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Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch

It's always something on space missions.

A spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday revealed that the orbiting platform's new starboard solar array has problems with the unit that it aligns it with the sun. Astronaut Daniel Tani, performing his first major task as a member of the new ISS crew, Expedition 16, found what appear to be metal particles in the well of a joint that controls the movement of the solar panels on the right side of the ISS. The starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, installed only four months ago, may be responsible for recent spikes in electricity from the starboard solar array. NASA engineers speculate that the metallic debris may be the result of a poor fit in the bearings or rings of the joint in the cold of space.

The astronauts of the docked Discovery have replacement parts onboard should the U.S. space agency decide to add another spacewalk to the already hectic schedule of the current mission, known as STS-120. In the meantime, the crew of the ISS has shut down the balky rotator joint to try to limit any further damage. While this is not a serious problem in the short run, as the station has plenty of power to maintain all its present systems, it does need to be addressed as soon as is practical, as future modules bound for the ISS, such as the European Columbus and the Japanese Kibo laboratories, will need full power to operate. Today, mission control administrators are mulling the option of extending the stay of Discovery for an extra day to perform the repair work.

Pushing on with their itinerary, nonetheless, the STS-120 crew today got down to some heavy lifting in zero gravity, using the station and shuttle robotic arms to move a portside truss segment to the end of a previously connected truss, both of which will house the giant solar array component on the left side of the ISS, according to NASA. Tomorrow, STS-120 Mission Specialists Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock will step out into space to connect the two trusses. They will also conduct an inspection of the port rotator joint to compare its condition to the malfunctioning starboard one.

When your 200 miles above the surface of the earth, it's always the little things that manage to give you headaches.

The iPhoneâ¿¿illegal in California?

Phthalates, a group of chemicals mixed into plastics to increase flexibility, are regulated in California. They are hormone disrupters, a particularly nasty thing for children or women planning to have children. Products containing phthlates have to post this:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

And this month the California Governor signed a law that will completely ban phthalates from products intended for children. That law goes into effect in 2009. Such products are already illegal in San Francisco.

Enter the iPhone. Earlier this month Greenpeace published an analysis of the iPhoneâ''s internal and external components, and found all sorts of nasty things, including phthalates (check out this video).

Based on that report, the Center for Environmental Health gave Apple the required 60-day notice that it will be filing a lawsuit against the company; itâ''s hoping to pressure Apple into a negotiated settlement that will reduce the use of the chemicals. Apple hasnâ''t yet responded the Center, however, Apple reiterated its promise to clean up its products by the end of 2008 by removing brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride, the plastic that contains the phthalates. (Nokia products are already PVC free, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have removed brominated flame retardants from their products.)

For now, donâ''t let your kids get their hands on an iPhone.

Maker Faire Highlights: Human Powered Vehicles

It's been a week since the Maker Faire in Austin, Texas, and I still have some great video from the event. Everywhere you looked, people were pedaling contraptions that made the average bicycle look boring. Best of all was the Big Wheel: imagine rolling around in a red, yellow, and blue, hand-made ferris wheel, and you're not too far off.

Each of the three riders has a pair of pedals connected to a naked chain (I had to roll up my jeans to avoid getting maimed). It was soon easy to see why I had to sign a waiver. As you pedal forward, the chain turns a gear, which (in theory) moves the huge wheel. All this is complicated the fact that the seats swing back and forth, making it hard to even keep you feet on the pedals. Check out the video-I was just glad to hang onto the camera.

Forward Bias

October 26, 2007

This week's theme: Matching-- in Space

Match the people to the space-related activities they undertook this week. Show all work.

1.Started negotiations with Lockheed to be first commercial spaceport.A.China
2.

Started a space-based matchmaking service.

B.Russia
3.Hosting the $2 million Wirefly X-Prize Cup.C.Nova Scotia
4.Launched three navigation satellites to rival GPSD.New Mexico
5.Shot the moon
..
E.Women

6.Ruled outer space

F.Space Angels
..

..

