Say Hello to R2 aka Hardhat Harry


Robonaut. It sounds like the title of a cheap sci-fi flick or perhaps the name of a second-rate children’s superhero action toy. In reality, Robonaut, Robonaut 2 (R2), to be exact, is a vital part of the crew aboard the International Space Station. He is a humanoid robot the gringa likes to call “Hardhat Harry” because of the types of jobs he performs as well as the future plans NASA is cooking up for him and future Hardhat Harry clones.

Presently Hardhat Harry is going through his paces as NASA engineers study how well he performs at this job. NASA hopes that one day Hardhat Harry will be able to join astronauts in their dangerous and risky spacewalks when they perform the necessary maintenance and repairs required on the outside of the space station.

But Hardhat Harry is more than just a handyman, he is also a scientist. In the Destiny laboratory he takes velocity air measurements. However, he is not above giving handrails a good scrubbing. And, just like the gringa, Hardhat Harry likes to flip switches and push buttons.

Guess how he performs his duties? Does the dear reader envision a programmer sitting in front of a computer screen inputting commands? Perhaps an image flashes through your mind of something like a video game with an engineer using a joystick to maneuver Hardhat Harry through his tasks. Nope, it’s even cooler than that. Crew members on board the ISS get to play a very serious scientific game of virtual reality, donning virtual reality headgear and controlling Hardhat Harry as if he were themselves!

Although Hardhat Harry has plenty of charm, don’t fall in love yet. Don’t get any ideas of thinking you will be able to visit one of the many space centers around the world when he returns from his mission and get his autograph. NASA has no plans for Hardhat Harry to ever return home.

Hardhat Harry will continue to be improved and upgraded as researchers learn how to adapt the technology to perform in the vacuum of space and eventually embark on deep space missions. Fleets of R2 Hardhat Harry clones will become the world’s future hi-tech repairmen, traveling far and wide to repair and upgrade communications and weather satellites. There is also great hope that a Hardhat Harry crew will be developed and shipped off to Mars for a surface mission or mine geological resources from the Moon.

Hardhat Harry and his kin will not replace astronauts, so, dear readers, if you are an astronaut hopeful like the gringa there is no need to despair. R2s are simply going to go first and make the way safer for exploration. And, by performing the boring repair jobs, astronauts can devote more time to discovery.

The next phase of progress is to deliver Hardhat Harry some legs. It may seem kind of silly to have Hardhat Harry up there, trying to get the job done without any legs, but remember, he is working in microgravity. He doesn’t necessarily need legs to move about the ISS. And, the legs they will be sending him don’t even have feet. They have grasping contraptions at the end of his “legs” that will secure him to railings while he works.

And, by having removable legs, Hardhat Harry has the option to rove about planetary surfaces centaur style. NASA is developing a four-wheel vehicle that Hardhat Harry’s torso can attach to as he zips about the Moon or Mars or wherever his adventures take him or NASA needs him.

Fans of R2 (aka Hardhat Harry) can keep up with all his exploits in space via Twitter @AstroRobonaut. So, for all the gringa’s dear readers who love robots and have great big dreams and ambitions with robotic technologies, keep your dreams alive and see if NASA can help you make them come true!

Source & Image Credit:  www.nasa.gov

 

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Moon or Mars?


The gringa has been down in the dumps, a bit, but, I will soon bounce back and become moon-eyed over what will have to become my new pet project. You see, after getting me all excited and pumped about getting to Mars, Congress has gone and rained all over my parade, the ol’ party poopers.

You see, Congress just doesn’t have what it takes to believe in a starry-eyed dream. NASA’s dreams Congress wants to shoot down:

  • Landing a human on an asteroid by 2025
  • Manned mission to Mars in the 2030s
  • 2nd manned mission on the Moon

Congress had a hearing on these subjects. The gringa can just hear all the discouraged “Tsk, Tsking” that must have gone one amongst all these “responsible” folk who know nothing about dreaming big. If the responsible purse-string holders don’t get more details on NASAs budgetary needs for these goals, then NASA may only get approval for the Moon mission.

