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    photo of the setup for a laser experiment from 2003
    Tsew Tsew
    A laser experiment setup, not the same setup as the one described below
    Image courtesy of the University of Colorado and NSF

    Scientists have been able to get a super-high-energy beam of laser light to travel farther than ever—a little more than seven feet, in a lab demonstration.

    In the future, such lasers could go into long-distance sensors, or chemical-identifying spectrometers. One more unusual application scientists have thought of is directing lightning. In 2008, a team of European physicists used high-intensity laser pulses to trigger "electric events"—though not lightning bolts—in a thundercloud. It will take more development to trigger lightning bolts, the scientists wrote in a paper they published at the time. This new experiment is a step toward that development.

    The laser pulses we're talking about are very high energy, so they don't act exactly like your cat's favorite toy does. Intensely energetic laser beams move through the air differently than ordinary laser beams, forming something physicists call optical filaments. The filaments lose tend to energy quickly and dissipate.

    To make a laser filament last longer, a team of American physicists decided to shine it inside another, less intense beam of light, which they called a dressing beam. The dressing beam feeds energy into the filament so it can stretch farther. In an experiment, the American team showed an optical filament accompanied by a dressing beam stretches about 7.2 feet. Without the dressing beam, the filament was only about eight inches long. Other teams have been able to extend optical filaments to twice their original lengths, the team wrote in a paper they published in the journal Nature Photonics, while this effort stretched an optical filament by 11 times its original length.


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    Invisible World
    Sam Kaplan

    On a recent morning, Noah Fierer, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, found himself standing 1,000 feet above the farmland of eastern Colorado. He was perched near the pinnacle of the Boulder Atmospheric Observatory, a cellphone-tower-like spire built in 1977 to conduct climate and weather research. To reach the top, Fierer and his colleague Joanne Emerson had taken a five-minute ride in the tower’s cramped elevator to an even more cramped catwalk 90 stories up. Dressed in hard hats and safety harnesses, the two leaned over to check a small device strapped to a latticework platform. The machine, which they’d installed several months earlier, sucked in air every night, filtered it, and stored the contents for collection every two weeks. It was basically a vacuum cleaner but instead of hoovering up dirt, it captured microbes.

    Microorganisms surround us. In the relatively desolate atmosphere at 1,000 feet, every cubic meter of air contains about a thousand microbes. Closer to the ground, that number skyrockets to 100,000, and on every square centimeter of human skin, it jumps to 10 million. A teaspoon of dirt contains 50 billion microbes, more than seven times the number of people on Earth. Yet despite such abundance, scientists know little about the microbial ecosystem. We understand less about the bugs in our home, for example, than the animals in the deepest ocean trenches. We know even less about their impact on us. How do microbes shape our daily lives—and how do we shape theirs? Do they trigger asthma and allergies—or help prevent them? It’s as if we’re living in an invisible world, and like the Victorian naturalists before him, Fierer is charting it.

    One of the country’s foremost microbial ecologists, Fierer collects and classifies microorganisms such as bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses. “I’m a natural historian of cooties,” he says. Until a few years ago, microbial ecology was a relatively staid field. Because of the tiny size of the organisms involved and the inability to grow many of them in petri dishes, Fierer says, most microbiome studies were akin to surveying the biodiversity of the Amazonian rainforest and coming back with five species. Then came DNA sequencing. Fierer and others can now classify thousands of species quickly and easily and determine their functions. “It’s fair to say we are entering a golden age of microbial ecology,” he says. 

    In the past five years, Fierer has explored the microbial diversity of such environments as public restrooms, armpits, and caterpillar stomachs. Sometimes his findings shed light on the greater realm of microorganisms. At the Boulder Atmospheric Observatory tower, he’s helping Emerson determine what kinds of creatures can survive in the air currents that blow in from California and beyond. Other times, his discoveries tell us about ourselves and how we unknowingly shape the microbial world. He’s proved, for example, that people leave behind unique microbial fingerprints on surfaces like computer keyboards long after they’ve touched them, a fact that made it into a recent CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode. (No one has used the technique in an actual investigation yet.)

    Lately, Fierer has turned his attention to one of the richest and least understood microbial environments: the American household. In 2011, he joined the Wild Life of Our Homes project, which was started by Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University (and Fierer’s co-author on studies that explored beetle bacteria and the organisms living in our belly buttons). The project aims to map the microbial biodiversity of homes across the U.S. “We really didn’t know what to expect,” Fierer says. As he and Dunn often point out in their research, there are more kinds of microbes in a typical home than there are species of birds on Earth. “It should be shocking to people that we live with thousands of species, some of which make us sick and some of which don’t,” Dunn says. “We have no idea what determines which ones live in your house, and for the most part, we have no idea which ones are beneficial or detrimental.”

    Noah Fierer
    Valerie McKenzie
    To change that, Dunn’s citizen-science initiative at NC State advertised for volunteers. More than 1,400 people from all 50 states signed up. Each volunteer had to fill out a questionnaire about his or her cleaning routines, pets and plants, and medical history, among other miscellanea. Participants then received basic swab kits, which they used to take samples from their kitchen counters, pillowcases, and the tops of interior and exterior doorsills. (In a 2011 pilot study of 40 homes in North Carolina, volunteers also swabbed toilet seats, door handles, TV screens, and other objects, but there was enough overlap among the microbial communities in those samples that the number of swab locations could be reduced.) The samples were then sent back to Fierer for DNA sequencing.

    In Fierer’s Boulder lab, researchers extracted the microbial DNA from the swabs using chemical solutions and centrifuges; then they chemically amplified and sequenced specific marker genes that could help identify species and their functions. In a matter of months, the team had compiled the largest data set on microbial ecology ever assembled. It contained hundreds of millions of DNA sequences and started yielding discoveries almost immediately. For example, researchers found about 3,500 bacterial species on interior door trims, meaning there are about 3,500 kinds of bacteria floating about in the average house—500 more than the study found deposited on exterior door trims.

    As Fierer compared household data from different regions, he found that there were two main outdoor bacterial-and-
    fungal-community types collected on doorsills, one predominately along the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, and the other prevailing everywhere else. “As soon as we saw it, we said, ‘Holy crap, there is some structure here,’” Fierer says. What causes the different microbial clouds? Fierer thinks they could be linked to geographic patterns, including precipitation, soil pH levels, and forest cover. But only more research can say for sure.

