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U.S. Air Force’s Plug-and-Play Satellites

Satellite design doesn’t have to be rocket science

11 min read
illustration of a plug-and-play satellite
Illustration: John MacNeill

When you buy a mouse for your computer, removing the packaging is probably the hardest part of integrating it into your home system. Once you plug in the USB cable, you click on the mouse, and it just works. For it to “just work,” of course, a great many things have to happen in the background: Via the USB cable, the mouse’s circuitry receives power, initializes, and is recognized by the computer as a valid device. Then the driver software takes over, identifying the device as a mouse and not, say, a printer or a keyboard. Finally, a rapid succession of electrical messages traverses the cable, and these messages are translated into commands that then move the cursor smoothly across your computer screen. The fact that you don’t need to know any of this to operate a mouse is by design: The mouse’s computer chips and embedded software conceal the device’s complexity.

This was not an isolated case—indeed, it’s universal. So eight years ago, a few of us at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) set out to find a better way. Along with a small cadre of researchers from industry, government, and academia, we have been studying the example of the personal computer and “plug-and-play” concepts from other industries in search of lessons we could apply to the task of building better spacecraft. Traditionally, satellite designers strive to increase raw performance or system capabilities by turning to faster processors or more sophisticated sensors. But we took a very different approach, concentrating instead on slashing the time it takes to go from inception to launch. Our goal was, well, lofty: to build a working satellite in just six days.

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Quantum Computing for Dummies

New guide helps beginners run quantum algorithms on IBM's quantum computers over the cloud

3 min read
An image of the inside of an IBM quantum computer.
IBM

Quantum computers may one day rapidly find solutions to problems no regular computer might ever hope to solve, but there are vanishingly few quantum programmers when compared with the number of conventional programmers in the world. Now a new beginner's guide aims to walk would-be quantum programmers through the implementation of quantum algorithms over the cloud on IBM's publicly available quantum computers.

Whereas classical computers switch transistors either on or off to symbolize data as ones or zeroes, quantum computers use quantum bits, or "qubits," which because of the peculiar nature of quantum physics can exist in a state called superposition where they are both 1 and 0 at the same time. This essentially lets each qubit perform two calculations at once. The more qubits are quantum-mechanically linked, or entangled (see our explainer), within a quantum computer, the greater its computational power can grow, in an exponential fashion.

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This Wearable Neck Patch Can Diagnose Concussions

Self-powered sensors convert neck strain into electrical pulses to detect head trauma in athletes

4 min read
image of back of man's head and shoulders with a patch taped to his lower neck; right image is a time lapse image of a man's head extending far forward and back, simulating a case of whiplash

The prototype patch in this research is shown in (a) on the left; on the right (b) is the kind of head rotation that can yield an electrical response from the patch.

Juan Pastrana

Nelson Sepúlveda was sitting in the stands at Spartan Stadium, watching his hometown Michigan State players bash heads with their cross-state football rivals from the University of Michigan, when he had a scientific epiphany.

Perhaps the nanotechnologies he had been working on for years—paper-thin devices known as ferroelectret nanogenerators that convert mechanical energy into electrical energy—could help save these athletes from the ravages of traumatic brain injury.

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Take the Lead on Satellite Design Using Digital Engineering

Learn how to accelerate your satellite design process and reduce risk and costs with model-based engineering methods

1 min read
Keysight
Keysight

Win the race to design and deploy satellite technologies and systems. Learn how new digital engineering techniques can accelerate development and reduce your risk and costs. Download this free whitepaper now!

Our white paper covers:

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