Now, the gringa does not deny that these goals are not just ambitious but, to some, may sound downright outrageous. But, hey, the reality is that it is the outrageous dreamers that brought us the telephone, computer, car, steam engine, etc., etc.

It is also true that much of the technology necessary to survive a mission to Mars doesn’t even exist except in the minds of scientists and their scratched out theories on paper. But isn’t that the very first step? Aren’t these outrageous dreams what inspires innovative minds to try something that seems impossible and, finally, to accomplish it? Isn’t that the greatest way to create history?

I mean, if it wasn’t for the dream of traveling through space and solving the inherent problems of that goal we would have never come up with things like digital music, lasers, etc. Developing science and technology to solve space exploration problems is not wasted taxpayer money. There are all sorts of benefits to Earth and humans with spin off technologies.

Congress even hinted at an ultimatum: Mars or the ISS. The money is simply not there to do both. The idea is being tossed around to ditch Mars and concentrate on the ISS and returning to the Moon. Some see the development of a Moon base as an opportunity to exploit the mineral resources of the Moon.

Well, Congress may be packed with a bunch of Negative Nellie Republicans, but the gringa is proud that her president is encouraging all the dreams of NASA. Not only is President Obama openly encouraging a return to the Moon and the establishment of a Moon Base, but he hopes NASA stays on track to get to Mars in the 2030. I guess one positive of the liberal mindset of a Democrat is that they dream big and believe nothing is impossible to achieve!

Although Obama has been supportive throughout his two terms in office, his last term is coming to an end soon. NASA realizes the very real possibility of a government transition and a new president that might just nix the Mars mission altogether. They have been enjoying this dream being supported for almost eight years and now have to consider the possibility of a newcomer dooming it. The gringa thinks that not only would that be small-minded, but also just downright mean.

However, it may not be all that surprising if a new president expects the space agency to turn its focus Moonward rather than Marsward. After all, that is the focus of the ESA. Europe wants to establish a lunar orbit working colony that remotely controls Moon-bots that work below on the surface.

With all its focus on Mars, NASA has only considered the Moon in the sense of it being a waystation on the way to the Red Planet that is the real goal. This strategy may have to be reconsidered. It seems that the ESA is not alone in thinking the Moon to be the most desireable space goal at the moment. Geological industry and geological related businesses are seeing that it may be a way of turning a profit. European businesses are ready to team up with the ESA and get a Moon mission off the ground.

Russia is also on board the Moon mission idea and has private sector partners that are putting together their plans for a Moon base to be a reality within another decade or so. The plan to go robotic, rather than have boots on the ground, is what may be the saving grace of this Russo-European Moon dream. It is much more feasible and economically achievable when human survival technology is taken out of the formula. Russia and Europe may end up leaving the Americans in their dust by not only achieving an orbital Moon base but also a similar orbital Mars base with astronauts orbiting safely and controlling rovers and robots down below on the dusty, red surface.

So, now the gringa may have to change her vocabulary. Instead of, “To Mars! To Mars!” I may have to channel the late, great Jackie Gleason, “To the Moon!”

Source:  www.nasa.gov

 

NASA Needs You!


Do you love anything that flies? Are you also a person who can organize and plan just about anything that, to others, seems a chaotic mess? Then NASA needs you.

Perhaps you like robots. Perhaps you like robots so much you’ve even stepped up your game and have built a few. Maybe you’ve got some big ideas and spectacular dreams but don’t know what to do with them. Well, NASA needs you.

Do you enjoy go-carts? Ever driven them? Worked on them? Built one? Did you enjoy all that tinkering? NASA needs you!

Are you a computer geek? Do you fantasize about putting all that keyboard pecking to use for the future of all humanity? I’m tellin’ you, NASA needs you!

Do you stargaze, with or without a telescope? NASA needs you!