    There are more species of microbes in a typical home than there are species of birds on Earth.

    Fierer could also see forensic applications for his work. “We may be able to demonstrate that we can use microbes found inside or outside homes to pinpoint where that home is located,” he says. “It could even be used to determine where a criminal had been by looking at the microbes deposited on his or her clothes or deposited on surfaces in a car.” 

    Data analysis on Wild Life of Our Homes continues, as do efforts to develop digital interactive “report cards” that will allow the 1,400 volunteers to learn about the abundance and likely environmental sources of the various microbes that live on their pillowcases. In the meantime, Fierer is developing new projects. He’d like to investigate the links between skin microbes and body odor, and he champions the idea of protecting endangered microorganisms. “There’s lots of literature on plant and animal conservation, but what’s often left out is conserving microbes,” he says. 

    As Fierer lists all the projects on his bucket list, it’s hard not to picture a very different world from the one we know, one in which every surface has seething bacterial colonies, fungal deposits, and viral hoards. Yes, Fierer explains, we’re all steeping in microbial soup—for better and worse. “Thankfully,” he says, “I am not a hypochondriac.”

    What's living with you?

    Katie Peek

    One morning about a year and a half ago, at my home in Brooklyn, New York, I woke up the usual way: My dog leapt into bed and plopped his face on my pillow. That day, I wondered what came with him. Did living with an animal influence my apartment’s microbial composition? To answer that question, I signed up for the Wild Life of Our Homes project, run by Rob Dunn at North Carolina State. Volunteers swab prescribed locations in their living spaces to collect microbial DNA, which is then sequenced to reveal which species appear where. Here’s how I compare with 18 other people in the U.S. —Brooke Borel

    This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


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    Today, the Associated Press released a bombshell story on a United States-led program to foment government dissent in Cuba. Using a Twitter-like social media service, U.S. operatives planned to grow a user base, then have the program spread messages that would inspire Cubans to undermine the communist government. The plan, according to documents obtained by the AP, went so far as to suggest creating "smart mobs" to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

    Strangely, this wasn't a CIA program; it was run by U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal government's humanitarian aid arm. In an interview this morning with Popular Science, USAID's Administrator, Rajiv Shah, who led USAID through the program, defended it. "One of the areas we work in is in the area of rights protection and accountability," Shah said. The highest-level official named in the AP documents is a mid-level manager named Joe McSpedon.

    It's not completely clear from the AP story how the program, called ZunZuneo—slang for a tweet from a Cuban hummingbird—was overseen and approved. For covert operations, presidential approval is required. 

    But Shah—despite the fact that the program was unknown to the public—said the idea that ZunZuneo was a covert operation is "inaccurate," and pointed out that there are other USAID programs that require secrecy, such as protecting the identities of humanitarian workers in Syria. "These projects are notified to Congress and the subject of a thorough accountability report," he said. (The AP story notes that "congressional investigators" reviewed USAID's Cuba programs. The story also notes that USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives had been conducting programs without going through usual Congressional "red tape," which created tension between lawmakers and the USAID, and that a large part of the program was collecting data on users of the service.) When asked if approval for the program went through the White House as well, Shah would only reiterate that the program was overseen by Congress.

    It's still unclear how the program and subsequent story will affect USAID's relationships with other countries, which, as the AP points out, rely on trust from other governments and industries. Today, for example, USAID announced a U.S. Global Development Lab to fund worldwide projects that could help end poverty.

    Update: The White House has made a statement on the USAID program that follows Shah's statement provided to Popular Science. The program was secret "not because it is an intelligence program, but to protect individuals,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, adding that he wasn't sure which White House officials were aware of the program.  


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    The geographies of light beer tweets
    Matthew Zook and Ate Poorthuis

    Beer, that magical fermented brew, is the third-most consumed beverage on the planet. Only water and tea are more popular.

    These and other facts—complete with academic-level history and analysis—are crammed into a new textbook called “The Geography of Beer”. The $129 printed compendium ($99 for an ebook) traces the origins of beer and explores flourishing cultures tied to the alcoholic drink.

    In one of our favorite chapters, Mark Patterson and Nancy Hoalst Pullen, two geography professors at Kennesaw State University who co-authored the textbook, apply their knowledge of food production and the beer industry to track down how geography influences beer styles, taste, and manufacturing. The 212-page textbook also features a collection of essays by beer lovers who explore, for example, the surge in popularity of the U.S. microbrewing industry.

    Chapter 17 is another favorite. Authors Matthew Zook and Ate Poorthuis studied a year's worth of tweets to suss out Americans' beer preferences, and their “lightbeer cyberspace" (see map, above) analysis reveals the dominance of Coors in the western U.S., Bud Light in the South and on the East Coast, and the Midwstern pocket claimed by Busch and Miller Lite.

    Below are a few other fun takeways to share with your friends over a cold one:

    • Back in the Bronze Age (roughly 3000 to 1000 BC), beer ingredients included fruits and cereals. (Chapter Two, Max Nelson)

    • To date, the Brewers Association has classified more than 140 different styles of beer. (Chapter One, Mark W. Patterson and Nancy Hoalst-Pullen)

    • IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a kind of beer that originated in the 1600s and was the preferred drink by British colonists in Tropical India. (Chapter 12, Jake E. Haugland)

    • From June 2012 to May 2013 there were close to a million geocoded beer tweets sent. (Chapter 17, Matthew Zook and Ate Poorthuis)

    • Midwestern states are more likely to tweet about beer while wine-related tweets generally come from northern and central California, Oregon and Washington, where wine is grown in the region. (Chapter 17, Matthew Zook and Ate Poorthuis)


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    cutaway illustration showing Enceladus' interior
    Ocean Inside
    This illustration shows what astronomers think the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus looks like. There's a big rocky core, an icy exterior, and a large liquid sea in the south, between the core and the exterior. The illustration also shows jets of water vapor discovered on Enceladus's southern surface in 2005.
    Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Buried under miles of ice, astronomers have detected a liquid water sea on one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. The sea is about the size of Lake Superior and it touches Enceladus' silicate core… which means it could have minerals dissolved in it that are necessary for life. "It makes, in fact, the interior of Enceladus a very attractive potential place to look for life," Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell University astronomer who worked on the study determining Enceladus has an ocean, said during a teleconference for reporters.

