A Minor Shortcoming, Trivial Really

Plasma reactors could create oxygen on Mars

Yet, by firing an electron beam into the reaction chamber, they were able to convert about 30% of the air into oxygen. They estimate that the device could create about 14 grams of oxygen per hour: enough to support 28 minutes of breathing, the team reports today in theJournal of Applied Physics.

Guerra’s team still needs to solve some practical problems, Hecht notes.

Yes, I can see how only being able to produce 28 minutes of breathing oxygen every hour would be a practical problem. On the bright side, it wouldn’t be a problem for long.

(Yes, I know it’s only a concept and not yet built or scaled to real-world size, but the author set that up, so…)


The Drama of Space Nuclear Power

Who knew miniature reactors for space nuclear power could be so epic? So excessively, needlessly, theatrically epic?

What is a Micro-Reactor?

The Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor has a high-power density, which means that it can reliably, flexibly and sustainably support a range of operational demands, providing power and heat output, as required.

Crucially, the Micro-Reactor is scalable to be easily transportable by rail, sea and even into space, making it a versatile and credible power source for a multitude of applications.

The Micro-Reactor uses an inherently safe and robust fuel form. Within its core, each particle of uranium is surrounded by multiple protective layers, allowing it to withstand even the most extreme conditions.

But how portable is the 1MW class? Can you tow it behind a rover…? 

Maybe a rover like this one?

Martian Technology: Science Pins and Pingers

These devices have been featured so far in In the Shadow of Ares and quite prominently in Redlands and He Has Walled Me In.

A science pin, as described in ItSoA, is a device shaped like a scaled-up golf tee, with a stem 1-1.5m long, and a head 100-150mm across and anywhere from 50mm to 400mm tall. The stem contains common power generation, storage, and management functions, and in the field is mounted to a peg or sleeve drilled or driven into the soil or rock.  The head consists of one or more cylindrical modules of different heights and a wide variety of functions. These modules thread together at the center with a common physical and electrical interface.

In all applications there is a communications and C&DH (command and data handling) module. This module links the pin to local and satellite communications networks, as well as to specialized instruments such as seismometer arrays or deep soil probes which are not located on the pin itself.

Modularity and standardization make it possible for science pins to be quickly emplaced and easily maintained, and readily upgraded with new or additional instruments as needed. The size and external features of the modules make them easy for suited settlers to handle with gloved hands.

Lindsay Jacobsen is shown in ItSoA maintaining a science pin she had previously deployed to monitor ground water for evidence of biological activity.

In HHWMI, Leon Toa has a strange encounter with a strange science pin in the Wilds.

Redlands prominently features a gold-plated science pin, and the action is set at one of the settlements where the devices are manufactured.

In Ghosts of Tharsis, we introduce a specialized application of the science pin concept, the “pinger”. A pinger is a science pin used as a navigation aid, particularly during mild to moderate dust storms when travel by rover is still somewhat feasible. The head of a typical pinger is a single mass-produced module containing navigation strobes and the power storage required to operate them for a month or more. The head is crowned with a passive reflector that rover navigation radars can use for distance and triangulation measurements.

Pingers at intervals and in problem-prone locations include additional instruments to monitor local weather conditions and transmit them back to a central data hub for use in travel planning.

A real-world approximation of Martian navigation pingers
A real-world approximation of what Martian navigation pingers along a rover track might look like (Öskjuvatn, Iceland).

I particularly liked the idea of reusing science pin components as the basis of navigation aids, as it reflects a potential real-world solution to the problems of navigating across a landscape with minimally-developed roadways prone to obscuring by dust. It has the added benefit of eliminating the ability of the MDA to bring to a halt surface transportation among the independents by scrambling the signals from the positioning satellites on which they have a Charter-granted monopoly. But most importantly for our purposes as authors, it makes possible a dramatic rover chase in a Class 1 dust storm…

Electronic Noses for Sniffing Disease

This is something I suggested to Lockheed Martin five years ago as an application of the cabin air monitoring technology we were developing for Orion: New Technologies Smell Sickness

We’ve long known that sickness has a smell. Service dogs can smell and be trained to alert humans to seizures and even cancer.

Now scientists are using technology to ‘smell’ diseases that the human nose can’t.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology team behind the Na-Nose, which is designed to detect up to 17 diseases, claims that its new technology can a wide range of diseases on a person’s breath.

Each person’s breath is made up of a number of chemical compounds, unique to us. They may be dependent upon gender, age, race and a host of other biological factors.

