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Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks

An ongoing problem with fuel sensors has forced NASA to postpone the latest mission of the space shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). Yesterday, the malfunction of two gauges that measure liquid hydrogen in the external fuel tank of the shuttle prompted managers in the space agency to halt an already postponed launch attempt and reschedule it for 2 January at the earliest. The problem is in the four engine cut-off (ECO) sensors, which have variously given off false readings during fueling procedures in preparation for the latest mission of the Atlantis orbiter, designated STS-122.

The faulty ECO gauges have been a source of trouble for the shuttle launch team at Cape Canaveral for quite a while. In the past, NASA has tried to work around them, launching orbiters into space even when one or two of them have acted strangely. Not this time, though. The space agency said on its shuttle Web site that this time it had had enough and was temporarily shutting down the current mission until engineers could inspect and fix the mysterious problem once and for all.

The ECO system is designed to warn flight controllers that fuel is running unexpectedly low and trigger an automatic cut off of the main engines, preventing any damage on ascent.

"We're determined to get to the bottom of this," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team. He added that launching on the rescheduled date would depend on the work of the engineers to fix the ECO problem.

"We would rather have launched today, obviously," Cain said Sunday. "This was going to be, in the very least, a good tanking test for us, and that's what it's turned out to be."

The crew of STS-122 flew back to Houston on Sunday, but they expressed their gratitude to the launch crew for their efforts before leaving, according to the space agency.

"We want to thank everyone who worked so hard to get us into space this launch window," the astronauts said in a statement. "We had support teams working around the clock at KSC, JSC, and numerous sites in Europe. We were ready to fly but understand that these types of technical challenges are part of the space program. We hope everyone gets some well-deserved rest, and we will be back to try again when the vehicle is ready to fly."

The main objective of the 11-day mission of Atlantis will be to install and activate the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory, which will provide scientists around the world with the ability to conduct a variety of life, physical, and materials science experiments in weightlessness.

First, though, they need to shake a few bugs out.

EVS-23: Rumors & comments & questions, oh my! (2 of 2)

New York Cityâ''And hereâ''s the second one, my last post from the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23) held Sunday through Wednesday (Dec 2-5) in Anaheim, California.

This is the final list of factoids, comments, questions, suppositions, and a bit of opinion (I posted the first one from Anaheim on Wednesday). Like the first, this was gathered from three intensive days of discussions with engineers, technologists, researchers, and executives. They were from automakers, battery companies, research institutions, regulatory bodies and more.

Consider this food for thought on the state of electric vehicles today:

- V2G? V2H? Simple plugs? A long, long way to go yet. Reader Glenn Skutt asked if there was any discussion of Vehicle-to-Grid communication and its long-term implications, and there was tons. But right now, the automakers are just starting to grapple with the issuesâ''itâ''s not yet a natural thing for auto engineers to consider interfacing their product to anything beyond digital fault analyzers. Stay tuned on this one (and watch Spectrum for more).

3cams-crop-contrast-arrows-small

- My favorite moment (photo): In a presentation by Peter Nortman, president of EnergyCS, describing its results with a fleet of 15 Priuses converted to plug-in hybrids, a squadron of grey-suited Asian engineers raised their digital cameras in unison, like a ballet of swans, to snap pictures of every slide he projected. Cheaper than $150 for the proceedings on CD-ROM, I guess.

- As well as plug-ins, itâ''s all about the weightâ''or should be. Fordâ''s Susan Cischke announced little beyond the directions CEO Alan Mulally had already laid out earlier at the LA Auto Show. But she reiterated the companyâ''s commitment to â''stabilize the weight and sizeâ'' of its vehicles, and start reducing the weight of models launching after 2012. Given Mulallyâ''s tenure in the aircraft industry, where weight is anathema, this sounds promising. Too bad Ford is selling Jaguar, its only brand that has an actual aluminum-framed car in production â'¿.

- Assuming the Chevrolet Volt launches as promised in 2010 or 2011, how will GM hang onto an early-mover advantage in batteries? Itâ''s well known that Panasonic gives Toyota its newest and best products well before they reach other customers; the two companies have a decades-long relationship. Can US vendors do the same? A high-ranked executive smiled wolfishly when asked how GM would prevent battery vendors (A123, say) from selling cells to other automakers. His answer? They can sell power batteries (for hybrids) all day long, but GM gets a lock on energy batteries (for long-range electric-drive vehicles). Given the market, I bet those were long, arduous negotiations.

