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This week we're heading to space for a spot of sun, shade and...
a freaky transforming monkey spider bot.
We've long fantasised about the possibility
of life on other planets.
But it was only in 1995 that we found the first planet
outside our solar system.
These exoplanets are hard to find.
Of course they are, they're relatively tiny.
And so far they've mainly been detected indirectly,
either by the incredibly slight dimming of a star's light
as a planet moves in front of it, or by the wobble of the star
caused by something orbiting it.
In the last 20 years we've detected about 2000 exoplanets,
but we haven't actually seen many at all.
This is why.
Well, the planets are very, very faint compared to a star
and they're very close to a star.
The kind of planets where we might find life, an Earth-like planet
orbiting a star would be 10 billion times
fainter than a star.
But if you can see the planets, you can start to look for evidence
of life on their surfaces.
What you need is something to block out the light of a star.
What you need is a star shade.
Due to go into space in the middle of the next decade,
it is a crazy-sounding thing that can be flown in between a space
telescope and the star to precisely block out the star's light
and reveal any planets.
It'll be a few tens of metres in diameter, and in order to block
out just the light from that distant star, it'll need to be
about 40,000 kilometres away from the telescope.
So you managed to block out the starlight, you see this tiny
dot which is a planet, what actually will we get from that image?
What resolution will it be?
Will it be a few pixels or will we see it in great detail?
What we'll see is a dot of light completely unresolved.
Essentially a single pixel.
So that doesn't sound so interesting, but we'll be able
first of all to see how far it is from the star,
and by revisiting it, we'll be able to see what its orbit
is, so we'll know if it might be a planet that can support life,
we'll know its separation from the star.
But more importantly, we'll be able to take that light
and put a spectrometer on it, disperse it, and look for signatures
of chemicals on the planet.
We'll be able to see water, oxygen and carbon dioxide,
perhaps methane, so signs of life.
Indications that this might be a planet that supports life.
And this is not even the maddest part of the scheme.
See, there's a problem.
The star shade won't fit in a rocket.
And that's why a big part of the work being done here
at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and the beautiful
solution that they've come up with, is all about fitting the thing
into a tight space and then unfurling it once in space.
And the inspiration comes from origami.
It's really quite impressive.
At the end you can see how large an area you can fill with such
a small volume of material.
But this is only the half of it because you have petals
which come out here as well?
Oh, my goodness.
This cardboard model is the latest test to make sure the shade
can unfurl perfectly when it is all alone
up there in the black.
The flower shape blocks out the light better than a circle,
and those outer petals need to be made to an accuracy
of 50 to 100 microns.
You're going to point a telescope at a star and then you're
going to fly this into position to block the light from the star?
What if you then want to look at another star?
The telescope moves by a little bit but this thing has got
to go across the galaxy?
There are two ways we can do it.
We could move the entire shade so the star is over
there and we have the star shade,
and we have the telescope
and we can move the star shade to the next target,
or you can move the telescope to reposition.
And how long would it take to move?
It could take from several days to a week or more,
depending on the next target.
If I may say, this sounds crazy!
This sounds like we want to spot some planets,
what are we going to do?
We'll put a shade in space and we're going to fire
We'll put a shade in space and we're going to fly it 40,000 kms
from the telescope.
That sounds insane.
Well, what's really cool about that is there is this insane
concept of how you're going to fly this
massive shade so far away, 40,000 kilometres away from the telescope,
but once you start breaking it down
into little problems, you start testing and build a petal,
you build the truss, you build the shield,
you realise piece by piece what engineering needs to go
in to that problem to solve it.
So we just break it down into little problems that we can solve
in a piecewise fashion.
And isn't that a great motto for life?
Take an impossible problem and break it down into more possible chunks.
I love the fact that at JPL you can just wander into a random room
and it is called something like the Extreme Terrain Mobility lab.
That's what they're doing here.
They're making robots to cope with extreme terrain.
This is Axel which is a robot with a pair of wheels that can be
lowered down cliffs.
And this is Fido and Athena.
These are the prototype is for the Mars rovers
Spirit and Opportunity.