Dutch Team Wins Solar Race Across The Outback

The University of Delft's solar car raced across the finish line in Adelaide, having just driven 3000 kilometers across the Australian outback. The car was doing top speeds during the last two hours, maintaining a solid 110 kilometers per hour as they raced to beat the sunset. Traffic grew denser as the team entered the outskirts of Adelaide after five days in the desert, and the little race car routinely overtook regular traffic as it approached the end of what has been a long, dusty, and grueling journey.

nuna_wins.JPG

It was a spectacular end to a very long day of driving. The team covered about 750 kilometers on Thursday, and lucky for them only one flat tire pulled them off the road for two minutes.

The previous day, a strong and continuous crosswind put extra stress on the left side of the car and damaged the suspension. That day, the team replaced four flat tires in the span of three hours, causing great concern among the car's young support crew, but a few hours of repair that evening seemed to have fixed the problems.

A team from Belgium, Umicore, and Aurora, an Australian team, are staggered about 30 to 40 minutes apart behind the Dutch car, Nuna, and are expected to arrive in Adelaide soon. A surprise finish is expected from the University of Michigan, whose solar car was damaged in a crash in Darwin mere minutes into the race. Rumor has it that the Michigan team is back in the top 6 cars, which would be a very impressive finish for a vehicle that was delayed one entire day from leaving Australia's Top End, as they stayed behind in Darwin to fix the panels and car body. It may even turn out that Michigan's car was the fastest on the road. But speed is just one component in solar car racing: strategy and luck are just as important.

Meeting in Space Is an Historic Moment

Shortly after the Discovery orbiter docked with the International Space Station (ISS), the commanders of the two spacecraft weightlessly exchanged enthusiastic hugs. It was an historic occasion. Never before have women served as the commanding officers of two ships in space. For Pamela Melroy and Peggy Whitson, though, it was business as usual, more than 200 miles above the earth.

According to NASA, the crews of the two vehicles opened their docking hatches at 10:39 a.m. EDT today. One of the first significant tasks was the ISS crew rotation. STS-120 Mission Specialist Daniel Tani switched places with Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, who wrapped up a four-month tour of duty on the space station. Tani will stay on the ISS until he returns with mission STS-122 in December.

Tani officially became a member of Expedition 16 when his custom-made seat liner was swapped out with Andersonâ''s in the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station. Discovery also delivered the Harmony module, which will be attached to the station Friday as part of STS-120's record five scheduled spacewalks.

Prior to the docking procedure today, Whitson rang a ship's bell onboard the space station, following a long naval tradition of greeting another ship approaching. "Discovery arriving," she announced, as the two vessels sailed 212 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

[See our recent posts in Tech Talk on the space shuttle and space station commanders.]

UN: Foreign direct investment largest since 2000

According to the United Nations' 2007 World Investment Report, published on 16 October, global foreign investment inflows amounted to US $1,306 billion in 2006, which is a 38 percent increase over 2005 and comes close to the record-setting $1,411 billion of 2000.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development ranked the worldâ''s top 100 non-financial TNCs by foreign assets.

Of the top 100 TNCs, 58 belonged to six industries: motor vehicles (11), petroleum (10), electrical and electronic equipment (10), pharmaceuticals (9), telecommunications (9), and electricity, gas and water services (9).

I've pulled out only that small sliver of TNCs that are in the electrical and electronic equipment industry. You can find the full table at the UNCTAD site (be warned: itâ''s a PDF, and youâ''ll find the full table on page 229).

RankingCorporationHome economyForeign affiliates
1General ElectricUnited States1184
18Siemens AGGermany877
30IBMUnited States380
39Sony CorporationJapan233
41Hewlett PackardUnited States249
44 Philips ElectronicsNetherlands337
66Hitachi LimitedJapan356
85 Matsushita Electric Industrial CompanyJapan288
87 SamsungRepublic of Korea76
92 LG Republic of Korea42

With the possible exception of Samsung, these are all huge conglomerates, and some are pretty much cradle-to-grave companies for their products. Some of the biggest names in chipsâ''like Intel, Infineon, AMD and Micronâ''who are not conglomerates are notably absent from the list.

