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Iodine-powered spacecraft tested in orbit for the first time

Could an iodine-fuelled electric propulsion system be the future of space travel?

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French aerospace company ThrustMe has successfully tested an iodine-powered spacecraft for the first time, showing that this fuel is a viable alternative to the more expensive and difficult-to-store xenon.

The satellite industry is booming: over the next decade, experts predict that up to 24,000 satellites will be launched into orbit, with most of them requiring a propulsion system to manoeuvre. Electric propulsion systems are a good choice because of their high fuel efficiency. These generate thrust by using electrical energy to accelerate the ions of a propellant gas.

Currently, most systems are powered by the noble gas xenon. Bur xenon is rare, expensive (at approximately $3,000 per kg), and must be packed into high-pressure tanks to fit on a satellite. It’s also in demand for other industries such as medicine, lighting and semiconductors.

Ground-based tests have shown that iodine could be a good alternative. Now, as reported in a paper in Nature, researchers have made a successful test of iodine in orbit for the first time.

“Iodine is significantly more abundant and cheaper than xenon, and has the added advantage that it can be stored unpressurised as a solid,” says Dmytro Rafalskyi, lead author of the paper and co-founder of ThrustMe, the company that developed the system.

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Iodine also transforms directly from a solid into a gas when heated (ie, it sublimates), so iodine crystals can be placed straight into the thruster without the need for bulky high-pressure tanks to store them. Solar energy can then provide the one watt of power needed to heat the crystals to become gas.

Plus, the propulsion system is tiny, fitting within a package of roughly 10 cubic centimetres.

ThrustMe’s system was integrated into a 20kg CubeSat satellite, Beihangkongshi-1, operated by China’s Spacety. It was launched by a Long March 6 rocket on the 6 November 2020, and the results show that the system performed successfully.

“We anticipate that these results will accelerate the adoption of alternative propellants within the space industry and demonstrate the potential of iodine for a wide range of space missions,” Rafalskyi and colleagues write in their paper.

In an accompanying News & Views article, independent aerospace engineering experts Igor Levchenko and Kateryna Bazaka call the system “not only remarkably simple, light and inexpensive, but also efficient”.

They say it could be a “gamechanger” for small satellites, including those that need propulsion systems to form flexible networks, known as constellations.

“For large satellite constellations, such as the 42,000-satellite Starlink system planned by aerospace-manufacturer SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, changing the propellant from xenon or krypton to iodine would lead to multi-million-dollar savings,” they write.

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“Further savings could come from simplifying the propellant’s storage and supply technology, which would also save money by decreasing the mass of the thruster.”

Levchenko and Bazaka also note that cheap iodine-powered propulsion systems could also be used to reduce the cost of in-orbit manufacturing.

“For example, the research company Varda Space Industries in Torrance, California, is building the world’s first commercial zero-gravity industrial park in space. The facility will manufacture products that are difficult to build on the surface of Earth owing to the effects of gravity, such as 3D-printed arteries and hearts, and certain pharmacological drugs.”

But there are still a few hurdles to overcome before iodine-based propulsion systems become the norm, including the fact that iodine is highly corrosive, so the metal and electronics components of a satellite must be protected.

Solid iodine also requires around 10 minutes to be heated to a high enough temperature to sublimate into a gas, which means a satellite might be less responsive in orbit.

But nevertheless, Levchenko and Bazaka say that this “is an impressive contribution to the rapidly changing landscape of electric propulsion technologies”.

https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/exploration/iodine-powered-spacecraft-tested-in-orbit/

 

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AI: is it starting to speak our language?

artificial intelligence like github copilot assists with coding
Code is my copilot: Mark Pesce test drives AI-assisted coding with GitHub Copilot. Credit: Sorbetto / Getty.

Two new advances – Copilot and MT-NLG – show signs that the promise of AI is upon us: taking care of the boring bits of our lives, so we can do the interesting stuff.

When someone once commented on the obvious African influences in his paintings, Pablo Picasso famously said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Programmers practise a similar kind of predation – like magpies, a good programmer will feather their nests with the shiniest bits that they can spy. And with a good search engine, well, there’s a lot there to spy. Nearly every problem in programming has been solved before by someone, somewhere, at some point – and if a programmer can find that solution, they can save themselves a fair bit of effort, or at least study the handiwork of others in pursuit of their own answers.

