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Will a New President Shake Up the U.S. Space Program?

NASA is facing a sea change in its mission of human spaceflight, moving from an orbital science orientation to a course of longitudinal exploration of the near solar system. The new strategy poses enormous challenges to the management of the U.S. space agency to rethink the way it marshals its resources.

Under the Bush administration, NASA has been tasked with beginning the transition from operating a fleet of shuttles to finish building the International Space Station (ISS) to developing a new generation of conventional launch platforms to send crews to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

With the Obama presidency approaching, experts in the field are questioning how much of the new program will be embraced by the science advisors coming to a White House confronted with a compromised economy and different political realities.

A feature article in The New York Times today covers the many issues involved in the complex future of the space agency.

The first of these centers around NASA's current plan to ground its shuttles in 2010 and employ the services of the Russian space agency to continue servicing the ISS with its Soyuz spacecraft until 2015, when the new U.S. rockets are ready to fly.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he supported the new rocket program, known as Project Constellation, but was critical of the proposed shuttle grounding over strictly financial reasons. In effect, he was endorsing a parallel track for both programs, despite the burgeoning costs. But conditions have changed dramatically in the months since the now President-elect spoke those words, and harsher realities may cause him to reconsider his position.

The second major issue concerns the management of the space agency itself. The Times article notes that longstanding complaints about a climate of inflexibility in the administration of NASA programs has never been fully addressed, let alone overcome.

The article states:

Some inside the development program have complained that it is run with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude that stifles dissent and innovation. Jeffrey Finckenor, an engineer who left NASA this year, sent a goodbye letter to colleagues that expressed his frustrations with the program. "At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality," he wrote, "followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate."

That damning criticism echoes voices heard five years ago after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry and a commission studying the disaster concluded that NASA's management philosophy contributed to a chain of events responsible for the failure.

The combination of unchanged intransigence and differences of opinion in direction could lead to quick changes in the space agency's leadership at the hands of a new administration in Washington.

NASA's current boss, Michael D. Griffin, who favors grounding the shuttles, is under contract through 20 January, Inauguration Day, when he will need a new presidential appointment to continue steering the agency.

Articles such as the one in today's Times do not bode well for his future prospects in that regard.

Presidents have historically tended to make up their own minds about which direction to pursue when it comes to the crucial matter of space exploration.

[Update 31 December 2008: In a bit of a controversial move, the wife of NASA Chief Administrator Michael D. Griffin posted e-mail to friends and family on Christmas Eve asking them to sign an online petition requesting President-elect Barack Obama "to consider keeping Mike Griffin on as NASA Administrator," according to a report today from the Associated Press. The online petition was started by former astronaut Scott "Doc" Horowitz of Park City, Utah, who is also a former NASA associate administrator. The AP article states that Mr. Griffin had no prior knowledge of the petition drive.]

Are You Ready for Some 3-D Football?

Hey, that halfback looks like he's coming right at me!

When the topic of 3-D pictures arises, most of us think about cheap cardboard glasses with red and blue plastic lenses allowing us to unevenly watch even cheaper monster movies (and then trying to regain normal vision afterward). Over the years, 3-D projects have come and gone like a vampire that refuses to finally die, even after the stake has been driven through its heart by the public, critics, and technologists alike. Still, some engineers working in the entertainment industry have steadfastly maintained that the big breakthrough in 3-D technology is just around the corner, one that could usher in an era in which consumers will adopt a new way of looking at the world on the screen.

Now, it appears the monster is back and looking for revenge. As reported in an article in the Boston Globe today, the latest incarnation of 3-D is being sponsored by no less an entertainment behemoth than the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or NCAA).

For the biggest football game on the NCAA calendar, the BCS National Championship Game in Miami (between the University of Florida and the University of Oklahoma) on 8 January, Fox Sports will beam a special version of its broadcast to a number of selected movie theaters across the United States using a new implementation of 3-D imaging technology.

