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Photo source: Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), Shanghai China


China has been dominating global economic news for the past couple of weeks as its slowing economy caused jittery investors to sell stocks, resulting in major losses at the world’s premier stock markets.

On the high tech side the market for ICs in China is huge, estimated at well over $150 billion US dollars annually. Domestic IC manufacturing industry sales, however, are less than half of that total and much of it is contributed by foreign companies in China, rather than by local enterprises. Analysts suggest that China has a self-sufficiency rate of less than 10%,as well as a serious shortage of domestic manufacturing capacity and its local foundries on the whole are less than competitive when measured  against their international peers in terms of technology.

The government in China aims to do something about its lack of self-sufficiency in high tech ICs. It is telling local Chinese companies and the news media that it plans to invest as much as 1 trillion yuan (US$161 billion) over 10 years to develop chips, And according to Digitimes Research, an independent business unit and the research arm of Digitimes Inc., a leading high-tech media outlet based in Taiwan, China aims to improve its self-sufficiency rate for ICs in the nation to 40% in 2020, and boost the rate further to 70% in 2025.

As the China government continues to pour capital into the local IC design industry sector, the output value of the sector will reach US$19.49 billion this year, representing a 21.2% increase from US$16.09 billion in 2014, Digitimes Research noted. The output value of China's IC design sector grew at a CAGR of 31% between 2010 and 2014.

Digitimes Research observed that the "National Semiconductor Industry Development Guidelines" and "Made in China 2025," policies published by China's State Council in June 2014 and May 2015, respectively, prescribe a major push in the development of the local IC industry. Digitimes Research notes that "Made in China 2025" clearly outlines that the nation is aiming to raise its self-sufficiency rate for ICs to 40% in 2020, and 70% in 2025.

Based on the "National Semiconductor Industry Development Guidelines," a US$19 billion national industry investment fund has been set up to help local foundries finance the build-up of advanced manufacturing processes, and also to assist local IC firms to form mergers and/or make acquisitions internationally, Digitimes Research said.



Highly sophisticated electronics like infrared instruments and other sensors need to be cooled to precisely detect what they're designed to capture, even to temperatures as low as -320 F (-195 C). The High Power Microcryocooler introduced this week by Lockheed Martin is said to be the industry's highest power density cryocooling system. It delivers more than 150 watts per kilogram, compared to the 30-60 watts per kilogram rating of most space-rated cryocoolers, while maintaining roughly the same power efficiency rating, according to the company. It also weighs under a pound, which is less than half the weight of similar cooling systems, again according to Lockheed Martin.


The company’s previous tiny heat-rejecting device, introduced a year ago, was one-third the size of its predecessors and already the lightest in its class. The new unit packs three times the power density of the prior design.

Smaller cryocoolers mean more affordable satellites and launches. With higher power, the microcryocooler enables larger, more sensitive IR sensors, which is especially useful for very high-resolution images. Beyond enabling compact, higher-power spacecraft payloads the unit will help make possible smaller sensor platforms for manned aircraft and UAVs.



The Martian is an upcoming science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir. The premise is that during a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.


While the film and book are, of course, fiction, NASA is hard at work trying to find a suitable location where humans could land, live and work on Mars. To that end scientists worldwide have been invitedto participate in the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars. The workshop will be held October 27 to 30, 2015, three weeks after the film’s release, at the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston, TX. NASA hopes it will start the process for choosing sites on Mars that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft along with any future missions over the coming decades could then further image to create better maps and provide valuable scientific data of potential Exploration Zones (EZ). The life expectancy of the existing MRO and Odyssey spacecraft being limited, NASA is eager to take advantage of the remaining operational years of those Martian imagers to gather high resolution maps of potential exploration zones while the spacecraft, already well beyond their design lifetime, are still operational.


