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Google LUNAR X PRIZE has spawned the first ever race on the moon’s surface

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The Google LUNAR X PRIZE, for those of you living under an (ahem) rock, is the chance at $30 million of that sweet, sweet Google money for designing the best next generation lunar rover. Much like a dangling carrot from a stick, Google’s $30 million has motivated engineers, scientists, and crackpots from around the world to try and make a new and improved lunar rover. Since that’s not exactly pocket change for most of us, it should come as no surprise that the teams competing for the Google LUNAR X PRIZE  are taking it pretty seriously. How seriously? Try going to the moon serious. Two teams named HAKUTO and Astrorobotic (who I assume are funded by Bond villains and Mr. Burns) have announced today that they will send their lunar rovers to the moon in order to compete in a 500 meter race for the first prize purse of 20 million dollars.

ford-pinto-lunar-rover

The Google LUNAR X PRIZE ensures that much like the stately Ford Pinto, the lunar rover gets replaced ASAP

And if you’re asking yourself just how these Google LUNAR X PRIZE lunar rovers are supposed to get to the moon, fear not! The Astrorobotic team has agreed to allow the HAKUTO team’s two rovers to hitch a ride on the Astrobotic’s Griffin rocket. So far, the 2016 moonface space race has three rovers competing: Astrorobotic’s rover named Andy and HAKUTO’s awesomely titled rovers, Moonraker and Tetris. This race is shaping up to be interesting too because Astrorobotics is in talks with more than half of the other 16 Google LUNAR X PRIZE teams to see if they would also be interesting in bumming a ride to the  moon. Why would Astrorobotics want help others come along and potentially decrease their chances of winning the cash? Astrorobotic’s head, John Thornton explains, “Our goal is to successfully create a commercial capability to fly and deliver payload to the moon. We will have achieved that goal whether we have some of the winnings of the prize, or a lot of the winnings of the prize, or maybe none of the winnings of the prize.”

I think it’s pretty great that in light of reduced government funding that companies try things like the Google LUNAR X PRIZE to ensure that we keep pushing the technological envelope. As a sci-fi fan, I am definitely in favor of things that bring us closer and closer to making Star Wars and Trek a reality. Here’s hoping that Google LUNAR X PRIZE teams’ 2016 competition make moon based motorsports and continued innovation, take off. (I couldn’t resist!)

Hey, I'm Sara! I'm a fan of all things geek so you'll usually find me immersed in everything from comic books to auto sports. I often wish that I was born in the future so that I could have experienced adventures worthy of Star Wars or Star Trek. To cope with the fact that we don't even have flying cars yet, I generally infuse everything I do with a healthy dose of humor. I mean, we may as well laugh while we're waiting, right? (Also, it's a great excuse to include as many Simpsons references as possible)

Engineering

What You Need to Know About Onshore Wind Farms

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Within days of winning the election, Britain’s new Labour government lifted a rule that had stopped new onshore wind farms from being built. The previous Conservative government had implemented the rule in 2015. Environmentalists have praised the decision as a positive first step in the new government’s fight against climate change. However, people who are wary of onshore wind farms will probably be worried about them. What is the difference between power that comes from the land and power that comes from the sea? Why have people been against it?

How do wind farms work?

People have tried to use the power of the wind for their own purposes for a long time. It’s a great way to gain energy, but it can be hard to master. One of the newest examples of this is modern wind turbines. Using the wind’s motion to make electricity is how they work.

The blades of a wind turbine are made to look like airplane wings and are strong and light. They are connected to a hub and make up a rotor as a whole. This part of the machine spins when air moves across the blades. It also turns something called a low-speed shaft. The shaft is also linked to a gearbox that changes the shaft’s slow spin motion into a fast rotary motion. Next, this turns a drive shaft that gives power to an electric generator.

What is wind energy on land?

In terms of technology, there is no difference between wind turbines that are on land and those that are at sea. The only clear difference is where they are.

