Track Your Concentration with Innovative Headband

Melon comes in black or white.

Melon comes in black or white.

Are you on a quest for greater self-awareness or simply a productivity junkie seeking to frugally extort every second out of the day?  The Melon headband quantifies the brain’s focus during any activity of your choosing to better understand your working habits. Together with its proprietary mobile app, Melon gives insight into the brain’s response to various stimuli: action, environments, emotions, or whatever behavior you decide to measure, and visually records the data. Read More →

Why America Desperately Needs More Scientists & Engineers

STEM Careers

Studies have shown that the number of jobs available in the United States is directly related to advances made in science and engineering.  Education experts feel that if America has few leaders developing the technological advances that will create the jobs of the future, then the future will hold few opportunities for our young workers. Read More →

Cell Circuits Remember Their History

Engineers at MIT have developed genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results. (Credit: Liang Zong and Yan Liang)

Engineers at MIT have developed genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results. (Credit: Liang Zong and Yan Liang)

MIT engineers have created genetic circuits in bacterial cells that not only perform logic functions, but also remember the results, which are encoded in the cell’s DNA and passed on for dozens of generations. Read More →

Adding Another Dimension to Computer Simulations

Computer Simulations

Four-dimensional space is a difficult concept but this idea is driving a new revolution in programming today. Individuals familiar with August Ferdinand Möbius’ research know that an additional dimension allows a three-dimensional form to be rotated over on top of its mirror image. This gives us the so-called Möbius strip. While computer algorithms that really simulate scalable four-dimensional space are still in their infancy, they’re already making a big splash. Read More →

Sending Odors and Tastes as an Email Attachment

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrea Danti

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Andrea Danti

Research into cybernetic organs has been largely focused on replacements for disabled individuals who have lost a limb. Electronic noses and tongues are designed for a radically different purpose. Humans perceive different chemicals as various tastes and odors. Many types of additives are industrially manufactured to replicate certain flavors or scents. Read More →

Show Some Love for the Data Glove

cyberglove2

Data Gloves (or wired gloves or cybergloves), as the name implies, are computer input devices that are worn on the hand like a glove. They utilize motion trackers to translate finger manipulations into electrical signals. In the near future, this technology might revolutionize the way that disabled people are able to access computer resources. Read More →

New Path to More Efficient Organic Solar Cells

Image Credit: Harald Ade, NC State University

Image Credit: Harald Ade, NC State University

Why are efficient and affordable solar cells so highly coveted? Volume. The amount of solar energy lighting up Earth’s land mass every year is nearly 3,000 times the total amount of annual human energy use. Read More →

Reaching E.T. Through Standardized Protocols

Image Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy

Image Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy

Choosing a single telecommunications protocol has always been difficult for engineers on Earth, so it’s especially difficult for those who want to communicate with beings from another star system. While it’s nice to imagine that extraterrestrial beings would be able to interface with whatever protocol humans decide to encode a message in, that’s not a realistic way to think. Humanity has developed countless electronic communication technologies since the 19th century. There’s no reason to believe that extraterrestrial beings haven’t done the same thing.

SETI and METI organizations have developed a single protocol for sending messages to potential examples of intelligent life. There’s no way of knowing if another civilization could ever actually interpret these signals but the odds are at least a little better with standardized systems.

Imagine an engineer trying to decode a data transmission that no one had ever encountered before. They’d probably try to compare it to other transmissions sent with the same protocol, and then look for the symbols that appear the most. These symbols are probably encoding the most common glyphs in the written language that the transmission represents.

Now imagine that each transmission that the engineer encounters is in a different code. There’s no way for them to compare different messages, because there aren’t any similarities between the different protocols. By using a single system, Earthlings are giving extraterrestrial cultures a chance to decode messages by comparing them to one another. It wouldn’t have been possible for international communications to be achieved on Earth if everyone decided to use their own technology standards.

In fact, poor choices in the past have hampered many types of technological developments. If standardization had occurred between Earthbound transmission sites years ago, these problems would never have reared their ugly head. For that matter, extraterrestrials might very well have been able to intercept numerous types of incidental transmissions. If signals are as weak as one might expect them to be, every little bit matters when we’re talking about communicating across the universe.

