Month: January 2011

Citizen Satellites

CubeSatCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Developing, testing, launching and operating a space science mission typically costs hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, but with this new breed of satellites lowers you can have your own space mission for just $100,000 or so.

These cubic satellites, called CubeSats, take up just one liter of space, weigh one kilogram, are designed to be launched in batches, and can piggyback on other space missions, factors that together combine to dramatically reduce launch costs. CubeSats originated in a set of technical specifications proposed as a standard in 2000 by aerospace engineer Bob Twiggs, formerly of Stanford University’s Space and Systems Development Laboratory, and Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The two engineers wanted to make space science affordable for most science laboratories and even for college and high school projects. CubeSats have been embraced as an educational tool, because a team of students can design and build one in just two years, and students can get a holistic feeling of what space science is about.

The concept has spread—even NASA and the National Science Foundation have joined the club—and dozens of teams have started CubeSat projects. At least two dozen have already completed their missions successfully and many more are at various planning stages.

Members of the CubeSat community build on each other’s experience, sharing design tips. As Twiggs and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote in “Citizen Satellites,” their February 2011 Scientific American article, “When developers find something that works—one model of ham radio that works in space longer than another, for example—they share their findings with other CubeSat designers.”

Meanwhile, several companies have started selling off-the-shelf CubeSat components, such as flight electronics, transceivers, solar panels and structural elements. Teams of scientists and engineers can now focus on designing science instruments that are particular to their own CubeSats, rather than having to design entire spacecraft from scratch.

You can see how CubeSats are made in this slide show, including some by undergraduate students and even one by an eight-grade student, Bryan Fewell from Hawaii.

Controlling a Mind, Neuron by Neuron

C. elegans neuron controlSamuel Lab/Harvard University
Laser light activated neurons in this genetically engineered worm and forced it to stop swimming. The worm resumed when the laser was turned off.

Scientists have come a step closer to gaining complete control over a mind, even if that mind belongs to a creature the size of a grain of sand. A team at Harvard University has built a computerized system to manipulate worms—making them start and stop, giving them the sensation of being touched, and even prompting them to lay eggs, as seen in the videos here—by stimulating their neurons individually with laser light, all while the worms swim freely in a petri dish. The technology may help neuroscientists for the first time gain a complete understanding of the workings of an animal’s nervous system.

Andrew Leifer, a graduate student in biophysics at Harvard who conducted the experiment, hopes the technique could some day help scientists create complete simulations of the organism’s behavior. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to make a computational model of the entire nervous system,” he says.

In a way, that would be like “uploading a mind,” even if a rudimentary one.

Read the rest of my story (and see videos!)