    This extraterrestrial sea could also be the source of water for those funny jets Enceladus has geysering out of its south pole, but scientists don't yet have data linking the two phenomena.

    This new announcement comes from a team of Italian and U.S. scientists, who analyzed gravity data from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini has been flying around Saturn for almost ten years now, passing close to the surfaces of Saturn's moons and taking sexy photos of Saturn itself.

    Scientists had previously suspected Enceladus may have an underground ocean. This latest study calculated the density of material in different parts of Enceladus after three gravity-measuring flybys. Those measurements revealed there's something underneath Enceladus' ice in the south that's denser than the ice. Liquid water is the most likely explanation, says David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology who also worked on the study.

    image showing Enceladus
    In this image, you can see the fissures on Enceladus' southern region from which its jets of water vapor emerge.
    Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

    "When you interpret data like this, gravity, of course, doesn't tell you what kind of material [is there]," he says. However, because scientists know the most common materials in the outer solar system are rock and ice, they're assuming the density of material on Enceladus must be explained by rock and water in different forms, Stevenson explains. Later, the study's lead author, Luciana Iess of the Sapienza University of Rome, says the team is "very comfortable" with its results.

    This little moon has more up its sleeve than anyone suspected.

    Scientists weren't always this excited about Enceladus, which is just one of Saturn's more than 50 known moons. It's small, with a diameter about one-seventh that of Earth's moon's. So at first, scientists thought it was likely inactive. Small objects like Enceladus cool quickly after they form, so they don't have warm, active cores. They also don't have enough gravity to hold an atmosphere. But in 2005, Cassini spotted plumes of ice erupting from Enceladus' southern surface, revealing this little moon has more up its sleeve than anyone suspected.

    The secret to little Enceladus' activity is the strong tidal force it feels from Saturn's gravitational pull. Its parent planet pulls Enceladus' ice out of shape, creating friction and heat and melting ice into water. The liquid water then acts as a lubricant, encouraging more ice blocks to rub against each other and create more water. It's even possible that the moon's ice plumes come only from water created by flexing ice, not from the newly discovered under-ice sea. So far, scientists have no way of checking whether there's any interior plumbing connecting the sea to the plumes.

    Cassini's immediate next plans are to make repeated flybys of the Saturnian moons Titan and Dione, which may also have underground oceans.

    You can read about Enceladus' underground sea in Iess, Stevenson, Lunine and their colleagues' paper in the journal Science.


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    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an auto-injecting device that can treat overdose from a variety of painkillers. The agency said in a statement today (April 3) that it could save lives; drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death from injury in the United States, surpassing vehicle crashes. 

    The treatment, known as Evzio, injects a drug called nalaxone that "rapidly reverses the effects of opioid overdose" and is the standard treatment for overdose, the FDA noted. Previously the drug had to be given via a syringe, which often requires taking somebody to the emergency room, taking up time. But the new auto-injector can be administered by caregivers or family members, and can fit in a medicine cabinet or pocket. 

    Tests have shown that the device administers that same amount of nalaxone as when somebody injects the drug with a syringe, and gives verbal instructions to whoever is using it. 

    Almost three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by opioid painkillers like oxycodone (Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin), and since 2003 have caused more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined, the CDC noted. Strangely the FDA also recently approved Zohydro, an opioid painkiller drug with up to 10 times more hydrocodone than Vicodin. 


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    What Bat Is That?
    Biologist Bruce Patterson inspects one of 58,000 bat specimens, representing more than 500 species, housed at the Field Museum of Natural History.
    Photo by Christopher Kemp

    Deep within the labyrinthine interior of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, at the end of a cluster of corridors and stairwells, Bruce Patterson stands amid a collection of more than 58,000 bat specimens. The collection at the Field is a microcosm of natural history, told in bats.

    Patterson strides from one bay of drawers to the next, naming the genera and species contained within each stack. Stopping at random, he opens a drawer: an array of bats from the Neotropics, laid out like a squadron. Each bat is reduced to a stuffed pelt, its wings outspread as if mid-flight, and a vial containing its cleaned skull and mandible. Many of the specimens were obtained more than 60 or 70 years ago by intrepid field biologists like Patterson in far-flung locations like Nepal, Somalia and the Philippines.

    Many bats were netted in rainforests, or plucked from the roofs of caves like strange fruit. Occasionally, bats were simply shot from the sky. Browsing through the drawers, one still can find specimens that were brought down with birdshot, pellet holes in the dried papery skin between wing bones.

    Every bat is tagged with a label identifying it by species, the date and location it was collected, and the name of the biologist who collected it. The integrity of the entire collection depends on the simple fact that every bat belongs to the species name on the tag affixed to its ankle, sometimes handwritten in spidery cursive that predates both Patterson and me.

    But what if a specimen does not belong to the species written on its label? What if the collection is wrong? Patterson's recent work, published last year in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, suggests that this might be the case. Such a finding has far-reaching implications. What if, upon closer examination, other specimens can be separated too, divorced into a constellation of interrelated but distinct species? What if, in fact, almost nothing is really what we think it is?

    Sturnira lilium: the little yellow-shouldered bat. A medium-sized, fruit-eating bat with distinctive yellow-brown oval patches on its shoulders. At the end of its blunted muzzle, a spear-shaped nose-leaf points vertically into the air, as if balancing an inverted heart there. It is one of the most common Phyllostomid bat species in the New World tropics, found all the way from Sonora and Tamaulipas in northern Mexico, through Central America, and southward to Argentina and eastern Brazil. It occupies an enormous bell-shaped footprint. Except, says Patterson, that it doesn't.

    Bat Bones
    Each specimen is reduced to a crudely stuffed pelt and its bones.
    Photo by Christopher Kemp

    Instead, Sturnira lilium -- regarded for decades as a single, well-defined species -- is a complex of seven different species, each occupying its own circumscribed range. "It turns out that Sturnira lilium is actually restricted to the Brazilian shield of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina," says Patterson. Ironically, almost none of the researchers who have studied Sturnira lilium -- either in the thin air of the Andes, or beneath the wet green canopy of the rainforest -- have actually seen one. "All of the literature actually corresponds to a different species of bat,” says Patterson. “The behavior, the dietary studies, the ecology, the parasites: all of that needs to be revised.”