And thatâ''s all she wrote â'¿but watch Spectrum Online for a full writeup of EVS-23, including this material and many pictures, just like the one I did on the LA Auto Show. Thanks for reading.

Do High Tech Ski Accessories Promote Head Injury?

That's what I've been asking myself as I've been looking at ski gadgets this week. On Monday, the medical journal Injury Prevention (part of the British Medical Journal family), published a study that attributes more head injuries from skiing and snowboarding to the increasingly ridiculous/miraculous/stupid tricks that athletes are trying to pull off.

Alpine skiing and snowboarding are sports that involve high velocity and, recently, an increased propensity for participants to jump and perform acrobatic maneuvers, factors that may result in injury. Increased participation in jumping and acrobatics has led to a large number of brain and spinal cord injuries...

Apparently, while fewer skiers are getting injured, more people are hurting their heads and necks.

Let's face it, crazy tricks with huge amounts of risk have always been a part of winter sports (although skiing in subway escalators seems to be a more recent development). The difference, now, is that better technologies and equipment seem to not only make big tricks possible, but somehow inevitable. For example, look at The Hangtimer. For $99, this little gadget is packed with little accelerometers that automatically start and stop a timer, settling once and for all whose 360 mute-grab lasted longest.

That's not the only gadget out there promoting the new go-big or go-home attitude. Check out O'Neill's new H4 Campack. It has a built-in, helmet-mounted video camera connected to a giant red "record" button on the shoulder strap. That should make it easy for would-be Warren Millers to shoot YouTube ski videos without even removing their mittens. (Check out O'Neill's promotional video to see some of the kinds of skiing and riding that the Injury Prevention folks worry about.)

from talk2myshirt

"But the backpack uses a helmet mounted cam," you might protest, "surely helmet use helps keep skiers and snowboarders safe." In general, that's true—according to the study, "helmets are associated with a 22â''60% decreased rate of head injury." However, I'm not so sure all helmets are focused on safety first. The Giro bluetooth helmet, for example, adds another level of distraction to your skiing/boarding. Imagine the extra foolhardy adrenaline you get when "Eye of the Tiger" blasts as you drop in the half-pipe.

In the medical journal report, they note that "Advances in skiing/snowboarding equipment and techniques have produced increased velocities and jumping heights. Collisions occur with other participants on the slopes and with inanimate objects, such as trees, rocks, and chairlift poles, causing injury."From the recent ski videos I've watched with my slopes-obsessed, 15-year-old brother, that's an understatement. Guys are dropping from the sky onto hand-rails and ice-covered stairs.

While the report tentatively proposes that " the increase [in head injuries] may be linked with the proliferation of snowparks, and a possible increase in the risk of injuries associated with snowpark use where terrain is modified to accommodate acrobatic maneuvers," the conclusion seems obvious to me.

It's interesting to note that helmets work better at slower speeds, and in general, terrain park skiers and riders go slower than racers (especially those with self-waxing skis). So it's probably even more important to strap one on.

The good news is that the risk of injury from skiing is still relatively low: for every thousand skiers on the slopes on any given day, there are two or three injuries. That means injuries today less than half as likely as they were in the 1970s, and much of the decrease is attributed to better engineered equipment. (Plus, today we have ski jackets with warning lights on them). I'll still be hitting the slopes hard this winter, but I think I'll leave the gadgets at home. And wear my helmet. And maybe I'll just stick to the moguls and trees where I'm unlikely to do this (NOTE: not for the weak of stomach).

Cancer Detection Technique Using AFM Measures the Softness of Cells

Researchers at UCLA have published in Nature Nanotechnology an innovative technique for using Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) to discern between cancer cells and healthy cells.

The trick turns out to be that cancer cells are â''softerâ'' than healthy cells. Cancer cells need to travel some distances through the body getting by all sorts of obstacles, so they have to be flexible to perform this feat. By using the AFM, the researchers are able to detect this â''softnessâ''.

It seems that this technique could become a useful tool in early cancer detection.

That said, some of the press coverage of this work has been somewhat misleading in that it identifies AFM as a â''new leading edge technologyâ'' .

