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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?".

The engineering approach to facing cancer

prof03.jpgSteve Kirschâ''electrical engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and, oh yeah, inventor of the optical mouseâ''has a rare and officially incurable form of cancer. Given a typical prognosis, heâ''s got about five years to live.

Or thereâ''s another way to look at it. Kirsch says on his web site, â''I have enough time to change the outcome.â''

Kirsch has a blood cancer called Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia; it is diagnosed in about 1500 Americans annually.

I met Kirsch seven years ago in the offices of Propel, a company he had founded to develop easy to use e-commerce tools, a concept he described at the time as â''Amazon in a Boxâ''. He previously founded Mouse Systems (sold to Kye System Corp., Frame Technology (sold to Adobe), and Infoseek (sold to Disney). His office at Propel overlooked an amusement park; the thrill rides below were an apt metaphor for his fast-paced career.

Since that 2000 interview, Kirsch started another company, Abaca, aimed at beefing up email security, blocking phishing attempts and viruses as well as spam. He remains as CEO as Propel, last month the company launched a product at Demofall designed to help individuals manage the way their computers are using bandwidth. He became a force in Silicon Valley philanthropy, putting $75 million into a foundation and stepping up with a $1 million donation when Silicon Valleyâ''s United Way campaign fell short one year. He also became a major contributor to the Democratic Party.

Kirsch has never been afraid to take on a challenge. And now, facing the biggest challenge of his life, heâ''s doing what served him so well in the pastâ''heâ''s taking the engineering approach. Heâ''s reading the peer reviewed articles on the subject. Heâ''s taking every test his doctors suggest, studying the results, and posting them on his web site so others can look at them as well. Heâ''s analyzing risk factors and survivability data. Heâ''s investing heavily into R&D; the foundation he started, the Steve and Michele Kirsch Foundation, announced this month that it will redirect most of its funds to efforts addressing this rare cancer.

â''Realistically,â'' he writes on his web site, â''whatever I do to find a cure will likely be too late to save my own life.â''

â''But that doesnâ''t mean I shouldnâ''t try. I remember as a kid learning the old saying that â''nobody ever won a chess game by resigning.â'' Who knows. Maybe I will get lucky.â''

He continues: â''I believe that people make their own luck. I think my best chance of survival is to advance the science by using some novel approaches to raising massive amounts of money and then intelligently directing those funds into research that is likely to do the most good. It appears that [today] research is focused more on finding the best treatments rather than in understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause the disease. My strategic bet is that if we are to cure this disease, it wonâ''t happen by doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.â''

Analyzing problems, picking an unconventional approach, and then placing a big bet on the choice has proved a winning strategy for Kirsch in the past; I sure hope it works again. Good luck, Steve.

Nanotechnology and the Automobile

When people think about technologies, they often either think of computers or automobiles. So whenever nanotechnology gets discussed, it always becomes necessary to say how it will impact our automobiles.

The answers arenâ''t very exciting. I recall that the big application that was touted in those heady days after the NNI was launched in 2001 was the use by General Motors of nanoclay-TPO composites in exterior steps for vans resulting in a 7-8% weight saving, a smoother surface and enhanced scratch resistance.

Then you got the more detailed examinations that included nanocomposites in polycarbonate automotive glazing, or nanocomposites for high-barrier plastics for fuel tanks and fuel systems.

The list can go on like this, but you get the pointâ'¿I hope. What weâ''re talking about here is just incremental advances in composite materials. Not particularly exciting, and itâ''s not as if these nanomaterials were specifically engineered for these applications.

But the fascination with the automobile is a strong one, and it has almost become obligatory to mention the car whenever you utter the word â''nanotechnologyâ''.

Along these lines, in the latest issue of Nanotechnology Law & Business they provided a link to an article entitled â''Top Ten Ways Nanotechnology Will Impact Life in the Next Ten Yearsâ''. So, of course, I was intrigued, and sure enough the automobile was included.

What was interesting about how they approached it was not the mention of nanotechnology enabling low-emission automobiles, but using the example of Oxonica and its liquid-based catalyst that reduces emissions for diesel fuels, EnviroxTM.

