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Oft-Delayed Shuttle Mission Finally Blasts Off for Space Station

The latest mission of the shuttle transport system finally got the green light to fly today.

The shuttle Discovery roared off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:43 pm EDT. The mission, designated STS-119, was originally scheduled to launch on 12 February, but a string of technical problems led NASA to postpone the countdown on several occasions. This time, everything worked as planned, and Discovery reached orbit about 9 minutes after liftoff.

The job of the STS-119 crew is to deliver a set of solar arrays to the International Space Station (ISS). The S6 array when installed will finish the Integrated Truss Structure, the so-called backbone of the ISS, bringing the orbiting science platform a giant step toward completion by enabling it to produce more solar energy. Discovery's crew will also conduct a number of experiments, including the Shuttle Ionospheric Modification with Pulsed Local EXhaust (SIMPLEX), Shuttle Exhaust Ion Turbulence Experiments (SEITE), and Maui Analysis of Upper Atmospheric Injections (MAUI) tests.

The crew of STS-119 consists of Commander Lee Archambault, Pilot Dominic A. Antonelli, and Mission Specialists Joseph M. Acaba, Steven R. Swanson, Richard R. Arnold, and John L. Phillips, as well as Flight Engineer Koichi Wakata of Japan, who will join the ISS crew for Expedition 18. Current ISS astronaut Sandra Magnus will return with the shuttle to Earth.

The Discovery mission, the 28th shuttle flight to the ISS, is slated to last 13 days.

Be-dazzle my Fighter Jet

Apollo Diamond
Photo: jurvetson

Nevermind the economic meltdown, soon our fighter jets might be decked with no less than precious gemstones.

The U.S. Air Force is considering packing 80 carats worth of diamonds on the windows of a new generation of aircrafts.

No, the military is not trying to show off.

The new jets will carry high-powered microwave (HPM) emitters. These weapons are capable of destroying enemy electrical systems without a single scratch or boom. Those targets hit will simply stop working and drop out of the skies -- scary thought.

Without the protection of the right material though, these emitters would also make a big ol' hole on the side of the planes carrying them.

Talk about a first-class security system!

We all know that diamonds have qualities that are hard to match: no other material is harder, tougher or has higher thermal conductivity.

These properties have landed man-made diamonds in high-quality loudspeakers and cutting tools for granite and marble.

Those in the know have been talking about the advent of the Diamond Age for a few years now.

In fact, the companies that are vying to make the jets' fancy new windows have been studying the use of diamonds for quite a while.

Take Apollo Diamond, for example. The well-guarded Massachusetts-based company holds the record of creating the largest synthetic diamond. Just like its competitors, Apollo is working hard on mass producing the "ultimate semiconductors" out of diamonds. But in order for the use of diamonds to surpass that of silicon in the semiconductor industry, the diamond makers have to come up with cheaper ways of producing them.

In the meantime, Apollo hopes that the technique first developed in its founder's garage more than 10 years ago, a modified version of Chemical Vapor Deposition, will be well worth the Air Force's time and money.

Yes, we will have to wait close to a decade for these diamond windows. Perhaps by then we'll be able to afford them.

Semicon Industry Honors University Engineers

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) today awarded its highest prize for academic research to scientists from MIT and UCLA.

At its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the industry trade group singled out the work of Anantha Chandrakasan and Kang Wang for its 2009 University Researcher Awards.

Chandrakasan, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, specializes in micropower design, wireless microsensor arrays, and ultrawideband radios. Chandrakasan recently collaborated with researchers at Texas Instruments on a microcontroller that reduces power consumption by 90 percent compared to a conventional device.

Wang, a former chair of the electrical engineering department at UCLA, works in the areas of silicon-carbide nano devices, self-assembly of quantum structures, and spintronics materials. Wang's efforts are focused on basic research to develop technologies that will enable continued progress in semiconductors when the limits of conventional microelectronics are reached, according to the SIA.

"The crown jewel in the U.S. innovation ecosystem is our network of world-leading research universities," said Hector Ruiz, chairman of the SIA.

"America's research universities attract the best and brightest students and teachers from around the world," Ruiz added. "University researchers do the fundamental research that has enabled U.S. chipmakers to lead the world in developing innovative products and solutions."

International Space Station Evacuated Temporarily

The threat of approaching "space junk" forced the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) into evacuation mode today.

The danger of an object speeding into the path of the ISS was deemed so severe that it caused NASA to declare an emergency shortly after noon Eastern Time. That sent the two astronauts and one cosmonaut aboard to don spacesuits and scramble into the attached Soyuz reentry capsule, pending the approach of the unknown object.

The emergency was declared over at 12:45 pm EDT, according to a NASA press release, and the crew was given the "all clear."

Astronauts Sandra Magnus and Michael Fincke and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov then were ordered back to their quarters to continue their normal routines on the science platform.

A spokesperson for NASA said the errant object was about one-third of an inch in width, which would have been large enough to tear a hole in the space station's cabin, depressurizing the vehicle. The debris may have been a piece from a rocket engine that carried a previous payload to the space station itself (thereby putting it in the same orbital plane).

NASA estimates that there are some 170 000 broken pieces of spacecraft of the object's size orbiting the planet.

Today's collision drill was the eighth of its type in the nine-year history of manned operations aboard the ISS but the first ever that escalated to the degree where an escape procedure was required. Usually, ground controllers are able to warn the ISS crew sufficiently in advance of a potential threat to have them maneuver the space station away from an approaching object.

"The crew is safe and back in the space station, and they are resuming normal operations," NASA public affairs officer Laura Rochon said after the event.

Nanobot Video: Funny or Not?