The equipment to be employed by Fox Sports for the college championship game will be supplied by a small firm called 3ality Digital Systems, which specifically focuses on using its state-of-the-art 3-D digital image technology to capture live events such as concerts and sports matches. According to the Burbank, Calif., firm, their equipment ranges from robotic motion-control systems to image processing electronics to specially made polarized eyeglasses.

"3-D is going to change the way we experience media," Steve Schklair, chief executive of 3ality Digital, told the Boston Globe. "We've shown it to former NFL players and they say, 'I've been on hundreds of football fields, and this is like standing on the field'."

That's a claim we've heard many times in the past. It may be true, but rightly or wrongly 3-D still has a lot of historical baggage attached to it that will make the road today's firms such as 3ality need to climb a steep one.

It may be a thrill to see a great football game as if you were on the field participating. Still, there's a reason they insist that fans stay in the grandstand.

Broadcast DTV Lives Up to Hype


With all the teeth gnashing, hair pulling and garment rending over the switchover from analog to digital TV (T minus 49 days and counting), the big picture tends to get lost in the kerfuffle: broadcast digital TV looks way better than analog. I discovered this a couple of weeks ago when I helped my parents make the transition, a story that joined all the others as part of Spectrum's special countdown coverage The Day Analog TV Dies (good riddance).

When I was down in Louisville for Thanksgiving, my dad asked me to help him switch his 20-year-old Sony TV from analog to digital. We went to RadioShack with his discount card for a converter box, but the card had expired the day before. Why bother expiring these cards before the switchover date? I answered my own question a couple of weeks later when I went back home to tend to some family matters (can you say â''economic stimulus for the consumer electronics industry?â'').

The TV in my parentsâ'' house holds the same special place that it does in a lot of homes that havenâ''t hitched a ride on the Info Highwayâ''itâ''s the fireplace, the gathering spot, the focus of the living room and of leisure time. So when I arrived at the old homestead ahead of the the replacement discount card, I knew it was important to do whatever it took to help my parents make the switch.

I rifled through the Sunday paper, looking at ads for LCD TVs. Sure, I could have gone out and paid full price for the converter box, but the countdown to Hannukah had also commenced and I put that $60 converter box expenditure into my own twisted gift-giving calculations. Their old TV was small, 19 inches, so bargain hunting was easy. There is a Circuit City (on life support, like all Circuit Cities) near their place, so I drove over to browse the pre-Xmas, post-Chapter 11 bargains. I found one almost immediately: a 22-inch Zenith. It was a floor model, on sale as is for about 60 percent off--$150. I didnâ''t hesitate. The picture (piped in through the storeâ''s cable feed) was at least as good as the Toshibas surrounding it and certainly better than the old Sony.

I bought the TV and a universal remote (the TV was sold as is, as in someone had lost the remote) and went back to my parentâ''s house. They were thrilled with their early Hanukkah gift. But when we turned it on, we got nothing but static. Duh. This TV needed an external DTV antenna. So I went back to the local RadioShack and bought a $35 amplified VHF/UHF/FM indoor antenna.

Set up was a little funky, considering that the $10 universal remote couldnâ''t control the Zenithâ''s menu. I had to navigate the setup using the buttons on top of the set. I attached the antenna to the TV, plugged it in and turned it on. I made the TV run through an auto tuning routine. On the first pass, it picked up four channels; my parentâ''s old TV could pick up eight. That didnâ''t seem right, so I ran the auto tune routine again, 12 channels this time. One channel, WAVE 3, had three channels associated with it instead of just oneâ''a crystal clear HD channel for its regular broadcast, and two other channels, including a 24-hour weather channel and a music channel, which had been discontinued (already? I guess the programming experiments will continue like this for years to come). Still, certain channels that had come through clearly on the old set were totally staticky in that digital, pixilated jigsaw mess of picture many DTV converts will become accustomed to in the next few weeks. So I ran the auto tune routine again. And again. Finally, after some maneuvering of the antenna to put the rabbit ears in the optimum position, we had 27 channels, all of them amazingly clear.

