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New Mars Rover will get next gen ChemCam

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NASA scientists scientists are building the next generation ChemCam with upgrades and brand new spectral capabilities for the NASA Mars 2020 rover.

As the NASA Curiosity rover roams the surface of Mars, its ChemCam captures the chemical makeup of its surroundings with a specially designed laser system. It is the most powerful laser to operate on the surface of another planet. The burst of infrared light it fires lasts only a few billionths of seconds, but it is powerful enough to vaporize the spot it hits at more than 8,000°C. Even from a distance, the ChemCam can examines rocks and soil using a process called Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), where laser bursts atomize and excite components and spectral images capture their chemical signatures.

Here on Earth, scientists are already building the next generation’s ChemCam with impressive upgrades and brand new spectral capabilities for the NASA Mars 2020 rover, named for the year of its scheduled launch. In addition to a faster LIBS system, the SuperCam will feature an entirely new conduction-cooled laser system to provide the non-destructive analysis ability of Raman spectroscopy, capable of detecting carbon-based signatures of organic materials.

Together with the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and The Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), Thales Group is in the final stages of testing the compact SuperCam system that will eventually endure harsh Martian conditions. They have already built and tested a full, representative model.

Unlike Curiosity’s LIBS-only functionality, this new instrument will be able to switch between a LIBS mode and a Raman mode of lasing, a method that requires two different laser colors to excite and probe molecular vibration energies for its non-destructive chemical identification. The second color is produced by a crystal that doubles the 1064 nanometer frequency used for LIBS measurements – which now produces 10 times as many shots in each burst of the laser for faster sampling.

This second, 532 nanometer beam will allow Mars 2020 to detect molecular structures evident of organic matter — evidence of past life. The new optical architecture required to produce the two operation modes, however, was not without its challenges.

The upgraded LIBS oscillator uses a diode pumped Nd:YAG crystal, as opposed to ChemCam’s Nd:KGW, which provides the longer bursts but requires new methods to ensure functionality over a large temperature range. Because the Nd:YAG absorbs over a narrow range of frequencies to lase at a given temperature, the SuperCam uses a multicolor stacked diode that can pump with a wide spectrum to account for a range in temperatures.

“This laser is running in burst mode, but with this laser we can do 1000 shots in one burst while the ChemCam laser was 10 time less,” said Eric Durand, one of SuperCam’s developers at Thales Group, France. “We longitudinally pump this laser with a stack which is a broadband emitting so that when the temperature is changing, the ND:YAG crystal is still absorbing the light and the laser can be used over at least 50 to 60 degrees without temperature regulation.”

Adding another complication to temperature control, the KTP crystal producing the green, frequency doubled light required additional stabilization.

“The most difficult aspect was to achieve the temperature range also with the green wavelength because we have to keep the efficiency over the whole range, and it was only possible by heating a little the KTP crystal,” said Durand.

The temperature stabilization required to keep the system aligned and working for either mode is difficult enough to achieve in a lab, but this system was designed to have the same stability while on the rover as it traverses the rocky Martian terrain. Moreover, it has to meet tight size and weight restrictions that come with space travel and stay free of contaminants that would destroy its components – a feat achieved by sealing the instrument with laser-welding.

The robust and powerful abilities of the new SuperCam will be an invaluable chemical probe for the Mars 2020 rover and may just bring to life a whole host of new findings back to us here on Earth.

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CES: Most useless gadgets of all

Choosing the best of show is a popular pastime, but the worst gadgets of CES also deserve their moment of infamy, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s fairly easy to choose the best new gadgets launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. Most lists – and there are many – highlight the LG roll-up TV, the Samsung modular TV, the Royole foldable phone, the impossible burger, and the walking car.

But what about the voice assisted bed, the smart baby dining table, the self-driving suitcase and the robot that does nothing? In their current renditions, they sum up what is not only bad about technology, but how technology for its own sake quickly leads us down the rabbit hole of waste and futility.

The following pick of the worst of CES may well be a thinly veneered attempt at mockery, but it is also intended as a caution against getting caught up in hype and justification of pointless technology.

1. DUX voice-assisted bed

The single most useless product launched at CES this year must surely be a bed with Alexa voice control built in. No, not to control the bed itself, but to manage the smart home features with which Alexa and other smart speakers are associated. Or that any smartphone with Siri or Google Assistant could handle. Swedish luxury bedmaker DUX thinks it’s a good idea to manage smart lights, TV, security and air conditioning through the bed itself. Just don’t say Alexa’s “wake word” in your sleep.

2. Smart Baby Dining Table 

Ironically, the runner-up comes from a brand that also makes smart beds: China’s 37 Degree Smart Home. Self-described as “the world’s first smart furniture brand that is transforming technology into furniture”, it outdid itself with a Smart Baby Dining Table. This isa baby feeding table with a removable dining chair that contains a weight detector and adjustable camera, to make children’s weight and temperature visible to parents via the brand’s app. Score one for hands-off parenting.

Click here to read about smart diapers, self-driving suitcases, laundry folders, and bad robot companions.

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CES: Tech means no more “lost in translation”

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Talking to strangers in foreign countries just got a lot easier with recent advancements in translation technology. Last week, major companies and small startups alike showed the CES technology expo in Las Vegas how well their translation worked at live translation.

Most existing translation apps, like Bixby and Siri Translate, are still in their infancy with live speech translation, which brings about the need for dedicated solutions like these technologies:

Babel’s AIcorrect pocket translator

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The AIcorrect Translator, developed by Beijing-based Babel Technology, attracted attention as the linguistic king of the show. As an advanced application of AI technology in consumer technology, the pocket translator deals with problems in cross-linguistic communication. 

It supports real-time mutual translation in multiple situations between Chinese/English and 30 other languages, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, French, Russian and Spanish. A significant differentiator is that major languages like English being further divided into accents. The translation quality reaches as high as 96%.

It has a touch screen, where transcription and audio translation are shown at the same time. Lei Guan, CEO of Babel Technology, said: “As a Chinese pathfinder in the field of AI, we designed the device in hoping that hundreds of millions of people can have access to it and carry out cross-linguistic communication all barrier-free.” 

Click here to read about the Pilot, Travis, Pocketalk, Google and Zoi translators.

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