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




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.”


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.


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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Toward customizable timber, grown in a lab – EurekAlert



image: In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at MIT have pioneered a tunable technique to generate wood-like plant material in a lab.
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Credit: Image courtesy of Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, Ashley Beckwith, et al

Each year, the world loses about 10 million hectares of forest — an area about the size of Iceland — because of deforestation. At that rate, some scientists predict the world’s forests could disappear in 100 to 200 years.

In an effort to provide an environmentally friendly and low-waste alternative, researchers at MIT have pioneered a tunable technique to generate wood-like plant material in a lab, which could enable someone to “grow” a wooden product like a table without needing to cut down trees, process lumber, etc.

These researchers have now demonstrated that, by adjusting certain chemicals used during the growth process, they can precisely control the physical and mechanical properties of the resulting plant material, such as its stiffness and density.

They also show that, using 3D bioprinting techniques, they can grow plant material in shapes, sizes, and forms that are not found in nature and that can’t be easily produced using traditional agricultural methods.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” says lead author Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate.

Though still in its early days, this research demonstrates that lab-grown plant materials can be tuned to have specific characteristics, which could someday enable researchers to grow wood products with the exact features needed for a particular application, like high strength to support the walls of a house or certain thermal properties to more efficiently heat a room, explains senior author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories.

Joining Beckwith and Velásquez-García on the paper is Jeffrey Borenstein, a biomedical engineer and group leader at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. The research is published today in Materials Today.

Planting cells

To begin the process of growing plant material in the lab, the researchers first isolate cells from the leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants. The cells are cultured in liquid medium for two days, then transferred to a gel-based medium, which contains nutrients and two different hormones.

Adjusting the hormone levels at this stage in the process enables researchers to tune the physical and mechanical properties of the plant cells that grow in that nutrient-rich broth.

“In the human body, you have hormones that determine how your cells develop and how certain traits emerge. In the same way, by changing the hormone concentrations in the nutrient broth, the plant cells respond differently. Just by manipulating these tiny chemical quantities, we can elicit pretty dramatic changes in terms of the physical outcomes,” Beckwith says.

In a way, these growing plant cells behave almost like stem cells — researchers can give them cues to tell them what to become, Velásquez-García adds.

They use a 3D printer to extrude the cell culture gel solution into a specific structure in a petri dish, and let it incubate in the dark for three months. Even with this incubation period, the researchers’ process is about two orders of magnitude faster than the time it takes for a tree to grow to maturity, Velásquez-García says.

Following incubation, the resulting cell-based material is dehydrated, and then the researchers evaluate its properties.

Wood-like characteristics

They found that lower hormone levels yielded plant materials with more rounded, open cells that have lower density, while higher hormone levels led to the growth of plant materials with smaller, denser cell structures. Higher hormone levels also yielded plant material that was stiffer; the researchers were able to grow plant material with a storage modulus (stiffness) similar to that of some natural woods.

Another goal of this work is to study what is known as lignification in these lab-grown plant materials. Lignin is a polymer that is deposited in the cell walls of plants which makes them rigid and woody. They found that higher hormone levels in the growth medium causes more lignification, which would lead to plant material with more wood-like properties.

The researchers also demonstrated that, using a 3D bioprinting process, the plant material can be grown in a custom shape and size. Rather than using a mold, the process involves the use of a customizable computer-aided design file that is fed to a 3D bioprinter, which deposits the cell gel culture into a specific shape. For instance, they were able to grow plant material in the shape of a tiny evergreen tree.

Research of this kind is relatively new, Borenstein says.

“This work demonstrates the power that a technology at the interface between engineering and biology can bring to bear on an environmental challenge, leveraging advances originally developed for health care applications,” he adds.

The researchers also show that the cell cultures can survive and continue to grow for months after printing, and that using a thicker gel to produce thicker plant material structures does not impact the survival rate of the lab-grown cells.

“Amenable to customization”

“I think the real opportunity here is to be optimal with what you use and how you use it. If you want to create an object that is going to serve some purpose, there are mechanical expectations to consider. This process is really amenable to customization,” Velásquez-García says.

Now that they have demonstrated the effective tunability of this technique, the researchers want to continue experimenting so they can better understand and control cellular development. They also want to explore how other chemical and genetic factors can direct the growth of the cells.