Given current mission concepts, an Exploration Zone is a collection of Regions of Interest (ROIs) that are located within approximately 100 kilometers of a centralized landing site (see illustration above). ROIs are areas that are relevant for scientific investigation and/or development/maturation of capabilities and resources necessary for a sustainable human presence. The EZ also contains a landing site and a habitation site that will be used by multiple human crews during missions to explore and utilize the ROIs within the EZ. Potential Exploration Zones will need to offer compelling science research while also providing resources that astronauts can take advantage of during their pioneering of the Red Planet. First explorers are expected to be limited to about 60 miles (100 km) of travel from their landing site due to life support and exploration technology requirements.


The knowledge and capabilities that will be needed to send humans to Mars is being built: spacecraft are monitoring Mars from orbit, rovers are on the surface, the International Space Station is being used to test systems and to learn more about the health impacts of extended space travel, and NASA is developing development and testing the next generation of launch and crew vehicles, including the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crewed spacecraft.


The science of tracking and predicting the path of Hurricanes has improved in accuracy over the years but there has been little improvement in the accuracy of determining how intense the storms are going to be. Now, ten years after Hurricane Katrina formed in the Atlantic, construction of NASA's new hurricane-observing satellites is now underway in Texas. The space agency plans to use a constellation of eight micro-satellites to make accurate measurements of ocean surface winds in and near the eye of a storm throughout the lifecycle of tropical cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes.


The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, will be the first to probe the inner core of hurricanes in greater detail to better understand their rapid intensification. The mission is scheduled to launch in late 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard a Pegasus XL rocket.


Previously, measuring wind speed over the oceans from space employed a technique called scatterometry. A radar instrument aboard a satellite sent a signal to the ground, and measured the signal strength reflected back to it. Building both sending and receiving capabilities into a single instrument, however, is more expensive than the method being used on CYGNSS, which is being developed by the University of Michigan, whose role includes satellite design and production and science data processing. The CYGNSS satellites will only receive signals broadcast to them from GPS satellites already orbiting the Earth; it will use GPS signals bounced off of ocean surfaces to measure the height of waves and wind speeds. This data will be shared with NOAA and used to help emergency managers make decisions regarding extreme weather planning.


The use of eight satellites will increase the area on Earth that can be measured. The instruments will be deployed separately around the planet, with successive satellites passing over the same region every 12 minutes. As the CYGNSS and GPS constellations move around the Earth, the interaction of the two systems will result in a new image of wind speed over the entire tropics every few hours, compared to every few days for a single satellite.


Assembly of the first micro-satellite began Aug. 14, with the other seven to follow in the next few weeks. The body of each satellite measures about 20-x-25-x-11 inches and when fully assembled the satellites will each weigh about 64 pounds. With its solar panels deployed, each micro-satellite will have a wingspan of 5.5 feet.



While examining the fluid dynamics behind whisky “mellowing” would appear to be the perfect dissertation topic for a high-living doctoral student, Japanese distillery Suntory is serious about studying the impact of microgravity on its signature products. Serious enough to send five kinds of whisky (along with 40% ethanol as a sixth control sample) via the Kounotori 5 transfer vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) to mature for two years.

Expected to take off from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Tanegashima Space Center on August 16, inclement weather caused a postponement of the launch of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-IIB rocket until tomorrow, Aug. 19, at 7:50 a.m. EDT.

Alcoholic beverages (with the exception of some items like beer) are widely known to develop a mellow flavor when aged for a long time. Although researchers have taken a variety of scientific approaches to understanding the underlying mechanism, they still do not have a full picture of how this occurs. Suntory has hypothesized that “the formation of high-dimensional molecular structure consisting of water, ethanol, and other ingredients in alcoholic beverages contributes to the development of mellowness,” and they have been conducting collaborative research on this topic with the research groups of Professor Shigenao Maruyama of Japan’s Institute of Fluid Science at Tohoku University and Professor Mitsuhiro Shibayama of the Institute for Solid State Physics at the University of Tokyo, as well as with the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute and Suntory Foundation for Life Sciences. The results of these collaborative research efforts suggest “the probability that mellowness develops by promoted formation of the high-dimensional molecular structure in the alcoholic beverage in environments where liquid convection is suppressed,” according to Suntory.