If standardization is important, the types of signals sent are equally important (if not more so). Most scientists agree that radio waves are the best way to communicate with other planets/stars given our current level of knowledge. This is due to the fact that radio waves are able to traverse the vast distances involved in actually reaching other stars/planets outside the Milky Way galaxy. Even the closest stars are about 6 light-years away (each light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles). This means that any signals we send their way have to cut through enormous amounts of gas and other obstructions found in space. Radio waves are able to do this effectively (as opposed to say, lightwaves) while traveling vast distances at the speed of light. I have read the work of some scientists that believe lasers may be a good way to reach extraterrestrials as well. I personally feel this is a great alternative to microwaves alone.

electromagnetic-spectrum

While standardization and appropriate signal types are invaluable, they’re also practical because they help to reduce costs. While practicality isn’t something that most people like to discuss, it’s actually pretty necessary in the world of SETI/METI. Many of these organizations, such as the SETI Institute (SETI Institute listens for signals vs. transmitting signals), survive on public donations. They need to maximize what they get out of the financial resources that they’re given to work with. Developing a single standard algorithm helps to reduce the amount of money spent on research while maximizing the chances of success (choosing the right type of signal to send) are crucial to long-term survival. It also means that different pieces of equipment will always interface properly. This means that expensive converts/integrations won’t ever be necessary as long as everyone adheres to the existing standard.

From an engineering standpoint, these groups might want to look at their antennas and transmission sites next (in terms of standardization). Once protocols are standardized, they can begin to improve in other areas as well. Each little bit matters when trying to talk to someone that may exist on a planet that is trillions of miles away.

Reference:

Atri, D., DeMarines, J., & Haqq-Misra, J. (2011). A protocol for messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence Space Policy, 27 (3), 165-169 DOI: 10.1016/j.spacepol.2011.01.001

Edmondson, W. (2010). Targets and SETI: Shared motivations, life signatures and asymmetric SETI Acta Astronautica, 67 (11-12), 1410-1418 DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.01.017

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Age of Sail 2.0

SkySails

Wind power is free, which is why German engineers have been experimenting with a device they termed SkySails. They’ve proved that inflatable kites can actually haul freighters across the ocean. This mirrors research conducted over 20 years ago by a Japanese firm. Those who say that sails aren’t a new emerging technology should be careful, since the efforts are actually becoming popular with scientists. Read More →

Will We Ever Really Travel to the Stars?

Image Credit: Paramount

Image Credit: Paramount

Interstellar space travel is one of the most common themes of science fiction, but the question is, will it ever become reality?

With our current understanding of physics, propulsion methods and the limits of our technology, there is currently no practical way to travel to other stars and solar systems. NASA terminated its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program in 2003, stating that no further breakthroughs appeared to be imminent. What this ultimately means is that we should not be expecting to see travel to other stars become reality any time soon, if ever. NASA did recently announce that they will begin work on a Warp Drive…whether anything will come of that, only time will tell. I personally would like to see this happen in the private-sector but that’s certainly unlikely for the immediate future.

In most sci-fi stories, starships zip around the galaxy at speeds far exceeding that of light, the universal speed limit of 182,282 miles per second. The problem however is that the laws of physics state that absolutely nothing in the universe can travel faster than this (even though folks are trying to prove otherwise).

The Primary Issue – Distance

We know our own star simply as the Sun. The Sun is a star no different to billions of others in the Milky Way galaxy. To provide some important figures for reference, the Sun lies 93 million miles from away from Earth and it takes light eight minutes and twenty seconds to reach us.

Source: NASA

Source: R. Mewaldt & P. Liewer, JPL

The nearest star to Earth, other than the Sun, is Proxima Centauri of the Alpha Centauri triple-star system. It lies 4.24 light-years away, meaning that it takes 4.24 years for the star’s light to reach us.