Onshore wind farms are groups of wind turbines that are put up in rural areas where the wind blows steadily and strongly. Open plains, the coast, hills, and mountain passes are often good places for them to live. Offshore wind farms are the same as onshore ones; the only difference is that they are out at sea and get their power from the wind that blows across the water.

Each turbine is placed so that it captures the most wind and doesn’t cause turbulence on another turbine when they are all put together. Because of the different types of terrain, there aren’t any set patterns for how they should be laid out, but there are some that are thought to be the best. Depending on the situation, they can be put in either a straight line or a grid.

No matter how they are set up, each turbine makes electricity that is sent to a substation and then to the grid, where homeowners and businesses can use it.

What are the pros and cons of wind farms that are built on land?

It is well known that wind farms that are farther out to sea tend to work better. This is because the wind speed at sea is higher and more consistent, so fewer turbines are needed to make the same amount of energy as ones on land. Larger projects can also be done because the sea is open. The more turbines you have, the more clean energy you make.

Offshore wind farms need more complicated infrastructure to support them, which makes them more expensive to build and keep up. But the same things that make them great for making electricity also make them hard to get to when they need to be fixed. They are also usually owned by bigger companies rather than smaller ones in the area, which means that they are not closely watched by people in the area.

Onshore wind farms, on the other hand, are easier to build and produce less pollution, and the land around them can still be used for farming. Building and maintaining them doesn’t cost much, and the extra power they add to the grid can lower your electricity bills. On the other hand, large-scale construction projects also create more skilled jobs in the energy sector.

But onshore wind farms don’t produce as much power as offshore ones, and a lot of people don’t like the way they look or how they affect the environment. The first one has to do with the worry that these buildings are dangerous for birds and bats.

In the scientific community, there is still disagreement about how strong this is. It looks like some birds are killed by wind turbines, but not nearly as many as are killed each year by housecats, other buildings, or even fossil fuel operations, which are what wind farms are trying to replace.

Concerns have also been raised about bats, and environmentalists are divided on the issue. On the one hand, they want clean energy to help fight climate change, but they also don’t want to put at risk the lives of animals that are already in danger of going extinct.

Onshore wind farms can be built in a way that doesn’t harm the wildlife nearby, though. After ten years of work, designers of wind turbines have found ways to make them visible to animals. On the other hand, wind farms don’t have to be built in places where bats are nesting or swarming.

But this is just one answer. Bats are drawn to wind turbines, which have often killed them while they were looking for places to nest or insects. To stop this from happening, the times and conditions under which wind turbines are used can be changed to fit how bats behave.

When the wind speed is above a certain level, many of the bat species that are most vulnerable to wind turbines cannot fly. This is because they are small, fluffy, and cute. It is possible to drastically lower the number of bat deaths by only using turbines when the wind speed is low.

But the most common reason people give for not supporting wind power is that it looks bad. People worry that putting up wind farms in rural areas will ruin the beauty of the land and make it look less “natural.”

This objection is not only shortsighted when you think about how bad climate change will be for future generations if nothing is done to stop it, but it also comes up a lot. People used to be against windmills for the same reasons, and now they are seen as iconic symbols of the same rural feelings that make people against wind turbines today.

For these new energy-generating structures to be aesthetically pleasing in the long term, people in the area need to start seeing them as part of the landscape instead of just money-making assets owned by corporations.

 

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To make up for a lack of workers, Japan’s railways now have huge humanoid robots doing work

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JR West is going to fix its railway system in a very Japanese way: by using high-tech robots that look like people.

Starting this month, the company will use big robots that look like Mecha to do a lot of maintenance work on its railway infrastructure. For example, they will paint the support structures above the tracks and cut down tree branches that get in the way of the trains.

The flexible arms can reach heights of up to 12 meters (39 feet) and lift things that weigh up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds). They can also be fitted with different tools to do a wide range of odd jobs.