On the basis of these results, the space experiments will be conducted in the ISS’s Japanese Experiment Module (nicknamed “Kibo”), to verify the effect of the convection-free state created by a microgravity environment to the mellowing of alcoholic beverages. One set of samples consisting of various alcoholic beverages will be stored in a convection-free state in Kibo on the ISS and another set of the identical samples will be stored in Japan for the same period of time. The following methods will be then used to analyze and compare the two sets of samples.

  1.     Measurement of substance diffusion coefficient with the use of a phase-shifting interferometer in cooperation with the Institute of Fluid Science, Tohoku University.

  2.     Detection of high-dimensional structure by small angle X-ray scattering, in cooperation with the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute and the Institute for Solid State Physics, the University of Tokyo.

  3.     Measurement of substance diffusion with the use of the NMR method, in cooperation with the Suntory Foundation for Life Sciences.

With less gravity suppressing convection, there’s a possibility that the low-gravity environment will accelerate the whisky’s aging, causing a two-year batch to taste like it has been aged for a ten years. The samples’ age ranges from a freshly distilled whisky to a 21-year single malt.  For a variety of reasons (launch weight restrictions, etc.) the whisky is stored in glass flasks rather than wooden barrels.

The unpiloted Kounotori cargo craft will also be loaded with more than 4.5 tons of other research materials and supplies, including water, spare parts and experiment hardware for the six-person space station crew.


Travelling wave tubes (TWT) amplify signals by exchanging kinetic energy in the electron beam (shown as a blue line) with electromagnetic energy in the signal. This figure represents a cutaway view of a TWT with all of the critical components: electron gun, magnetic circuit, electron collector, and the windows that keep the vacuum inside the tube while letting the signals flow in and out.(Source: DARPA)

Your first reaction to the idea that DARPA is trying to develop a new generation of more capable Vacuum Electron Devices (VED) might well be: “What is this, Back to the Future?  But hold on, put that DeLorean into neutral for a second. While it is true that we now live in a silicon not vacuum tube era, VEDs are critical components for Department of Defense (DoD) systems that require high power, wide bandwidth, and high efficiency. Traveling wave tubes (TWTs, pictured above) not solid-state amplifiers generate the strong electromagnetic signals in communication satellites because of their exceptional in-orbit reliability and high power efficiency. Space-qualified TWTs have a mean time to failure (MTTF) of over ten million hours with power efficiencies greater than 70 percent.

VED amplifiers also can exhibit wide operating bandwidths of over three octaves, and high output power levels up to thousands of watts from a single device. Higher power VED operation yields RF signals that are “louder” and thereby harder to jam and otherwise interfere with. What’s more, the unique ability of VEDs to generate high-frequency signals at chip-melting operating power makes possible modern aviation radar systems for navigation and collision avoidance. It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 VEDs now in service in the DoD, powering critical communications and radar systems.

While most VEDs in common use today (TWTs, klystrons, crossed-field amplifiers, magnetrons, gyrotrons and others) were invented in the first half of the 20th century, ongoing development efforts have produced dramatic advances in their performance and reliability. So, notwithstanding the popular notion that vacuum electronics are old-fashioned, the incentive to overcome technical and cost barriers to develop next-generation VEDs has been getting stronger.

With its new Innovative Vacuum Electronic Science and Technology (INVEST) program, DARPA aims to develop the science and technology base for a new generations of more capable VEDs. The DARPA INVEST program focuses on vacuum tubes operating at millimeter-wave frequencies above 75 GHz. Those awarded contracts under the program will take on fundamental research projects in areas that include physics-based modeling and simulation of VEDs, innovative component design, electron emission processes, and advanced manufacturing; this last element being important because as frequencies increase and you are dealing with the tiny size and precise alignment of millimeter-wave VED components, among them high-current-density cathodes, tiny vacuum envelopes, and the miniature parts that extract the RF signals amplified inside the component, you can’t use conventional manufacturing techniques.