    And that can be difficult. Increasingly, field biologists like Patterson are using novel techniques to identify new species, recategorize known species, and to study speciation -- how a species becomes a species.

    Suddenly, Sturnira has become the single most diverse genus in the Western hemisphere.

    Patterson and his graduate student Paul Velazco began by collecting specimens. Tissue samples came from multiple locations -- more than one hundred and thirty specimens in all. Some were collected live in the field, in Central and South America by biologists. The majority -- almost a hundred specimens -- came from museum collections like the one at the Field: from across the United States; from Brazil, Canada, Peru, and elsewhere. Using molecular techniques, Patterson and Velazco compared DNA isolated from each Sturnira  specimen, searching for subtle differences in its genetic code based on where it was collected.

    "There are places where two species occur,” Patterson says, “but for the most part it’s like a jigsaw puzzle -- one piece replaces the other and presumably serves the same ecological role that its counterpart serves in that adjacent real estate."

    In a moment, one species becomes seven. Three of them are completely new to science. Velazco and Patterson have scrutinized the specimens, describing them morphologically for a second paper recently submitted for review.

    "Some occur up to four thousand meters in the Andes," says Patterson. "It's cold. It's cloud forest habitat. And they're really hairy. Whereas others are down in sweltering lowland forests, and they tend not to be very hirsute. There are differences like that. As soon as you see a skull, there are dental and cranial differences that also help to tell these apart."

    With these newly published data, the larger Sturnira genus of bats to which Sturnira lilium belongs has grown too, ballooning from a known handful to a wide, diverse group. "About 1960," says Patterson, "there may have been four or five species of Sturnira bats. That eventually grew over the years to fourteen species in 2005. But with our study we've documented twenty-three genetic units that seem to bear the hallmarks of species."

    The implications are wide-ranging -- and impossible to ignore. One of the previously undescribed species is found only in a narrow coastal territory that runs south along the Pacific seaboard from Colombia to Ecuador. As deforestation strips it of its habitat, it has become an immediate conservation target. Another species is limited to the Lesser Antilles, a chain of rocky volcanic islands in the Caribbean Sea. Suddenly, Sturnira has become the single most diverse genus in the Western hemisphere.

    Stuffed Bat
    Molecular techniques can be used on stored tissues to describe new species.
    Photo by Christopher Kemp

    How many other species are nested like Russian matryoshka dolls within the name of another species they closely resemble? Perhaps other species mistaken for Sturnira lilium have already become extinct, disappearing even before taxonomists had the opportunity to describe them properly. It is unknowable now. Researchers have identified bat species on the basis of the parasites that inhabit them -- different parasites preferring different bat species. These data can help them calculate how long ago each Sturnira species diverged from its common ancestor, creating an overgrown taxonomic tree that seems still to be growing.  

    "If you have more sensitive measures, you can invariably subdivide the range of wide-ranging and presumably abundant species," says Patterson. "Often, what happens is that this wide-ranging thing that no one was worried about suddenly becomes three or four narrowly-endemic species that may occur on a small fragment of habitat remaining in their particular part of the original species range."

    Patterson pauses for a moment, perhaps considering the collection of thousands of bat specimens amassed behind him.

    "It's true for mice, for frogs, for fish," he says. "It's true for all sorts of organisms."


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    Rhythm Downlight LED
    Jonathon Kambouris

    The Promise 

    It might shine like any other bulb, but the Rhythm Downlight LED from Lighting Science (price not set; available summer) can make users feel energized or sleepy on cue. NASA plans to deploy similar technology on the International Space Station to help astronauts regulate their sleep. (At 17,500 mph, they see 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours.) 

    The Research

    Scientists at Thomas Jefferson University and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences recorded how volunteers responded to different wavelengths of light from 440 nanometers (nm) to 600 nm. The spectrum they used ranges in color from indigo to orange. Subjects underwent exposure in 90-minute intervals, while researchers recorded melatonin levels in each participant’s blood. 

    The Results

    The team found that blue light measuring 446 nm to 477 nm suppressed production of melatonin, which promotes drowsiness, more than other wavelengths did. Engineers at Lighting Science used that data to program the Rhythm Downlight with multiple settings, including energizing (more blue) and relaxing (no blue). Users program their schedule through an app, allowing them to stave off mid-afternoon crashes before they start.

    This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


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    Suction as seeing
    A mexican tetra using mouth suction to navigate an aquarium.
    Roi Holzman et al

    Mexican tetras, or blind cavefish, have a unique way of navigating through their environment, not seen in other animals: They use their mouths to create waves of suction, which are then reflected onto their skin, helping the fish avoid obstacles. They create the suction by opening and shutting their mouths, appearing to go "oop, oop." 

    In a recent study, scientists found that the fish do this 3.5 times more often than usual when the orientation of their aquarium has been moved around. They are like other fish in possessing a lateral line, an organ that can sense currents and pressure changes in the water. But the suction creates currents 50 times stronger than those from swimming alone (which also makes waves than can bounce back toward fish, telling them about their surroundings), as noted by Discover Magazine.

    In the study, authored by Tel Aviv University zoologist Roi Holzman and others, the scientists also found that "the frequency and rates of mouth opening events varied with the fish's distance to obstacles, a hallmark of pulse-based navigation mechanisms such as echolocation." In other words, the fish act in this way a bit like bats bouncing sound waves off their surroundings. They then created a mathematical model to see how the system would work, and filmed the water at high speed with glass beads in it, allowing them to visualize the flow. 

    Holzman told Discover than he thinks other fish may be able to do the same thing. After all, they possess mouths and lateral lines, the "emitter and the sensor.” 

    Interestingly, blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus), many of which completely lack eyes, are considered the same species as nearby surface-dwelling Mexican tetras (which have eyes and can see). What would happen if an eyeless and eye-possessing fish mated? One study found that eyesight can indeed be restored in their offspring. 

    For more on incredible fish, here's one that climbs waterfalls by gripping with its mouth

    [Discover Magazine]


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    Graham Murdoch

    Ultralight tents don’t have to lighten your wallet.Save a bundle of cash by making one from Tyvek. The breathable, water-resistant material, a favorite of home contractors, weighs less than two ounces and costs about $2 per square yard. Here’s how to fashion a featherweight bivouac from the stuff. 