I was shocked. The picture was at least as good as the one I got at home with an HD cable box hooked up to my Olevia monitor (no, it doesnâ''t have a tuner and two years ago, opting for the tunerless monitor saved me about $500). My parents had never seen a picture so clear. And so, while I have been watching HDTV for a while now, I was fascinated, like a child with a new Xmas, I mean Hanukkah, toy. These signals were coming through the air? For free? And many of the channels had added new channelsâ''all of them in beautiful HD color. For less than $200, my parents not only had their first new TV in 20 years, they had 27 HD-quality channels. Hanukkah Joe did good this year.

So far the only complaint is the slow motion pixilated picture break up that happens for reasons unknown. You can be watching a show, when suddenly the picture breaks down into small boxes that slide around the screen. Could it be the â''bargainâ'' TV gone haywire? Could it be simple signal interference? Maybe someone here has some ideasâ'¿.

IEDM: 3d Stackenblocken

Actual footage of Intel's D1D production/development fab

This Conan skit explains not just what chipmakers are trying to do about the interchip communication problem, but also the problem that plagues the solution.

First: what is 3-d chip stacking and why would you do it? Stacking layers of integrated circuits atop each other is a solution to interchip communication problems detailed in a recent Spectrum article on multicore's very bad, no good, terrible day.

At the heart of the trouble is the so-called memory wallâ''the growing disparity between how fast a CPU can operate on data and how fast it can get the data it needs. Although the number of cores per processor is increasing, the number of connections from the chip to the rest of the computer is not. So keeping all the cores fed with data is a problem.

DARPA's exascale computing project showed that the barrier to exascale isn't flops-- we have that figured out. Now the problem is the time that data spends in the chip's wiring. The interconnect bottleneck is upon us. And if these technology trends continue, exascale computing will still be "just a dream in 2015."

To deal with the bottleneck situation, the U.S. Department of Energy formed the Institute for Advanced Architectures and Algorithms, where researchers are exploring "tighter, and maybe smarter, integration of memory and processors." Sandia, for example, is looking into stacking memory chips atop processors to improve memory bandwidth.

Solution: Go Up, Not out

It's not the world's newest idea. IBM showed 3d stacking techniques at IEDM 2002. Six years later, IEDM 2008 attacked the problem with at least 17 papers and one dedicated panel. The papers featured all the heavy hitters: Tokohu Universty, CEA-Léti Minatec, IBM's T. J. Watson Center, IMEC, NEC, and Qualcomm, among others.

Qualcomm showed that the problem is not limited to processors: memory alone will need this stacking too, especially if it's going to follow the same trend as processors-- which it surely will, given the trend toward small handheld devices with the same amount of memory as desktop computers, but with a much smaller footprint.

Belgian consortium IMEC demonstrated the viability of stacking two CMOS chips atop each other, sticking them together with dielectric glue and connecting the relevant parts with contacts called through-silicon vias (TSVs). As you might imagine, TSVs stick through the silicon substrate to whip information between short, stubby, vertical layers. According to one body of research, TSVs enable I/O power savings up to 98 percent.

So what material makes the best vias?

IBM looked at tungsten as a possible material. Others looked at graphene. But mainly everything seems to still rely on copper, the standard interconnect material, or a copper composite.

One of the issues raised by copper, however, is electromigration: as current flows through the wire, the metal atoms eventually migrate and form voids, and the wire breaks.

Hong Kong University rose to the challenge with a technology whose acronym hovers just a carbon molecule from disaster: Cu/CNT (copper/carbon nanotube) TSVs promise to retain all the conductivity of copper without the electromigration problem or the low melting point. Their results showed that "the EM lifetime of the Cu/CNT composite is more than 5 times longer" than copper alone.

The Next Problem

Even with the perfect interconnect, however, 3d chip stacking still poses a number of problems that need to be dealt with, before it will be possible to capitalize on even the best materials.

