Category Archives: Technology

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.

Science Must Fall?

“Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off…If we want a practical solution for how we can decolonize science, we have to restart science from our own African perspective of how we experience science…”

Mmkay. Good luck with that.

“It’s not true!”

“You see? That very response is why I’m not in the science faculty.”

You don’t say.

The rest of her word salad – I thought to fisk it, but the addled thinking and pomo whargarbl speak for themselves:

“Western modernity is the direct antagonistic factor to decolonization because Western knowledge is totalizing. It is saying that it is Newton and only Newton who knew or saw an apple falling, and out of nowhere decided that gravity existed, and created an equation, and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not or whether that happens in western Africa or northern Africa, they say the only way to explain gravity is through Newton who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall. So, Western modernity is the problem which decolonization directly deals with, to say that we are going to decolonize by having knowledge that is produced by us, that speaks to us, and that is able to accommodate knowledge from our perspective. So to say that you disagree with her approach it means that you have vested in the Western and Eurocentric way of understanding which means you yourself still need to go back, internally, decolonize your mind and come back and say ‘how can I relook at what I’ve been studying all these years’ because Western knowledge is very [pervasive?] to say the least. I from a decolonized perspective believe we can do more as new knowledge producers as people who are given the ability to reason or whatever it is people say we do when we think or rationalize. So, decolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to environments and how we understand it, thank you.”

The best part is at the end when she nods sagely to the crowd, proud of her oration, then pulls out a smartphone and starts fiddling with it. Umm, sweetie? Yeah, giving up science means giving up all the goodies it has produced, too.

SpaceX to Mars

Some detail on what Elon Musk is proposing. I like the idea of landing directly on the launch mount and attaching a new payload while the stage is refueling. It’s sporty. If they’re serious about this architecture, it suggests that some of SpaceX’s near-future developments will involve a different sort of launch mount/hold-down scheme that facilitates this idea of landing a returning stage directly on the mount, rapid checkout/turnaround of returning stages (without moving them from their landing spot), and a means of rapidly integrating payloads to boosters at the pad (something that DARPA FALCON and ALASA have worked on, albeit at a significantly smaller scale).

But it strikes me that they’d be better off in the near term to simply have a second booster ready to move to the pad with the refueling vehicle. Sure, it’s got a gee-wiz factor to land directly on the launch mount, refuel and restack, and launch again, but I don’t see how developing all of that special-purpose technology could compare economically with simply building a second reusable booster.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Our Briny Nuclear Future

With a bonus life-imitates-art use of adsorbents: Uranium From Seawater Could Keep Our Lights On for 13,000 Years

We have 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater. Half of that amount is enough to power nuclear plants worldwide for 6,500 years.

However, unfortunately, the costs of extracting uranium from seawater is three times the current cost of uranium mined from land. That said, researchers believe this source may one day be critical to sustaining our energy needs, and to that end, efforts to extract uranium from the seas began in the 1960’s. And our efforts have continued from there…

To begin, extracting seawater uranium is harder than mining from land reserves as it involves a process called “adsorption,” in which atoms, ions, or molecules adhere to a surface. Scientists have been designing different materials to serve as that surface that, when submerged in seawater, will “adsorb” uranium and hold it for extraction.

Keeping these materials cost-efficient is important in relation to keeping the costs of seawater uranium low. Now, the DOE team has developed new adsorbents that brought the costs of seawater uranium extraction down by three to four times and in just five years.

Note that this is in addition to the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium we have from Cold War nuclear weapons production, which (along with spent fuel from conventional reactors) can be used in CANDU-type plants.

So why are we wrecking the environment mining and refining rare-earth metals, making toxic and short-lifetime photovoltaics, and covering pristine landscapes with windmills and PV panels?

Life Imitates Art: The Visor Display

It seems the capabilities of Leon’s helmet display aren’t all that far off:

Tyco’s Scott Safety is bringing a big upgrade to the field of firefighting with their newly released product, the Scott Sight. This hands-free device is the first in the industry that incorporates an in-mask thermal intelligence system, according to an April 18th press release from the fire protection and security company.

The Scott Sight works in a similar way to Google Glass. A screen within the mask itself displays readings and various interfaces via a thermal camera at nine frames per second for up to four hours.

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Life Imitates Art: Timing

Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Send People to Mars by 2025 – NBC News

The SpaceX and Tesla founder said this week that he personally wants to visit space within the next five years and thinks that his company will launch a mission to Mars by 2025…

Personal space travel ambitions aside, Musk also talked about how important it was for mankind to reach Mars. He said that SpaceX is planning to reveal its next-generation spacecraft at September’s International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

That could be the next step toward eventually sending human beings to the Red Planet — something Musk said he thinks will happen by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal considering that NASA’s current plan is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Note that in the Ares Project universe, 2025 is the when the Ares I mission to Mars is launched. Granted, it’s a joint US-Russian mission in our case, but it’s enabled by commercial space activity in LEO and on Luna, and is followed by commercial settlements.

Maybe NASA will have the first manned Orion/SLS flying by then.

Life Imitates Art: (Micro-)Oasis Edition

You know our concept for “oases” on Mars – a mass-produced prefabricated hut for ten, with a rover docking adapter and personnel airlock for access, equipped with hygiene and life-support, stocked with food, emergency equipment, and basic repair supplies, and with enough power to run a small gas separation unit for air and fuel?

This is a larval version of that design. Appropriately, it’s even egg-shaped: ECOCAPSULE | Dwelling with the spirit of freedom

Note the similarity also with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and the Futuro, in the sense of being a self-contained “system” (and, of course, round). In the case of the Dymaxion House, as the link indicates it too was designed to capture rainwater for use by the occupants (I was not aware of that fact).

 

A Reason for Optimism?

MS Convention 2015 Poster by Ed Sludden

Earlier this month I attended the 18th Annual Mars Society Convention, held at the Catholic University of America In Washington D.C.  It was my 7th Convention in 15 years, and much the same as the others in terms of tone and attendance, but I came away from it feeling much more optimistic than I had after past meetings.

Highlights included a visit during the Saturday banquet, via Skype, by The Martian author Andy Weir.  It was fun to hear his perspective on his stunning success of late, and I have high expectations for the film adaptation premiering October 2, though I also had high expectations many years ago when Mission to Mars (blech) and Red Planet (meh) debuted.

What made me more hopeful this year was the sense of modest expectations and goals taking root versus the bold yet unrealistic aim of a full-blown Mars exploration program.  Despite Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars program fading with hardly a whimper, at least in terms of a 2018 launch, support for a near-term Mars flyby is growing and I expect there will be a major push for such a mission in the upcoming election cycle.

A Mars flyby would be a major achievement, again showing the world what America and its allies can accomplish.  While no landing would occur, most of the “dragons” raised to oppose a near-term mission (radiation exposure, long duration life support, psychological challenges, etc.) would be slain in a single mission.  Best of all, compared to other proposed missions, this one could be launched before the end of a president’s second term and could fit well within NASA’s current budget.

Or could it?  Is NASA too bloated and risk-averse to be entrusted with such a task?  Harrison Schmitt, who spoke at the conference as part of a Moon versus Mars debate with Robert Zubrin, advocated the scrapping of NASA in favor of a new, focused agency with an average age of under 30 like the NASA of the 1960s (the average age in Mission Control when Apollo 11 splashed down was 28).  That raises some very interesting questions.  How would this agency be created?  How would NASA be reduced or eliminated simultaneously, to justify it as an offset or a reduction?  Is it even politically feasible, or is it a necessity?