Building a brand new spacecraft means knowing when to innovate and when to stick to flight-proven methods, and for Crew Dragon, SpaceX decided to ditch the buttons and dials and go full touchscreen. The astronauts who will fly it later this month have had likewise to ditch years of training and muscle memory — but it’s not all bad, they say.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts soon to launch to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon capsule, will be the first to actually fly the craft in space.
“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” said Behnken in a press interview broadcast by NASA .
Of course they’re more than adequately prepared — not only have they spent countless hours in simulators, but they collaborated with SpaceX from early days.
“It was on the order of at least 5 or 6 years ago that we went out to SpaceX and evaluated a bunch of different control mechanisms,” said Hurley. “They were looking at every which way of flying the vehicle, and ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface.”
“Of course, you know, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” he continued. “But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input.”
Compare the photo at the top of the story with the following shot of the physical simulator where astronauts learn to pilot the Russian Soyuz capsule:
And of course even modern aircraft are still a mess of physical controls, no doubt familiar to the pilot but inarguably dated in design.
Behnke pointed out that these spacecraft are made with a very specific purpose in mind: Going to and docking with the ISS. No one is going to Mars in one of these things, and that impacts how they’re designed and piloted.
“The flying task is very unique: To come close to the space station and fly in proximity, then slowly come into contact, is maybe a little bit different from what you would see for flying a space shuttle or an aircraft,” said Behnke with characteristic understatement (the difference is night and day). “When we evaluated the touchscreen interface we really did focus on the task at hand and trying to get good performance for that specific task.”
A prototype Crew Dragon has already launched to the ISS and returned, having been piloted both autonomously and remotely.
“It was challenging for us and for them at first to work through those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from the manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well,” said Hurley.
“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input, relative to what you would do with a stick,” he continued. “Because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down. I actually have to make a concerted effort to do that with the touchscreen, if that makes sense.”
“I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is not to switch to a touchscreen, necessarily,” said Behnke. “But for the task that we have and to keep ourselves safe flying close to the ISS, the touchscreen is gonna provide us that capability just fine.”
Hurley pointed out that one major advantage is that the controls and readouts are all in the same place: “You’re seeing the docking target, for example, right in the same place you’re looking to fly the vehicle. So it is a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”
There’s only so much one can learn in a simulator, though, and this first crewed flight is still very much a test, the feedback from which will inform the next iteration of the capsule. It’s easier, after all, to push a software update than to rewire the pots of 20 different knobs in a system that goes back decades.
“We specifically, as part of this test flight, designed in some time in the preflight phase, as well as closer to space station, so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle,” Hurley explained. “Just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to, and the way the simulator shows it to fly. It’s a prudent part of our flight test just like anything else, in case the eventuality happened that a future crew needed to take over manually and fly the spacecraft. So we’re just doing our part, to kinda test out all the different capabilities of the Crew Dragon.”
We are sure to hear more about the version of Crew Dragon that will be flying later this month if everything goes according to plan. In the meantime I have asked both SpaceX and NASA for more information on the control scheme and its development.
The cleanest pocket of air on Earth? It's in the Southern Ocean, between Tasmania and Antarctica – TheChronicleHerald.ca
The cleanest air on Earth lies in a pocket of sky between Tasmania and Antarctica, scientists say.
A team of researchers at Colorado State University conducted a bioaerosol study of the Southern Ocean from Tasmania to Antarctica — the first of its kind — and drew air samples at the marine boundary level, where the atmosphere meets the ocean surface.
“We were able to use the bacteria in the air over the Southern Ocean (SO) as a diagnostic tool to infer key properties of the lower atmosphere,” microbian ecologist Thomas Hill, from Colorado State University, told
Via modelling and analysis, the team noted that the samples were free of aerosol particles — a sure indicator of human activity, like fossil fuel burning, agriculture and fertilizer production — blown in from other parts of the world. The samples were also split into latitudinal zones, so that the team could observe how the air changed as they moved further south.
Via wind patterns, airborne microorganisms can travel vast distances. However, the bacterial make-up of the samples suggested that the closer they were taken to Antarctica, the cleaner they became. This suggests that aerosols from distant land masses and human activities are not travelling south into Antarctic air.
Instead, the samples appear to be composed of microorganisms from the ocean and little else.
