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The company behind the robotic arms that help us explore Mars – Engadget

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Despite best efforts, we’re still decades if not generations away from regularly living and working off-planet — whether that’s in LEO habitation rings, moon bases, or on the Martian surface. Until humans can colonize space ourselves, we must rely on robotic orbitals, landers and rovers to physically interact with the galaxy around us. As Lucy Condakchian, General Manager of Robotics at Maxar, noted to an assembled audience at TechCrunch Sessions on Tuesday, actually touching the stars is still no easy feat.

Maxar Technologies knows a thing or two about building space-based systems. The company has been developing and deploying satellite technology since 1969. It’s built robotic arms for NASA since the Apollo era, as well as for commercial customers — over 75 in total. In fact, all five robotic arms currently on the surface of Mars were built by Maxar.

“I would absolutely call it a collaborative partnership,” Condakchian told Engadget. “Over the years as NASA has changed, what their pursuits are, what our administration has asked them to do, we just bend in flux.”

The company’s sixth Mars-bound arm, dubbed the Sample Handling Assembly (SHA), will be aboard the Mars 2020 Rover. This mission is part of NASA’s larger Mars Exploration Program and is scheduled to launch in July.

Once safely upon the Red Planet, the SHA will drill into the Martian dirt to collect soil and rock core samples from the most interesting sources it can find, then squirrel them away in a secure cache on the planet’s surface. The hope is that a future mission might be able to collect the samples and return them to Earth for study.

“You build on the heritage,” Condakchian told the Sessions audience, pointing out that the first arm to arrive on the Martian surface was barely a meter long with “five degrees of freedom and five joints that actually moved.” But over the course of numerous iterations, the latest arm boasts double that length with seven joints and seven degrees of freedom.

The company is also working on a sampler arm — conveniently named the Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering and Probing of Lunar Regolith or SAMPLR — as part of the 2024 Artemis mission to the moon. The $5 million piece of space hardware will be the first robotic arm deployed to the moon in 50 years, where it will sift through layers of dust to determine “the geotechnical properties of lunar regolith.”

Maxar is even looking beyond planetary surfaces and is currently developing arms for use in orbit to service and repair aging satellites, such as the SPIDER for NASA’s Restore-L program. However that environment provides its own unique set of challenges compared to planetside operation.

On Earth, “you know where you’re going to set that robotic arm, you know what [conditions] you’ll encounter… and you also can go and service it,” Condakchian said. “Our robotic arms, once they’re in space, we’re done. If it’s mission critical, it cannot fail. It has to survive.” And in space, she continued, “You’ve got radiation to deal with. You’ve got temperature swings, you’ve got materials that you cannot use.”

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As such, each arm is largely built to the specific mission requirements, though some overlap between individual mission designs does occur. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single time, right?” Condakchian explained. “There’s definitely elements of it that we build on and we’ve learned that this kind of actuator design works well for this type of application gives you this type of output, etc… Most of our government customers actually want a lot more tailored solutions.”

Recent advances in 3D printing are helping tailor those solutions more easily and with a greater degree of precision than conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques. Condakchian points out that issues of around machining components to the exacting tolerances that modern spacecraft require are negated with 3D-printed pieces. What’s more, “some parts are going to actually be lighter because your load paths within the components of that robotic arm,” she said. “You don’t need to think about how to machine this off of a block of aluminum or titanium.”

Improvements in AI systems are also improving the performance of these arms, providing them a greater degree of autonomy. However, that expanded capability must be carefully balanced against the massive investment required. “It’s a balance of adding that new capability and technology without impacting the integrity or increasing the risk of the mission,” Condakchian told the Sessions audience.

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Currently NASA retains human-in-the-loop oversight, wherein if the rover detects an anomaly in the environment or its actions, it can enter a Safe Mode and phone back to mission control for clarification and further instruction. Problem is that it takes a signal 13 minutes to make it from Mars to Earth plus another 13 minutes back plus however much time it takes the NASA boffins to determine the best course of action. It’s a slow process but still better than wrecking a multimillion dollar piece of equipment because the onboard AI flummoxed itself.

