A 20-mile long ‘spacescraper’ dangling from an asteroid: Could it work?


Realizing an architectural firm’s dream of a record-setting skyscraper hanging from an asteroid would be a tall order.

MARCH 29, 2017 It’s a new approach to an old idea. While Jonathan Swift’s fantastical island city of Laputa stayed aloft via magnets, a New York City design firm envisions using an orbiting asteroid to hang a skyscraper above the Earth.

Clouds Architecture Office espouses a dream-big-or-go-home philosophy with its plan to construct the world’s “tallest building ever.” The 20-mile high (or long) megastructure would dangle from an asteroid suspended by a cable system tens of thousands of miles long.

A number of engineering hurdles stand in the way, so would-be atmospheric settlers of tomorrow will have plenty of time to save up for a down payment. Nevertheless, today’s humble surface-dwellers may see inspirational value in proposing such castles in the sky, regardless of their feasibility.

Clouds AO’s “Analemma Tower” riffs on the concept of the space elevator, an orbiting counterweight tethered to Earth by an unimaginably long cable that, once built, could provide more affordable access to space.

But rather than a fixed line to the ground, the firm proposes an apartment building hanging off the lower end of a very, very, very long cable attached to an asteroid. The entire system would orbit at the same speed the Earth turns, so it could hover over a relatively narrow area, rather than zipping around many times per day, like the International Space Station does.

The plan calls for an asteroid to be captured and brought back to orbit Earth, similar to NASA’s soon-to-be-cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission. The space rock would orbit about 30,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, and tens of thousands of miles of cable would suspend the low-flying apartment complex, which would span the last 20 miles and nearly scrape the Earth’s surface.

The scale of the project is mind-boggling. The building alone would be 60 times as tall as New York’s One World Trade Center, a height that would take Dubai’s Burj Khalifa elevator nearly an hour to climb (although the proposal suggests cableless magnetic elevators). If the entire asteroid-to-bottom-floor span were shrunk to the size of the Eiffel Tower, by comparison the real Eiffel Tower would stand a mere seven hundredths of an inch tall.

Inhabitants could live more than 100,000 feet in the air, where they would enjoy 45 extra minutes of daylight, but it would come at the cost of near-vacuum conditions outside and temperatures comparable to an Antarctic winter, necessitating the recycling of air and water much like a space station.

But a free-flying design affords a number of advantages. By tweaking the elongation of the orbit, builders could specify the figure-eight shaped path the building traces over the Earth. All geosynchronous satellites follow this pattern, from which the structure gets its name: analemma. And the view would be spectacular.

Clouds Architecture Office | Caption

The analemma movement makes the building mobile, with ports of call in New York City and on the western coast of South America where it could dock for loading, unloading, and re-supplying. It would complete one analemma each day.

The design also suggests taking advantage of the skyscraper’s mobility to defray the astronomical building costs, pointing out that Dubai has proven itself a master of low cost, high rise construction. After completion, builders could transport the entire structure to its final New York City-focused orbit.

Rent would cover the remainder of the costs, the architects expect. “It taps into the desire for extreme height, seclusion, and constant mobility. If the recent boom in residential towers proves that sales price per square foot rises with floor elevation, then Analemma Tower will command record prices, justifying its high cost of construction,” the firm wrote.

Recent record-setting apartment prices include a $100 million unit in New York City and a $335 million penthouse in Monaco. Even more astronomical fees for spacescraper real estate would make Analemma Tower accessible only to the hyper-rich.

But Clouds AO won’t be taking deposits anytime soon, because the project faces the challenges of a space elevator, and then some.

“It’s basically a space elevator with the lower end free. I think that’s actually harder.  Probably not 10 times harder though, maybe 1.5 times harder,” suggests Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The number one problem is the cable. The sheer length and tension require tremendous strength, and theorists can’t come up with a material that could bear more than two-thirds of the load required for a practical elevator, even just on paper.

Another hurdle is space trash from defunct satellites. “The fact that space tethers are often cut in two by a space debris hit is the reason they haven’t seen extensive use since the 1990s,” Dr. McDowell tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. On top of the space elevator style tether, Analemma Tower also presents a large pressurized structure with big windows as a large target for lower flying objects such as birds and planes.