“It suggests that the SO (Southern Ocean) is one of very few places on Earth that has been minimally affected by anthropogenic activities,” Hill said.
The results counter similar studies that were carried out in oceans in the subtropics and the Northern Hemisphere, which concluded that most microbes came from upwind continents.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020
B.C.'s "living dinosaurs" threatened by ocean warming and acidification – Straight.com
The world’s warming oceans and the ongoing acidification of seawater are having a serious effect on B.C.’s rare glass sponges and their associated reefs, according to a study conducted by UBC researchers.
The sponge reefs—constructed by living glass sponges growing on the skeletons of previous generations—can grow to the height of a six-storey building and were thought to have become extinct worldwide about 40 million years ago, until the discovery of massive reefs 200 metres deep in Hecate Strait in northern B.C. in 1987 (although they had been observed as unexplained “mounds” on the floors of Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait during sonar surveys a few years previous).
At the time, the reefs were described by astonished scientists as “living dinosaurs”. German paleontologist Manfred Krautter was quoted as saying their discovery in B.C. waters “electrified” him and was “like discovering a herd of dinosaurs on land”, and the prehistoric constructs are often referred to as “Jurassic Park submerged”.
Subsequent dives by scientists in submersibles determined that they were up to 6,000 years old and covered a surface area of up to 700 square kilometres. It is theorized that the sponges, which are living marine animals, started building reefs there after B.C.’s most recent glaciation period scraped the ocean bottom clean more than 9,000 years ago.
Since the first discoveries, another 19 glass-sponge reefs have been found in the Strait of Georgia, part of what is often called the Salish Sea. An American geologist found other, specialized, reefs off the coast of Washington state in 2007.
The sponges use dissolved silica—glass, essentially—to build skeletons constructed of needlelike so-called spicules. Although glass sponges are common around the world, only in very rare cases do they form reefs, building new structures on top of the skeletons of dead sponges. The relatively accessible reefs found in Howe Sound are unique in the world for their shallow depth of less than 40 metres.
The UBC paper—published on May 18 in Scientific Reports, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal—detailed the results of an experiment initiated by Angela Stevenson, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC’s zoology department who is the study’s lead researcher. Stevenson was aided by scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, Vancouver’s Ocean Wise Research Institute, and UBC’s department of botany.
Stevenson brought some examples of Aphrocallistes vastus—called the cloud sponge and one of three species of reef-building glass sponges found in B.C. waters—from Howe Sound to a UBC lab. Water temperature and acidity were then manipulated for a four-month study, resulting in the first successful long-term lab experiment involving living glass sponges.
““Their sheer size and tremendous filtration capacity put them at the heart of a lush and productive underwater system, so we wanted to examine how climate change might impact their survival,” Stevenson said in a June 1 UBC news release.
The researchers were monitoring the sponges’ durability, pumping ability, and skeletal strength. The results showed that the sponges experienced up to a 25 percent loss in tissue and a 50-percent reduction in pumpong capacity. Their bodies also became more elastic and lost about half their strength.
“Most worryingly, pumping began to slow within two weeks of exposure to elevated temperatures,” Stevenson noted.
Glass sponges survive by pumping enormous volumes of water through their systems, filtering out the bacteria and plankton that they eat and purifying the surrounding seawater. It is estimated that the 19 reefs that are known to be in the Salish Sea can filter up to 100 billion litres of seawater every day, removing about 80 percent of the particles and microbes therein.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) B.C chapter, which advocates to protect glass-sponge reefs, says that 95 percent of seawater bacteria are filtered out by glass sponges and that a small reef of the sponges will filter and clean a volume of water every 60 seconds that would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The reefs are protected by various conservation efforts in B.C’s deep northern waters and shallower Salish Sea depths, including federal marine protected areas in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound and smaller buffer zones in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. CPAWS says that research shows both measuers require expansion to fully protect the delicate structures from potential fishing and resource-exploration damage.
Borttom fishing, especially trawling, can devastate glass-sponge reefs, and suspended sediment can choke the sponges’ feeding filters and even kill them. Crab and prawn traps can damage or crush the sponge skeletons.
Jeff Marliave, an Ocean Wise senior researcher and paper coauthor, said in the release that more study is needed to understand how climate change might affect the reefs. “In Howe Sound, we want to figure out a way to track changes in sponge growth, size and area and area in the field so we can better understand potential climate implications at a larger scale. We also want to understand the microbial food webs that support sponges and how they might be influenced by climate cycles.”