Of course the point about robots is they can do things that humans
might want to do but in places that humans can't go.
All of these have fairly familiar designs, wheels here,
some robots have legs.
But Kate Russell has found one that looks like nothing
I have ever seen before.
In 2012 the world watched with baited breath as Nasa deployed
a rover on the surface of Mars using a sky crane.
This kind of science is incredibly expensive.
The rover weighed 900 kilograms, as much as a full grown giraffe.
With the equipment required to land it gently, it had to be able to take
the weight of 32 giraffes.
Total cost, $2.5 billion.
It would have been much cheaper if Curiosity was lightweight,
came flat-packed and was sturdy enough just to be dropped
on the red planet's surface.
Meet Super Ball, a tensgrity robot in development in Nasa Ames.
This lightweight sphere-like matrix can be packed down flat,
taking up minimal space in a rocket and vastly reducing launch costs.
Because of the unique structure of this robot and the fact
that it can deform and reform itself and take massive impacts,
eventually Nasa will be able to literally throw it at the surface
of a planet and its scientific payload in the middle
will be protected.
Once deployed, Super Ball can handle much rougher terrains then a rover,
riding over obstacles and up and down hills.
Tendon wires connecting the struts spool in and out creating momentum,
in much the same way as flexing your muscles
moves your limbs.
If it bumps into anything solid, it will just bounce back.
It should even be able to survive falling off a cliff.
The next step for Super Ball is to redesign the robot such
that it can actually survive at least a one-storey drop.
You can expect to see a system like this on an actual Nasa mission
probably in 15 or 20 years' time.
Over at JPL, they are working on limbed robots.
Its research spawned from the DARPA Robotics Challenge where teams
competed to create highly mobile and dextrous robots that can move,
explore and build things without human intervention.
One of the great things about the simian body plan is that
all of our limbs can be used for either mobility or manipulation.
And so, if we are putting things together, you could certainly
imagine hanging on with a couple of them and doing the manipulation
to assemble things together with others, and that makes
for a very robust way of putting things together,
in an environment like zero G where you don't want to float off.
The plan for King Louis is to be sent into space to build stuff
with visual codes a bit like QR codes to guide it.
We have a structured environment.
We know what we are putting together so we put signposts
onto all the bits and pieces of the structure we are putting
together that tell the robot a few things.
Most importantly, it tells the robot where those things
it is manipulating are in space, literally and figuratively,
so it can align itself better.
The codes will also include construction information
like which bits go together and how much torque to apply to a bolt.
This will allow robots to work autonomously in teams,
building space stations or planetary habitats faster
and more economically than previously possible.
But Nasa hasn't completely given up on our four-wheeled space helpers.
Here we've tried to develop new kinds of robots
for future space exploration.
This robot, for example, is called K-Rex.
It's one of our main research robots that we develop and test here
in the robotscape at Nasa Ames.
This is a large play area for robots, a proving ground
that we use to really try to develop things like navigation
or do the mission simulations.
One of the biggest problems with space travel is getting
stuff of our planet.
It requires an incredible amount of fuel to break
through the atmosphere.
So K-Rex's current job is to look at ways to collect useful resources
once we are already out in space.
Can we go to the moon, find water and use it for oxygen
and hydrogen to make fuel and go other places beyond the moon?
For you, what is the most exciting sort of new development
that is on the horizon?
For a long time now we had robots do exploration.
We have rovers on Mars, they are still functioning today.
We have humans in space on the International Space Station,
and in the future I think what we're going to see more of is
really human-robot teams.
Robots might be working ahead of humans, they might be working
following up after humans, they might be side-by-side or
perhaps just in support of humans.
In any case, what we're going to have is a future of robots
and humans working together.
So, the biggest question perhaps of the day for me,
can I drive K-Rex?
Let's have you do that.
Now lots of you think we Click reporters have the best jobs
in the world, but after spending a day at the roverscape testing
ground, I think there is another contender for that title.
Hello and welcome to the Week in Tech.
It was the week that in the US, after much speculation,
Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg denied he wants to run for president
of the United States.