A just-published Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) invites the technical community to submit proposals for research that would take VED technology to new heights of power and frequency. You can find DARPA-BAA-15-40 at FedBizOpps. Gov,  http://go.usa.gov/3HqK9.


Artist's impression of new racing wheelchair


Following up on its success at the Sochi Winter Olympics--the U.S. two-man bobsled team took home a bronze medal in a bobsled designed by BMW North America --BMW has announced plans to develop a new racing wheelchair for use by athletes of the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Team in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.


BMW’s wholly-owned Designworks consultancy headquartered in California will collaborate with the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field team in identifying and addressing the need for potential improvements in the team’s racing wheelchair.


Although still under development, the new wheelchair’s improvements will include a complete redesign of its chassis, application of BMW-developed aerodynamic efficiencies, enhanced athlete restraint, carbon fiber durability and steering and braking advancements. The company reports it has been researching and learning know- how to develop these new machines for over a year. The racing wheelchair is slated to be delivered to U.S. Paralympics track and field elite racers in early 2016 to allow the athletes time to train and practice with their new BMW wheelchair before the September start of the games, which will follow the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.


It’s a big week for interesting U.S. Patent announcements. On Monday I reported on Thoth Technology receiving a patent for an inflatable “space elevator”, a giant structure rising from the ground and enabling payloads to be placed into orbit without having to use rockets

Some of you questioned whether a space plane could indeed land on such a tower as claimed by the patent holder (a good question indeed), but hey, don’t shoot the messenger—I don’t grant these patents, I’m just reporting on them.

Today I want to discuss newly-minted U.S. patent 907661 B2, just granted to Airbus Group, the European airliner and military jet giant. Airbus received this patent for a hypersonic plane that it says could fly from London to New York in 1 hour, and Paris to Tokyo in under three hours, significantly trimming the current 12-hour endurance flight.

The hypersonic plane would take off using two jet engines mounted under the fuselage, which would propel the vehicle to nearly the speed of sound, before retracting into the plane.  Then, rocket boosters mounted in the rear of the aircraft would be used to begin a sharp ascent, attaining the necessary speed to initiate ramjet engine operation.

Ramjets are air-breathing jet engines that use the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air, eliminating the need for an axial compressor. A ramjet-powered vehicle requires an assisted take-off to accelerate it to a speed where it begins to produce thrust.

The Ramjet engines would take the plane up to altitudes of over 100,000 feet as the plane cruises at speeds up to Mach 4.5, or 4.5 times the speed of sound.

As the proposed aircraft lifts off the runway, it would climb almost vertically, like a ballistic missile. By climbing vertically, Airbus engineers believe the plane would avoid the supersonic boom that limited the supersonic airliner Concorde's deployment to the North Atlantic, where for over 20 years it flew at twice the speed of sound.

According to Airbus the Concorde's hydrogen-powered successor would once again use its turbojets to enable landing.

For commercial use the proposed airliner would be limited to carrying only 20 passengers (largely for weight reasons—among other things it has to carry rocket propellant as well as jet fuel). The aircraft manufacturer says the hypersonic jet could also be developed for military applications.

There is no timetable for development, but don’t hold your breath (we’re talking decades here) because lots of technical issues have to be resolved before Airbus’s concept leaves the drawing board.


The notion of a “space elevator”, a giant structure rising from the ground and enabling payloads to be placed into orbit without having to use rockets, is a long-time staple of science fiction. In fact, in his 1979 novel “The Fountains of Paradise,” Arthur C. Clarke described an “orbital tower” 36,000 km (about 22,300 miles) in height linked with a satellite in geostationary orbit.


Clarke would have been amused to learn that about a week ago a Canadian  company, Thoth Technology, Inc., was granted a United States patent for a tall space elevator. The freestanding 20km tall (65.6k ft.), 300-meter (990 ft.) diameter cylindrical space tower would incorporate wall cells that would be pneumatically pressurized and would use active guidance to steer the head of the tower over a point on its base to counteract wind forces. Using this method the lightweight structure would not require guy wires for stabilization. At 20 km above the planet, it would stand more than 20 times the height of the current tallest structures in the world and could also be used for wind-energy generation, communications and tourism.