Whatâ''s interesting about this example is that it has nearly ruined the company. In testing of the Envirox product in diesel engines in Turkey conducted by Petrol Ofisi, the Turkish national oil-and-gas company, the results were disappointing. Oxonica claimed at the time that further tests had to be run, but any way you cut it the future of the Turkish deal looks as though it is finished.

This is not to say nano-enabled fuel-borne catalysts wonâ''t reduce emissions in diesel fuels, but the Oxonica example seems to be a poor one.

But the need to equate nanotechnology to the automobile gets really weird in the hands of futurists. At the recent LA Autoshow designs were submitted for the car that will exist in 2057. Nanotechnology figured prominently with Mercedes-Benz offering up the â''Silver Flowâ'' that will utilize micro-metallic particles that can be rearranged via magnetic fields into any form you choose. Hmmhâ'¿not exactly lighter weight composites for steps on a mini-van.

Maker Faire Highlights: Life Size Mouse Trap

When I first visited the Maker Faire grounds, I was puzzled by the fenced off collection of brightly painted pieces of welding. By Saturday afternoon, I realized that that the metal sculptures were all part of a human-scale version of the board game Mouse Trap, where players collect and assemble pieces to form a rodenticide machine Rube Goldberg could be proud of.

Mark Perez, the builder of the life size model, says it took him ten years to build the contraption. A successful run concludes with dropping a 4000 pound safe. The crane alone, which hoists the safe, took more than two years to build by hand. It cost Perez $1.75 per mile to haul everything from San Francisco on a 53-foot semi-truck.

I can't fathom why someone would do all this, but seeing the thing actually work was pretty amazing, if only for its sheer whimsy. Watch it for yourself in the video below (which also includes a one-woman-band that is the most fitting accompaniment I could imagine for this spectacle).

Women Set to Take Charge of Space (Update)

Even under poor weather conditions, the Discovery orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral as scheduled at 11:48 (EDT) this morning. Its complex 14-day mission, known as STS-120, will include installing a 16-ton port module known as Harmony to the International Space Station (ISS). This space shuttle flight also represents something of a historical milestone, as the commanders of both Discovery and the ISS, the two human-operated spacecraft now in orbit, are women, a first in the annals of space flight.

(See our blog entry from yesterday.)

"It was one of the cleanest countdowns we've had since I've been launch director," NASA's Mike Leinbach said.

According to NASA, the seven-member crew of Discovery has a tight schedule that calls for placing the new module to the ISS, moving a tower of solar arrays already in space to a new location, and overseeing the station crew rotation that will see astronaut Dan Tani and station resident Clayton Anderson switch places.

"[There is] just a tremendous set of challenges in front of us," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

It will take about 48 hours for Discovery to maneuver toward and dock with the ISS. The shuttle crew will then work with their three space station colleagues to perform five extravehicular activities over 10 days to accomplish the multiple assignments they have been tasked with.

Maker Faire Highlights: Mentos and Diet Coke

One of the big draws of the Maker Faire in Austin was the Diet Coke and Mentos demonstration. I learned a couple things about the process:

1) Apparently regular coke works almost as well, but is much stickier to clean up.

2) The soda has to be warm, so don't try it with a two-liter right out of the deli fridge.

Enjoy the video of the act below, including an explanation of the physics involved, and lots of kids getting soaked. Click on the Maker Faire tag to see other videos from the event.

Solar Car Race, Oddly, On Pause


In the middle of the desert, in the middle of Australia, in the middle of a race--a pause. This year, the organizers of the World Solar Challenge--in which solar cars from around the world gather at the top end of the continent to race 3000 kilometers to Australia's southern coast--ordered all the solar cars to park for a day in the small desert city of Alice Springs. With nerves running high and the solar-powered vehicles beginning to show the wear of 2 tough days of driving, the teams are forced to pause and patiently field a day's worth of media attention. After rugged days driving and camping in the outback, it's a bit unsettling to not be moving southward.

The race has been packed with drama, beginning at literally the starting line.

