In my opinion, there is nothing more exciting happening in science and technology right now than the journey to Mars. Experts at NASA and beyond are working on finding solutions to every possible challenge that humans will face both traveling to and surviving on the red planet. One of the many issues is how to grow food. A PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder is one of the winners of the Lemelson-MIT Prize for her invention that tackles that issue. Heather Hava has developed three pieces of technology that would help provide fresh produce for astronauts. The first is called SmartPot (SPOT) and it's a smart growth chamber that semi-autonomously grows food. The compact chamber would serve as a microclimate for a particular plant, with temperature, humidity, lighting and ventilation all perfectly programmed. The bottom of the chamber is a water reservoir containing water and all of the nutrients needed for the plant. The water is pumped into the chamber where it drips onto the plants roots and eventually trickles back down to the reservoir. The chamber has a screen where the plant's health data is displayed and that information is also sent back to an Earth-based team that can remotely make adjustments to the chamber. The SPOTs can send messages when they need care like more water in the reservoir. Those alerts are sent via a smartphone app to the astronauts and the remote crew. The small size of the chambers means that several of them containing various crops could be used onboard a spacecraft and in a space habitat on another planet. Another piece of Hava's invention is a software system called AgQ. This platform analyzes data from the SPOT sensors and from physiological sensors placed on the astronauts to monitor, predict and send alerts about health issues concerning the crops and the humans working with them. The system helps the teams in space and on Earth correct any problems with suggestions for how to maximize crop yield or prevent health issues in the astronauts. The last part of the inventions is a robotic gardener that could care for the plants in the SPOT chambers. Hava developed a prototype with NASA's X-Hab team for a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR) that could be remotely controlled to move around the spacecraft or habitat to monitor and harvest the plants. ROGR has cameras that allow the remote operators to inspect the crops to see if they're ready for picking. If so, the ROGR's arm can be used to harvest the food and move it to a food prep area. This trio of inventions won Hava $15,000. She will soon test the technology at one of the Earth-based Mars research habitats like Antarctica or the Mars Desert Research Station where people carry out similar tasks with the same restrictions that they would have on Mars. She and her research team are particularly interested to see how the SPOT plants affect nutrition, stress levels, cognitive performance and the general well-being of the caretakers.
News Article | January 28, 2016
Massive star Betelguese of the Orion constellation is nearing its end of life, and in the next million years it is expected to explode as a supernova. Like many stars of similar size entering their twilight, it is anticipated to eject much of its mass out into outer space at this point. The problem, according to astrophysicists, is that Betelguese’s upper atmosphere was found much cooler than expected, making it lack the energy to expel gas out of its gravitational pull and into space. Using the U.S.-German Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), Graham Harper of University of Colorado Boulder and his colleagues took the red giant’s temperature and discovered the issue at hand. “This challenges all our theoretical models,” he proclaimed at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society last Jan. 7. Betelguese, which is about 20 times the Sun’s mass, will balloon to an enormous size and start shedding gas. In a few million years it will lose around a quarter of this mass. But where is it getting the energy to accomplish that when, according to Harper, “the fundamental physics is way off”? The SOFIA data showing it’s as cool as 540 Kelvin – a far cry from temperatures of up to 3,500 Kelvin from a 1998 radio study. Heat is commonly produced in energy exchange and when objects collide. According to the magnetic field theory of red supergiants, the energy that is pushing the gas outward would tend to warm it up – observations of Betelguese, however, seemed to demonstrate that this wasn’t the case. What is occurring in the star’s upper atmosphere appears to rule out magnetic fields as the force behind the shedding, as well as challenges the possibility of shockwaves – or astounding releases of plasma ejected from inside – driving its pulsations. “So it might be it’s a combination of all sorts of things and it’s just somehow fooling us in a very bad way, said Harper. At the meeting, other studies highlighted the instability of Betelguese, such as its light fluctuating in cycles of up to many years. At 600 light years away, Betelguese remains one of the closest red giants around. Failing to understand its physics, Harper feared, can make scientists struggle to understand other red giants present in the big, wide universe.
