Last Christmas, researchers got a present that wasn't so neatly wrapped: an unusual gamma-ray burst.
This week in the journal Nature, two groups of scientists offer differing explanations for the strange observations about this gamma-ray burst, detected on December 25, 2010. It was discovered by the Burst Alert Telescope on NASA's Swift satellite.
Not long ago, a pair of Harvard scientists hit on an "aha" moment in the most unexpected place: while waiting in line at a post office.
Robert Shepherd and Filip Ilievski were trying to help the rest of their research team create a new generation of bendable rubbery robots called soft robots.
They already had a design that allowed their bendy robot to undulate, or move in a wavy motion. But they were looking for a design that offered more movement.
"We knew that nature already has a lot of quadrupeds walking around, and we already had this undulator design," Shepherd said. "We thought, oh, we could just map one onto the other and we would have an undulator and a quadrupedal crawler."
Unprepared for their moment of inspiration at the post office, Shepherd and Ilievski were forced to jot down their ideas on an envelope.
They unveiled their creation in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their team, headed by George Whitesides, has dubbed the invention the multigait soft robot.
Soft robotics, experts say, is the cutting edge of robot design and holds unimaginable promise for several reasons.
First, let's point out the obvious: These are not your grandparents' - or even your parents' - robots.
In other words, this ain't R2-D2.
The Harvard team's soft robot is a white, X-shaped device made of a rubbery polymer called elastomer.
The robot's motion is controlled through many tiny chambers in its body that cause it to move when filled with compressed air. The air is fed through tubes attached to the robot. "They've used a clever system of chambers and shapes, and when you apply pressure, you get the robot to move in predictable ways," says Barry Trimmer, who's developing soft robotics at Tufts University.
It can adjust itself enough to crawl through a gap 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) wide and insert itself into places where metallic or hard plastic robots could never go. It weighs only 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams).
The technology has mind-bending possibilities.
Imagine a tiny twisty robot crawling into your body so your doctor can perform a procedure without surgery.
Larger soft robots could be developed to assist elderly people with common tasks like opening doors, drawing a bath, or helping them stand or walk.
Or, perhaps such a robot could help search-and-rescue squads find victims trapped under rubble from a disastrous earthquake.
Soft robots could be useful in other ways too, like exploring other planets and bomb disposal.
Aside from research and development, this kind of technology is astoundingly inexpensive.
The materials used to create the Harvard robot cost about $5, Shepherd says. After the design was perfected, the prototype was manufactured in about two hours.
Special materials could be developed for different robots, depending on their tasks. Medical robots could be made of proteins, such as silk. Other robots could be built with materials that are biodegradable for convenient and safe disposal.
"It's becoming a major focus of robot research," Trimmer says. "There's increasing investment in Europe in building and developing soft material robots. The U.S. needs to think a lot more about this and put more resources into it."
The Harvard project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's research think tank.
But scientists still have some big hurdles ahead. One of the most challenging, Trimmer says, is designing a soft robot that is independent and autonomous.
The Harvard robot can't move without compressed air, which is fed through tubes attached to its body. "Usually, if you want to build a device to do something useful, you don't want it to be tethered," Trimmer says. "If you want it to travel somewhere, you don't want it to be trailing wires or tubes."
Scientists also hope to develop soft robots that are much larger and much smaller.
But don't expect soft robots to eventually replace the hard kind. As robots start to become part of everyday life, experts say, there will still will be a need for R2-D2s and C-3POs.
"Science is still trying to make really good hard robots - including humanoid robots," Trimmer says. "There's a huge legacy of hard robots out there, and they also can do a lot of things humans can't."
Mike Killian, 27, captured these images from the launch of NASA's latest robotic expedition to Mars, on November 26, 2011. On board the Atlas V Rocket seen in these photos are NASA's Mars Science Laboratory and its rover Curiosity, which will explore the Red Planet and look for signs of life when they arrive, next August.
NASA’s biggest and most advanced Mars rover blasted off Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Curiosity is packed with 10 science experiments to determine whether Mars has ever been suitable for life and to find clues about past life forms that may have been preserved in rocks. NASA says Curiosity won’t answer the age-old questions about life on Mars, but it will provide important information that will guide future missions.
The spacecraft sent a signal after separation from the rocket, NASA said.
The launch was originally scheduled for Friday, but the mission team took an extra day to remove and replace a flight termination system battery, NASA said.
Nothing about launching a rocket into space is easy. But the easiest part is now over for the Mars Science Lab, or MSL, with its liftoff on an Atlas rocket behind it.
If it works, Deputy Project Manager Ashwin Vasavada said, the implications are enormous. “I think the best way to say why we’re so excited about this mission is that it sets us up for the future of finally answering that age-old question of does life exist on other planets.”
From now until August 6, the vehicle will travel more than 350 million miles through the void of space. On that date, if you were a Martian looking up, you might see MSL streaking across the sky about 3 p.m., Mars time.
As it descends, a rover named Curiosity will be lowered to the surface. It won’t be easy. This will be nail-biting time and hold-your-breath moments for the mission scientists and engineers.
