Laser Levitation With Scrap Parts

After a year away from YouTube, the ever-energetic [Styropyro] has returned with whiteboard in hand to remind us just how little we actually know about lasers. In the last month he’s really hit the ground running with plenty of new content, but one video of his particularly stands out: a practical demonstration of laser levitation. Even better, unlike most of his projects, it looks like we can replicate this one without killing ourselves or burning our house down!

For those unaware, laser levitation is probably as close as we’ll get to Star Trek-style tractor beams in our lifetimes. In fact, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program has been examining using the technology for capturing small particles in space, since it would allow sample collection without the risk of physical contamination. While the demonstration [Styropyro] performs lacks the “tractor” part of the equation (in other word’s, there’s no way to move the particle along the length of the beam) it does make us hopeful that this type of technology is not completely outside the reach of our home labs.

The trick seems to be with the focus of the laser beam itself. Your average laser pointer just doesn’t have the appropriate beam for this kind of work, but with a diode pulled from a DVD burner and a driver circuit made from parts out of the junk bin, the effect can be demonstrated very easily as long as you can keep the air in the room extremely still. Of course, what you’re trying to pick up is also very important, [Styropyro] has found that synthetic diamond powder works exceptionally well for this experiment. At about $1.60 a gram, it won’t break the bank either.

So how does it work? With a few trips to the aforementioned white board, Professor Pyro explains that the effect we’re seeing is actually electromagnetic. If the particle you want to levitate is small enough it will become polarized by the light, which is in itself an electromagnetic wave. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around that, it logically follows that the levitating particle will experience the Lorentz force. Long story short, the particle is suspended in the air for the same reason that a projectile is ejected from a rail gun: if you’ve got enough power and the mass of the object is low enough, there will be an observable force.

We’ve been covering the work of [Styropyro] for years now, and are glad to see him back on YouTube creating new content and terrifying a new generation of viewers. Between this and the return of [Jeri Ellsworth], it’s like we’re experiencing a YouTube hacker Renaissance.

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Peggy Whitson, Space Scientist

When astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson returned from space earlier this year, it was a triumphant conclusion to a lifelong career as a scientist, explorer, and leader. Whitson is a biochemist who became one of the most experienced and distinguished astronauts ever to serve. She’s got more time logged in space than any other American. There’s a reason that she’s been called the Space Ninja.

Education and Early Life

Some people find their vocation late in life, but Peggy Whitson figured it out in her senior year of high school. It was 1979 and NASA had just accepted its first class of female astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik who ultimately died aboard the Challenger.

Born on a family farm in Iowa in 1960, Whitson began working on her plan, with the stereotypical Midwestern work ethic seeming to prime her for the hard slog ahead. She earned a BS in Biology/Chemistry, Summa, from Iowa Wesleyan, before earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice in 1985. A person can write about Whitson blazing through to a doctorate in a single sentence, but the truth is that it’s just a lot of hard work, and that’s one of the aspects of her career that stands out: she worked tirelessly.

Scientist Career

After getting her doctorate, Whitson worked as a research associate at Johnson Space Center as part of a post-doctoral fellowship. She put in a couple of years as a research biochemist, working on biochemical payloads
like the Bone Cell Research Experiment in STS-47, which was run in space by fellow badass Dr. Mae Jamison. Whitson hadn’t given up on her dream of becoming an astronaut herself, and the whole time she worked at Johnson she was applying to NASA. It took ten years and five applications before she made it in.

In the meantime, however, Whitson was given a lot of very cool projects and also began to establish her credentials as a leader, serving as Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program from 1992 till 1995. For three years she helped lead Medical Sciences Division at Johnson. The two years after that she co-chaired the NASA committee on US-Russian relations. And because she still had more time to crush it, she also worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch as well as at Rice.

Then, in April of 1996, she learned that her hard work had paid off and that she had been accepted into astronaut school. Peggy Whitson was going to space.

Ad Astra

It would be eight more years before she made it to space, however. Two years of intense training was followed by ground-based technical duties, including two years spent in Russia in support of NASA crews there. However, in 2002 she got her chance, flying in a Soyuz up to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 5. There she conducted science experiments and helped install new components in the space station, logging 164 days in space.

Back on earth, Whitson continued to kick ass as a scientist, astronaut, and leader. In 2003 she commanded a 10-day underwater mission that helps trains astronauts for extended stays in space, preparing her for her signature accomplishments: two tours where she commanded the ISS.

In 2008 she led Expedition 16, in which three additional modules were added to the ISS. Because of the new construction, and despite her science focus, Whitson became one of NASA’s most prolific spacewalkers, making 10 EVAs in her career — second only to cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev’s 16 and her cumulative EVA time of 60 hours is third best in the world.

The three years that followed she served as Chief Astronaut, before she returned to space in November 2016 as commander of Expedition 50. Compared to 16 it was much more mellow, albeit with hundreds of biochemistry experiments conducted. In April of 2017, Whitson surpassed the U.S. space endurance record, earning her a call from the President. She ended up with 665 days in space, returning September 2 as a hero.