Twenty-year-old AFM could hardly be called â''newâ''. Nonetheless, what is interesting about this is that it appears we have just begun to scratch the surface of what the current stable of microscopy tools can achieve.

California Clean Tech Open wraps up for 2007

logo_ccto.jpg

The California Clean Tech Open, a competition for start-ups, awarded $100,000 in prizes to six companies this fall. Selected from 130 entries in six categories, the companies presented practical technologies that clearly have good chances of commercial success. But none of them captured my imagination quite so much as some of the winners in 2006, the competitionâ''s first year, like Kiteship , a company building helium-filled sails that pull giant freighters, or GreenVolts, a solar energy company that got its start when its founder was sailing to New Zealand and discovered that he could help island villages by repairing discarded solar panels. GreenVolts actually received a special award this year, the first â''Alumni Award,â'' for outstanding business achievement. GreenVolts is working with PG&E to install what will be the largest concentrating solar array in the world, a 2-megawatt facility in Tracy, Calif. The company also announced that investors have committed $10 million to the company.

This yearâ''s winners:

Lucid Design Group won the AMD Smart Power Award for â''Building Dashboard,â'' a PC-based tool that allows homeowners to monitor electricity and water use and solar electricity production in real time. plasma_wired.jpg

NiLA Inc. took the Energy Efficiency Award for an LED-based stage set lighting system.

1-Solarâ''s low-priced long-life inverters for photovoltaic systems received the Renewables Award.

BuildFastâ''s House Kit, a highly insulated, earthquake resistant, easy to assemble building intended for low-income and post-disaster housing, won the Google Green Building Award. finshedhouse_cropped_small.JPG

Synchromatics, a company that developed a bus tracking system that uses GPS and cell phone location to make speed, location, and other data to people operating transit fleets, won the Lexus Transportation Award.

And Microvi Biotech LLC took the Air, Water, & Waste Award with its biotech based waste-free water treatment technologies.

This yearâ''s competition featured the youngest team to catch clean-tech start-up fever. Sunergy (formerly Calsunergy) from Santa Clara, Calif., designed a solar system that concentrates the light coming into the cells and simultaneously uses the heat from that light for electricity generation. The CEO, Alec Boyer, is in eighth grade; the rest of the management team is in fifth or sixth grade. The competition has no age limits. Sunergy didnâ''t make the finals, but still plans to announce their first product in 2008, targeted at providing energy in the developing world.

Bad Day for a Space Launch

The folks at NASA have a high regard for history. They even have their own museums and a History Office. So you'd think they might have known that today was not a particularly auspicious day to attempt to launch an important space mission.

This morning, the space agency decided to postpone the scheduled launch of the Atlantis orbiter due to problems with onboard engine sensors. Instead, it will attempt to launch the vehicle tomorrow afternoon. Still, some at NASA must have felt the jinx was on for the 6th of December.

On this date 50 years ago, nearly to the same hour this morning, the agency's predecessor (NACA), in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, attempted to put the first American satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral. Known as Project Vanguard, the first orbital try was a spectacular failure. With television cameras broadcasting the event live for the world to see, the Juno I rocket assembly rose four feet from its launch pad and then crumpled in on itself, exploding in a massive fireball.

The historic occasion was a complete embarrassment for the fledgling U.S. space program.

In an ironic twist of fate for the disastrous mission, the rugged satellite slated to be its nation's first in orbit, known as the TV-3, was launched from the nosecone of the Juno when the rocket collapsed beneath it. The nosecone flew away from the explosion and landed harmlessly in the sand a short distance from the pad. NACA engineers recovered the nosecone and found the little, silver TV-3 inside, dented and charred but in otherwise good working order, ready to relay its position. Fifty years later, it rests in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum, a brave artifact of the responsibility of failure.

These days, those early lessons of the beginnings of the U.S. effort in space provide little more than historic curiosities of a bygone era, something for the folks at NASA to display in their museums. We are all tasked, though, to remember the lessons of history, lest they should come back to haunt us.

Before picking today to launch the latest space shuttle mission, maybe managers in the human spaceflight program should have checked with their counterparts in the history office to see what ghosts may have been lingering around on the 6th of December to remind them of the past.

They certainly chose a poor occasion to test their chances. Better luck tomorrow to all.

The Real Challenge for Nanotechnology Initiatives: Staffing

It seems the whole world has jumped on the nanotechnology bandwagon, announcing national initiatives and allocating funding to expansive programs.