The Na-Nose’s developers claim that it can smell diseases including some forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s. So far, it has proven to be 86 percent accurate at detecting diseases.

We’ve actually had this idea on the back-burner for a while for use in an Ares Project story, but the need hasn’t yet come up. While the obvious applications are in health monitoring, the same technology could potentially be fitted to a robot and used for prospecting, by sniffing out trace volatiles and airborne “contaminants” indicating the presence of certain useful minerals.

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.

Hard to Keep Up With The Technology

It’s stuff like this that makes it hard to write science fiction set very far into the future – Gesture control is wave of the future:

Touchless computers are coming to a store near you, likely sometime next year. These are computers that operate with simple hand gestures — either through the use of sensitive sound-wave recognition or via cameras, similar to Microsoft’s Kinect. And they are being developed and tested right now…

Because its technology depends on sound waves, the user can gesture beyond the edges of the computer screen. For instance, swiping toward the screen could reveal a set of icons, and swiping your hand away from the computer could close an application.

“It’s much more comfortable,” Kjolerbakken said. “You can sit back and don’t have to be in physical contact with the device. You don’t get fingerprints on the screen.”

So, we imagined smart phones and multiplatform integration with roaming displays and such before they became reality, but we still have physical interfaces when it comes to screens and even telepresence (the latter in the form of gloves or rings, depending on the vintage of the equipment). One could imagine Amber using something like this (in a more explicit form than what we describe) in the scenes where she is assembling survey data on the wallscreen using her MA, or the famous scene in Minority Report in which Tom Cruise sorts through data on a large screen being “upgraded” to eliminate his gesture-sensing gloves.

I’m not persuaded yet, though, that this new technology will be all that revolutionary in real life. Given the way I use a computer, it won’t offer me any useful new capability (at least none that I can think of without having actually tried it out). I use a keyboard for text input and editing, a trackball for video and photo editing, and a mouse and spaceball for CAD work, all of which involve fine-detail control that a finger-sized object poked into a vague spot in space can’t provide. This latter method is perhaps compatible with or an improvement in some way over how people use touchscreens on app-based devices (the implementation on which the article focuses), but having used a tablet over the weekend, I can’t say I much like the currently available version anyway…sloppy, laggy, inaccurate, and slow.

I’ll gladly accept a seamless voice interface, though.

Design Fiction

Over at Slate, author Bruce Sterling shares some thoughts on “design fiction“, the use of (science) fiction to imagine and explore new technology:

Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?
Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”

Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting, but this sort of thing has been one of the roles of science fiction at least since Heinlein’s first story, Lifeline. What’s really interesting here is this video…note the cameo appearance of MAs, scroll screens, and wall screens, almost exactly as we envisioned them in In the Shadow of Ares.

Now that’s impressive.

Life Imitates Art: Solar Power Paint

Looks like researchers at Notre Dame are well on their way to developing the solar-power paint we mention in In the Shadow of Ares‘Sunbelievable’ Solar Paint Could Power Home Appliances, Scientists Say:

The paint, dubbed “Sunbelievable” by developers at the University of Notre Dame, looks no different from any other paint used to coat home exteriors and other surfaces. But when hit by light, the semiconducting particles within Sunbelievable produce small amounts of electricity that researchers hope they can magnify in great enough amounts to power home appliances, Science Daily reported.

“We want to do something transformative, to move beyond current silicon-based solar technology,” research leader and Notre Dame professor Prashant Kamat said. “By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we’ve made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.”

Unfortunately the paint is far from ready to be sold commercially, Kamat explained.

“The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we’ve reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells,” Kamat said. “But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future.”

The article helpfully points out that a typical household requires 285 square feet of silicon solar panels to supply its power needs at 10-15% efficiency, which means that same house would need around 3000 square feet of Sunbelievable at its current conversion efficiency. Ignoring incidence angles on painted surfaces, etc., that really isn’t an excessively large area for many American houses – especially if roof surfaces can be included.

Finding E-Readers in Unexpected Places

The first time I ever saw an e-reader with my own eyes was in the gatehouse at O’Hare around Thanksgiving 2009. I attended a friend’s wedding a couple weeks ago, and was surprised and amused that the minister was conducting the ceremony using her Kindle DX:

Technology evolves quickly, and sometimes even the most traditional institutions evolve right along with it. You can almost imagine the minister’s grandchild someday using a (sacred?) scroll screen linked to her MA…