The alarmingly rare Devils Hole pupfish — known from only one pool in a Nevada desert —might not be the long-isolated species it has seemed. The small, bluish Cyprinodon diabolis fish inhabits Devils Hole, a collapsed cavern filled with water in the Mojave Desert. To explain how fish got into such hostile terrain, biologists have speculated that C. diabolis and some related local pupfishes in the area descend from residents of ancient bodies of water that disappeared from the region more than 10,000 years ago. As those waters receded, fishes took refuge where they could, the idea goes. By now, descendants have adapted to odd remnant habitats of wetter days. That intuitively appealing story, however, does not fit with hints from new genetic evidence, says Christopher Martin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Devils Hole pupfish appears to have recently shared genes with desert pupfishes that live in springs or other watery places — perhaps between 105 and 850 years ago. So the Devils Hole pupfish may not have been really isolated as a species as long as once thought. And it may not even have moved in to its watery hole in the desert recently, Martin and colleagues say January 27 in Martin cautions that to give a firmer answer on the isolation time, he needs more information. He would have to measure directly the rate at which pupfish genes mutate, and research material is not abundant for these endangered species. The DNA he worked with came from a pupfish found dead in the water, and he and his colleagues scrutinized the species with modern equipment that processes high volumes of DNA. There were distinct signs, he says, that the Devils Hole species was somehow exchanging genes with related species in the region, suggesting that the species is more recent than relict. C. diabolis’ entire range as a species is the deep pool of Devils Hole, with an opening only 3.5 meters by 22 meters. Steep sides keep sunlight from reaching the water for two months of the year, starving algae that fish need for food. Water temperatures stay about 32°Celsius, a temperature warm enough to kill most other fish within an hour, Martin says. “It’s one of the most ridiculous fish habitats I’ve ever seen.” For years, the prevailing estimate for the age of the pupfish species was roughly 10,000 to 20,000 years, says Craig Stockwell of North Dakota State University in Fargo. That was roughly the end of the Pleistocene epoch, when bodies of water in western North America dried up. The much more recent date is “plausible but suspect,” says Andrew Martin of the University of Colorado Boulder, who has studied pupfish for decades. The new paper calibrated its timing based on well-studied mutation rates of pupfishes in Mexico’s Lake Chichancanab. But Andrew Martin argues that some of the Mexican species probably arose before the lake formed, so the mutation rate would be slower than thought and the age estimate different. Therefore, the new, low age for pupfish isolation, he concludes, “is as plausible to my mind as estimates that extend into the late Pleistocene.” Despite the study’s drawbacks, Stockwell is more open to the new, recent timing because of what conservation biology has learned about the perils of small populations. In 2014, he and Michael Reed of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., used decades of monitoring information about the ups and downs of the Devils Hole pupfish numbers to estimate the population’s powers of persistence. The chances of it surviving 10,000 years were just 2.1 percent, the pair concluded. A long-ago origin didn’t look likely. And looking at some repetitive sequences of DNA in pupfish cells, Stockwell and Reed saw some evidence for recent sharing of genes with other pupfish species. The Devils Hole fish probably were isolated “within the last few hundred to few thousand years,” they concluded. Now that Christopher Martin’s study, with a different approach, has also come up with a recent age, Stockwell feels more confidence in the notion. The improbable history of the Devils Hole pupfish may have had some overlooked recent chapters.
The U.S. Could Make a Fast, Cheap Switch to Clean Energy More Coal-fired power plants are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the United States, but new research finds that existing technology could cheaply slash the nation’s carbon spew nearly 80 percent by 2030. How? By transporting renewable energy from where the sun is shining and the wind is blowing to where it is not, according to the study, which was published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder. NOAA’s highly detailed weather data shows there’s nearly always someplace in the 48 contiguous states where electricity can be generated by solar power stations and wind farms, even if it happens to be hundreds or thousands of miles away from where it’s needed. The quandary: How to move electricity generated by that sun or wind over long distances without losing too much of it in the process. The solution: A proven technology, called high-voltage direct current, already exists and can carry power across long distances more efficiently than alternating current, the standard power transmission mode in the U.S. Utilities could add direct-current infrastructure to alternating-current transmission lines over the next 15 years as part of planned updates and upgrades without breaking the bank, said study coauthor Alexander MacDonald, who recently retired as director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “Almost everybody believes that if we go to wind and solar energy it will be more expensive, or won’t be ready unless we have a big technological breakthrough” in battery storage technology, MacDonald said. “Our study says that with existing transmission technology and use of the whole 48 states with this ‘interstate for electrons,’ we’re ready right now to have a national system that has the same electric costs as today, with as much as 80 percent less carbon, and just as reliable.” The greater reliance on wind and solar power would also cut water use for energy by 65 percent, the study found. That’s because fossil fuel plants, which generate 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, need large volumes of water for cooling. RELATED: Morocco Will Soon Become the World’s Solar Energy Superpower “Our study assumed that the existing U.S. power system, with all of its AC distribution and usage, stays the same,” said MacDonald. “Power can be taken off the HVDC network for use, and put on by generation. To a power provider, let’s say a utility, instead of building a coal plant, they build a connection to the HVDC network. Everything else stays the same.” To test ideas about the most cost-effective means of generating power, MacDonald and his colleagues conducted a complex mathematical analysis that combined finely detailed data on continent-wide weather patterns from 2006 to 2008 with equally detailed data on power demand for the same period. “NOAA folks have known for some time how big weather is,” said mathematician and physicist Christopher Clack of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a collaboration between NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder. “We built and ran a very sophisticated model that was able to take advantage of [NOAA’s] exceptionally good-quality weather data to look at the situation of the grid, and see if there’s any way of running the grid that would incorporate a really cheap system.” The model was not designed to prioritize low carbon emissions, he said. “We tried to be completely agnostic on which technologies were picked. It turned out the most effective combination we saw was full U.S., 48-state transmission, backed up by gas when solar and wind wasn’t enough.” Using the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s estimate of a 0.7 percent increase in power demand annually between 2015 and 2030, the researchers found that scenarios combining wind, solar, and natural gas power with a nationwide transmission grid cut greenhouse gas emissions from 33 to 78 percent below 1990 levels. If gas was cheaper than solar and wind, the emissions were higher; when renewables beat gas on price, emissions went down. The cost to ratepayers was between $0.086 and $0.10 per kilowatt-hour—comparable to the actual average nationwide cost of $0.094 per kilowatt-hour in 2015 and potentially saving power customers $47.2 billion a year.