NASA has all sorts of active challenges. These are opportunities for the general public to show the space agency just what they’ve got! Here’s your chance! You’re big break! If you have a crazy lab or workshop that you escape to where you invent all sorts of weird gadgets, you simply must read on because the gringa has got a treat prepared just for you! (Or a friend of yours, you can always pass the info along!)

Listed below are just a few of the current active challenges NASA has extended to the general public. Click on the links and explore NASA’s website if any of these challenges appeal to you!

  • “Sky For All: Air Mobility for 2035 and Beyond”. Develop ideas and technologies for the airspace of the future. Solve problems of air traffic management that will be dealing with crowded skies way beyond what we have today. Consider in your designs autonomous operations and cyber security. As a design for the future, twenty years from now it will not just be commercial airlines in the air. There will also be personal air vehicles, unmanned aircraft (drones), spacecraft and even stationary objects (such as wind turbines).

Future expectations is that air traffic management systems will be managing more than ten million aircraft in the skies. More than anything, this project is about public safety and also plans for poor weather conditions.

This challenge has a payout of $15,000 for the winning design. It is administered by HeroX and sponsored by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD). Registration officially opens December 21 and submission deadline is February 26, 2016.

  • “Swarmathon” Challenge is a robotics competition scheduled for April 18-22, 2016, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There are openings for 35 on-site teams and 23 virtual teams. The goal is to create cooperative robots that can operate autonomously on Mars.
  • “Human Exploration Rover” Challenge is open for student teams. It is organized by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. International team deadline is January 11, 2016. U.S. team registration deadline is February 8, 2016. The competition will take place April 7-9, 2016 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama. High school age and college age students are eligible to compete. They are to design, build and drive a human-powered rover that will navigate an obstacle course that will simulate the terrain of Mars. Interested U.S. students should contact Diedra Williams, (256) 544-5721, or send her an email at a.williams@nasa.gov. International students that are interested should contact Amy McDowell, (256) 544-8411, or send her an email at amy.mcdowell@nasa.gov. For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/eduation
  • “Sample Return Robot” Challenge wants innovators to build robots that can operate independently to locate, identify and collect samples, and return them to a location without the need of GPS or other navigation aids, within a specific time. This challenge is sponsored by Centennial Challenges Program. It awards $1.39 million dollars to the winning design. This is an ongoing annual challenge. Registration closes every January until this challenge is won. Level 1 Competition is scheduled for June, 2016 and Level 2 for September, 2016. For more info visit http://wp.wpi.edu/challenge and also visit nasa.gov/robot
  • “Enterprise Search Engine” Challenge seeks to improve search capabilities of its new search engine. The challenge awards $50,200 to the winning design. This specific search engine targets the day to day data gathering requirements of NASA employees. The challenge wants the design to enhance filtering, geolocation, content and imagery, among other things. This challenge closes February 10, 2016. For more information, visit topcoder.com
  • “Aurorasaurus.org” Challenge is for stargazers who enjoy the challenge of finding the aurora and helping others to see it, too. This challenge is sponsored by the National Science Foundation INSPIRE program. Awards are available and monthly badges can be earned. This is an ongoing challenge that is scheduled to be open indefinitely. There is no limit to participation. For more information, visit aurorasaurus.org.

These are not the only challenges that are going on right now. NASA is always updating their website with new challenges. Visit www.nasa.gov/solve to see what is currently happening. If any of this kind of stuff interests you, get involved. Some of these challenges, like the Aurorasaurus challenge, are great family projects. All you need is time and a willingness to sit out under the stars with your loved ones. And that is a challenge the gringa can most certainly win!

 

Source and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov

 

 

The “Little Green Men” Star


If you happen to be a writer looking for fodder for a great science fiction story, you may want to delve into NASA reports regarding star KIC 8462852. NASA is fascinated by the strange goings on about this star and bears much resemblance to a pulsar named LGM-1 (Little Green Men). This pulsar emitted strange signals that created a stir within NASA and were ultimately determined to be a natural phenomenon. The strange events involving star KIC 8462852 have yet to solved.