Not everyone wants to run the world, it seems, just the bits
related to social media.
Plus, help could be at hand for forgetful Apple Airpod owners.
Apple has created a find Airpods feature for its wireless earbuds.
It works in the same way as the Find My Phone feature.
No word yet though on how much rummaging down the back
of the sofa it will lead to.
Plus, authorities in Dubai showed off a new way of fighting fires.
All with the help of a jet-ski for traffic avoiding rapid
response and a jet pack for some elevated extinguishing.
Water pressure kicks the firefighter airborne allowing them to target
difficult to reach fires near waterways
and then hose them down.
Next, never get off the boat.
Legendary movie director Francis Ford Coppola has
thrown his support behind a video game version of his Vietnam war
epic Apocalypse Now.
It is going to be survival horror and it is going to be
financed via crowdfunding.
And finally, fashion conscious astronauts have had to make do
with any colour space suit they like as long as it is in white.
Not any more.
Nasa and Boeing have revealed details of the new
upgraded blue space suit.
These are lighter and easier to move in.
Personally, I'd prefer pinstriped.
Up on the International Space Station, resources are pretty tight.
But while food and water do need to be delivered as take-out,
you might think that power at least might be plentiful.
But over their lifetime, the International Space Station's
solar arrays degrade and produce less power.
And as our space aspirations grow, we could do with more and more
power anyway from bigger and bigger panels.
That's a bit of a problem.
To give you an idea of how much power the ISS needs,
it has eight solar arrays.
Each one is as long and as tall...
As this room.
To fit something this huge into a rocket's payload,
as we discovered with the star shade, you have to fold it up.
The problem is each part of the solar array
is mounted on a thick protective aluminium backing.
The more you fold it to reduce the length,
the more you increase the thickness.
Bit here at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Wahid Azizpor
is working on a solution.
I am constantly surprised by anything that goes into space,
about how light it is.
It looks quite thick but it's so light.
It has to be.
It costs a lot of money to launch one of these in space
so it has to be light.
Why did you need that?
To make sure the cells did not crack when you're launching in space.
It's really violent when it goes in space and on a rocket itself.
So it's not when it's in space, it's actually the launching
and I guess the unfurling that can damage these things?
That can damage the cells.
But this is not good enough for you!
This is the thickness of a normal solar array and you are now
making them that thick.
It's a substance called kapton and it will replace that
thick aluminium support.
It feels like a bit of plastic.
So what does this mean for stuff that goes into space now,
whether it is space travel or satellites?
What does this mean?
You can put a lot more power, a lot more stuff in space
in a small area itself, so you don't need all these things.
All you can put is the kapton so if you want double the power,
all you need to do is double the amount of that material, kapton,
which adds another inch to it and it doubles the amount
of power you need.
Only a few of us will, of course, ever get into space,
but for the next best thing, why not try it in VR?
Here's Lara Lewington.
I've had some really engaging virtual reality experiences.
One of them simply set in an office, but it seems if you are entering
at VR world, you might as well go somewhere really
exciting, like space.
That's where Home: A VR Spacewalk takes you.
Inspired by Nasa's training programme, it aims to bring
a mission in space to the masses.
After getting used to your new surroundings, you undertake
an emergency mission.
Whilst enjoying views of Earth from afar, a friendly hand
from a fellow astronaut helps to get you on your way.
Ah, I can hold a hand.
I feel a strange sense of safety there is another astronaut here.
The BBC commissioned the experience last year,
as its first steps into the world of virtual reality content.
We've taken all the storytelling power of the BBC and applied that
behind it, so there's a great script, a great narrative and then
we've looked at all the cutting edge explorations people are doing around
VR, in terms of bio-monitoring, haptic feedback etc etc and trying
to bring that into it as a massive piece of learning really.
My preview here on the HTC Vive saw it set up with a chair providing
haptic feedback and a heart rate monitor which resulted
in my being sent back to base if readings went too high.
But apparently I'm very calm in space.
In March it will be released for Vive on Steam as well as Oculus.
Wow, this is incredible.