It’s this promiscuity of resources that separates the young and inexperienced programmers from those (such as myself) who have been slinging code most of their lives. A few years ago, a study showed that the most productive programmers were those who consulted Google (and Stack Overflow, which is a kind of Wikipedia of great code examples) most frequently. These days, I code with a whole set of browser tabs open – into Google, Stack Overflow, documentation pages, and so forth. It’s like having an extra brain – well, millions of extra brains. It definitely makes programming less tiring than it might have been 20 years ago, when programmers spent a lot of their time solving problems others had already solved, but had no idea others had solved them.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Pablo Picasso

These practices that programmers learn over a lifetime’s experience with their tools have been dramatically short-circuited by one of the latest advancements in artificial intelligence. At the end of June, programming website GitHub – a “repository” used by millions of programmers to store and share their code with their teams, or, in the case of open source, with the world – announced a new tool: Copilot. Developed from a very rich artificial intelligence model known as OpenAI Codex, it purports to do what good programmers have always done for themselves – find the best bit of code to solve the problem at hand.

That sounds like quite a big ask, because code can be difficult for any programmer who didn’t write it to read and understand, and because the entire act of coding – laying out a structure, then filling in that structure with the necessary details – seems like a very human, cognitive task. It’s never been something a programmer could ask Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant to do for them. In AI terms, it’s next level.

I wrote a single line of comment that stated my requirements and – abracadabra! – the computer provided a complete solution.

When I recently got access to GitHub Copilot (it’s still in limited release) I had very low expectations. I reckoned it would do little more than make a few hints while I sat and typed out my code. What I got, though, was rather more than that. From the examples provided by GitHub, I could see that I could frame what I needed as a “comment” – a bit of code designed to be read by a human and ignored by the computer. So I wrote a single line of comment that stated my requirements and – abracadabra! – the computer provided a complete solution.

I inspected the code burped up by Copilot, and realised the computer had given me exactly the result I was looking for. Just what I would have done – if not in exactly the same way. Coding styles differ among programmers, and Copilot has its own, very straightforward style. That makes it easy to read – always a good thing.

Yet after some time playing with it, I could see that Copilot is far from perfect. I asked it for code to do something quite straightforward, and while it came up with suggestions that would have done the job, none of them made sense in the context of the programming language I was using. It may be that I’ll need to learn to “speak” to Copilot in a language that it can understand – just as we’ve all learned how to shape our requests to Siri and Google and Alexa. And there’s no question that it feels uncanny to have the computer quickly and silently come up with just the bit of code that you’re looking for. Copilot will make bad programmers better, and good programmers more productive. That’s a good thing. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It may be that I’ll need to learn to “speak” to Copilot in a language that it can understand.

Copilot sits atop OpenAI Codex, which in turn sits upon something known as GPT-3 – the third iteration of a “Generative Pre-trained Transformer”, an artificial intelligence program that has been “taught” 175 billion “parameters” (think of them as rules) about human language. All of that data came from a huge vacuuming of the Web – GPT-3 sucked in much of what we’ve been publishing online over the past 30 years. With so much fed into it, and so many rules inferred from all of that hoovering, GPT-3 could do things that no computer program had done before, such as craft a summary of a technical article, find the salient points in a press release – even “read between the lines” of CEOs public reports to discern the real health of the business. There’s no magic here, no “thought”, but those billions of rules make it appear as though GPT-3 can do things only humans can do. Mo rules, mo smarts.

But GPT-3 is over 18 months old – dog years in the rapidly evolving world of artificial intelligence. Earlier this month, Microsoft and Nvidia (who make the pricey display cards hardcore gamers prefer) unveiled the latest, greatest and biggest program, MT-NLG. MT-NLG has over half a trillion parameters within its model of human language – three times the number on offer from the suddenly shabby GPT-3. What does that get you? Expanded powers of inference. In one example, Microsoft fed MT-NLG a statement, then asked it a question:

Famous professors supported the secretary.

Question: Professors supported the secretary. True or False?

MT-NLG replied:

True. The secretary was supported by famous professors.

That’s all the more significant because MT-NLG showed its work, explaining why it answered as it had.

In the same way the steam engine relieved human beings of the mechanical drudgeries of work, artificial intelligence looks to be fulfilling its promise to relieve the drudgeries of desk work.

Much of what we read consists of factual statements. MT-NLG, like GPT-3 before it, can digest these factual statements, draw inferences, then make decisions based on those inferences. Is it “understanding”? The question we need to ask at this point isn’t the unanswerable, “Does MT-NLG understand what it’s reading?” But rather, “Does MT-NLG have enough rules to give the correct answer?” The answer there is (mostly) yes.

Microsoft recently bought GitHub; Copilot and MT-NLG look to be on a collision course. This means the kinds of suggestions Copilot provides programmers will soon get even better. Will this put programmers out of work? That seems unlikely. Instead, programmers will be able to focus on the interesting bits, using Copilot to provide workable solutions to all of the necessary “boilerplate” within every computer program.