Commenting on the development its inventor, Dr. Brendan Quine, said astronauts would ascend to 20 km by electrical elevator and space planes could be launched in a single stage to orbit from the top of the tower,  returning to the top of the tower for refueling and further flight.


Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s TITAN is currently the world’s second fastest supercomputer.

To ensure that the United States maintains a leadership position in High-Performance Computing (HPC) President Obama has issued an Executive Order establishing the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), whose charter will be to advance core technologies to solve difficult computational problems and foster increased use of these capabilities in the public and private sectors.


Among the initial tasks assigned to NSCI will be to oversee development of the world's fastest computer by 2025. The proposed supercomputer would be capable of making one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second (known as one exaflop, or 1018 operations per second), as well as manage and analyze data sets of up to one exabyte (1018 bytes). This supercomputer would be 20 times faster than the current leading machine, which is in China.

The supercomputer being planned could give clinicians tools to better understand the complex biological mechanisms underlying a patient’s disease, and to better predict the most effective treatments via the ability to process large volumes of health and genomic data. As DNA sequencing technology improves, the volume of data will continue to increase and so, too, will the computational requirements. NSCI’s efforts could shorten the time it takes to sequence samples and improve accuracy.

The twin goals of exaflop computing ability and exabyte storage capacity should also enable more precise simulation of weather patterns that can be coupled with actual observations from weather satellites. A recent study commissioned by NASA determined that machines able to sustain exaflop-level performance also could incorporate full modeling of turbulence, as well as more dynamic flight conditions, in their aviation simulations.


If you’re a gearhead your idea of a fun video is watching a properly driven Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche blast off the line at a racetrack while onlookers calculate 0 to 60 mph acceleration times.  The Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse, for example, with over 1,000 horsepower on tap has been clocked doing 0-60 mph in just 2.4 seconds. Ferrari’s fastest, the La Ferrari reports in at 2.6 seconds for the 0 to 60 run and the recently upgraded Tesla Model S EV, operating in what the company calls “Ludicrous Mode” (their term) can make the 0-60 mph dash in 2.8 seconds

These sprints seem pretty fast until you consider that a group of students from the University of Stuttgart, who call themselves the “GreenTeam Formula Students” created a single seat electric vehicle that demonstrated it can reach 62mph (100kph) from a standstill in only 1.779 seconds when driver Priska Schmid, a student at the university, accomplished the feat during tests at the Jade Weser Airport in northwest Germany. And that qualifies them for Guinness World Book of Records recognition.

The car’s actual power output is only 134bhp, much less output than the bespoke vehicles I mentioned in the first paragraph. But it has three major advantages going for it: First it is very light, weighing just 160kg including its 6.62kWh battery, which gives it a power to weight ratio of 1.6 kg / kW which is in Formula 1 race car territory (the aforementioned Bugatti Veyron Super Sport offers 2.08 kg / kW). Second, as an EV it can access all if its power almost immediately, while conventionally-powered vehicles generally have to reach high revs before obtaining peak power and finally the four electric motors on the University of Stuttgart's E0711-6 electric car produce a locomotive-like 1200 Nm of torque with four wheel drive traction and very sticky racing-type tires.

The student’s effort bested that of a group of Swiss engineers which set the previous world record last year in an electric vehicle called Grimsel, which achieved acceleration from a standing start to 62 mph in 1.785 seconds.



With a performance of 33.86 petaflop/s (quadrillions of calculations per second) on the Linpack benchmark, Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology (Changsha, China), has retained its position as the world’s No. 1 supercomputer, according to the 43rd edition of the twice-a-year TOP500 list. The Linpack benchmark requires a computer to solve a dense system of linear equations.

In second place was Titan, a Cray supercomputer based at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The survey marked the fifth consecutive six-month period that China’s Tianhe-2 computer has topped the list, and the sixth time overall since 2010 that a Chinese machine has been designated number one.