I'm now looking at Vancouver apparently.
Some artistic license was of course needed like making tasks shorter
so they wouldn't get boring, but aside from creating the pictures
and story telling a project as bold as this needs,
there were the usual challenges faced by those producing VR content.
In 360 video and virtual reality, locomotion is one
of the biggest problems.
If you move someone without them having made a conscious
decision to be moved, it can be very disorientating.
To get around those problems in this particular environment of zero
gravity on the outside of the space station, we built a system
where you move yourself by grabbing handles,
so every single movement of yourself in the environment is always user
initiated and as granular, slow or as fast as you
are comfortable with.
I feel most disorientated!
Wow, the depth of it I think was the thing
that was most surprising.
You really got a sense of being up high, seeing things
really, really far away.
It took awhile to get grips with what I was meant to be doing,
but just the fact that I was moving around within space
was quite incredible.
Whilst it wasn't possible to create a sense of weightlessness,
the pictures were amazing, but obviously, I can't vouch for how
true to life they are.
It is essential to life on Earth, but the sun is a fearsome beast
and cares is not one jot for the way that we've chosen to live.
Seen up close, this seemingly uniform sphere of light reveals
itself as a churning, raging ball of fire.
Every so often, the surface erupts, flinging huge amounts
of particles into space, in a phenomenon known
as a coronal mass ejection.
So this is a coronal mass ejection in close-up?
This is what astrophysics does.
This is how we figure out what gases are in there,
how fast they move, how hot they are, how dense they are.
Have we ever been hit by one of those?
The Earth has been hit by one of those, yes, many times.
That's not game over when we are hit by something because it
looks quite final to me!
It is huge.
The Earth is about this size.
No, we get hit very readily, every 11 years the sun goes
through a cycle where the sun's domestic field gets very active
and then we get a lot of these.
This is what we call space winter.
Which I guess makes Bart De Pontieu a space weatherman.
He is in charge of Iris, a satellite launched three years ago
which looks at small parts of the sun in great detail.
His job is to use what he sees to create solar computer
simulations, which may unlock its mysteries,
and may help us to understand where the particular coronal mass
ejections will affect us on Earth.
You can see in this movie when that eruption happens.
You see all that snow on the image.
Those are the energetic particles of the sun that hit our detectors,
our CCDs and they leave charges in there.
These energetic particles in fact, not just the CCDs, but they can
impact the computers on-board satellites, and that means
the satellites can flip a bit essentially and screw up the whole
operation of the satellite.
Satellites have gotten lost as a result.
And so when these things happen, you can go in safe mode.
If you can predict them properly, you can go in safe mode.
Many of these storms can be geo-affective and changing
the environment around Earth, they can lead to power
grids getting overloaded and transformers blowing up.
And so you could actually cycle down usage on your power grid if you knew
that something like this was happening, or you could tell
your troops that your satellite communications might be disturbed
because the atmosphere is disturbed that day.
Iris isn't the only space telescope to come out of Lockheed Martin
here in California.
A new one was launched in 2016, and before the launch we got a sneak
preview of how they were testing it.
Welcome to the Heliostat.
The point of this thing is to bring what's up
there down to the labs below, so if I lean down this
tube, you can see me.
Of course, you don't really want to see me or just the blue sky.
What you actually want to see is...
Down here, the sun's image is bounced around and fired
into the clean room containing the new satellites,
which are so small, they can fit four of them
into a relatively tiny space.
The next generation of solar monitoring telescope
is happening there.
The solar ultraviolet image will watch the sun
in extreme ultraviolet.
It should be able to provide early warnings of heavy space weather
caused by solar flares and coronal mass injections, and will ultimately
help us to unlock the secrets of our nearest star.
Something that is no longer just for scientific interest,
but will protect a society that is increasingly dependent
on technology as well.
This is the example of one of the simulations from
the University of Oslo in Norway.
Isn't that sexy?!
We really need these models to understand what we're seeing
and how we could possibly predict things like this.
Tell me you've got that as your desktop wallpaper
because I want a copy of that!
The weather is on the change as we head through the course
of the weekend.