Dr. Peggy Whitson’s brilliance and tireless drive have earned her innumerable awards and commendations. Her elementary school has a science lab named after her. This year Glamour named her one of their women of the year. She serves as an inspiration to anyone who aspires to a career in science, math, or space exploration: it won’t be easy, and it will take a really long time, but it’s the kind of work that makes the world a distinctly better place.

Photo Credit: NASA

Books You Should Read: Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report

It isn’t really a book, but Richard Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report is still definitely something you should read. It’s not particularly long, but it’s educational and relevant not just as an example of critical thinking in action, but as a reminder not to fool oneself; neither individually, nor on an organizational level. Sadly, while much was learned from the events leading to and surrounding the Challenger disaster, over thirty years later many of us can still find a lot of the same things to relate to in our own professional lives. There isn’t a single magic solution, because these problems are subtle and often masquerade as normal.

Feynman and the Challenger Disaster

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and one of the best-known scientists of his time. In 1986 he somewhat reluctantly agreed to join the Rogers Commission, whose task was to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded a little more than a minute after launch, killing everyone on board. The commission’s job was to find out what had gone wrong and how it had happened, and figure out how to keep it from happening again.

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The Russians And The Americans Only Want The Moon

For the generations who lived through the decades of the Space Race, the skies above were an exciting place. Every month it seemed there was a new announcement of a new mission, a Lunar landing, new pictures from a planetary probe, or fresh feats of derring-do from astronauts or cosmonauts. Space was inspiring!

As we moved through the Shuttle, Mir, and ISS eras, the fascinating work didn’t stop. The Mars rovers, the Cassini probe, the Chang-e Lunar mission, or the Hubble telescope, to name just a very few. But somehow along the way, space lost the shine for the general public, it became routine, mundane, even. Shuttle missions and Soyuz craft carrying ISS astronauts became just another feature on the news, eventually consigned only to the technology section of the broadcaster’s website. The TV comedy Big Bang Theory derived humor from this, when a character becomes an ISS astronaut, yet is still a nobody on his return to Earth.

If you yearn for a bit of that excitement from the Space Race days you may just find it in another story tucked away in the tech sections, though it comes from a collaboration rather than a competition. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have announced a partnership to take what will be the next step towards a future of deep space exploration, to place a manned space station in a Lunar orbit. The idea is that it would serve first as a valuable research platform for missions in deeper space than the current relatively low orbit of the ISS, and then as a launch base for both lunar missions and those further afield in the Solar System.

Of course, there is no lunar-orbiting station, yet. There is a long and inglorious history of proposed space missions that never left the drawing board, and this one may yet prove to be the next addition to it. But what are real are the two indisputable facts, that NASA and Roscosmos have inked this partnership, and eventually there will have to be a replacement for the ISS. This project stands a good chance of being that replacement, which makes it of great interest to anyone with an interest in technology. It’s a little out of the world of usual Hackaday fodder, but if you are like us you will want to believe that one day it will be launched.

Even with a lunar orbiting space station, it will be a very long time indeed before we see manned missions going significantly further into the Solar system. Perhaps another approach is required to go further, a laser-driven silicon wafer aimed at a nearby star.

Moon image: 阿爾特斯 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

The Longest Tech Support Call: Apollo 14 Computer Hack

Deep-voiced and aptly named [Scott Manley] posted a video about the computer hack that saved Apollo 14. Unlike some articles about the incident, [Scott] gets into the technical details in an entertaining way. If you don’t remember, Apollo 14 had an issue where the abort command button would occasionally signal when it shouldn’t.

The common story is that a NASA engineer found a way to reprogram the Apollo guidance computer. However, [Scott] points out that the rope memory in the computer wasn’t reprogrammable and there was no remote way to send commands to the computer anyway.

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In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones

So far in this brief series on in-band signaling, we looked at two of the common methods of providing control signals along with the main content of a transmission: DTMF for Touch-Tone dialing, and coded-squelch systems for two-way radio. For this installment, we’ll look at something that far fewer people have ever used, but almost everyone has heard: Quindar tones.

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Explore Venus with a Strandbeest Rover

There’s a little problem with sending drones to Venus: it’s too hostile for electronics; the temperature averages 867 °F and the pressure at sea level is 90 atmospheres. The world duration record is 2 hours and 7 minutes, courtesy of Russia’s Venera 13 probe. To tackle the problem, JPL has created a concept for AREE, a mechanical robot designed to survive in that environment.

AREE consists of a Strandbeest configuration of multiple legs with a monster fan propelling it, and one can imagine it creeping over the Venusian landscape. While its propulsion system might be handled by the Strandbeest mechanism, it will still have to navigate and transmit data. We’re not sure how a mechanical radio wave might work–maybe like those propeller arrow-cutters that [Dain of the Iron Hills] busts out in movie version of the Hobbit? Chemical rockets that somehow don’t spontaneously ignite? Or maybe it can just “transfer all energy to life support” and AC the heck out of the radio.

We’re space nerds here at Hackaday–check out our piece about NASA employees’ talks at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference and our extracurricular tour of JPL.

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