McDowell suspects smaller, higher systems may be feasible (“start small, a hut!”), but he worries about the dangers of dipping too far into the Earth’s thick and breezy atmosphere: “The problems get worse once you start to lower the bottom end into the atmosphere and you have the interaction of the tether with the atmosphere, winds, etc. Then I think it actually gets simpler when you anchor it on the ground.” The jet stream, for example, could buffet the tower at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

And if anything went wrong, a crash could impact more than just the sky dwellers. In the event of a tether snap near the asteroid, the loosed cable could whip around the Earth, wrapping itself over the entire globe 1.2 times. The impact and collapse of a 20-mile building wouldn’t be good news either.

Despite its risk and impracticality, McDowell sees some value in at least discussing the proposal. “It is a fun idea that gets engineers and architects thinking outside the box, which is its purpose,” he says. “For an actual implementation, I think it’s a bad idea.”

It’s a sentiment famed science fiction author Neal Stephenson would agree with. Lamenting a shift in innovation from large works of engineering to app and web development, he sees science fiction and big thinking like the Analemma Tower as playing an important role in inspiring engineers and project planners.

“I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few,” he wrote in his essay Innovation Starvation.

Aiming to lead by example, Mr. Stephenson partnered with Arizona State University structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad in 2012 to design a 12-mile-high steel towerthat could aid in refueling aircraft and launching spacecraft. He believes such initiatives to be fundamental to the continued success of the human race.

“The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it,” he wrote.

Advancements in technology have long spurred even more fanciful leaps of inspiration, as the Eiffel Tower reportedly inspired rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to outline a proto-space elevator in 1895. We may still lack the technology to build the marvel he imagined, but humans have since found their way to the sky in ways he may not have foreseen.

Space elevators and “spacescrapers” firmly inhabit the realm of impossibility today, but the Burj Khalifa, with its 2,722-foot pinnacle of stone, glass, and computer chip-controlled elevators, would have been far beyond even the imagination of a Stone Age person familiar with only stone hatchets and wooden huts.

As for what will be achievable in the coming centuries, McDowell is bearish, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of an Analemma Tower entirely.

“I would bet against it for at least the next 200 years,” he says.

This Robotic Tentacle Can Easily Grasp Smooth Objects

Its dexterity could make it invaluable in factories and homes.

Do not be alarmed, but this disembodied robotic tentacle can gracefully grasp smooth objects or pass them to your puny human hand.

The OctopusGripper has been created by German robotics firm Festo, which is no stranger to creating automatons modeled on nature. Its soft gripper is composed of two main mechanisms. Its silicone tentacle is pneumatically driven: when air is pumped into it, it curls inward to encircle whatever item it’s placed around. Then, two rows of suction cups, which can deform to accommodate unusually shaped objects, use a vacuum to ensure that the object stays in place.

As you can see, it works pretty well, and can be used to grasp smooth, curved objects, including balls, metal cylinders, bottles, and even rolled-up magazines. It’s notable because grasping irregularly shaped and slippery items is an incredibly difficult task for most robots, and advances such as this will make it easier for robots to take up more roles in factories and homes.

This isn’t, of course, the first wriggly robot to slither onto the scene. British firm OC Robotics has built a a laser-toting serpentine arm to carve up decommissioned nuclear power hardware, while oil giant Statoil has helped develop a robotic snake designed for undersea inspection. And, at the gentler end of the spectrum, researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology have built a 20-meter-long inflatable arm made from helium-filled balloons.

It is, however, one of the more dextrous robot arms out there. But despite its rather uncanny abilities to seize objects, you shouldn’t be too worried by the device’s physical capabilities. Festo explains that because the “materials installed in the structure are also elastic and deformable, the gripper poses no danger to the user in direct contact.” Phew. Could it grab away your job, though? That might be another matter altogether.

Farming possible on Red Planet? Scientists grow ‘super potato’ plant in Mars-like conditions

WORLD Updated: Mar 30, 2017 12:27 IST

AP, Lima
Mars colonisation

In this March 16, 2017 photo, a potato plant grows inside a Mars simulator in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo)

In a lab in the Peruvian capital of Lima, a simulator mimicking the harsh conditions found on Mars now contains a hint of life: a nascent potato plant.