The United States remains the top country in terms of overall systems represented on the list with 233, down from 265 in November 2013. The number of Chinese systems on the list rose from 63 to 76, and Japan increased its showing, up to 30 from 28 on the previous list.

Sixty-two systems on the list are using accelerator/co-processor technology, up from 53 in November, 2013. Forty-four of these use NVIDIA chips, two use ATI Radeon, and there are now 17 systems with Intel Xeon Phi technology. The average number of accelerator cores for these 62 systems is 78,127 cores/system. The No. 1 system, Tianhe-2, and the No. 7 system on the list, Stampede, use Intel Xeon Phi processors to speed up their computational rate. The No. 2 system, Titan, and the No. 6 system, Piz Daint, use NVIDIA GPUs to accelerate computation. Intel continues to provide the processors for the largest share (85.4 percent) of TOP500 systems. The number of supercomputers on the list using  IBM Power processors remains at 8 percent, while the AMD Opteron family is used in 6 percent of the systems, down from 9 percent on the previous list.

HP has the lead in systems and now has 182 systems (36 percent) on the list compared to IBM with 176 systems (35 percent). Cray remains third with 10 percent (50 systems).

Ninety-six percent of the systems use processors with six or more cores and 83 percent use eight or more cores.

The rate of performance development for supercomputers seems to be slowing. The TOP500 organizers confirm that the last two years have seen historically low year-over-year performance increases.


Artist's impression of the JUICE mission to Jupiter


Even before the giddiness wears off from the successful New Horizons fly-by of Pluto space scientists are planning new explorations of the solar system. This week the European Space Agency (ESA) selected Airbus Defence & Space as its prime industrial contractor for the JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) mission to Jupiter and its satellites: volcanic Io, icy Europa, rocky/icy Ganymede and Callisto. The contract covers the industrial activities for the design, development, integration, test, launch campaign and in-space commissioning of the spacecraft, which will be launched in 2022 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 rocket, arriving at Jupiter in 2030 to spend at least three years making detailed observations.


With Europa, Ganymede and Callisto all believed to have internal oceans, the mission will study the moons as potential habitats for life in an ongoing attempt to determine the conditions needed for planet formation as well as looking for clues as to how life emerges and how the Solar System works. JUICE will make the first measurements of the thickness of Europa’s icy crust and try to identify candidate sites for future spacecraft landings. It will continuously observe Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and the interaction of the moons with the gas giant planet.


JUICE will be equipped with 10 instrument packages, including spectrometers, cameras, radar to penetrate ice, an altimeter and sensors to monitor magnetic fields and charged particles. The Jovian moons Callisto and Ganymede will assist JUICE as their gravity will be used to modify the spacecraft's trajectory to enable two Europa flybys to determine the composition of non-water-ice material on its frozen surface. Callisto’s gravity will be also employed to raise the orbital inclination of the spacecraft so as to observe Jupiter's polar regions.


A high gain antenna about 3m in diameter will provide at least 1.4 Gb of daily data downlink. Because of the distance to Earth back-and-forth signals from the spacecraft will take up to 1h 46 m, meaning the spacecraft must be capable of a certain amount of autonomous operation.


NASA also hopes to study the Jovian moon Europa, NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $30 million to formulate a mission to Europa in the 2020s. The mission would send a solar-powered spacecraft into a looping orbit around the gas giant Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa over a three-year period at altitudes ranging from 25 km to 2,700 km. Earlier this year the space agency selected nine science instruments to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. The payload of selected science instruments includes cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface and determine its composition. Ice penetrating radar will determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica. The mission also will carry a magnetometer to measure the strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.


Are we there yet? After a nine-and-a-half year voyage the answer on July 14 will finally be “Yes!” as the New Horizons spacecraft passes just inside the orbit of Pluto’s moon Charon and to within 12,500 km (7,750 mi.) of the dwarf planet’s surface (when New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006 Pluto was considered a full-fledged planet, proving once again that a lot can happen in a decade).