There were those who did not find the nanobot video making the rounds on tech blogs the least bit amusing, while others could barely get up off the floor from falling down laughing.

I laughed when I saw it and when I did it never occurred to me that it might be at the expense of someone else, even the MNT community.

The Mind versus the Heart in Nanotechnology

I saw what I thought to be an odd quote from an article by Chris Tourney in Nature Nanotechnology.

Hereâ''s the quote that has me bewildered:

â''For those who expect that people will embrace nanotechnology when they learn more about the science, the second message from these four recent reports is that the scientific knowledge in our minds is a weak companion to the strong values and concerns in our hearts."

I wanted to read more from this article after reading such a perplexing thought, but I have to confess I could not because I am not a subscriber to the publication. Nonetheless, What â''strong values and concerns in our heartsâ'' could the author be referring to? And why on earth do we have to accept that the scientific knowledge in our minds is secondary to these so-called â''strong values in our heartsâ''?

Maybe â''strong valuesâ'' is just another way of saying misguided biases. As noted by Stephen Chu on the Charlie Rose television show all significant science flies in the face of dogma.

If the human species is reduced to taking into consideration every little â''valueâ'' that people hold dear, then you might as well start de-evolving back to the caves right now.

Destroy Civilization with Nanotechnology

Last week I naively suggested that popular culture had moved on from the doomsday scenarios of â''grey gooâ'' brought on by nanobots, and had instead graduated to talking about how nanomaterials would get on our person and attract lightening strikes.

Clearly I have spoken too soon. The appeal of nanobots devouring the earth is just too strong as the both intentionally and unintentionally funny video below demonstrates.

Battle Lines Are Drawn in Nanotech Regulations

Not too surprisingly the views on regulations for nanotechnology are drawn pretty clearly along political lines of NGOs versus industry.

The opposing forces are clearly delineated here. You have the NGOs essentially in favor of a moratorium on nanotechnology and industry seeking more clarity on the entire issue of regulations on nanotech.

There really hasnâ''t been much movement along these lines over the last several years. Maybe research that answers some of the outstanding questions should be emphasized here to break the stalemate.

Mission to Search for Earth-like Planets Leaves Earth

The Kepler science spacecraft has successfully lifted off from Florida and begun its multi-year mission to look for planets similar to our own in the galaxy.

Kepler blasted into space atop a Delta II rocket at 10:49 pm EST from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.

The US $600 million observatory will use a large electronic camera to survey a swath of the Milky Way for so-called exoplanets transiting through the light coming from stars much like our sun but far, far away.

NASA said today that the survey field contains about 100 000 stars of the appropriate magnitude. Kepler will travel through space in a solar orbit trailing Earth, which will enable it to maintain its focus on targets selected by astronomers, something the Hubble telescope is unable to do.

The objects Kepler "sees" will be detected by a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices to record changes in brightness of 20 parts per million in stars that are thousands of light years away in a portion of the sky visible terrestrially in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Then scientists will subject the recorded data to extensive testing to determine the characteristics of the discovered planets.

"We certainly won't find E.T., but we might find E.T.'s home by looking at all of these stars," Bill Boruki, Kepler's principal scientist, said yesterday.

"This is a historical mission, it's not just a science mission," NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said during the prelaunch news conference. "It really attacks some very basic human questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?"

For more on Kepler's mission, see NASA Planet Hunter to Search Out Other Earths in the current issue of Spectrum Online.

As Semicon Sales Sag, AMD Spins off Its Fab Operations

The global economic slump has forced chipmakers into uncharted waters, causing major manufacturers to set new courses.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced Monday that its members' revenues sank again in January, dropping 11.9 percent in just a month. The trade group for the big microprocessor makers said sales for member firms such as AMD, Intel, and Texas Instruments fell from US $21.5 billion a year ago to $15.3 billion in January, a decline of 28.6 percent.

A spokesman noted that January is traditionally a slow month for chipmakers but worried over the lingering economic malaise the world over. "Sales declined across the entire range of semiconductor products, as sales of important demand drivers such as personal computers, cell phones, automobiles, and consumer items remained under pressure," commented SIA President George Scalise.

"This is the worst recession the semiconductor industry has seen since its inception," Sean M. Maloney, the chief sales and marketing officer at Intel, said at a news conference Monday.

Hoping that focusing on its key competencies will turn around its business, AMD this week spun off its own fabrication facilities into a new venture called GlobalFoundries, to be jointly owned by AMD and the Advanced Technology Investment Co. (ATIC) of Abu Dhabi.

In a press release yesterday, the new management of GlobalFoundries said it plans "to drive profound change and expand opportunities" in the chip sector. It noted that the new manufacturing firm becomes the only U.S.-based global foundry services provider currently in operation.

"With two committed joint venture partners providing strong technology and capital resources, our company brings a unique set of global capabilities to the market that will enable our customers to fully unlock their potential to innovate," Doug Grose, the new CEO of GlobalFoundries, stated.

The new fab firm said going forward it will service the manufacturing needs of AMD but will also offer its technologies to third-party customers through its high-volume foundry operations.

It added that GlobalFoundries is proceeding with plans to expand its Dresden, Germany, manufacturing lines by bringing a second 300-mm manufacturing facility with bulk silicon capabilities online later this year. The company also plans to start construction on a new $4.2 billion plant in Saratoga County, N.Y., in 2009.

"Despite the current economic climate, this is an industry with tremendous opportunities for long-term growth and innovation," said Waleed Al Mokarrab, the chairman of ATIC. "Through its global footprint, world-class technology know-how, and access to state-of-the-art research and development, we believe GlobalFoundries is well positioned to challenge for market leadership in this competitive industry."

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