Monitoring this star has been the responsibility of the Kepler mission for the past four years. In 2011, and later in 2013, two significant, and as yet unexplained, events took place. What do scientists really know? They know that the star dimmed because “something” passed in front of it large enough to block its light. The gringa says, “What the heck?”

In September scientists finally reported their theory and findings on what could possibly explain these strange events. They are blaming a “swarm” or “family” of comets. The gringa’s imagination begins whirling and thinks, “Or perhaps a fleet of starships.” Another theory suggests a cluster of planetary fragments and asteroids.

Scientists are using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to probe deeper into this mystery. To learn more, scientists, who first studied the star using observations conducted in visible light, then tried using infrared light. This is because if asteroids were involved and actually impacted the star there will be a whole bunch of infrared light surrounding the star and the dusty old bits of gravel from a pulverized asteroid should be at the perfect temperature to glow like a firefly under infrared wavelengths.  And detecting infrared light is one of things the Spitzer Space Telescope is designed to do.

This year the Spitzer took a gander at star KIC 8462852 while looking at hundreds of thousands of stars in its search for planets. One thing in particular that Spitzer was looking for was infrared emission of space dust that encircled stars. Spitzer didn’t find any of this type of dust around star KIC 8462852 so scientists think the asteroid collision theory can probably be scratched.

So, the gringa wants to know just what their thinking is now. What the scientists seem to be leaning toward is the possibility of a “swarm” of cold comets. For such a theory to work, this cluster of comets would need to have an unusually long orbit around the star. They also call this theoretical comet cluster a “family” because it would require a “pack leader” to explain some of the phenomena. The larger “big daddy” that would be in the lead would have been the one to block the star’s light in 2011. In 2013 the rest of the family would have been passing through in front of the star and blocked the light again in the strange pattern that was recorded.  This would explain why in 2015, when Spitzer observed the star again, there were no infrared signatures. The comet “swarm” was long gone and probably around on the other side of the star in its orbit progression.

The gringa must confess to thinking, “Mm hmm. Scout ship shouts, ‘The coast is clear!’ and the support ships soon set a course for the coordinates.” Oh yes, what an imagination! But please don’t judge the gringa! I just couldn’t help myself when NASA itself goes and names a pulsar something like “Little Green Men-1”.

NASA admits that what is going on with this star is strange and not understood. Their interest is extremely piqued so study and research will continue until the curiosity of these scientists are satisfied. And I ask you, is that not the greatest job ever? For every little kid that has lain on their back in the grass in the dark of the night staring up at the stars and wondering if there really are “little green men” out there, is that not just the coolest job ever to grow up and get to do!

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

 

 

Orbs In Orbit


When thinking about NASA and robots, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the robotic arm that is used frequently to snag things in space around the International Space Station. However, NASA is way beyond just a robotic arm. Entire robotic spacecrafts are the technologies that are in development. The ultimate gaming experience has got to be the joystick controls of these babies as they maneuver through their missions in orbit around Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope is just one such example.

Now, the Hubble takes beautiful panoramic space photos. What about if you need to pick a space splinter out of something. Are there robotic orbs designed for that kind of delicate work? Well, hopefully, in the future, if a satellite gets a speck of space dust in the wrong nook or cranny, NASA’s Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) should have the perfect set of robotic baby blue’s to get the job done. This robot is really an articulated borescope that has a zoom lens. Robotic eyes (that eighties song “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes” is now playing through my mind relentlessly).

VIPIR will play sidekick to Dextre, the handyman of the future who is already on the job. Dextre is a robot developed by the Canadian Space Agency. Ya know the good ol’ days when you pulled up to the full service lane at a gas station and the attendant came out to pump your gas, clean your windshield and check your tire pressure and fluid levels? Well, that’s kinda what Dextre’s job description is. Dextre is the critical element in NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM).  A two-armed robot, he demonstrates his abilities of servicing and refueling satellites in outer space. Although he’s not pumping crude. A fill-up from Dextre involves the transfer of xenon.

