When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on its final mission in 2011, it was truly the end of an era. Few could deny that the program had become too complex and expensive to keep running, but even still, humanity’s ability to do useful work in low Earth orbit took a serious hit with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Worse, there was no indication of when or if another spacecraft would be developed that could truly rival the capabilities of the winged orbiters first conceived in the late 1960s.
While its primary function was to carry large payloads such as satellites into orbit, the Shuttle’s ability to retrieve objects from space and bring them back was arguably just as important. Throughout its storied career, sensitive experiments conducted at the International Space Station or aboard the Orbiter itself were returned gently to Earth thanks to the craft’s unique design. Unlike traditional spacecraft that ended their flight with a rough splashdown in the open ocean, the Shuttle eased itself down to the tarmac like an airplane. Once landed, experiments could be quickly unloaded and transferred to the nearby Space Station Processing Facility where science teams would be waiting to perform further processing or analysis.
For 30 years, the Space Shuttle and its assorted facilities at Kennedy Space Center provided a reliable way to deliver fragile or time-sensitive scientific experiments into the hands of researchers just a few hours after leaving orbit. It was a valuable service that simply didn’t exist before the Shuttle, and one that scientists have been deprived of ever since its retirement.
Until now. With the successful splashdown of the first Cargo Dragon 2 off the coast of Florida, NASA is one step closer to regaining a critical capability it hasn’t had for a decade. While it’s still not quite as convenient as simply rolling the Shuttle into the Orbiter Processing Facility after a mission, the fact that SpaceX can guide their capsule down into the waters near the Space Coast greatly reduces the time required to return experiments to the researchers who designed them.
NASA is always keen to highlight the space agency’s many successes, and rightly so — those who pay for these expensive projects have a right to know what they’re getting for their money. And so the news was recently sprinkled with stories of the discovery of electron bursts beyond the edge of our solar system, caused by shock waves from coronal mass ejection (CME) from our Sun reflecting and accelerating electrons in interstellar plasmas. It’s a novel mechanism and an exciting discovery that changes a lot of assumptions about what happens out in the lonely space outside of the Sun’s influence.
The recent discovery is impressive in its own right, but it’s even more stunning when you dig into the details of how it was made: by the 43-year-old Voyager spacecraft, each now about 17 light-hours away from Earth, and each carrying an instrument so simple and efficient that they’re still working all after this time — and which very nearly were left out of the mission’s science payload.
On November 8th, 2020 the Sun exploded. Well, that’s a bit dramatic (it explodes a lot) — but a particularly large sunspot named AR2781 produced a C5-class solar flare which is a medium-sized explosion even for the Sun. Flares range from A, B, C, M, and X with a zero to nine scale in each category (or even higher for giant X flares). So a C5 is just about dead center of the scale. You might not have noticed, but if you lived in Australia or around the Indian Ocean and you were using radio frequencies below 10 MHz, you would have noticed since the flare caused a 20-minute-long radio blackout at those frequencies.
According to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the sunspot has the energy to produce M-class flares which are an order of magnitude more powerful. NOAA also has a scale for radio disruptions ranging from R1 (an M1 flare) to R5 (an X20 flare). The sunspot in question is facing Earth for the moment, so any new flares will cause more problems. That led us to ask ourselves: What if there were a major radio disruption?
By pretty much any metric you care to use, 2020 has been an unforgettable year. Usually that would be a positive thing, but this time around it’s a bit more complicated. The global pandemic, unprecedented in modern times, impacted the way we work, learn, and gather. Some will look back on their time in lockdown as productive, if a bit lonely. Other’s have had their entire way of life uprooted, with no indication as to when or if things will ever return to normal. Whatever “normal” is at this point.
But even in the face of such adversity, there have been bright spots for our community. With traditional gatherings out of the question, many long-running tech conferences moved over to a virtual format that allowed a larger and more diverse array of presenters and attendees than would have been possible in the past. We also saw hackers and makers all over the planet devote their skills and tools to the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). In a turn of events few could have predicted, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic helped demonstrate the validity of hyperlocal manufacturing in a way that’s never happened before.
For better or for worse, most of us will associate 2020 with COVID-19 for the rest of our lives. Really, how could we not? But over these last twelve months we’ve borne witness to plenty of stories that are just as deserving of a spot in our collective memories. As we approach the twilight hours of this most ponderous year, let’s take a look back at some of the most interesting themes that touched our little corner of the tech world this year.
As the world waits for COVID-19 vaccines, some pharmaceutical companies stand armed and ready with an exciting improvement: better vials to hold the doses. Vials haven’t changed much in the last 100 years, but in 2011, Corning decided to do something about that. They started developing an alternative glass that is able to resist damage and prevent cracks. It’s called Valor glass, and it’s amazingly strong stuff. Think Gorilla glass for the medical industry.
Traditionally, pharmaceutical vials have been made from borosilicate glass, which is the same laboratory-safe material as Corning’s Pyrex. Borosilicate glass gets its strength from the addition of boron. Although borosilicate glass is pretty tough, it comes with some issues. Any type of glass is only as strong as its flaws, and borosilicate glasses are prone to some particularly strength-limiting flaws. Pharmaceutical glass must stand up to extreme temperatures, from the high heat of the vial-making process to the bitterly cold freeze-drying process and storing temperature required by the fragile viral RNA of some COVID-19 vaccines. Let’s take a look at how Valor glass vials tackle these challenges.
Climate change promises to cause untold damage across the world if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels for much longer. Despite the wealth of evidence indicating impending doom, governments have done what humans do best, and procrastinated on solving the issue.
However, legislatures around the world are beginning to snap into action. With transportation being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — 16% of the global total in 2016 — measures are being taken to reduce this figure. With electric cars now a viable reality, many governments are planning to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles in the coming decades.