In the same way that the steam engine relieved human beings of the mechanical drudgeries of work, artificial intelligence looks to be fulfilling its promise to relieve the drudgeries of desk work. It won’t be long until we have tools analogous to Copilot employed for basic business communication – drafting simple press releases, answering customer emails, and so forth. Automation is coming to the boring bits of our white-collar lives, leaving us with the interesting bits – the weird and unexpected, those things no computer has ever learned, nor any human has ever seen. Humans are good at dealing with exceptional circumstances – and with some help from AI, we’ll have more time to get better.?id=172931&title=AI%3A+is+it+starting+to

https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/ai/github-copilot-ai-coding/

 

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Rolls-Royce claims its all-electric plane is the fastest ever made

The new aircraft, Spirit Of Innovation, clocked a top speed of 623km/h (387.4mph). Could it help us reach 'jet zero'?

 

As if that wasn’t enough, Spirit Of Innovation, which is part of the Accelerating the Electrification of Flight (ACCEL) project, additionally achieved 555.9km/h (345.4mph) over a three-kilometre course, smashing the previously held record for an electric plane by 213.04km/h (132mph).

In further runs at the Boscombe Down test site, the craft broke even more records by clocking a speed of 532.1km/h (330mph) over 15 kilometres and climbing to an altitude of 3,000 metres in 202 seconds.

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Rolls-Royce has submitted the data to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) – the World Air Sports Federation that controls and certifies world aeronautical and astronautical records – to confirm that it has broken world records.

“The advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the advanced air mobility market,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East.

“Following the world’s focus on the need for action at COP26, this is another milestone that will help make ‘jet zero’ a reality and supports our ambitions to deliver the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land and sea.”

 

Spirit Of Innovation achieved these feats thanks to a 400kW electric powertrain and a 6,480-cell 750V battery. To put that into perspective, that battery has enough energy to juice up 7,500 smartphones. These drive three propellers that complete 2,200 revolutions per minute.

Spirit Of Innovation is a bit different from other existing electric-powered aircraft in that it has been optimised for speed, which means that the batteries are used up very quickly – the aircraft can only fly for around seven to eight minutes with enough power remaining to land with reserves,” explained Bill Read, deputy editor of Aerospace, the magazine of The Royal Aeronautical Society.

“Future designs for electric commercial aircraft will be concentrating more on endurance to keep the batteries running for as long as possible to increase range.”

The aim of ACCEL is to research battery technology for future electric aeroplanes, including commercial craft. Some of the main challenges have been finding ways to reduce the weight of the batteries. To overcome this, Rolls-Royce designed the battery containment system to act as a structural part of the plane.

Read more about air travel 

“According to Rolls-Royce, while electric cars typically have an equal weight proportion of cells and packaging, the battery box in the aircraft weighs 450kg, of which the cells account for 300kg,” said Read.

“Rolls-Royce says that the resulting system is very energy efficient with 90 per cent of the battery power being used to power the aircraft with only 10 per cent being lost through heat and sound.”

The batteries getting hot is another problem in electric planes. Spirit Of Innovation’s battery cells are in fire-proof containers lined with Portuguese cork (yes, the same stuff that’s in the top of your wine bottle) to provide a thermal barrier.

A bunch of sensors on the plane can monitor 20,000 points of data per second, and measure the charge, temperature and voltage of the battery cells. This is relayed back to the pilot during the flight to provide information and warnings about the state of the batteries.

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With rising concerns about the effect of aviation emissions on the environment, there has been an increasing focus on the development of electric planes.

While scientists have been experimenting with electric flight since the end of the 19th Century, when French aviator Gaston Tissandier flew an electric airship, electric flight is currently impractical for your annual holiday to the Med as any plane with sufficient battery power for long flights would be too heavy to take to the skies.

Instead, many manufacturers are working on planes that could be used for short-haul flights or as air taxis. For example, easyJet is developing a fully electric 186-seater plane that could fly for about an hour, which would be sufficient to take you from London to Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Urban Air Port plans to build a skyport in Coventry, which will be the world’s first operational hub for air taxis and cargo drones.

first-flight-56647ac.webp

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Indeed, according to Read, Rolls-Royce plans to use the experience gained from the ACCEL project in the development of a complete electric propulsion system for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxis and larger electric-powered commuter aircraft.

One problem with batteries is that the cells will degrade with use. According to a member of the ACCEL team, batteries can only be recharged from 500 to 1,500 cycles before they degrade too much to be of use to power aircraft. This could be a problem for eVTOL operators which will need to use full power for take-offs and landings, and will require frequent recharges which could wear out their batteries quite quickly
 

 

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5 hours ago, CaaC (John) said:

 

It looks so cool! Great speed as wel. Due to low energy density of current batteries, it can only do a 30 minute flight max, but it's a nice demonstration of experimental technology nonetheless.

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As soft as jelly, as hard as glass

Researchers create a hydrogel as strong as shatterproof glass

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Researchers from the University of Cambridge have invented a ‘super jelly’ so strong it can hold its shape even with the equivalent of an elephant treading on it, despite being 80% water.