The payload that this spacecraft carries is comprised of seven scientific instruments, which will make hundreds of observations and collect an estimated 70 gigabytes of data in the period before, during and after closest approach; at 1,000-4,000 kilobytes per second it will take about a year and a half for all of this data to make the 4 billion mile trek back to Earth.


Among the questions scientists hope New Horizons will help to answer include the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere, what its surface looks like (including major geological features) and to determine its atmospheric pressure and temperature. To do this the New Horizons science payload includes three optical instruments, two plasma instruments, a dust sensor and a radio science receiver/radiometer.


Let’s take a closer look at key elements of the instrument package:



“Ralph,” the main eyes of New Horizon, will provide the closest images we have ever seen of Pluto when the spacecraft arrives at the dwarf planet. Ralph is not an acronym, but instead is named after the TV character Ralph Kramden of the 1950s sitcom, "The Honeymooners". Ralph consists of three panchromatic (black-and-white) and four color imagers inside its Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), as well as an infrared compositional mapping spectrometer called the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). LEISA is an advanced, miniaturized short-wavelength infrared (1.25-2.50 micron) spectrometer provided by scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Ralph is designed to help scientists map the surface geology of Pluto and its moons, and investigate Kuiper Belt objects. Ralph weighs only 23 pounds and operates on approximately seven watts. The device is designed to function in the 220 K (-60 degrees F) cold darkness of the outer solar system. Ralph was developed by the Ball Aerospace Corporation, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Southwest Research Institute.


“Alice” is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer designed to probe the composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere. Like its “Honeymooners” namesake it is the companion to Ralph. It consists of a compact telescope, a spectrograph, and a sensitive electronic detector. Alice is designed to probe the composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere. The instrument will try to detect a variety of chemicals in Pluto’s atmosphere, and determine their relative abundance. Alice weighs 9.9 lbs. and was developed by the Southwest Research Institute.


Weighing just 3.5oz., REX is the smallest instrument on the spacecraft. REX is an acronym for Radio Science Experiment. REX consists of a small printed circuit board containing signal-processing electronics integrated into the New Horizons telecommunications system. Because the telecom system is a critical component of New Horizons, the spacecraft carries two REX copies. REX will use an occultation technique to probe Pluto’s atmosphere and to search for an atmosphere around Charon. After New Horizons flies by Pluto, its 2.1-meter (83-inch) dish antenna will point back at Earth. On Earth, transmitters in NASA’s Deep Space Network will beam radio signals to the spacecraft as it passes behind Pluto. The radio waves will bend according to the average molecular weight of gas in the atmosphere and the atmospheric temperature. REX will also measure the weak radio emissions from Pluto and other bodies the spacecraft flies by, such as Charon. Scientists will use the data to derive day-side and night-side temperature measurements. Also, by using REX to track slight changes in the spacecraft’s path, scientists will measure the masses of Pluto and Charon and possibly the masses of additional Kuiper Belt Objects. REX was developed for the mission by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Stanford University.


LORRI, (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) is essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope. The panchromatic high-magnification imager consists of a telescope with an 8.2-inch (20.8-centimeter) aperture that focuses visible light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD). LORRI images of Pluto have already surpassed Hubble-quality resolution as the spacecraft has travelled toward the dwarf planet. LORRI images will give scientists an unprecedented look at the geology on Pluto and its moons– including the number and size of craters on each surface, revealing the history of impacting objects. LORRI has no color filters or moving parts – operators take images by pointing the LORRI side of the spacecraft directly at their target. LORRI was developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.


The Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument will measure interactions of Pluto with the solar wind – the stream of fast-charged particles flowing from the Sun. By measuring how the solar wind is perturbed by the interaction with Pluto’s escaping atmosphere, SWAP will determine the escape rate of atmospheric material from Pluto. SWAP was developed by the Southwest Research Institute.


The Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI), from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, is the most compact, lowest-power directional energetic particle spectrometer ever flown on a space mission. It will search for neutral atoms that escape Pluto’s atmosphere and become charged by their interaction with the solar wind. It will detect materials such as  molecular nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane, which break up into ions and electrons after absorbing the Sun’s ultraviolet light, and stream away from Pluto as “pickup” ions carried by the solar wind. PEPSSI can measure energetic particles up to 1,000 kiloelectron volts (keV), many times more energetic than what SWAP can measure.


Designed and built by students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Student Dust Counter (SDC) detects microscopic dust grains produced by collisions among asteroids, comets, and even Kuiper Belt Objects during New Horizons’ long journey. SDC is the first science instrument on a NASA planetary mission to be designed and built by students. When interplanetary dust hits the 18 X-12-in. detector, the student-built unit’s electronics register its mass and velocity. SDC will also be used to search for dust in the Pluto system, generated by impacts on Pluto’s small moons.



With television content delivered largely via cable, satellite or the Internet (streaming media), it is easy to forget that the over-the-air television broadcast model is still a very efficient method of reaching large numbers of people, not only with entertainment programming but also, in times of emergencies, when you need a reliable means of disseminating critical information.


As broadcasters look to develop new services and evolve to accommodate the shifting viewing habits of the public--which increasingly involves “second screen” devices such as smartphones and tablets-- the first step in the process is to develop new standards.  One of these standards, ATSC 3.0, aims to send hybrid content services to fixed (such as traditional large-screen living room and bedroom TV sets), mobile (vehicular screens), and portable handheld receivers seamlessly and simultaneously, combining both over-the-air transmission and broadband delivery.


Last week I had an opportunity to join a group of journalists, analysts and broadcast professionals touring several Cleveland locations to witness how this next-generation broadcast TV system could reach mobile viewers, connect viewers with Internet content and provide 4K Ultra High-Definition TV content delivered over-the-air using the soon to be ratified ATSC 3.0 physical layer standard.


The system, dubbed “Futurecast” by proponents GatesAir, LG and Zenith and being tested in Cleveland on a rainy, nasty Thursday is designed to demonstrate how ATSC 3.0 will be able to deliver 4K Ultra HD content and two robust mobile TV streams in a single 6-Megahertz channel, while optimizing indoor reception and providing broadcast spectrum efficiency.


Under an experimental broadcast license from the FCC, Tribune Broadcasting’s WJW-TV provided a TV transmitter, tower and 6-MHz channel for the ATSC 3.0-related field testing, the first conducted since a similar effort in Madison, WI in mid-May.


The demonstrations involved simultaneous transmission of three data pipe configurations, ranging from a high bit rate lower robustness stream (14.2 dB Threshold of Visibility [ToV]) carrying 15.7 Mbps 4K UHD signals to a fixed receiver to more robust, lower bit rate signals such as a 3.3 db ToV, 720p HD pipe aimed at reception by a mobile device (in this case a bus traveling around downtown Cleveland) to a 480p standard definition data pipe with -1.3 db ToV (the negative number indicates that the noise level is actually higher than the signal level) designed for reception by handheld devices.


The LG/GatesAir/Zenith ATSC 3.0 technologies that were field tested in Cleveland demonstrated:

  • Data throughput increases of 30 percent and improved multipath performance (compared with the current DTV standard) for fixed and portable TV reception;
  • Enhanced indoor TV signal penetration for mobile reception thanks to flexible system parameter choices;
  • State-of-the-art error correction coding and signal constellations.


Another demonstration hosted by local CBS affiliate WOIO-TV, a Raycom Media station, utilized AWARN (the Advanced Warning and Response Network) to deliver broadcast emergency announcements to TV sets along with rich media, maps, graphics, video, text, and audio.


Overall the tests in Cleveland were said to be even more encouraging than the previous tests, with improved signal acquisition for mobile TV reception in fast-moving vehicles (the bus reached 50mph) at locations ranging from downtown’s concrete canyons to areas several miles from the transmitter.

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