A person can sit in the truck that goes with the working mechanoid and use a joystick and VR goggles connected to a camera on the bot’s head to control its movement.

Below is a video that shows how the technology works. In one part of the montage, the robot is even seen using a circular saw to cut down tall trees. But don’t worry—the people who made the machine think it’s a safe pair of hands.

JR West recently said that they worked with robotics company Jinki Ittai and tech company Nippon Signal to create the technology. They did this to make their employees safer and lower the risk of accidents at work.

They also said that “labor shortages” were a big reason for the new technology. Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world. About 29% of the people there are over 65 years old. It will be a problem for a lot of people, including the economy, which is already having a hard time because of a lack of workers.

Robots and other new technologies are often blamed for “stealing jobs” from people, but it looks like they can also be used to fill in for workers who aren’t available.

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Lasers with “unmatched” power have been made smaller, cheaper, and stronger

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The future will have a lot of lasers, as we’ve learned from almost all sci-fi movies. They will power our quantum computers and be used to look into microscopic spaces in science experiments. They will also be used in medicine, surgery, and eye health checks. The options are endless. One problem is that the best ones we have so far—titanium-sapphire or Ti:sapphire lasers made with titanium ion-doped sapphire crystals—are too big and pricey for most people to use.

So you can see why it’s so exciting that researchers at Stanford University have made a Ti:sapphire laser that can fit on a chip. It costs three orders of magnitude less and is four orders of magnitude smaller than any Ti:sapphire laser made so far. It can be measured in millimeters instead of tens of meters. It’s even much more efficient than the ones that came before it.

In a statement, Jelena Vuković, the Jensen Huang Professor in Global Leadership, a professor of electrical engineering, and the lead author of the paper introducing the chip-scale Ti:sapphire laser, said, “This is a complete departure from the old model.”

“Soon, any lab could have hundreds of these useful lasers on a single chip instead of one big, pricey laser,” Vučković said. “And a green laser pointer can power it all.”

The big step forward is due to two new ideas: First, the team didn’t work with Ti:sapphire by itself. Instead, they put it on a silicon dioxide insulator. The titanium they did use was only a few hundred nanometers thick. It was then polished and etched with a swirl of very small ridges. A waveguide is the name for the shape, which looks like a firehose that has been coiled up.

A small heater warms up the light that goes through this waveguide. This lets the team, or whoever ends up using this potentially soon-to-be-common technology, tune the laser to any wavelength they need.

The tiny laser could be very useful in many areas of science. Ti:sapphire lasers are very useful in quantum optics, spectroscopy, and neuroscience because they have the highest gain bandwidth. This means that they can send out energy across a wider range of wavelengths than other lasers.

Joshua Yang, a doctoral student in Vučković’s lab and co-first author of the study, said that they’re also very fast. They can send out pulses of light every quadrillionth of a second, which is about fourteen orders of magnitude faster than a regular laser.

That performance does cost something, though. It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just to buy the basic kit for a Ti:sapphire laser. You’ll need extra space to put it in because it takes up about the same space as, say, four bowling balls. Plus, you’ll need a lot of other high-powered lasers, each of which costs tens of thousands of dollars, to power it.

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the technology isn’t very popular right now. That would all change, though, if it were chip-sized, said Yang. “These powerful lasers can be used for a lot of different important tasks when you go from tabletop size to making something that can be made on a chip for such a low price,” he said. “A chip is small.” It’s easy to carry. It works well and doesn’t cost much. It doesn’t have any moving parts. And a lot of them can be made.

What’s the bonus? This kind of scaling down doesn’t just make Ti:sapphire lasers cheaper and smaller; it makes them better.

In terms of math, intensity is equal to power times area. That is why Yang said, “If you keep the same power as the large laser but make the area where it is focused smaller, the intensity goes through the roof.” “The fact that our laser is small helps us make it work better.”

“What’s not to like?” This opens up Ti:sapphire lasers to more people.

The paper has been published in Nature magazine.

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