    Two 6-foot by 9-foot sheets of Tyvek HomeWrap, hammer, ½-inch grommet kit, 8 lengths of 12-foot-long parachute cord (or thin rope)


    1) Lay one Tyvek sheet on the ground, and fold over three inches of each edge.

    2) Hammer a grommet into each corner and the center of each folded edge.

    3) Tie a parachute cord to each grommet.

    4) Push a tall stick into the center grommet of one short side. Stake or tie the other end. 

    5) Fasten the ends of the parachute cords to trees, rocks, or stakes to pull the Tyvek taut.

    6) Use the other sheet as a ground cloth, roll out a sleeping bag, and catch some z’s.

    Approximate time: 1 hour

    Cost: About $25

    Difficulty: 1/5

    WARNING: Bad weather could send this temporary shelter sailing. Build and use at your own risk. 


    This article originally appeard in the April 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


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    Astrobotic Autolanding System
    Astrobotic Technology

    It's not easy to land a robot on the moon. Only the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and China have succeeded; other nations have only managed to make debris-strewn craters with their landing vehicles.

    Eighteen privately funded groups, however, think they can safely land a privately funded spacecraft in 2015, rove around the lunar surface, and claim tens of millions of dollars in prize money for the feat.

    To that end, a Pittsburgh-based company called Astrobiotic has released a three-minute video (below) showing off its progress in developing moon-landing technology. The company is one of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million to the first group that lands on the moon, moves its spacecraft a third of a mile, and sends HD video back to Earth. (Popular Science reported on Astrobiotic's planned lander and rover in our April 2014 issue; see illustrations of the vehicles and learn how they work.)

    Astrobiotic tested its latest landing vehicle in California's Mojave Desert on February 21. On the moon, the robot will use two cameras, an inertial measurement unit, and a laser scanner to see where it's going. Then it will match these data against satellite maps of the lunar surface and automatically decide where to land. In the February 21 test, however, all of its instruments took in data passively without making decisions, so that engineers could test whether the instruments were accurate.

    The company seemed pleased with the results. "The test campaign validated performance of pose estimation and hazard detection in a flight-relevant environment," Astrobotic said in a statement. How big of a hazard could the company's technology detect? Rocks and craters as small as a soccer ball, according to the statement.

    Watch a lander's-eye view of their test, below.


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    Photograph by Ralph Smith

    The pocket-sized XStat, a hemorrhage-stopping invention we wrote about in February, yesterday received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a first-of-its-kind medical dressing. This means that the U.S. Army, which funded development of the sponge-filled syringe, can now purchase XStat to be carried by military medics. 

    XStat plugs gunshot and shrapnel wounds faster and more effectively than the standard battlefield first aid. Currently, medics treat hemorrhage by stuffing gauze as deep as five inches into an injury—a painful process that doesn't always work. Of soldiers who died between October 2001 and June 2009 of wounds that weren't immediately fatal, blood loss was the killer in an estimated 80 percent of cases.

    The 2.5-ounce syringe slides deep into a injury, such a bullet track, and deposits pill-size sponges that soak up blood and rapidly expand to stem bleeding from an artery. Each sponge is coated with chitosan, a substance that clots blood and fights infection. The FDA says the sponges are safe to leave in the body for up to four hours, allowing enough time for a patient to get to an operating room. To ensure they don't get left inside a wound, X-shaped markers make each sponge visible on an x-ray image.

    Created by veterans and engineers at Portland-based startup RevMedx, XStat is the first battlefield dressing designed specifically for deep, narrow wounds in areas like the armpit or groin, where medics can't place a traditional tourniquet. RevMedx, along with Oregon Health and Science University, is now developing a version of the device to stop postpartum bleeding.

    Read more about XStat here.


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    photo of green, growing barley
    Growing Barley
    Photo by Lucash on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

    There are many things that will change as Earth's climate warms. Doctoral student Peter Gous is worried about the price and quality of beer.

    The aspiring plant bioengineer worked with a team of scientists to test how not getting enough water altered the quality of barley grains. In a small pilot study, the scientists found that the starches inside barley grains grown with too little water are different from starches found inside nicely-watered barley grains. The dryness-stressed barley had longer-chain starch grains and more protein than normally grown barley. From there, Gous made an interesting conjecture about the future—one we've never thought of.

    Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and more severe droughts to growing regions all over the world. If that affects the quality of different grains, including the barley that goes into beer, that means people will have to pay more for the same quality of beer, Gous told the Brisbane Times. (Gous is a student at the University of Queensland located in Brisbane, Australia.) "If you ask any brewer, starch and starch quality will affect your brew and the taste of the beer," he said.

    "If it pushes normal starch in the grain to the point that it becomes resistant starch, the cost of producing your XXXX is going to increase," he said.

    Luckily, Gous and his colleagues also found that a new variety of barley, bred so that it has drought-resisting qualities originally discovered in sorghum, resists changing its starches in response to not getting enough water. The new barley is called "stay-green" barley. Varieties like this could help grain quality stay stable even in a more drought-prone world, Gous told the Brisbane Times. Indeed, experts have long know that creating and growing new varieties of well-beloved crops is one of the many ways agriculture will have to adapt to climate change in the future.


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    Fruit fly
    Wikimedia Commons

    How does the brain tell the body to walk backward? Scientists don't know. To find out, researchers developed 3,500 different strains of fruit flies. Each genetically-modified fly carried genetic switches in different parts of the brain that are activated by heat, a technique called thermogenetics. When these genetic switches were activated, they caused different neurons to fire. The scientists finally found a fly that began walking backward when its genetic switches were activated by heat, and from there they found which neurons were firing. 

    As it turns out, walking backward (at least in fruit flies) is controlled by two neurons. As Science Magazine explains

    One [neuron] lived in the brain and extended its connections to the end of the ventral nerve cord—the fly’s version of a spine, which runs along its belly. The other neuron had the opposite orientation—it started at the bottom of the nerve cord and sent its messaging cables—or axons—into the brain. The neuron in the brain acted like a reverse gear in a car; when turned on, it triggered reverse walking. 