They hope to evaluate how their method could be transferred to a new species. Zinnia plants don’t produce wood, but if this method were used to make a commercially important tree species, like pine, the process would need to be tailored to that species, Velásquez-García says.  

Ultimately, he is hopeful this work can help to motivate other groups to dive into this area of research to help reduce deforestation.

“Trees and forests are an amazing tool for helping us manage climate change, so being as strategic as we can with these resources will be a societal necessity going forward,” Beckwith adds.

This research is funded, in part, by the Draper Scholars Program.


Written by Adam Zewe, MIT News Office

Additional background

Paper: “Physical, mechanical, and microstructural characterization of novel, 3D-printable, tunable, lab-grown plant materials generated from Zinnia elegans cell cultures”

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Crumbling comet could create meteor shower May 30 – Northern Daily News



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A crumbling comet could create a meteor shower on May 30.

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The ‘tau Herculids’ meteor display might be one of the most dramatic observed in over two decades, according to

Meteor showers occur when dust or particles from asteroids or comets enter Earth’s atmosphere at a very high speed, the U.K. Sun explained.

This one is expected to be the product of a comet named 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, also known as SW3.

SW3 was first discovered in 1930 but did not reappear again until the 1970s, Republic World reported.

In 1995, astronomers noticed that the comet’s nucleus split into four smaller chunks, according to CNET.

It has continued to disintegrate more in the ensuing years.

The display is expected to be very visible in the Northern Hemisphere as it is occurring on a Moon-less night.

A consensus of experts predicts that the shower will be visible starting from 1 a.m. EST on May 31.

It is suggested viewers will want to be outside at least an hour before this so your eyes have a chance to adjust to the dark.

“The southwestern USA and Mexico are favored locations as the radiant, the area of the sky where these meteors come from, will be located highest in a dark sky,” Robert Lunsford wrote for AMS.

“The outburst may be seen from southeastern Canada and the remainder of the (eastern) USA, but at a lower altitude.”

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Boeing capsule lands back on Earth after space shakedown –



Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands at White Sands Missile Range’s Space Harbor, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in New Mexico. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

Boeing’s crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts climb aboard.

It was a quick trip back: The Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting lab, with airbags attached to cushion the landing. Only a mannequin was buckled in.

Aside from thruster failures and cooling system snags, Starliner appeared to clinch its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2 1/2 years after its botched first try. Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered the bull’s-eye touchdown.

“It’s great to have this incredible test flight behind us,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program. He described the demo as “extremely successful,” with all objectives met.

Added Boeing’s Mark Nappi, a : “On a scale of one to 10, I think I’d give it a 15.”

Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will strap in next for a trip to the , perhaps by year’s end. The has long wanted two competing U.S. companies ferrying astronauts, for added insurance as it drastically reduced its reliance on Russia for rides to and from the space station.

Boeing capsule lands back on Earth after space shakedown
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands at White Sands Missile Range’s Space Harbor, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in New Mexico. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Its crew capsules splash down off the Florida coast, Boeing’s Starliner returns to the Army’s expansive and desolate White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing scrapped its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it. The company fixed the flaws and tried again last summer, but corroded valves halted the countdown. Following more repairs, Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked to the space station Friday.

Station astronauts tested Starliner’s communication and computer systems during its five days at the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of groceries and other supplies that flew up in the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded gear.

  • Boeing capsule lands back on Earth after space shakedown
    In this infrared image from video made available by NASA, the Boeing Starliner capsule uses parachutes as it descends to land at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Credit: NASA via AP
  • Boeing capsule lands back on Earth after space shakedown
    In this image from video made available by NASA, the Boeing Starliner capsule, upper center, leaves the International Space Station on Wedndesday, May 25, 2022. At bottom foreground is a SpaceX Dragon capsule, still docked to the station. Credit: NASA via AP

A folded U.S. flag sent up by Boeing stayed behind, to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.

“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines radioed as the capsule flew away.

Along for the ride was Starliner’s test dummy—Rosie the Rocketeer, a takeoff on World War II’s Rosie the Riveter.

The repairs and do-over cost Boeing nearly $600 million.

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Boeing docks crew capsule to space station in test do-over

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