A Dutch team from the University of Delft, named Nuon after its main sponsor, has won the race ever since 2001 with its car Nuna, and the team is being closely watched to see if they can dominate once again under a news set of rules and vehicle requirements. But mere seconds before they were about to leave the starting line, Nuna's motor controller failed. As other cars pulled off the line and raced away, the young engineers from the University of Delft were dashing to and from their support vehicles, unpacking a spare motor controller and replacing parts at lightning speeds.

Half an hour later they were on the road.

Lucky for them, the race start is staggered to accommodate the 30+ vehicles that were heading down the road to Adelaide. Because the breakdown happened before their start time had officially come up, Nuna was simply pushed to the back of the line and they made up the lost time after 5 p.m., when all the other teams were expected to stop for the day. Instead of a total loss of time, it meant lots of tricky maneuvering to pass all the teams in front.

But the University of Michigan's vehicle, Continuum, had an even more traumatic start. Their solar car, which was touted as potentially the best design of the year, crashed into the car in front of it a few minutes past the starting line, crushing the front two rows of solar cells. The team was forced to pull out for the day to reshape the body and reconfigure the solar array to not use the damaged rows, and Michigan rejoined the race a day later, a 1000 kilometers behind the rest of the cars.

By the end of the first day, Nuon was trailing about 7 minutes behind Umicore, a Belgian team. In the second day, Nuon overtook Umicore as the Belgians dealt with a failing steering system:


It was a long haul on a bumpy road, with crosswinds strong enough to throw a normal vehicle off its course, potentially causing real trouble for the ultra-light, 200-kilogram solar cars. Nuon had to pull onto the shoulder of the highway twice, once to replace a tire that was completely worn down, and once to replace a broken shock damper. Here's a crew member sending Nuna back on the road:


The road itself is harsh enough, but there's more to this race than distance. First off, there's the road kill: One of Nuon's support cars drives up to an hour ahead to assess upcoming weather and road conditions, with a designated shoveler who does the dirty work of removing downed kangaroos from Nuna's path.

And road trains: The very long trucks, often pulling three trailers, can be wider than their lanes and generate a strong gust of wind as they pass, enough to blow the hatch open off the top of a solar car, as happened to one of Nuna's drivers.

And the dust devils: These upwellings of air, similar to small tornadoes, stir up dust and debris and can slam into passing vehicles with surprising force.

So after a day of showers and battery-charging in Alice Springs, the teams will put their solar cars back on the road Wednesday morning and, if all goes well, reach Adelaide in two days.

Women Set to Take Charge of Space

With the Discovery orbiter scheduled for lift-off Tuesday morning (EDT), the command of the world's spacecraft will soon be in the hands of women for the first time ever.

The countdown to the launch of Discovery is proceeding smoothly but weather concerns may force a delay in schedule, according to a NASA briefing earlier today. The current space shuttle mission, designated STS-120, will be commanded by Pamela A. Melroy (Ret.-Col., USAF), who has piloted two previous shuttle missions, logging in 562 hours in space. Her counterpart, Peggy Whitson (NASA) currently commands the Expedition 16 crew of the International Space Station (ISS), on her second six-month mission in orbit.

NASA said this morning that there is a 60 percent chance that clouds and showers could postpone the launch of Discovery until Wednesday or Thursday. The shuttle flight's main objective will be to deliver and attach a 16-ton Italian-made multiport module called Harmony to the ISS. Still, the buzz around the upcoming flight is centered around the role women are playing in space during this period. The U.S. space agency has even devoted a special section, Women at NASA, to its Web site.

The Associated Press has an article online today that focuses on the two female commanders. The news piece emphasizes that the gender of the two skippers is purely coincidence and not some hare-brained publicity gimmick manufactured by the leaders of the space program.

"To me, that's one of the best parts about it," Melroy told the AP. "This is not something that was planned or orchestrated in any way." She added, "There are enough women in the program that coincidentally this can happen, and that is a wonderful thing. It says a lot about the first 50 years of spaceflight that this is where we're at."