    The first neuron appears to be the "initiator," compelling the fly to "moonwalk" when it encounters certain cues, like an obstacle. And the second gene acts like a brake, perhaps preventing it from backing into something. The researchers, whose study was published in Science, will use these neurons as a starting point to find other networks involved in walking backward, such as those responsible for touch, sight, and smell.



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    Sandcastles On Grains Of Sand
    Artist Vik Muniz and scientist Marcelo Coelho teamed up to laser tiny pictures of castles on individual grains of sand. The process sounds excruciatingly difficult. But, clever!
    Vik Muniz and Marcelo Coelho via Colossal


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    A Beagle Puppy
    Looks like this pup won't need a drone to escape his predicament.
    Diablito63 via Wikimedia Commons

    Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news, designed to capture the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

    Drone Saves Puppy

    In January, a drone helped firefighters at a quarry in Stony Creek, Connecticut. After that incident, the fire department acquired its own Phantom Vision drone. Last week, that drone helped save a puppy

    A 1-year-old beagle pup named Harley got stuck in the cattails of a cold and muddy swamp, and was lost there for almost 24 hours. Firefighters in wetsuits and galoshes tried searching for him on foot, but were unsuccessful. While it was difficult to make out Harley's fur from the reeds, the sound of a drone flying overhead roused him and he began to make noise again, which led the firefighters to his location.

    Small North Korean Drones Crash On South Korean Island

    On Monday, two North Korean drones crashed into the South Korean island of Baengnyeong. Called variously "toys" or "antiques", these robin's egg blue drones were not much more than model airplanes with cameras. In one photo, the commercial DSLR camera inside one of the drones is visible. That's an accurate assessment, but it obscures a greater truth: Most drones are model airplanes with cameras attached.

    Using off-the-shelf components to make simple unmanned aircraft is part of what makes drones such an accessible and cheap tool for aerial photography. These drones may lack the sophistication of advanced military drones like the U.S. Air Force's Reapers or Global Hawks, but they also come with a much lower price tag. Which is good for the cash-starved hermit nation, as it means their diplomats don't need to sell as much meth to afford new drones.

    Dakota Nights

    Police in North Dakota are the first in the nation authorized by the FAA to fly drones at night. In December, North Dakota was selected as one of six FAA test sites for drones, and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has already worked with law enforcement to fly drones for traffic monitoring and missing person searches. The night-flying announcement, which came last Friday, is the logical next step. 

    Colorado Town Doesn't Adopt Drone Hunting License

    Deer Trail, Colo., caught the public eye when it first considered an ordinance that would let people buy licenses to hunt drones. The tiny town voted overwhelmingly against the measure, which means that people who shoot at drones in Deer Trail won't have even the flimsy armor of a $25 certificate as legal protection against the FAA.

    DJI Phantom Drone
    Clément Bucco-Lechat, via Wikimedia Commons

    Pentagon Prepares Drones For Sky Battles

    Right now, America doesn't often have to deal with airplanes getting shot down. Insurgencies, like the kind waged in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell or fought by the Taliban in Afghanistan, don't usually have access to the kinds of weapons needed to shoot planes out of the sky. This has made drones, like the slow-moving prop-engined Predator, an ideal choice for hunting down insurgent groups: There are no hostile aircraft to worry about, so the drone can focus entirely on looking for a target on the ground.

    Not only are the skies forgiving, but the signals are too. Because drones communicate wirelessly with remote pilots, when the signal goes dead the drone becomes not just unmanned but unpiloted. Interfering with the way drones communicate is a good way to render them uselessDARPA, the advanced research arm at the Department of Defense, wants to make sure this doesn't happen in the future. In early April DARPA is assembling contractors to work on developing better drone autonomy, both for individual drones and for drones working together. This, together with better connections between human controllers and drones, as well as open architecture for ease of collaboration, could let military drones of the future work even in hostile skies and with signal interference.

    Did I miss any drone news? Email me at


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    The Humor Code
    From The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Copyright © 2014 by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

    In The Humor Code, humor scientist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner travel around the world looking for the universal meaning of humor. In the following excerpt, they visit Peru with a group that deploys clowns for therapeutic purposes.

    The cargo plane we’re sitting in lurches and bucks as it hits a patch of turbulence somewhere above the Andes Mountains. Mechanical whistles and squeals unlike any we’ve ever heard fill the long, hollow cargo hold. I tighten the safety belt strapping me to the cargo netting and distract myself by focusing on the tiny circle of sky I can see through one of the few windows in the fuselage. Pete slips on a sleeping mask and earphones to try to nap. I consider passing the time by chatting with my seatmates, but the deafening roar of the aircraft’s four propellers makes conversation difficult. Plus, I don’t know what to say to them. They’re all clowns.

    We’re in a Peruvian Air Force cargo plane headed into the heart of the Amazon with 100 clowns, to answer a simple question: is laughter the best medicine? Yes, humor can tear nations apart and help inspire revolutions—but can it heal? Across the globe, careers have been launched, fortunes have been made, and medical practices have been transformed based on this idea—that laughter cures. To find out if that’s true, Pete and I are tagging along with the hospital-clown version of a biohazard team—an elite group of buffoons and pranksters who are planning to romp, frolic, and mime through one of the mostbeleaguered and destitute places on earth. They’re happy to have us along, on one condition: we have to become clowns ourselves.

    Our journey into the Amazon began several months earlier, when we were sitting in a grand hotel conference room in Chicago, Illinois, listening to a welcome speech presented by a sock puppet.

    “Welcome to the Annual Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor Conference,” said the sock puppet, attached to the hand of AATH president Chip Lutz, sweeping its googly eyes around the several hundred people in attendance—men in loud Hawaiian shirts, women in sparkly flapper dresses. “The sock puppet has good eye contact,” noted Pete.

    Shenanigans like this are par for the course at the AATH conference, one of the oldest and largest gatherings associated with the therapeutic humor movement. At an evening cocktail reception, where we mingled with social workers, nurses, doctors, and professional speakers from all over the world, a typical icebreaker was, “Are you a Certified Laughter Leader?” Perusing the AATH conference store, we found table upon table covered with books like Laughter: The Drug of Choice, This Is Your Brain on Joy, and What’s So Funny about . . . Diabetes? Nearby stalls offered up water balloon launchers, light-up detachable ears, and bumper stickers that read, “Clowning for Jesus.” One afternoon, I stepped into a hotel elevator with a woman who had what looked like a butterfly sprouting from her head. “Nice wings,” I said. She looked at me like I was a pervert.