After experimenting in the Andean nation’s dry, desert soil, scientists have successfully grown a potato in frigid, high carbon-dioxide surroundings.

Though still in early stages, investigators at the International Potato Center believe the initial results are a promising indicator that potatoes might one day be harvested under conditions as hostile as those on Mars.

The findings could benefit not only future Mars exploration, but also arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change.

“It’s not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth,” said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology who is working with Nasa on the project.

The experiment began in 2016 — a year after the Hollywood film “The Martian” showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes on the red planet.

A scene from Hollywood sci-fi movie: The Martian

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box: Frosty below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.

Though thousands of miles away from colleagues at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in California providing designs and advice, Peru was in many ways an apt location to experiment with growing potatoes on Mars.

The birthplace of the domesticated potato lies high in the Andes near Lake Titicaca, where it was first grown about 7,000 years ago. More than 4,000 varieties are grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where potatoes have sprouted even in cold, barren lands.

The Peruvian scientists didn’t have to go far to find high-salinity soil similar to that found on Mars, though with some of the organic material Mars lacks: Pampas de la Joya along the country’s southern coast receives less than a millimeter of rain a year, making its terrain somewhat comparable to the Red Planet’s parched ground.

International Potato Center researchers transported 700 kilos (1,540 pounds) of the soil to Lima, planted 65 varieties and waited. In the end, just four sprouted from the soil.

In a second stage, scientists planted one of the most robust varieties in the even more extreme conditions of the simulator, with the soil — Mars has no organic soil — replaced by crushed rock and a nutrient solution.

Live-streaming cameras caught every tiny movement as a bud sprouted and grew several leaves while sensors provided around-the-clock monitoring of simulator conditions.

The winning potato: A variety called ‘Unique’.

“It’s a ‘super potato’ that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing,” Valdivia said.

The ‘super potato’ resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing levels. (AP Photo)

Nasa itself also has been doing experiments on extraterrestrial agriculture, both for use on spacecraft and perhaps on Mars.

Ray Wheeler, the lead for advanced life support research activities at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center, said plant survival in the open on Mars would be impossible given the planet’s low-pressure, cold temperature and lack of oxygen, but showing plants could survive in a greenhouse-type environment with reduced pressure and high carbon-dioxide levels could potentially reduce operating costs. Most research on growing plants in space has focused on optimizing environments to get high outputs of oxygen and food.

“But understanding the lower limits of survival is also important, especially if you consider pre-deploying some sort of plant growth systems before humans arrive,” he said.

In the next stage of the experiment, scientists will build three more simulators to grow potato plants under extreme conditions with the hope of gaining a broader range of results. They will also need to increase the carbon dioxide concentrations to more closely imitate the Martian atmosphere.

Slightly terrifying robotic octopus arm could work safely alongside humans

German industrial automation company Festo has created a number of animal-inspired robots in the past, such as kangaroos, herring gulls, ants, and a gripper that mimics the tongue of a chameleon. The latest addition to its robot zoo comes in the form of an arm designed in the shape of an octopus tentacle: the OctopusGripper.

While it looks a little like something from a specialist Manga animation, the device is a pretty amazing piece of kit. It’s built from soft silicon and a special 3D textile knitted fabric that covers the interior bellow structures, which are filled with compressed air to control the arm’s movements. There’s also some passive and vacuum-powered suction cups to grip objects securely.

“If compressed air is applied to it, the tentacle bends inwards and can wrap around the respective item being gripped in a form-fitting and gentle manner,” Festo explains.

Before you get any ideas about creating a Doctor Octopus-style supervillain machine, the arms have been specially designed to work safely alongside people. Unlike traditional pneumatic robot arms found in factories, which usually have to be secured behind cages, the OctopusGripper is flexible enough so that any collisions with humans should be absorbed by the machine. Recently, a factory robot was blamed for the death of a Michigan woman; it’s hoped that Festo’s invention could help prevent similar tragedies.