The fastest launch speed achieved by mankind was that of the New Horizons robotic spacecraft which was launched at 36,373 miles per hour on its mission to the dwarf planet Pluto. The fastest man-made object is currently the Helios 2 solar space probe, travelling at 157,100 miles per hour. This speed was achieved by using gravitational assistance from the Sun. If the Helios 2 solar probe were to be sent directly towards Proxima Centauri, it would reach the star in approximately 18,000 years.

How Fast Can We Go?

There are technologies that exist which can achieve far greater speeds than those of space probes like Helios 2 or New Horizons.

One of these is nuclear pulse propulsion which basically uses nuclear explosions to power a rocket to incredibly high speeds. It seems plausible that such a spacecraft could reach speeds of around 5 percent of the speed of light, yet this would still take about 85 years to reach the nearest star. As demonstrated by the Project Orion effort of the mid-twentieth century, it is possible using only currently available technology. Of course, this speed is still too low, making it highly impractical. It is generally considered that, if a journey cannot be completed in considerably less than a human lifetime, it should not be started at all.

The only thing that is possible is to send out radio waves, traveling at the speed of light, to the stars. This allows us to send a message to Proxima Centauri for example, which would arrive in 4.24 years. Perhaps some day we will be able to send physical objects there at this rate.

Faster-than-Light (FTL)

Image Source: Nextbigfuture

Image Source: Nextbigfuture

Nothing can travel faster than light, as dictated by Einstein’s theories on relativity. 182,282 miles per second is the absolute speed limit. If practical interstellar travel is ever to become a possibility, we need to find a way around this speed limit.

To get around the FTL issue, sci-fi shows/movies/books often use things like warp drives that are capable of warping spacetime in such a way that it folds space. If this were possible, it would effectively enable FTL travel between two points. The Alcubierre drive, proposed in 1994, is the only serious attempt at theorizing a starship which travels faster than light. It does this by expanding space behind it and contracting space before it. The spacecraft travels in its own bubble at speeds slower than light. To put this in perspective, imagine a piece of paper with a point marked at each end. The shortest distance between these two points is a straight line, unless you fold the paper in half so that the two points meet each other directly.

The Alcubierre drive is highly theoretical and has one deal-breaking flaw – it requires something called exotic matter with negative mass, and this isn’t even known to exist.

The Bottom Line

Space Travel ConceptIf you could go back in time to the mid-nineteenth century and tell people that humanity was going to land on the moon in 1969, they would probably laugh at you. Since then, we have launched probes all over the Solar System and landed robotic spacecraft on the surfaces of Venus, Mars and Saturn’s moon, Titan. One thing is clear: Humanity’s potential is immense and science and technology are full of surprises. Interstellar travel may seem like a very long way off, but it will never become a reality if we don’t try.

One thing that is preventing many scientists from taking interstellar travel seriously is also the fact that we don’t really know where to start. There are countless stars out there, but until something truly interesting and worth visiting shows up, interstellar travel will remain a thing of science fiction. That being said, more than 850 planets have been discovered orbiting other stars and more are being confirmed every week. We are now learning that every star “up there” likely has a number of planets rotating around them (the same thing that happens in our neck of the universe). That’s a very, very large number of planets. It is likely just a matter of time before we find an Earth-like world out there in the lonely depths of space. Perhaps that will truly give humanity something to aim for resulting in a renewed interest in reaching the stars.

Reference:

Ford, L., & Roman, T. (2000). Negative Energy, Wormholes and Warp Drive Scientific American, 282 (1), 46-53 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0100-46

Hill, J., & Cox, B. (2012). Einstein’s special relativity beyond the speed of light Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 468 (2148), 4174-4192 DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2012.0340

González-Díaz, P. (2000). Warp drive space-time Physical Review D, 62 (4) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.62.044005

Hansson, A. (2003). Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965 Space Policy, 19 (2), 149-150 DOI: 10.1016/S0265-9646(03)00011-0

Endl, M., & Kürster, M. (2008). Toward detection of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of our closest neighbor: proxima Centauri Astronomy and Astrophysics, 488 (3), 1149-1153 DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:200810058

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