News Article | April 12, 2016
Small islands are at risk of suffering from freshwater scarcity, paving the way for them to dry out in the future, a new study has found. Scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new model to predict the effects of climate change on small islands. In the process, they found that previous analyses of these places underestimated the number of islands that can go barren by mid-century. From 50 percent, the number of islands possibly becoming arid in the future is actually 73 percent, putting approximately 18 million people "computationally disenfranchised," as described by study lead author Kris Karnauskas. Karnauskas says these islands are already facing problems of sea level rise, but new data show that they are also at risk of having vulnerable rainwater. "The atmosphere is getting thirstier, and would like more of that freshwater back," he says. Small islands are among the most unfortunate places in the face of the changing climate. They are vulnerable to sea level rise, scarce resources and hazards of economy. To add to that, thousands of these islands are said to be too small to be considered in global climate models (GCMs) that scientists are not able to include them in studies investigating the impacts of climate change. One particular area that scientists may have overlooked is the data on these islands' freshwater systems. As per GCMs, the percentage of islands getting wetter and drier are tied at 50 percent each. However, these models do not consider what occurs in unaccounted-for islands. In fact, Karnauskas and colleagues discovered that 73 percent of the islands will turn drier due to increased evaporation. Underestimation of environmental situations appears not to be rare, as a recent study found that scientists have also undervalued the potential of sea level rise over the next century. The main dilemma of GCMs is that they are not completely sharp in terms of coming up with very detailed information of small objects, particularly tiny islands. GCMs divide the Earth into grids, with each grid measuring about 240 x 210 kilometers (149 x 130 miles). Such dimensions are quite big for areas with small islands that it becomes impractical to include these tiny specks into the models. Karnauskas compares the situation to pixels. If they are too big to consider the tiny freckles on a nose's image, then those freckles would go unnoticed. For these freckles to be resolved, extreme fine pixels are needed. Unfortunately, GCMs are not designed to have that feature. The scenario of the unnoticed element in a grid box is applicable to many islands all across the globe. Part of this problem is that scientists are not able to determine the effects of climate change to these islands' freshwater situations. The primary method for determining how climate change affects freshwater supplies is to identify the evaporation and precipitation situations in the area. Determining precipitation is easy and existing GCMs are able to detect this regardless if it is over land or over water. Even in tiny areas like Easter Island in Polynesia, experts are able to determine how much precipitation is most probably going to fall from the sky. The biggest challenge then is identifying evaporation rates. This is because the models do not show the lands, it only depicts an all-water picture. Scientists cannot calculate evaporation of these lands based on the bodies of water surrounding the tiny islands because oceans follow different physical principles of evaporation. Not being able to know the rate of evaporation leaves scientists baffled as to the true situation of freshwater supplies in tiny islands. Karnauskas and colleagues then created a way to determine what is really going on in these small islands. He draws a cube diagram on a white board, which represents a three-dimensional image of an ocean grid cell. He prompts predicting where the tiny island ought to be in the cube and use the atmospheric information directly above it. The method developed by the team is said to be feasible because the islands are so small that the climate directly above it is not much different from the climate over the ocean. This has been proven in an investigation of an island as big as Maui, where scientists were able to discover that weather centers at airports have little variations from the weather of stations hundreds of kilometers offshore. Karnauskas calls this technique as "blind pig test," which is said to be successful if scientists are not able to distinguish whether what they are investigating is above land or above the water. This situation only means that experts do not need to have land information. As long as they know the situation in the atmosphere above it, then they can most likely predict the evaporation situation in that area. Small islands may face drier situations far more than previously predicted, but with the new framework developed by the team, scientists may have more accurate information about the effects of climate change, which may help mitigate the severity of the situation. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change on April 11. © 2016 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.