In the past, NASA’s rovers have used airbags to land and bounce across the surface until coming to stop. But Curiosity, at 2,000 pounds, is too big. The Cadillac of rovers, it’s the size of a car. “We’re choosing to make the rovers bigger and bigger, said Jessica Samuels, a surface systems engineer. “Because we want to cover more ground.”
Because of its size, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California had to design a whole new landing system. Curiosity will be lowered by tethers from its descent stage. Once it’s on the ground, the cables will be severed, the descent stage will fly off, and the six-wheeled rover will be on its own. “So when we land,” Samuels said, “we’ll be ready to go, wheels out, ready to hit the surface.”
If all this works, Curiosity will be the most sophisticated vehicle ever to operate on the Red Planet. “This rover for the time gives us the ability to take a whole geological laboratory to Mars and then feed it samples of Martian rock,” Vasavada said.
Armed with a drill on the end of a robotic arm, Curiosity can bore into rock, scoop up samples and place them in its onboard laboratory. Because Mars has no ozone layer to protect it, scientists believe the surface is sterile. “On Mars,” said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, “if life exists as single-cell organisms, or if it ever existed, we believe it will be under the ground or inside rocks.”
The suite of instruments can tell scientists what kinds of minerals are in the rock and their chemistry, including perhaps the presence of organic material. That would be the Holy Grail of Martian exploration, Vasavada said. “Now if we discover organic material on Mars, then it gets very exciting. The chances of it may be low, but the payoff is huge. Organic materials are required for life as we know it.”
But just the presence of the building blocks wouldn’t mean that life exists. “If you go to the driest desert on Earth, can you find life on your samples if you do a year robotic study? Probably not. It’s actually quite difficult. Life has to stick up and make itself seen,” Manning said.
The sophisticated descent system also gives the science team a shot at a pinpoint landing. The touchdown spot is the Gale Crater, inside of which sits a three-mile-high layered mountain. Each layer, the mission scientists believe, can tell them the history of Mars, when it was wet and more Earthlike, and when it began to change. “So the goal is to go back in time to these environments and figure out if they really, truly could have supported life,” Vasavada said.
And if water ever flowed on Mars, the scientists believe, it might have pooled in the crater. It won’t be there any longer, but evidence could be just below the surface. From Curiosity’s cameras, the mission team will select targets, then send commands telling the rover where to go and what to sample.
The $2.5 billion mission comes with high risk but the potential for high reward. Finding evidence that life could have existed would easily validate the price tag and likely reinvigorate a desire to hasten Mars exploration.
The Mars Science Laboratory’s rover Curiosity is scheduled to launch Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Curiosity with its capability to detect signs of life will be the most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to Mars. The journey to the red planet is not the only event that is creating excitement on Florida’s space coast this week.
The Vehicle Assembly building, where space shuttles and Saturn five moon rockets were assembled, is now open to the public.
"This is a very special and unique opportunity," says John Stine, KSC Visitor Complex director of sales and marketing. "(The VAB) has been closed for over 30 years."
Touring this building, which has been closed to the public since 1978, may not be the highlight, even if it is one of the tallest buildings in the world.
"It's a great bonus to come in, not only to be in awe of the inside of this facility," says Stine, "but then seeing Endeavour being prepared for its trip out West."
The trip is scheduled to take place in late 2012, when the orbiter will be moved to a public display at the California Science Center. Until the move visitors taking the KSC Up- Close tour will enter the VAB and see Endeavour as it is being prepped for its west coast retirement.
Every Friday, @CNNLightYears will suggest interesting and exciting space and science Twitter accounts to follow.
The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch Saturday, November 26. Keep an eye on its progress by following @MarsCuriosity, which will tweet the progress of the new Mars mission.
You can also follow Twitter updates from @CNNLightYears.
A piece of debris hurling through space no longer presents enough of a threat to force the International Space Station crew to move, NASA said late Tuesday.
"NASA flight controllers downgraded conjunction threat," the agency announced on its official Twitter feed. "No need to shelter in place required on space station."
Earlier, NASA had said the crew would shelter in place, meaning the three crew members would move into the Soyuz vehicle attached to the space station.
It was a simple e-mail. But with just a few words, it capsulized the exact moment of an exciting scientific discovery.
"Check out the world's lightest material: 0.85 mg/cc!!" scientist Toby Schaedler wrote to his teammates at HRL Laboratories in Malibu, California. "It is holding up fine even after I squeezed it a little."
Six months later, HRL is announcing its discovery for the first time in a study published in November's Science magazine. When Light Years talked to physicist Bill Carter and project manager Leslie Momoda, the giddiness of inventing the lightest solid substance hadn't yet worn off. They were, well, practically floating on air.
NASA officials plan to make an early morning call on whether to shelter the crew of the International Space Station when a 4-inch diameter piece of debris from a Chinese weather satellite passes by Wednesday.
The piece of the Fengyun 1C, which was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese missile test, is expected to pass by at 4:43 a.m. ET, mission control at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston said.
"It's approaching the station at 5 kilometers per second," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told CNN.
The initial projections were for the Fengyun 1C remnant to miss by around 2,800 feet, but Humphries said "Our last update was looking better."
NASA will make the final call at 4 a.m. ET on whether to move the three-member crew in the space station into the Soyuz vehicle attached to it.