    Considering the current enthusiasm for therapeutic humor, it’s easy to forget that for most of recorded history, humor and health were considered to have nothing to do with one another. The ancient Greek founders of Western medicine had a whole lot to say about all sorts of therapeutic concepts, but were noticeably silent on laughter’s role in health, other than a stern warning that those plagued by too much mirth should take up a steady diet of boring lectures.

    Everything changed, however, with the publication in 1979 of Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, journalist Norman Cousins’s account of laughing away a possibly fatal degenerative disease of the joints with a steady diet of Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films. As Cousins wrote in his bestseller, “I was greatly elated by the discovery that there is a physiologic basis for the ancient theory that laughter is good medicine.”

    He wasn’t the only one excited about his discovery. Since then, a booming industry has sprung up around the idea of healthy humor. Clown programs, comedy carts, and humor rooms have become common hospital elements. A variety of therapeutic humor conferences and consulting businesses compete with AATH in the business of teaching people how to infuse trauma and tragedy with humor.

    Then we imitated lawn sprinklers

    And then there’s laughter yoga, a movement that now involves 16,000 laughter clubs in 72 countries, offering people the world over a chance to chuckle their way to physical and mental health. To experience laughter yoga for ourselves, Pete and I had stopped by one of the weekly meetings of the Denver Laughter Club. In a downtown Unitarian church, we joined a dozen or so club members being led by two so-called laughter leaders (“Jovial Jeff ” and “Crazy Karen”) through a surreal chain of exercises. We began with “greeting laughter,” moving around the room and shaking each other’s hands with a hearty, forced chuckle. Then we carried on extended conversations in nothing but gibberish, and imitated lawn sprinklers while others pretended to run through our spray. Other drills followed—“bumper-car laughter,” “happy pills,” “laughter bombs”—each designed to encourage so much fake laughter that everyone broke down for real. At one point, I passed an imaginary laughter bong to a gray-haired grandmother, from which she took a deep drag and burst out cackling.

    “I do feel more energized than I did an hour ago,” admitted Pete when it was over. I, on the other hand, felt like I’d gone through a trial run for living in a loony bin. Still, the regulars, a welcoming and normal-seeming bunch, seemed to be getting a lot out of it. “You don’t need stand-up comedy or movies or plays,” one of them told us. “You can just laugh.”

    That’s the point, said Madan Kataria, the doctor who developed laughter yoga in 1995 and is now recognized internationally as the “Guru of Giggling.” When I reached him via Skype in his home base of Mumbai, India, he told me, “Laughter was always conditional and dependent on jokes, comedy, life happenings. For the first time, in laughter yoga, laughter has been disconnected from our daily lives, because there are often not enough reasons to laugh. My discovery was that laughing without reason was enough to give people benefits.”

    According to Kataria, those benefits include decreased stress, better immune-system function, improved cardiovascular health, enhanced mental states, stronger social ties, and a more spiritual approach to life. Those are far from humor’s only purported medical benefits, which have expanded far beyond anything ever suggested by Cousins, who passed away in 1990. These days, you can find claims that laughter and humor relieve headaches, provide good exercise, ward off coughs and colds, lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, mitigate arthritis pain, ameliorate ulcers, vanquish insomnia, combat allergies and asthma, prolong life spans, protect against AIDS, and help cure cancer. Some go so far as to suggest that clowning improves pregnancy rates for in vitro fertilization—although fair warning: if you try wearing a clown nose to bed, there might not be any fertilization.

    Ten years ago, to settle the matter once and for all, a professor from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology named Sven Svebak included a brief sense-of-humor questionnaire in one of the largest public-health studies ever performed: the HUNT-2study, in which members of the entire adult population of the county of Nord-Trøndelag in central Norway were surveyed about their blood pressure, body-mass index, various illness symptoms, and overall health satisfaction. According to Martin, it was “the largest correlational study of senses of humor and health ever conducted.” In 2004, Svebak and his colleagues unveiled the results: there was no connection at all between sense of humor and any objective health measures.

    At the end of the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster Patch Adams, in which Robin Williams portrays real-life clown-doctor Hunter “Patch” Adams and his attempt to inject compassion and humor into the American medical system, the audience is told that Patch ends up launching a medical practice that treats patients without payment, malpractice insurance, or conventional health facilities, just as he always dreamed, and that construction of his world-changing “Gesundheit! Hospital” is under way.

    What the movie never says is that after twelve years of operation, Patch’s medical practice shut down because of doctor burnout and lack of resources. Raising the millions needed to complete the Gesundheit! Hospital in West Virginia has proven next to impossible. To help raise attention to his cause, Patch and his colleagues launched Gesundheit Global Outreach, an international service organization that has sent clown brigades to 60 countries on six continents. Since2005, Gesundheit Global Outreach has focused much of its attention on one venture in particular: an annual, multiweek project involving international clown groups, government organizations, and NGOs, all focused on helping the community of Belén, a slum on the edge of the Peruvian city of Iquitos that’s one of the most impoverished communities in the Amazon. The Belén project is one of the largest and most ambitious international clown endeavors anywhere.

    Which is why we’re standing in the lobby of our hotel in Iquitos, a building that has been overrun by clowns. The building has become the Belén project’s makeshift headquarters. All around us, folks are in their clown costumes, ready for the first activity of this year’s endeavor: a celebratory parade into the heart of Belén. Meanwhile, Patch Adams is standing at the front of the crowd, lecturing on the dangers of sunburn.

    “Put on sunblock!” demands Patch, gesturing for emphasis with the rubber fish in his hand. “Here’s what happens if you don’t: ‘Ow, ow, ow!’” He cringes in mock agony, rubbing at a make-believe sunburn all over his body.

    Continued in The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Copyright © 2014 by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.