Jelly-like materials, or hydrogels, have many applications in soft robotics, tissue engineering and wearable tech, but it is difficult to make strong jellies that don’t break apart when under pressure.

According to this study, published in Nature Materials, the new hydrogel material is soft like a jelly, but acts like an ultra-hard, shatterproof glass when compressed.

The way a material behaves depends on its molecular structure. Some molecules bond rigidly so they can’t move at all, leading to tough, solid materials such as glass. Others can slide around each other and keep the material – such as rubber – flexible. Most hydrogels have networks of polymers linked together in a shape that keeps them flexible.

“In order to make materials with the mechanical properties we want, we use crosslinkers, where two molecules are joined through a chemical bond,” says Dr Zehuan Huang, the study’s first author.

“We use reversible crosslinkers to make soft and stretchy hydrogels, but making a hard and compressible hydrogel is difficult, and designing a material with these properties is completely counterintuitive.”

The new hydrogel follows the principle of cross-linked polymers, but has special barrel-shaped molecules called cucurbiturils that hold the polymers together – almost like handcuffs.

Cucurbiturils clutch the polymers tightly together like glass when the hydrogel is under pressure, but still allows for flexible movement at other times. The glass-like state was so strong it could be run over by a car.

“At 80% water content, you’d think it would burst apart like a water balloon, but it doesn’t: it stays intact and withstands huge compressive forces,” says Oren Scherman, director of the university’s Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis. “The properties of the hydrogel are seemingly at odds with each other.”

Co-author Dr Jade McCune says that the way the hydrogel can withstand compression is surprising.

“It wasn’t like anything we’ve seen in hydrogels,” she says. “We also found that the compressive strength could be easily controlled through simply changing the chemical structure of the guest molecule inside the handcuff.”

The researchers used the material to make a hydrogel pressure sensor for real-time monitoring of human movement, and they hope to investigate uses in other biomedical or bioelectric technology.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that glass-like hydrogels have been made,” says Huang. “We’re not just writing something new into the textbooks, which is really exciting, but we’re opening a new chapter in the area of high-performance soft materials.”

?id=173796&title=As+soft+as+jelly%2C+as+https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/materials/as-soft-as-jelly-as-hard-as-glass/

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https://www.livescience.com/chinas-1-trillion-artificial-sun-fusion-reactor-just-got-five-times-hotter-than-the-sun

China's tokamak dubbed "artificial sun" has set a new world record for longest sustained nuclear fusion by reaching and holding plasma temperatures five times hotter than the core of the sun for more than 17 minutes :o 120 million degrees C, unimaginable. 

Nuclear fusion is THE technology that would solve a lot of problems... Unlimited clean energy would be one of humanity's biggest achievements.

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21 hours ago, nudge said:

https://www.livescience.com/chinas-1-trillion-artificial-sun-fusion-reactor-just-got-five-times-hotter-than-the-sun

China's tokamak dubbed "artificial sun" has set a new world record for longest sustained nuclear fusion by reaching and holding plasma temperatures five times hotter than the core of the sun for more than 17 minutes :o 120 million degrees C, unimaginable. 

Nuclear fusion is THE technology that would solve a lot of problems... Unlimited clean energy would be one of humanity's biggest achievements.

Don't tell that to the general environmental activist. They'll jump up and down saying how bad nuclear is.

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2 minutes ago, Bluebird Hewitt said:

Don't tell that to the general environmental activist. They'll jump up and down saying how bad nuclear is.

Could be worse. Like tens thousands of dumbasses who took the name "artificial sun" literally and panickly shared doctored videos of some old Chinese rocket launch on the social media, claiming that China launched an actual artificial sun into Earth's orbit... 🤦‍♀️

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22 hours ago, nudge said:

Could be worse. Like tens thousands of dumbasses who took the name "artificial sun" literally and panickly shared doctored videos of some old Chinese rocket launch on the social media, claiming that China launched an actual artificial sun into Earth's orbit... 🤦‍♀️

Fuck sake. :dam:

Also, on a bit of a random note, I have been watching a couple videos on YouTube from 'Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell'. They seem informative but not sure how reliable they are as such.

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6 minutes ago, Bluebird Hewitt said:

Fuck sake. :dam:

Also, on a bit of a random note, I have been watching a couple videos on YouTube from 'Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell'. They seem informative but not sure how reliable they are as such.

They are generally reliable, especially as a starting point to learn about new topics. Their information is usually well-researched and while there might be some mistakes or poorly chosen sources (it's unavoidable), Kurzgesagt appear to be willing to admit their mistakes. I think they actually removed a few videos after new evidence showed it wasn't very accurate anymore. I personally don't like the format, but I've recommended it several times to others.

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