These initiatives are, of course, filled with logistical obstacles, constructing facilities, getting the right equipment, determining the research agenda, etc. The list goes on like this, but no problem may be more acute than getting the necessary staffing.

How do countries that donâ''t have the native scientists and technologists to support these ambitious initiatives manage to recruit the people they need?

This issue is portrayed poignantly in Indiaâ''s national newspaper, The Hindu, where eleven students at the National Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Chennai have been waiting around patiently for the past six months to start their core curriculum as they await the hiring of a professor who would head the department, a reader and two lecturers.

Despite the call for the positions having gone out in May 2006, there is still no professor, reader, or lecturers.

While in this case the university claims they have received a sufficient number of applications, and the holdup has been due to â''delays by the universityâ''s administrative authorities,â'' it will likely prove difficult for some countries and regions to compete for the top scientists and researchers in nanotechnology.

With the example of India, there are many native scientists and engineers that can continue to support the countryâ''s nanotechnology initiatives. But there are those in which recruitment will be necessary, and billion dollar funding announcements wonâ''t fix the problem.

Bali, Hi! U.S. Congress Acts on Climate, Energy

Dec. 6, 2007â''As representatives of the worldâ''s nations meet in Bali to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, the U.S. Congress is taking actions that will significantly enhance the credibility of American negotiators. Last night, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that would establish a cap-and-trade system to cut emissions and accelerate adoption of new technology. By the end of this week, the House is expected to vote on an energy bill that would boost average fuel efficiency standards for vehicles from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Even if adopted by Congress, to be sure, both bills may end up getting vetoed by President George W. Bush. But they still will establish a legislative agenda for the coming years and outline a platform on which the Democratic Partyâ''s candidate for president¬whoever that turns out to beâ''surely will stand.

The House energy bill raising fuel efficiency standards, which may also include a renewable energy mandate requiring the nationâ''s utilities to generate some fraction of their electricity from green sources by some year in the next decade, is considered a victory for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. Though the House and Senate leadership has dropped sharply in the publicâ''s estimation since Democrats took control at the beginning of last year, Pelosi had to overcome substantial opposition in her own party to obtain the higher fuel efficiency standardsâ''in particular, opposition from Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. of Michigan, an ardent and very powerful advocate of the U.S. auto industryâ''s interests. In recent years, efforts to increase fuel efficiency standards have been stymied as much by jobs-oriented Democrats as by profits-minded Republicans.

The climate bill, Americaâ''s Climate Security Act or S. 2191, also is a substantial legislative accomplishment. Co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the bill emerged last summer as the favored compromise among a handful of similar proposals. The bill covers all sources that emit more than 10,000 tons of carbon in the electric power, industrial, and transportation sectors, and would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 65 percent by 2050. Though the immediate targets fall far short of Kyoto, which required the United States to cut its emissions by 7 percent from their 1990 level by 2012, the bill would commit the country to the principle of binding emissions reductions. With many countries failing to meet Kyoto targets, sincere intentions now count for as much or more than actual immediate success.

Useful summary materials describing S. 2191 can be found at Liebermanâ''s website, including semi-independent assessments. An important issue to watch as the bill wends its way through Congress is how existing big emitters of carbon are handled when emissions allowances are distributed and auctioned: experts like Granger Morgan, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy, have warned that â''grandfatheringâ'' big coal plants built in recent yearsâ''that is, giving them emissions allowances for free, based on their historic emissionsâ''would reward their owners for having made short-sighted investment decisions.

For background on U.S. billsâ''some 200 in all have been introduced in the last couple of yearsâ''Google on Congressional Research Service, climate, and the names Jonathan L. Ramseur and Brent D. Yacobucci. Though CRS reports are done strictly for Congress and are not meant for public distribution, many of them get leaked and end up being accessible online.

Contracts awarded for DARPA's Trust in Integrated Circuits program

Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan said it in 1987 to characterize US-Soviet relations, and the Pentagon is saying it in 2007 to characterize its relationship with foreign-made microchips. Given the past yearâ''s adventures in dog food, toys and toothpaste, itâ''s hard to fault them for their caution. A year shy of its 50th birthday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched the Trust in Integrated Circuits program, the goal of which is a microchip verification process. Itâ''s basically a Pentagon Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. A chip bearing the Trusted imprimatur will be guaranteed free of malicious content.

