Light Friday: Building a Star Trek Fusion Engine
University of Alabama
University of Alabama

Plus: Baumgartner’s Incredible Space Leap, Nanotech Flowers as Storage Devices and Timelapse Star Trails from the Space Station.


Felix Baumgartner’s Record-Breaking Space Jump

Extreme jumper Felix Baumgartner spent months preparing for his attempt to break the world record highest jump, and this Sunday he succeeded, leaping from 24 miles above the Earth’s surface and becoming the first person to break the sound barrier without the help of a vehicle.

The freefall lasted for four minutes and 20 seconds, during which Baumgartner reached a speed of Mach 1.24, the equivalent of 833.9 miles per hour, and broke three world records: the highest jump from a platform, the longest free fall without a drogue parachute and the highest vertical velocity.

“Cameras inside and outside of the capsule captured Baumgartner’s rise by a 550-foot tall helium balloon. The balloon rose first quickly and then more slowly as the atmosphere became thinner and the helium inside continued to expand,” the Washington Post reports. “The ascent culminated in the nail-biting moment when he eventually squeezed out of the capsule’s open door and, after delivering brief remarks, lightly hopped into the stratosphere’s extraordinarily thin air, 128,100 feet above sea level.”

Jumping from the stratosphere required astronaut-like technical precision. Baumgartner wore a specialized suit designed by aerospace engineers that featured four layers, a pressure system and a G-meter – essentially a spacesuit.

“The dive was more than just a stunt. NASA, an onlooker in this case with no involvement, is eager to improve its spacecraft and spacesuits for emergency escape,” the Associated Press explains. “Baumgartner’s team included Joe Kittinger, who first tried to break the sound barrier from 19.5 miles up in 1960, reaching speeds of 614 mph. With Kittinger inside mission control, the two men could be heard going over technical details during the ascension.”

Curious to see what it looks like to jump from space? Here’s an amazing video showing the free fall from Baumgartner’s point of view:

Building the Star Trek Fusion Engine

Each year, science helps us inch closer to the type of technology made famous in Star Trek, and now a team of engineers is working to construct the first nuclear fusion impulse rocket engine. While it’s not exactly a warp drive, it shares certain similarities to the sci-fi classic’s starship propulsion system.

Scientists and researchers from the University of Alabama are putting together the massive machine, named the “Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator,” from components that were formerly used for testing nuclear weapon effects. They are refurbishing the equipment in the hopes of constructing a nuclear fusion-based engine, which would drastically reduce the amount of fuel needed for space and make travel speed considerably faster – a fusion-powered trip to Mars would take six weeks instead of six months.

“Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is,” team member Ross Cortez told Txchnologist. “The fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals we’re using.”

The drive is expected to work on the principle of Z-pinch fusion, which involves running massive amounts of electricity through a series of tiny wires, turning them into plasma and generating a massive magnetic field. “The field ‘pinches’ the plasma, collapsing it down onto a core of deuterium and lithium, causing those atoms to fuse and releasing a big burst of fusion energy- more than it took to set the Z-pinch off in the first place,” according to DVICE.

Of course, even a fully developed fusion engine would still be quite unimpressive by Star Trek standards. While a space shuttle equipped with an impulse engine may be able to reach speeds of up to 62,000 miles per hour, full impulse speed in the Star Trek universe is between 16 and 17 million miles per hour.

Are Flowers the Future of Energy Storage?

In an extraordinary melding of science and nature, researchers from North Carolina State University in Raleigh have created a tiny, pink chrysanthemum-like artificial “flower.” In addition to be pretty to look at, the device also has the potential to revolutionize energy storage systems.

The “petals” on this artificial flower are actually made of germanium sulphide dust and are just 20 to 30 nanometers thick. The entire structure is only 100 micrometers long, roughly the size of a grain of salt, but it can pack in a great deal of power.

“[Team members] weren’t interested in nanohorticulture so much as finding a way to boost the capacity of the next generation of energy storage devices, such as lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors,” New Scientist explains. “Germanium sulphide is a semiconductor material, and the tiny crystalline bloom’s promise is due to its relatively enormous surface area packed into a tiny space. The material is also good at absorbing sunlight and converting it into usable power, making this little flower a potential solar cell.”

The crystalline substance is one material among a group of resources known as layered compounds, such as molybdenum disulfide, that scientists are exploring for their potential energy storage capabilities. The team’s next step will be integrating the flower into a battery and creating a working product over the next year.

Credit: Chun Li, Liang Huang, Gayatri Pongur Snigdha and Linyou Cao, North Carolina State University

Timelapse Thunderstorms from the ISS

There are many amazing images that have been captured from the International Space Station over the years, but none have been quite as hypnotizing as a new timelapse video showing storms, lightning strikes, meteor trails and satellites from the perspective of Earth’s orbit.

The video, prepared by Christoph Malin, was made by “stacking” image sequences provided by NASA. These stacks “make interesting patterns visible. For example lightning corridors within clouds, but they also show occasional satellite tracks (or Iridium Flashes) as well as meteors – patterns that interrupt the main Star Trails, and thus are immediately visible,” according to Malin.

Be mesmerized by watching the video below:

Have a great weekend, folks.

 

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