Depending on what you're stacking, you will run into different problems: logic on memory brings heat problems. (For DRAM, the upper temperature ceiling is 85 degrees C. For logic, however, the high temperatures often exceed 125 degrees.) Memory on logic brings different problems. They need to come up with some way of stacking them that protects different temperature areas. And I don't know what they're going to do about the heat sink.

The laundry list just keeps going: very thin dies will be used to stack memory to logic, and that requires a lot of grinding. DRAM bit cell retention can be adversely impacted by the thinning and package process.

And that brings us back to Conan

The most important issue is the connection between the stack; the reliability of connections is particularly important between memory and logic. Lining up these complex CMOS mash-ups is going to be as tough as getting that perfect right angle, and the punishment for low die yield is probably understated in the Stackenblocken bit.

The 32-nm middle child

Intel's done it. According to Intel's roadmap, the first 32-nm chips will roll out in devices in late 2009. By now, 32-nm test chips put the node squarely in the development part of Intel's three-year research-development-manufacturing cycle.

TSMC did it in late September/early October, announcing two different 28 nanometer chip making processes slated for fabrication in 2010. IMEC did it and told us how at IEDM (immersion lithography).

The notable odd man out is AMD, which just released Shanghai in November, debuting its hot new 45-nm chip technology just in time to mark the one-year anniversary of Intel's first 45-nm Penryn chips.

With 45 nm already old hat for Intel, and 32-nm chips all set to go in Q4 of next year, all the talk at IEDM was of 22-nm and beyond. As I mentioned in my last post, this renders the 32-nm node effectively chopped liver. So what explains the middle child phenomenon?

22 is the new 45

The big advance that enabled Intel's 45 nanometer technology was the ability to contain leakage current with a new high-k metal gate (HKMG) process.

Intel in particular tends to pull out all the stops to get to one node, and then coasts through the next node. It seems intuitively obvious: you put all your R & D money into reinventing the transistor, and then you push that technology to its limits. By the time the technology has hit a brick wall, you're already working on the next big breakthrough.

For its 32-nm process, according to papers at IEDM 08, Intel is using a 2nd-generation high-k gate material. They're manufacturing the new transistors with 193-nm immersion lithography tools. That's not so radically different from what they did at 45-nm (except at 45, they used a combination of 193-nm dry tools from ASML and Nikon-- now that they've dropped ASML, their immersion litho tools are solely Nikon.) Aside from the exclusive choice of Nikon as vendor, and the new immersion litho tools, this year's IEDM papers revealed that nothing in the process had changed significantly between 45 and 32.

But for the 22nm node, it looks like Lanthanum might be the new it-metal. One of the Intel papers discussed an advanced gate stack for 22nm low operating power applications, with thin cap layers using lanthanum oxide or aluminum oxide on hafnium-based high-k.

45 is the new 90

The middle child phenomenon seems to be cyclical: consider the path from 90 nm to 65 nm node technology.*

In 2006, reported that Intel's 65 nm process used "second generation strained silicon with a 10-15% improvement on drive current." [italics mine] When Intel announced its upcoming 90 nm technology node in 2002, strained silicon was the big breakthrough.

Strained silicon allowed Intel to coast through 65, but it stopped working at 45, which is why the CMOS transistor had to be redesigned. So, every time you have a second generation process, that means you haven't had to reinvent anything to make the node-shrink possible, meaning there's a lot less research and a lot more development at that node. Meaning you can save the R part of the R & D money for the next node.

My prediction? The next middle child will be the 16 nm node, which will exhaust the limits of the novel technologies that enable 22nm.

Further support for my crystal ball is brought to you by the New York Times Bits blog, where John Markoff hinted last week that at 11 nm, tiny transitors will be made of III-V hybrids that Intel is just starting to explore.

It might be four chip generations, however, before Intel adds the new hybrid approach to its commercial chips, said Mike Mayberry, the companyâ''s director of components research.

Intel is now solidly at 45; four more generations--32, 22, 16, 11--brings us to 11. If these fancy III-V hybrids emerge at the 11 nm node, 16 nm is sure to be the next chopped liver.

*This pattern is different for different companies. For IBM, the middle child appears to be 45 nm, which AMD is using for Shanghai, but which had been heavily delayed.

AMD has a cross-licensing agreement with IBM, which was supposed to roll out HKMG technology for the 45-nm node in 2008: but though AMD "desperately needed" high-k at 45 nm to keep up with Intel, EETimes' 2007 IEDM coverage stated that

IBM has yet to roll out high-k in a product. ... [I]n a move that raises questions about the readiness of IBM's technology, AMD said it has yet to make a commitment to use high-k at 45 nm, saying instead that the dielectric shift is an "option" at that node.

Some companies are just going to high-k at 32: now IBM and its partners have announced that their 32-nm HKMG devices will be available to IBM alliance members in the second half of 2009. That includes AMD-- but we haven't seen high k mg out of AMD in a product.

Holiday Greetings From the Moon: 40 Years Ago

On 24 December 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 made rendezvous with the moon. That day they became the first humans to journey to a new celestial body. The success of their mission laid the groundwork several months later for the astronauts of Apollo 11 to land on the lunar surface and return safely to our planet.

The flight of Apollo 8 produced one of the most historic images of all time, Earthrise at Christmas. After orbiting the moon some 20 times, the crew took a moment out from their engineering tasks, in consideration of the date, to read passages from the Bible in a live broadcast to the people of Earth.

"In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth," Pilot James Lovell began. Then he and his crewmates continued to read aloud from the opening of the Book of Genesis.

Commander Frank Borman concluded the broadcast with the following words: "We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth."

The passing of the decades has done little to diminish from the significance of their message.

May you also share in the spirit of that historic day at this special time of the year.

Virtual Colonoscopy Takes A Real Step Forward

On 19 December, the president of Stony Brook University in New York announced that it had licensed technologies for virtual colonoscopy invented there--including a computerized technique that makes it possible to see colon walls without having to evacuate the bowels--to Siemens, one of the world's leading makers of medical devices. Virtual colonoscopy uses computerized tomography to create 3D images of the colon, eliminating the need for the fiber optic endoscope that is snaked through the gastrointestinal tract in a conventional colonoscopy. Stony Brook researchers recently patented a refined electronic colon cleansing technique that will allow clinical radiologists to delete fecal matter and fluids from the 3D colon images so they can see the gut, the whole gut, and nothing but the gut.

IEDM Roundup, part 1

At this year's International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco, the phrase of the day was 22nm CMOS. Because it is the smallest manufacturable feature of a transistor, and because those transistors have been getting inexorably smaller for the past 40 years, the technology node is the defining characteristic of microchips. I was under the impression that fabrication had barely started on integrated circuits at the 45-nanometer node, which represents the current state of the art. But though I have heard precious little about 32 this year, 22nm invaded the territory before 2008 was even out. 32 nm, in other words, is already chopped liver.

What is this middle child phenomenon of one node announced to great fanfare, followed by a sudden uptick in research activity two nodes downstream? Let's take Intel as an example of this behavior: giving birth to the 45-nm node was a rough delivery for them. They needed an epidural and a high-k gate insulator--the first fundamental redesign of the CMOS transistor in 40 years-- to make it happen. Now it seems like they can coast on their research for another node. Last November the first 45-nm chips rolled out of the fab. A year later (last Wednesday to be exact) Intel announced 32nm, and several papers at IEDM detailed some of the technical aspects of 32 nm. (more on that in a later, dedicated post)

The other major themes at IEDM were "More than Moore," and 3-d stackable chips. The smaller, faster transistor, the staple of Moore's Law, is going to start needing a little help as we approach the physical limits of scaling (and 22nm is pretty close to that limit). The most popular idea seemed to be stacking integrated circuits atop one another, the basic skyscraper idea. Only now they're not doing it to conserve real estate for the traditonal reasons of making transistors smaller. The need to do it to shorten the wiring between the countless points A and points B.

As detailed in an article in this month's Spectrum, IEEE Fellow Peter M. Kogge found that if technology trends continue into the future, exascale computing will still be just a dream in 2015.

Getting to exascale by thenâ''or everâ''requires among other things an intensive focus on reducing the power devoted to moving data around in computers.

One way to do that involves stacking layers of integrated circuits atop each other. Hence the extreme focus on 3D ICs.

One of the best panels was on biomedical applications where USC's James Weiland presented a design for an artificial retina that can enable facial recognition and reading. University of California San Francisco researcher Tejal Desai discussed her research on drug-delivery nanospheres -- microscopic fuzzy "tennis balls" whose nanowire-velcro can bind them inside the gastrointestinal tract for better drug delivery.

The problem in the past has been that for oral drug delivery, a pill delivers only about five percent of its medicinal payload. Five percent! That's because the GI tract was designed explicitly to block absorption of foreign materials. It just keeps passing the stuff downstream, and the combination of the mucosa and the tiny fingerlike appendages inside your GI tract (called villi) works to pass foreign objects down the pipeline as quickly as possible, never letting them stay in one place long enough to effectively deliver drugs to the bloodstream.

For aspirin, that's just fine because aspirin is cheap and you can take another one if you don't feel like it's working. But of course for a cancer drug or some other kind of very expensive medication that needs to be specifically targeted, you really want the most possible medication and the most accurate possible dose.

Nanoparticles filled with a drug payload, and coated with velcro-like nanowires interlock with the GI villi to keep them in one place for long enough to let the drug cross into the blood stream.

One observer, however, was less sanguine about targeted drug delivery. "This is fine for medicine that just has to make it to the bloodstream," he said. But for medicines that are using the bloodstream as a highway to get somewhere else in the body? Once it's in the blood, it's not home free-- there, the drug is attacked by all kinds of biological entities and broken down long before it gets to its target organ or receptor.

Many people thought that real targeted drug delivery will start once we start engineering specific viruses for that purpose. Viruses make the 22 nm node look like Godzilla.

Australian telco kicked out of national broadband bidding

from our reporter Monica Heger:

In November, we reported on Australiaâ''s attempts to create a national broadband network. At the time, analysts thought it likely that Telstra, the main telecommunications company, would get the bid. Recently though, they were kicked out of the bid process because of an unwillingness to open up their infrastructure. According to an article at Australiaâ''s iTnews, Telstra did not include a plan to involve small and medium enterprises in building the network. Telstraâ''s CEO Sol Trujilo said that was not part of the bid requirements. The Australian government says otherwise. The government could still change its mind and decide to award Telstra the $ AUS 4.7 billion bid if it decides that the other proposals are not feasible or will take too long to complete.

Inflatable robots will terrorize us soon

These squirmy balloon robots, called Eggy Robots, are described as "the very first attempt to implement a totally soft robot." On first read, that sounds quite cozy. But coziness is not the goalâ''Eggy Robots are apparently intended to chase humans. At least that's the premise behind this work by Yoichiro Kawaguchi, a computer graphics artist at the University of Tokyo. A Kawaguchi balloon creature is controlled by a motor in the base, which pulls on wires that run through the body. At SIGGRAPH Asia, where I saw these last week, all that one red robot could do was bend its torso, bob its head, and wiggle its eyeballs. Once pneumatic muscles are installed, it will start wheezily hopping after us all.

But for now they lack intelligence, so they're basically just inflatable sculptures. That's a less unusual genre than you might think, as the Eggy Robots weren't the only inflatable beings sojourning in Singapore last week. On the other end of town, the Singapore Art Museum had an outdoor installation of Untitled (Balloon Flower), by an artist called IMEX(k):


It's a replica, made of balloon, of a Jeff Koons sculpture called Balloon Flower... which is itself a massive steel replica of a balloon flower:


I bet Kawaguchi wouldn't mind seeing a giant robotic Eggy made of steel, followed by a robotic replica of that, back in balloon material. Feeling light-headed?

Photo credits: chooyutshing/flickr and Daimler Art Collection


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