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    In this image, you can see the fissures on Enceladus' southern region from which its jets of water vapor emerge.
    Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

    310 miles: the diameter of Saturn's moon Enceladus, whose large underground ocean is now a top candidate for extraterrestrial life

    10 million microbes per square centimeter: the population density of human skin (see what's living with you here)

    Sam Kaplan

    $9: the price per pound of Jelly Belly's new beer-flavored jelly beans

    Jelly Belly Draft Beer
    Meet the world’s first beer-flavored jelly bean. It has wheat and sweet flavors, like the Hefeweizen it was inspired by—and while it doesn’t contain any alcohol, you can eat it with a Red Apple bean for a G-rated apple cider shandy. $8.99/lb.
    Dan Bracaglia

    140 different styles of beer: are classified by the Brewers Association (read about how the bubbly brew took over the world here)

    15 minutes: the time it takes to turn empty beer cans into sun-tracking cameras

    Dan Bracaglia

    1,640 feet: the range of Audi's new laser headlights, which use blue laser modules in place of standard high beams

    Audi Sport Quattro
    Courtesy Audi

    7.2 feet: the record-setting distance American physicists managed to send a super-high-energy laser beam

    9 years: the time this scientist spent developing a fish-massage system for cruelty-free caviar

    Beluga sturgeon
    The beluga or European sturgeon is the source of beluga caviar, and is critically endangered.
    Robbie Cada via Wikimedia Commons

    About 3,600 minke whales: have been caught in Japan's dubiously scientific whaling program since 2005

    About 30 days: the time an airplane's flight data recorder sends out a detectable sonic ping (read why we haven't built a better black box here)

    9.4 percent: the factor by which astronauts' hearts become more spherical in microgravity

    That's Not The Shape Of My Heart
    Maki Naro


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    Concept image of coastal resilience proposal for Staten Island, NY
    Down The Shore
    This design proposes "water hubs" along the south shore of Staten Island: public open spaces protected by offshore breakwaters. In addition to providing amenities for swimming, kayaking, bird watching, community science labs, and other recreation pursuits, the breakwaters and open beach space would help buffer inland communities from storm surges, rising sea levels due to global warming.
    SCAPE/Landscape Architecture & Rebuild By Design

    Click here to enter the gallery.

    Ten proposals are vying for funding to prepare the New York metro region for disasters like Superstorm Sandy and make recovery from such events easier, cheaper, and faster. Organized by a project called Rebuild By Design, some of the plans have evocative names, like “Blue Dunes,” while others hit the conceptual nail on the head: “Commercial Corridor Resiliency Project,” anyone? But they share a bottom-up approach for creating urban and regional design solutions that invest in the concerns and needs of local communities.

    The project accomplished this by organizing multi-day tours and meetings last fall that brought its design-build teams, selected from architecture and consulting firms worldwide, together with citizens and civic leaders of towns and neighborhoods hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy. The teams were required to use what they learned in these encounters to inform their solutions, which combine flood protection with additional community concerns like improving environmental health, increasing local job and business opportunities, restoring wildlife habitat, and keeping the "flavor" of waterfront and beachfront communities alive.

    Rebuild By Design is a public-private partnership organized under the President's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, including several regional urban design and development groups, and funded in large part by The Rockefeller Foundation. (Full disclosure: I reported on Rebuild by Design last year for the blog 100 Resilient Cities, a project that is also funded by The Rockefeller Foundation.)

    The community-design team partnerships have "far exceeded our expectations," says Amy Chester, project manager of Rebuild By Design. "Each one of them have been able to create real, solid community coalitions, and demonstrate how those coalitions shaped the ultimate designs." Several teams have been joined by their community coalitions at this week's presentations to the competition's jury, Chester says. Once the jury makes its final recommendations, the winners will be selected by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, and receive Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding. Even if HUD declines some projects, they might be eligible for other  funding through federal or state agencies, local transportation agencies, or other entities.

    This gallery features selected highlights from the design proposals; see and read everything at the Rebuild By Design web site.

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    Next year, robots will land on the moon, competing for the Google Lunar XPrize. The contest offers $40 million in rewards, including a $20 million grand prize. Winning is fairly straightforward: Safely land a privately funded spacecraft, move it a third of a mile, and beam back HD-video “mooncasts.” Completing the challenge by December 31, 2015, however, is anything but easy. Organizers have already extended the deadline by a year, and of the 33 teams that initially registered, only 18 remain. Astrobotic, an offshoot of Carnegie Mellon University, survives as a leading contender. The group has finished a two-spacecraft design—Griffin, a car-size lander, and a surface explorer called Red Rover. It has also booked space aboard a rocket that’s scheduled to launch in October 2015. Here’s how Astrobotic plans to take home the prize.


    GROSS WEIGHT: 1,150 lbs.

    PAYLOAD CAPACITY: 600 lbs.


    DIMENSIONS: 6.5 ft. high by 9.8 ft. wide by 9.8 ft. long

    Graham Murdoch


    WEIGHT: 220 lbs. (including payload) 

    SPEED: 20 feet per minute


    Graham Murdoch


    A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will send Astrobotic’s two-spacecraft stack on a trajectory toward the moon. From there, the four-legged aluminum lander, Griffin, will reach lunar orbit 4.5 days later.

    Like an Apollo lander, Griffin will fire its main thruster to slow down and descend toward the moon. Four clusters of smaller thrusters, each fed by four spherical fuel tanks, will make minute course corrections to stick the landing.

    Once Griffin safely touches down, Red Rover will drop from the lander’s lower deck and begin its journey. Human drivers on Earth will steer it via joystick while monitoring 3-D camera footage. A passive rocker suspension system will keep all four wheels on the lunar surface at all times, allowing the craft to clamber over rocks and uneven terrain. Red Rover is also programmed to automatically avoid obstacles such as steep crater walls.

    Red Rover will stream photos and video back to Griffin at five megabits per second (equivalent to cable Internet speeds), and Griffin will relay the data to Earth at a one-megabit-per-second clip (roughly as fast as DSL). Future rovers will talk directly to Earth to improve bandwidth—and shorten the laggy 10-second round-trip for packets of data. 


    Aside from $5 million for second place, teams can claim up to $4 million by completing the following technical challenges: 

    • Traveling 3.1 miles across the lunar surface (10 times farther than the grand-prize requirement)
    • Surviving at least one lunar night, which lasts about 14 Earth days and during which temperatures dip to –260˚F
    • Verifying the presence of water on the moon


    Continue reading about How It Works: a wiffle ball, an electric racecar, and more

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