Maxar is also looking into wireless energy transmission as a potential weight saving measure. “Trying to send energy down the whole robotic arm to get video feedback, that’s extra mass and that’s extra power draw,” Condakchian said. “That’s a limiting factor.”

And though only two of the five robotic arms on Mars are currently operational, Condakchian explained, the inoperable ones from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers as well as the Phoenix lander are actually rugged enough to be brought back online and put back to work if we were somehow able to clear the Martian dust that has caked their solar panels. If only they had an extra arm equipped with a squeegee.

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Astronauts may need to jump in space to fight bone loss – Space.com

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When astronauts spend extended periods of time in space, many surprising and sometimes harmful changes can occur in their bodies. Unfortunately, there aren’t always ways to avoid or mitigate these effects. 

One such health concern is a loss in bone density and bone strength due to the effects of microgravity and, to a lesser extent, radiation exposure. A NASA-funded study in 2009 found that astronauts’ bone strength decreased by at least 14% on average during a six-month stay in space. Other studies have found much higher rates of bone loss.

But a new study suggests that astronauts and mission planners could employ an effective weapon in the fight against bone-density loss: jumping and other forms of high-impact exercise.

Related: Landmark NASA twins study reveals space travel’s effects on the human body

Out of the 17 astronauts who participated in the new study (opens in new tab), which was published online Thursday (June 30) in the journal Scientific Reports, only eight regained full bone mass density one year after returning from flight. Bone density loss was found to be much higher in astronauts who flew on missions longer than six months.

But the researchers also found that astronauts who engaged in resistance-based training while in space were able to recover bone mineral density after they returned. The authors thus propose adding  “jumping resistance-based exercise that provides high-impact dynamic loads on the legs” to astronauts’ existing exercise routines to prevent bone loss and promote bone growth while on spaceflight missions.

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Expedition 40 flight engineer, gets a workout on the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

“Jumping provides short bouts of high-impact, dynamic loads that promote osteogenesis [bone growth],” the researchers wrote, while adding that “neither running, cycling, squats, nor heel raise volume were associated with bone recovery.” Adding jumping exercise routines to astronauts’ existing exercise regimens may prevent bone loss and actually reduce the amount of exercise time needed each day, the authors suggest.

Of course, any new jumping regimen would require specialized equipment, and space is always limited aboard any spaceflight. “Successful implementation of high-load jump-training on-orbit will require an exercise device that mitigates forces transferred to the vehicle, along with an exercise regimen that accounts for astronaut deconditioning,” the researchers wrote in the new study. The authors acknowledge that since living quarters are typically cramped aboard spaceflights, “exercise equipment will need to be optimized for a smaller footprint.”

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Obviously, a study size of 17 astronauts isn’t exactly conclusive, and the authors note that much more data is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn regarding the effects of resistance training on astronaut bone loss.  

Astronauts already engage in regular exercise while in space to combat the effects of microgravity, and scientists have already tried feeding astronauts genetically modified vegetables to help stimulate bone growth and fish oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids to help mitigate bone breakdown. With bone loss still plaguing astronauts on long flights, there is still a need for more methods to mitigate it. 

Email Brett at BTingley@Space.com or follow Brett on Twitter at @bretttingley. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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'Permanent bone loss': Calgary study finds astronauts suffer on return to Earth – Cochrane Today

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CALGARY — The experience may be out-of-this-world but research indicates those who travel to outer space suffer from increased bone loss. 

A study released Thursday from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary followed 17 astronauts before and after their spaceflights. 

The TBone study, conducted over a seven-year period starting in 2015, found that prolonged weightlessness accelerated bone loss in the astronauts. 

“You see on average they lose about two decades of bone. We found that weight-bearing bones only partially recovered in most astronauts one year after spaceflight,” said Dr. Leigh Gabel, an assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and lead author of the study. 

“After a year of recovery, they tend to regain about half of that. This suggests the permanent bone loss due to spaceflight is about the same as a decade worth of age-related bone loss on Earth.” 

The researchers travelled to Johnson Space Center in Houston to scan the wrists and ankles of the astronauts before they left for space, on their return to Earth, after six months and then one year. 

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, said the loss happens because bones that would normally be weight-bearing on Earth, such as the legs, don’t have to carry weight in a zero-gravity setting. 