Now, the gringa’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. I’m sure my salary requirements are much less than Dextre’s maintenance expenses. I’m more than willing to put on a pair of coveralls, a cap and be ready for the “ding-ding” of a passing satellite or spaceship that needs their tank topped off. I do believe I finally see my chance at a space job I’m actually qualified for! My hopes are rising higher and higher that my astronaut dreams will some day come true.

Source:  www.nasa.gov

Photo credit:  www.news.yahoo.com

Robot Real Estate Developers


The gringa, most definitely a product of the eighties, has mental images of R2D2 rolling around beeping and twittering happily as he constructs a space hut, anticipating the imminent arrival of Mars colonists from Earth. Well, it could happen! Seriously. Well, maybe not the R2D2 part, but something very nearly like it.

As NASA explores creative, imaginative ideas and new technologies, 3D printing is at the forefront of their plan to robotically construct habitations that will await the arrival of new Earthling residents on the Red Planet. By doing so, they can save critical cargo space. If they don’t have to pack tools, parts, and building supplies that can instead be contrived on a 3D printer sent ahead to Mars, the astronauts can arrive with other critical cargo to further enable a long-term mission’s success.

The engineers and scientists hard at work at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama are making this a reality. The envisioned plan is to have mobile machines that work like a 3D printer delivered to Mars by robotic space delivery. These machines could then be remotely controlled from Earth. These state of the art contraptions could be designed to work with the raw materials found on Mars. They could be designed to exude natural resources and “print” the building materials to create structures. Astronauts could arrive on Mars to find robot erected, 3D printed shelters already in place with a welcome mat outside to scrape off the space dust of their long journey.

This technology is already being tested at the International Space Station (ISS). Crews on board ISS have been creating all sorts of projects like building wrenches from layered plastic filament. Such items then undergo durability testing to see if they will even work. Advances in the technology will eventually, hopefully, make it possible to upgrade from plastic wrenches to wrenches manufactured from metals like titanium, nickel and other alloys.

NASA continues to search for talent throughout the civilian sector to help the dream come true of landing a manned space mission on Mars. One way this is done is by creating challenges and competitions in the fields of science and technology. In their 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design competition, Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office walked away with the grand prize depicted in the above picture of their design “Icehouse”.

By partnering with talent NASA is accelerating its own capabilities in advancing technology and manufacturing. 3-D technology is now in the proving ground to see if it can be used to create many things that humans will need in order to survive a long term stay on Mars. Being able to arrive at the Red Planet and survive in this galactic wilderness, create their own tools, survival and building materials with the natural resources at hand and a 3-D printer is beyond the gringa’s comprehension and that’s hard to believe considering my vast and somewhat quirky imagination.

Source: http://www.nasa.gov

And The Winning Asteroid Is…


NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) scheduled in the mid -2020s has yet to determine which asteroid they plan to go out and corral into the orbit of our moon. The work is still ongoing to determine the winning asteroid candidate. So far, NASA has narrowed the selection down to the following three candidates: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. It is possible, however, other asteroids could be added to this short list and these current favorites could be eliminated. The gringa feels like it’s a bad scene from a science fiction Bachelor episode.

Since NASA announced its asteroid initiative to the public three years ago, science experts as well as science enthusiasts from all over the world have collaborated in identifying these Big Bang rock leftovers throughout the cosmos.  These efforts have been so successful, detection of near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) has increased by sixty-five percent.

On December 29, 2010,  the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAEA) spacecraft “Hayabusa” returned to Earth with samples from an asteroid they named “Itokawa”. The Japanese led international crew of scientists brought back a chunk of an alien world.  Hayabusa traveled one billion kilometers  for over two years to execute what must be the world’s longest pick-up and delivery service ever. The gringa would not want to pick up the tab for that tip! Five bucks for the pizza guy is my absolute limit! This successful joint mission of multiple nations led by the Japanese was successful in bringing scientists dust particles from another world, the third such achievement the world has ever seen.