The report estimates that the sales, value added and exports of the worldâ''s approximately 78,000 transnational corporations (TNCs) accounted for 10 percent of world GDP and one-third of world exports.

Californiaâ¿¿s firefighters get a little help from a friend

194189main_harris_fire_1400.jpg

Yesterday NASAâ''s Ikhana remotely piloted aircraft took to the skies to help firefighters struggling to contain the many fires burning in southern California. The plane carried a scanning system built by NASAâ''s Ames Research Center, the Autonomous Modular Sensor-Wildfire, which records images in multiple wavelengths, and therefore is not blinded by smoke.

The hardware hangs in a 180-kg pod under the aircraft, as visible in the photo below, taken yesterday with smoke from the Lake Arrowhead fire in the background. 194165main_ED07-0243-36.jpgNASA has been conducting demonstration flights of the technology throughout this fire season; it got involved yesterday at the request of the California Governorâ''s office. Eventually, NASA hopes, the sensing system will be a regular part of a firefighters arsenal.

But for the hordes of firefighters attacking the southern California fires, the future is now. The images gathered aboard Ikhana during its ten hours aloft yesterday were processed on board and sent via satellite to a server at NASA Ames. NASA team members assigned to fire command camps throughout the affected area, helped firefighters access the image data through special web sites, for example, in the top photo of the Harris Fire in San Diego County, hot spots along the ridgeline are clearly visible.

Nanotechnology and the iPodâ¿¿Oh my!

First there was the rash of news articles touting the recent Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) for making possible your iPod (here, here, here, here, and here), and then the attribution of its discovery to the â''first application of nanotechnology", to create some deal of confusion.

Since a majority of the articles referenced above come from the UK press, it is perhaps only fitting that a UK-produced YouTube video try to explain it all.

Using a format familiar to anyone who watches The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, an interviewer goes out into the street to ask how their iPod works. Remarkably unlike the US version, where Jay Leno asks questions like "Who is the Vice President of the US?" and gets too many "I don't knows" and wild guesses, in this UK version the respondents are not too far off the mark most of the time.

And the video contains some enlightenment from Prof. Richard Jones, known widely for his Soft Machines Blog.

But while GMR may have made the iPod possible, others in the blog community will have none of the bit about GMR being due to nanotechnology. Apparently, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences just don't get it. It is a worthy, albeit "complicated", debate.

Chinese Probe on Way to the Moon

Aiming to join the lunar exploration club, China today successfully launched a probe to conduct research from an orbit around the moon. If all goes as planned, the satellite, named Chang'e 1, will reach our nearest celestial neighbor in 13 days for a yearlong mission mapping the lunar surface and spectroscoping its composition.

The Chinese project comes on the heels of a similar lunar mission last month by the Japanese space agency. It also precedes another lunar attempt by the Indian government scheduled for lift-off in the spring of next year. Analysts believe the trio of projects signals a round of scientific muscle flexing among the Asian giants aimed at winning prestige among their neighbors as technological heavyweights.

"The launch of China's first moon probe is successful," said Xu Fuxiang, a professor at the China Institute of Space Technology. "We have passed through the most difficult time. It should be heading smoothly toward the moon."

After entering lunar orbit the 5070-pound Chang'e 1 will use its stereo cameras to begin transmitting images back to earth in a few week's time.

China has long been a participant in space exploration, launching its first satellite into orbit over thirty years ago. Recently, its space program has grown in scale as its economy has flourished. In 2003, China became only the world's third country, after the United States and Russia, to put its own people into space. The Chang'e 1 is just the first effort in a planned 10-year agenda to explore the moon, culminating in attempts to land robotic rovers on its surface and return them home.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said recently that he thought the Chinese will get to the moon and back before the U.S. can meet its own 2020 deadline for a return visit by its own astronauts.

For more on today's launch and the impact of the Chinese lunar program, please see these excellent analyses:

Also see our Tech Talk posting from last week "Should China Become a Space Station Participant?".

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