“We’ve seen astronauts who had trouble walking due to weakness and lack of balance after returning from spaceflight to others who cheerfully rode their bike on Johnson Space Center campus to meet us for a study visit,” said Dr. Steven Boyd, director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. 

“There is quite a variety of response among astronauts when they return to Earth.” 

Boyd said new scanning technology has made a world of difference.

“We’re using new technology that can measure the fine details of the bone that are even finer than a human hair in terms of resolution. We can see detail there that wasn’t possible to see before in these astronauts.”

The study found some astronauts who flew on shorter missions — under six months — recovered more bone strength and density in the lower body compared to those who flew for longer durations. 

The study’s next iteration plans to look at the effects of even longer trips to support astronauts who may one day travel beyond the International Space Station. 

“NASA’s really interested in understanding if longer-term spaceflight could lead to even further bone loss, which would not be very good for the astronaut,” said Boyd.

“The next phase is to do a study that would incorporate crew members who spend a year on the International Space Station, which will give us some more insight on whether you lose even more bone after that one year period.”

The University of Calgary’s former chancellor and astronaut, Robert Thirsk, said he knows how difficult it can be to be back on solid ground. 

“Just as the body must adapt to spaceflight at the start of a mission, it must also readapt back to Earth’s gravity field at the end,” he said. 

“Fatigue, light-headedness and imbalance were immediate challenges for me on my return. Bones and muscles take the longest to recover following spaceflight. But within a day of landing, I felt comfortable again as an Earthling.” 

The study was funded by the Canadian Space Agency in partnership with the European Space Agency, NASA and astronauts from North America, Europe, and Asia. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022. 

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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James Webb Space Telescope's powers will be revealed in just weeks and scientists can't wait – Space.com

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BALTIMORE — The James Webb Space Telescope’s first images are coming soon and scientists can’t wait for us to see them.

On Wednesday (June 29), NASA held a media day at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore in advance of the release of the first science-quality images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which will occur during a live event on July 12. NASA scientists and administrators gave updates on the telescope, discussed Webb’s planned science during its first year in operation and hinted at the contents of some of Webb’s first official images.

“In a real sense, we’re sort of the first users of the observatory and using it for what it’s built for,” Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at STScI, said during the news conference. “We recognize that we’re standing on the shoulders of all the scientists and engineers who’ve worked hard for the past six months to make this possible.” 

Live updates: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mission
RelatedHow the James Webb Space Telescope works in pictures

Although NASA has already released a few images taken while aligning Webb, the images released on July 12 will be from a fully operational observatory, in full color, and they will show what each of the instruments on the telescope can contribute to science. 

These first images will include a deep-field image peering farther into the past than ever before, scientists said during the briefing. NASA will also release Webb’s first spectroscopic data — precise data on the type of light that Webb detects that will allow scientists to learn more about the ingredients of distant cosmic objects. This data will include Webb’s first spectrum of an exoplanet, scientists said. While the images will be visually spectacular, the new information they reveal using Webb’s infrared-observing powers will distinguish them from images taken by other telescopes. 

“The real difference is the new scientific information and then really opening up the longer wavelengths, infrared wavelengths in a way that we’ve really never seen before,” Jonathon Gardner, deputy senior project scientist for Webb, said during the news conference.

Each of the four instruments on Webb, including its main camera, two near-infrared spectrographs and a mid-infrared camera and spectrograph, will contribute to notable research in its first year of operation. They will collect data at nearly every scale and timescale, from our solar system today to the birth of our universe. Though scientists can detect radiation from near the beginning of our universe, no telescope has ever been able to detect light from some of the universe’s first stars and galaxies. Webb will be the first such observatory. 

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“The initial goal for this mission was to see the first stars and galaxies,” Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA, said during the news conference. “Not the first light of the universe, but to watch the universe turn the lights on for the first time.”

Although Webb is already a remarkable feat, its first images represent the start of hopefully decades of science. Webb scientists said they have confirmed that the telescope has enough fuel to carry out science for the next 20 years. Data collected during these years could redefine how we understand our universe.

“This is really only the beginning,” Pontoppidan said. “We’re only scratching the surface.”

Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.  

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