems are, at last, beginning to take over some of the burden of managing the fluctuations in blood glucose in patients with Type 1 diabetes. But a new report warns that as the systems get adopted more widely, the risk of criminal eavesdropping and sabotage will also increase.

The report, by Yogish C. Kudva and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, appears in Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics.

“Deliberately wrong (high) glucose data sent to an unprotected mobile computing platform may cause the algorithm to deliver excessive insulin, whereas incorrect low glucose values could cause it to deliver too little,” the researchers write.

Make the machine administer too little insulin, and the blood-glucose level may rise high enough to send the patient into a ketoacidosis coma. Make it administer too much, and the glucose falls until the brain fails causing the to patient faint, or even die. It might seem to bad guys like the way to commit the perfect murder.

Patients are particularly vulnerable to low blood glucose when sleeping. In fact, heading off such nightime episodes is a chief selling point for the most advanced commercial artificial pancreas, the MiniMed 640G, which was recently approved in Australia and Europe.  If its algorithm predicts that a sleeping patient’s blood glucose is about to fall too far, the machine will sound an alarm; if the patient still doesn’t respond, the machine will stop the flow of insulin. 

The researchers note that standards are already being developed to assure that all the parts of the artificial pancreas—the glucose sensors, the insulin pump, and the computer—be interoperable. They say these standards also ought to include provisions for encryption and other security measures. They also suggest that the system seek a second opinion by submitting its operations to the inspection of “intelligent safety algorithms, informed by additional data such as insulin delivery history.” 

Such a safety algorithm might suspect foul play if something extraordinary seemed to happen—for instance, if the sensors reported a sudden rise in blood sugar in the middle of the night, long after the patient’s final meal of the day. This could raise a red flag, inducing the artificial pancreas to wake the patient up to make an independent test of his blood-glucose level.

The artificial pancreas is the culmination of a 50-year slog in bioengineering—one that is finally paying off because of improvements in insulin, sensors, and algorithms. Read all about it in the upcoming June issue of IEEE Spectrum, which is devoted to a single topic: “Hacking the Human OS.”

A Room with the Lowest Magnetic Field in the Solar System

Some experiments, especially in fundamental physics, require the complete absence of magnetic fields. The only places you would find such a spot would be either in intergalactic space or inside a superconductor. Now an international team of researchers claim to have created such a space with a magnetic field that is the weakest in the solar system.

In the Journal of Applied Physics of 14 May the researchers report that by building a box consisting of metal shields arranged in a "Russian nesting doll" structure, they have been able to attenuate changes in the ambient magnetic field caused by man, such as passing cars, or of natural origin, such as solar flares, by a million fold, a factor they have increased to seven million since the acceptance of their paper. In practical terms, the shielded box can reduce magnetic disturbances from passing cars to below one pico Tesla. In comparison, the magnetic field of the Earth averages 48 microtesla at the surface.

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3-D Print and Rubik's Cube-ify Almost Anything

A Rubik’s Cube is a 3-D puzzle designed to be enjoyed for 15 minutes, loathed 30 more minutes, and then placed in a drawer and forgotten. This is because the utility of a solved Rubik’s Cube is less than the utility of an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, so there is simply no motivation to solve it. 

But imagine if you could turn any object whatsoever into a puzzle that needs to be solved before you can use it. That would be fun, right? Sure it would, if by “fun” you mean “the worst.” So let’s do it!

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Poker Pros School Computer on No-Limit Texas Hold'em

A supercomputer-powered artificial intelligence that had previously beat all other computer rivals at playing no-limit Texas hold’em fell short of victory when it challenged four of the world’s best human poker players. The unprecedented showdown took place during a two-week competition lasting from April 24 to May 8.

But computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have already started poring through the competition’s results for lessons on how to improve their poker-playing AI. One of them believes that the computer program could eventually beat the best human players sometime within the next five years.

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Poker Pros Battle Artificial Intelligence to a Statistical Draw

Humans can breathe easier for now after four of the world’s best poker players held their own against the best artificial intelligence in no-limit Texas hold’em. The poker pros played a combined total of 80,000 hands with the computer program, named Claudico, during an intense two-week competition.

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Organic Electronics Deliver Pain-Canceling Molecules

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Researchers invented an implanted bioelectronic device that delivers therapeutic drugs to rats’ spinal cords with unprecedented precision, reducing pain without side effects, according to a study published today in Science Advances. The researchers say that by delivering lower doses of pain medication in a more targeted way, side effects that often accompany traditional administration of pain medications can be avoided.

“To the best or our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of drug delivery with a bioelectronic device in such a selective way,” says Daniel T. Simon, an assistant professor at Linköping University in Sweden, and a researcher on the project. “There has been electrophoretic delivery of drugs done. But there hasn’t been this type of precision and local delivery,” he says.

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Gallium Nitride Power Transistors Priced Cheaper Than Silicon

Last week, El Segundo, Calif.-based Efficient Power Conversion, announced that it’s offering two types of power transistors made from gallium nitride that it has priced cheaper than their silicon counterparts.

“This is the first time that something has really been higher performance and lower cost than silicon,” CEO Alex Lidow says. “Gallium nitride has taken the torch and is now running with it.”

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Intel Offers Internet Smarts for Dumb Vending Machines

Most vending machines seem stubbornly stuck in the 20th century. Intel sees an opportunity to change that sad state of affairs by transforming vending machines into Internet-connected devices. Such a solution could enable intelligent vending machines to continuously update their advertising displays and send wireless alerts requesting a refill when they run low on Coca-Cola or potato chips.

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Cheap Centimeter-Precision GPS For Cars, Drones, Virtual Reality

The GPS navigation system in your mobile phone can get you to the airport or the closest coffee shop. But it can’t pinpoint your exact location on a city sidewalk; that location can be off by 10 meters.

Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin have now made a small, cheap GPS system for mobile devices that gives centimeter-precision positioning accuracy. Such centimeter precision could let drones deliver packages to your porch, autonomous vehicles navigate safely, and be used in precision farming. It could also allow for some neat virtual reality tricks and games if coupled with a smartphone camera, says Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineering researcher at UT Austin. “People could have an engaging mind-blowing experience with physically immersive virtual reality,” he says.

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