Images of Itokawa were taken when the asteroid crossed near Earth in 2005. It’s surface is unique to any others that have been observed because it seems to have no craters. The scientists are really scratching their heads over this little mystery. One hypothesis thinks it’s possible that craters simply cannot form on Itokawa because rather than being a solid rock asteroid, it actually is a junk pile of multiple space rocks and ice chunks held together by gravity. If it gets struck by a meteor, it would just jiggle around. The gringa’s not so sure she holds with this theory, but, hey, I’m not scientist. Who am I to criticize. The asteroid holds other novelties as well. One part of its interior is denser than the other. For the gringa, that sounds like people. The experts will continue their studies and, maybe one day, the world will know the answer to why Itokawa has a hard spot and no pock marks. It almost sounds like a disease.

Another asteroid favorite is Bennu. This little fella seems to have led a hard life. Researchers believe old Bennu (billions of years old) was dismembered by the gravity of multiple planets. Now THAT’S what the gringa calls living in a rough neighborhood. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland has produced an animated video to introduce Bennu. It can be viewed here, on NASA’s website, or on YouTube.

In late 2016 a mission to Bennu is planned to launch. It should take about seven years for samples to be retrieved and then returned to Earth. Scientists suspect that Bennu is made up of chondrules. These are grains of mineral (in other words, space sand) that are held together by gravity and stationary electrical charges to form a solid rock. Scientist want to test their theory by getting their hands on some samples.

Bennu is important because it is like a time capsule which has preserved itself since the Big Bang that gave birth to it. It has not experienced geologic and chemical changes like our Earth. Bennu could possibly be a pristine example of the most primitive material in the entire solar system. This could help the scientific community understand how life began if organic material is present on Bennu that could have the building blocks of terrestrial life, such as carbon and hydrogen.

Bennu is not as dense as a regular Earth rock so it could possibly be hollow. It could be just another pile of rubble like Itokawa. It is also very dark, like asphalt. Because of this, it absorbs lots of sunlight which then creates a radiating effect which causes a reaction a bit like propulsion which affects its orbit. This is known as the Yarkovsky effect. So, basically, Bennu just kind of wanders the galaxy willy-nilly and why it has sometimes had close encounters with Saturn, Venus and Earth. The theory of being a rubble pile then explains why it seems to change shape because, when having a close call with a large planet, the gravitational effect would pull it apart and reshape it.

Now, NASA may call a Bennu encounter a “close call”, but the gringa’s not too worried. There is only a 1 in 2,500 chance that it could impact the Earth in our lifetime. We’ve got plenty of time to develop a planetary defense system that can give Bennu a little poke in the eye if he gets too close and send him on his way again.

The third contender for the asteroid lasso rodeo is asteroid 2008 EV5. Not a very romantic name. The gringa thinks the experts could have come up with something a bit more catchy. March 4, 2008 (big surprise there), the Mount Lemmon Survey in Tucson, Arizona discovered 2008 EV5. This asteroid has an interesting prominent ridge that parallels the rock’s equator, broken only be a depression 150 meters in diameter which is probably an impact crater. The surface seems to be very rocky so, once again, probably a junk heap asteroid made up of carbonaceous chondrite. It could be Bennu’s evil twin.

The gringa has discovered that at this time, 2008 EV5 is the favorite because it seems to be filled with “cobbles” or stones that meet the dimensions best suited for the ARM robotic retrieval system. I am so disappointed that what may be the most important asteroid of my lifetime will not have a clever or catchy name like Itokawa or Bennu. The world will know the final decision sometime in 2019. The gringa is crossing her fingers for an asteroid with a really cool name, like Gringa2015.  A girl can dream, right?!

Sources and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov