Light Friday: Zombies in Space

Plus: The Final Shuttle Missions, Lethal Home Robots, DIY Soda-Making and MORE.

Atlantis Makes Final Launch
It’s the end of an era (almost). Today the space shuttle Atlantis embarks on its final mission, the last scheduled flight for the fourth in NASA’s line of space shuttles. After the Atlantis is retired, only two more flights — by Endeavour and Discovery — remain before manned U.S. space shuttle missions come to a halt for the foreseeable future.

The Atlantis’s final flight will be a 12-day effort to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), install a new Russian space module and replace aging battery packs on ISS solar panel arrays, the Associated Press reports. The ISS itself is expected to stay in operation through 2020. After the shuttles are retired, NASA astronauts will be hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets until U.S. private enterprise develops viable spacecraft alternatives for reaching the space station.

Although some are lamenting the end of the manned space flight era, NASA plans to keep the Atlantis and have it refitted for flight in case of emergency, rather than shipping it off to a museum. However, odds are unlikely that the Atlantis or the two remaining shuttles will see any more service following their final planned missions.

“Budget cuts have already jeopardized the agency’s ability to carry out the kind of cutting edge science America expects from it,” Popular Science explains, “so as much as we’d like to see a second last hurrah, NASA might be better off pinching its pennies.”

See: What NASA’s New Budget Means for Aerospace

Zombie Satellites Terrorizing Space
Perhaps putting manned space flight on hold is a good idea, considering the latest space hazard: zombies. No, these aren’t the brain-eating, shotgun-averse type of zombies, but undead satellites that no longer respond to commands from Earth.

According to, a solar storm in April shut down the electronics payload of the Galaxy 15 communications satellite, rendering it unresponsive to ground controls and making it the latest “zombiesat,” an industry term for satellites that lose connection to Earth and drift mindlessly through orbit.

However, the Galaxy 15 is unlike other zombiesats in that its systems remain fully functional and its telecommunications equipment, which relays customer transmissions around the world, is on, Discovery News explains. “And yet the satellite itself refuses to accept commands from Earth.”

While spooky, this also means that the Galaxy 15 could threaten cable television transmissions by interfering with normal satellites’ signals starting May 23. Last week, attempts to shut down the zombie satellite failed and Intelsat, the owner of Galaxy 15, is seeking other ways to cut off the rogue machine’s power.

The Galaxy 15 is not the only zombiesat terrorizing space. As Emmet Fletcher, the space surveillance and tracking manager for the European Space Agency, told the Associated Press, other undead satellites “just cruise around the geobelt, drifting wherever they go, potentially causing havoc, when you lose control of them.”

Household Robots May Prove Lethal
Robots are capable of doing a great deal of good, but new research suggests that bringing them into the home to assist with domestic tasks may be a premature or even dangerous step.

Scientists from Germany’s Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics recently carried out a study to see what would happen when robots equipped with sharp tools performed tasks alongside humans. The results showed that sometimes the robots would accidentally inflict wounds that would prove lethal to a person working nearby, BBC News reports.

The tests involved an articulated robot arm performing motions with various instruments, including a kitchen knife, scissors, a steak knife and a screwdriver. According to IEEE Spectrum’s Automation blog, the experiment was intended to understand the biomechanics of soft-tissue injury by programming robots to attempt cutting or stabbing motions both with and without a safety system.

The chances of an injury were significantly reduced when a robot employed a prototype collision-detection system that allows the robot to identify when it has accidentally hit a different substance and halts its movement. This system was employed when testing the stabbing robots on a human subject.

The results indicate that it may be too early to have robots working in a kitchen, and the group’s findings have done little to diminish fear of future robot hazards. Even President Obama is wary, stating in December, “I believe that robotics can inspire young people to pursue science and engineering. And I also want to keep an eye on those robots, in case they try anything.”

Impossible Motion Illusion
This year’s first place winner of the Best Illusion of the Year contest from the Vision Science Society is an excellent example of optical trickery. Designed by Koukichi Sugihara of the Meiji Institute for Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences in Japan, the illusion shows wooden balls moving in seeming defiance of gravity or as if pulled by magnets, but don’t let appearances fool you:

Make Your Own Soda Machines Hitting Stores
Coca-Cola has been around for a long time, so how does the venerable soda-maker make its familiar and globally recognized product seem new? One way is to let customers design their own soft drink variations using a vast range of ingredients.

The Coca-Cola Freestyle is an advanced soda dispenser that enables customers to experiment with 104 different flavor variations to create their own ideal drinks. Unlike traditional soda dispensers, which rely on crates of syrup, chilling mechanisms and a water supply, the Freestyle is a revamped electronic model with touchscreen controls.

“Freestyle’s electronic systems have a design that may have fitted aboard Captain Picard’s USS Enterprise, right down to the colorful touchscreen interface,” Fast Company reports. “Inside it has a flavor-dispensing system inspired by medical use of inkjet technology, with huge dexterity in adding flavors to the outgoing drinks, and even no need for taste-diluting ice as it can super-chill the beverage before delivery if that’s how you want it.”

“Coke relied on a team of experts to assemble its new fountain,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway and the insulin pump, helped adapt micro-dose technology for use with sodas; Pininfarina S.p.A., the Italian car-design firm, created a curved shell after a frumpy 2006 prototype design looked more like a mainframe computer than a modern fountain.”

In field tests, tasters enjoyed experimenting with different flavor combinations so much the developers had to create a specialized overspill system. The dispenser is also a wireless device that beams back information on purchasing habits and restocking needs in stores. Coca-Cola plans to ship 500 Freestyle machines to various locations in the United States this month.

Have a great weekend, folks.


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  • Coop
    May 14, 2010

    So the Galaxy 15 systems remain fully functional and its telecommunications equipment, which relays customer transmissions around the world, is on, yet the satellite itself refuses to accept commands from Earth. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. The cable companies can’t even get their own ground equipment working properly. Isn’t this really like the perpetual problems I have with my DVR, just on a larger scale? How about this for a solution: Go get a 13 year old computer techy, the one that seems to be hacking into these cable companies on the fly and giving them fits, and give him a shot at communicating with the satellite. I’ll bet he will find a “back door” and allow the cable folks an alternate means to re-establish communications.

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