DARPA just issued a press release listing contract awards for the program [PDF] and some more details about what those contracts specify. Cliff notes after the jump.

It's not just offshoring that worries the Defense Department. Because the Pentagon now only makes up one percent of the global chip market, it no enjoys leverage over anyone's chipmaking techniques or policies, even that of US-based manufacturers.

Itâ''s too expensive to build your own fab. Even the Defense Department canâ''t afford $3 billion every few years as state-of-the art manufacturing plants slouch toward obsolescence. NSA has a Trusted Foundries program, but as Victoria Stavridou-Coleman (former director of Intel's trust and manageability labs) told me, it â''blesses a process and not a product.â''

The problem is that chips are so complicated at this point that testing them, either physically or logically, is pretty much impossible. The Pentagon wants tests for hardware Trojans, back doors and kill switches (just three in its extensive database of fever dreams), and the testing needs to be nondestructive.

The project consists of three one-year phases, each phase more difficult than the previous. The Phase 1 contracts have been awarded (sorted here by almighty dollar).

AwardContractRole
$11,941,368 RaytheonHardware and Software
$4,521,299Luna InnovationsField Programmable Gate Arrays
$4,484,286 University of Southern Calif. Information Sciences InstituteGovernment Test Article Team
$2,347,760ISI/XRadiaX Ray Analysis
$940,217Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics LaboratoryGovernment Metrics Team
$600,000MIT Lincoln LabsGovernment Red Team Leader

EVS-23: Rumors & comments & questions, oh my! (1 of 2)

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Is EVS already dead? That was just one of the questions thatâ''s been debated late into the night here at the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23).

Among the plenaries, the workshops, the auditorium sessions (on no fewer than six parallel tracks, damnit), the small lecture series, the lunches, the receptions, and of course gallons of urn coffee are hallway chats, sidebar conversations, and random comments.

So hereâ''s my list of factoids, comments, questions, suppositions, and a bit of opinion (broken into two parts, â''cause there were so many). Theyâ''ve been gathered from three intensive days of discussions with engineers, technologists, researchers, and executives. They were from automakers, battery companies, research institutions, regulatory bodies and more.

Consider this food for thought on the state of electric vehicles today:

- Is EVS already dead? Many of us have debated whether, within 10 years, thereâ''ll simply be no need for EVS. By then, its topics will routinely be part of mainstream auto and utility industry conferences. When Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) conferences start running tracks on energy storage alternatives, and electric-drive systemsâ'¿itâ''s over. Some say five years, some say 10. But where will the true believers and garage converters go then?

- Could it be? Did Toyota goof, big-time? Itâ''s starting to appear that they initially put their money on the wrong lithium-ion chemistry. Their long-term partner Panasonic, which makes nickel-metal-hydride battery packs for the Prius and other Toyota hybrids, has most experience with cobalt-based lithium-ion batteriesâ''the ones behind those videos and pictures of flaming laptops youâ''ve seen on TV or YouTube. Most automakers view them as simply too risky to use in vehicles. GM, on the other hand, put out solicitations to dozens of battery makers for its Volt battery pack, got back 13 proposals, and issued development contracts to Continental (using new vendor A123â''s iron-nanophosphate cells) and to another new vendor, Compact Power Inc. (using LG Chemâ''s manganese spinel cells). Perhaps tight kereitsu relationships arenâ''t so useful when transformative technologies come along?

- Toyota has clearly changed its tune on plug-in hybrids. The company expressed polite skepticism on the topic as recently as six months ago. But as part of the opening plenary here, Koei Saga, the senior general manager in the companyâ''s hybrid-vehicle system engineering division, said clearly, â''We think a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is the most practical approach for normal-size passenger cars.â'' On Sunday and Monday the company offered drives in its own Prius plug-in conversion (adding a second NiMH battery pack to the standard one, for an all-electric range of 7 to 10 miles). Gratuitous advice to GM, Ford et al.: Never, ever count Toyota outâ''as many of you have learned, painfully, over the last three decades.

- Fun factoid: According to a GM insider, for a short while the project now known as Chevrolet Volt was internally called the EV2. But the firestorm around the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? gave that name too many unfortunate connotations, hence Volt.

Iâ''m headed back home in a few hours. If anyone has specific follow-up questions theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

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