Meanwhile, the returning crew of ISS Expedition 15 overcame a bumpy ride back to Earth aboard their Soyuz spacecraft yesterday, landing some 200 miles short of their planned target in the steppes of Kazakhstan after a rocket misfired, sending the vehicle on a steeper re-entry approach that raised the force of gravity endured to twice the level normally experienced, according to a statement from U.S. and Russian administrators. The homebound Soyuz crew â'' consisting of cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov and Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor â'' were all medically evaluated and pronounced in good health.

The planned launch tomorrow of STS-120 will mark the 23rd shuttle mission to the space station. In addition to its commander, the crew consists of: Pilot George D. Zamka (Col. USMC) and Mission Specialists Paolo A. Nespoli (European Space Agency, Italy), Scott E. Parazynski (NASA), Daniel M. Tani (NASA), Douglas H. Wheelock (Col. USA), and Stephanie D. Wilson (NASA). Tani will join ISS Expedition 16 under Whitson's command, replacing ISS Expedition 15 Flight Engineer Clayton C. Anderson.

Two excellent reports on the missions of STS-120 and ISS Expedition 16 can be found today at the BBC Online ("Shuttle Launch Is Key for Europe") and the New York Times ("Amid Concerns, an Ambitious Shuttle Mission" [registration required]).

We wish all the astronauts and cosmonauts, of both genders, happy flying and (more) safe returns.

European and U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Bush administration and advocates of its policy of not making the United States subject to binding restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions have been having some fun lately with the most recent data on European and U.S. emissions. Statistics released by the International Energy Agency, Paris, and the Bonn secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which administers the Kyoto Protocol, indicate that since the year 2000 U.S. emissions have gone up less than Europeâ''s. This would seem to show, argue the Bush administrationâ''s supporters, that it doesnâ''t actually make any positive difference whether one ratifies Kyoto or doesnâ''t.

â''Since 2000, emissions of carbon dioxide have been growing more rapidly in Europe, with all its capping and yapping, than in the U.S., where there has been minimal government intervention so far,â'' wrote Kyle Wingfield, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, in a typical anti-Kyoto column. â''As of 2005, weâ''re talking about a 3.8 percent rise in the Europe-15 versus a 2.5 percent increased in the U.S. according to statistics from the United Nations.â''

Wingfieldâ''s numbers are about right, as far as they go, but they also are incomplete and misleading, unless treated with considerable care. The most recent UNFCCC numbers posted on its website are for 2004, and they show that E-15 emissions rose 2.3 percent from 2000 to 2004, while U.S. emissions rose 1.3 percent in the same period. The same data set also shows, howeverâ''and this is a big howeverâ''that the E-15 emissions in 2004 were 0.8 percent lower than in 1990, the Kyoto baseyear, while U.S. 2004 emissions were 15.8 percent higher. Thus, looked at in the broader timeframe, the European countries can be seen as making real progress toward achieving their required 8 percent reduction in emissions by 2012, while the United States has been moving in the opposite direction from what Kyoto would have required of it, had it ratified the protocolâ''a 7 percent reduction.

What is more, the numbers for the European countries that have been doing the most yapping and capping, to borrow the Wall Street Journalâ''s language, look positive even in the recent narrow time-frame, from their point of view. The United Kingdomâ''s emissions decreased 1 percent from 2000 to 2004, and Germanyâ''s by 0.8 percent. France, which is a very low-carbon country to begin with because of its many nuclear reactors and its sky-high gasoline taxes, saw its greenhouse gas emissions go up just 0.2 percent in the first four years of this century. Thatâ''s less than a sixth as much as the United States, whose per capita carbon emissions are about twice as high.

DIY Winner Showcase: The $20 Trail Camera

Don Kirk of Indianapolis, IN shows IEEE Spectrum's Harry Goldstein and Josh Romero the guts of this $20 trail camera on display at the Austin, Texas Maker Faire yesterday. Harry had to shoulder his way in among the throngs of people craning their necks for a look at the winning entry in the Make Magazine/IEEE Spectrum DIY contest concluded in September. About 25,000 people were expected to attend the Maker Faire in Austin on Saturday and Sunday.


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