“Its safe structure already meets the strict criteria of a soft robotics component and guarantees a safe working relationship with people,” the company writes. “Even in the event of a collision, they are harmless and do not have to be shielded from the worker like conventional factory robots.”

What Software Update 8.1 Brings For Tesla Autopilot 2.0

On Wednesday, Tesla released a new version of its software for Autopilot 2.0, bringing new semi-autonomous driving capabilities to the Model X and Model S. The update aims to bring late-model cars to parity with the original, first-generation software.

Tesla Inc. TSLA Autopilot
Blomst / Pixabay

What Tesla’s latest Autopilot update brings

The new update for Hardware 2 electric cars (produced after October 18, 2016) brings new convenience and safety features to HW2-equipped cars. The update enables Autosteer at much higher speeds — 80mph in comparison to 55mph before– the Summon feature, Auto Lane Change and the Lane Departure Warning system. The software’s Autosteer feature depends on traffic-aware cruise control.

As many might expect, the Auto Lane Change feature causes the car to change lanes after the driver activates the turn signal while the car is in Autopilot. The car’s sensors are used to make sure that the lane is safe and free of traffic. When a vehicle crosses over a lane marking, the Lane Departure Warning alerts the drivers through a vibration in the steering wheel.

We already know about the functions of the Summon feature, which activates the self-parking-and-retrieval system that can be controlled by the owner through their car’s key fob or the Tesla mobile app. The automaker introduced the Summon feature in January 2015 in the first software update for its HW1-equipped vehicles. The latest software patch brings this capability to Hardware 2-equipped electric cars.

What’s special for the Tesla Model X?

Model X owners get one-tap automatic seat adjustment in the update, giving them more control over the positioning of the middle row seats. The new adjustment capability also helps lower the default height of the falcon doors. Such a feature can come in very handy in parking areas with low ceilings, notes Fortune.

Version 8.1 appears to navigate freeway conditions with more confidence, but it is still not on par with Tesla’s first-generation Autopilot, notes Teslarati. The new update started rolling out to vehicles in North America on Wednesday, and over the next couple of days, the patch will be rolled out to all countries worldwide.

Last year, CEO Elon Musk said he hoped to do the first cross-country test drive of a fully self-driving Tesla vehicle by the end of 2017. That means a big launch could follow in a few months.

At 9:49 a.m. Eastern, Tesla shares were up 1.43% at $281.35. Year to date, the stock is up almost 32%.

Global night-time lights provide unfiltered data on human activities and socio-economic factors

March 29, 2017

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have developed an online tool that incorporates 21 years of night-time lights data to understand and compare changes in human activities in countries around the world.

The research is published in PLOS One.

The tool compares the brightness of a country’s night-time lights with the corresponding electricity consumption, GDP, population, poverty, and emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, and F-gases since 1992, without relying on national statistics with often differing methodologies and motivations by those collecting them.

Consistent with previous research, the team found the highest correlations between night-time lights and GDP, electricity consumption, and CO2 emissions. Correlations with population, N2O, and CH4 emissions were still slightly less pronounced and, as expected, there was an inverse correlation between the brightness of lights and of poverty.

“This is the most comprehensive tool to date to look at the relationship between night-time lights and a series of socio-economic indicators,” said Gernot Wagner, a research associate at SEAS and coauthor of the paper.

The data source is the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) dataset, providing 21 years worth of night-time data. The researchers also use Google Earth Engine (GEE), a platform recently made available to researchers that allows them to explore more comprehensive global aggregate relationships at national scales between DMSP and a series of economic and environmental variables.

Abstract of Night-time lights: A global, long term look at links to socio-economic trends

We use a parallelized spatial analytics platform to process the twenty-one year totality of the longest-running time series of night-time lights data—the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) dataset—surpassing the narrower scope of prior studies to assess changes in area lit of countries globally. Doing so allows a retrospective look at the global, long-term relationships between night-time lights and a series of socio-economic indicators. We find the strongest correlations with electricity consumption, CO2 emissions, and GDP, followed by population, CH4 emissions, N2O emissions, poverty (inverse) and F-gas emissions. Relating area lit to electricity consumption shows that while a basic linear model provides a good statistical fit, regional and temporal trends are found to have a significant impact.