Stevenson had a cautionary thought about what is required to guarantee the future safety of the reefs, whaich have been described as “international treasures”.
“When most people think about reefs, they think of tropical shallow-water reefs like the beautiful Great Barrier Reef in Australia,” Stevenson said. “But we have these incredible deep-water reefs in our own backyard in Canada. If we don’t do our best to stand up for them, it will be like discovering a herd of dinosaurs and then immediately dropping dynamite on them.”
What a dinosaur's last supper reveals about life in the Cretaceous period – CBC.ca
A beautifully preserved armoured dinosaur found in an Alberta oilsands mine died on a full stomach. The “extraordinarily rare” preservation of its last meal offers new clues and surprises about how the dinosaur lived during its last days.
The 5.5-metre-long, 1,300 kilogram spiky, plant-eating nodosaur, similar to an ankylosaurus but without a tail club, is the only known one of its species, Borealopelta markmitchelli. (Its name means “shield of the north” and honours Mark Mitchell, the technician who spent 7,000 carefully extracting the fossil from the surrounding rock).
The nodosaur lived 110 million years ago during the early Cretaceous, in a lush forest of conifers, ferns and palm-like plants called cycads, near the coast of what was then an inland sea. At the time, the climate was warmer, similar to that of South Carolina, said Caleb Brown, a paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta and lead author of the new study. It was published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
The fossil was discovered by accident in 2011 by Shawn Funk, a shovel operator at the Suncor Millennium Mine near Fort McMurray. Paleontologists from the Royal Tyrrell were called to have a look and realized at once that it was no ordinary fossil.
While most fossils include only bones, this one included skin. It was so well-preserved that it has been described as “mummified.”
In the dinosaur’s belly, “there were these massive concentrations of what looked like rocks,” Brown said.
Those were in a mass about the size of a soccer ball, and it appears they were gastroliths — rocks that some plant-eating dinosaurs use to grind up their food in their stomachs, as modern birds do, instead of using their teeth.
Sure enough, when chunks of the mass were encased in resin, sliced and examined under the microscope, the researcher could see well-preserved twigs, leaves, mosses, pollen and spores.
To get some help at identifying the plant material, the dinosaur researchers turned to paleobotanists, including University of Brandon researcher David Greenwood and his team, along with their retired Royal Tyrrell colleague Dennis Braman.
Ferns and charcoal
They discovered that the dinosaur was a bit of a picky eater. While it lumbered through a landscape that was lush with conifers, horsetails and cycads, there weren’t a lot of those in its stomach.
“It’s almost all ferns,” Brown said, noting that ferns aren’t actually very nutritious. “It wasn’t just hoovering up everything on the landscape.”
But to him, the biggest surprise was that the stomach also contained a significant amount of wood, mostly charcoal, suggesting it was feeding in an area that had recently been ravaged by wildfires.
“And that’s a really cool result,” Brown said. “Because if you look at large mammals that are herbivores today, they often seek out areas that are recovering from forest fires.”
That’s because the new growth tends to be lush, more nutritious than older plants, and low to the ground where it’s easily accessible.
By looking at the types of spores and the fact that the twigs appeared to be in the middle of their growing season, the researchers figured out that the animal died during the wet season, which was late spring or early summer.
In Dinosaur Cold Case, a recent documentary about the fossil on CBC’s Nature of Things, Greenwood said extreme storms and flash floods would have been a problem at that time of year on the coastal plain where the dinosaur and suggested that being swept away by rushing water may have been what caused its death.
The discoveries about the nodosaur’s last meal are significant because to date, Brown said, “we know almost nothing about what herbivorous dinosaurs eat.”
Only guesses can be made based on what plants lived nearby and the dinosaur’s teeth. There are also clues in fossil dinosaur feces, but the plant material in those are often digested beyond recognition and it’s difficult to know which dinosaur they came from.
Part of the problem is that finding preserved stomach contents from a dinosaur is “extraordinarily rare,” Jim Basinger of the University of Saskatchewan, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Nine cases of possible dinosaur stomachs of plant-eating dinosaurs have been found, the researchers note, but most have turned out to just be plant material found nearby rather than actual stomachs. In this case, the dinosaur was washed far out to sea, without any plants from the landscape it lived in, before it was fossilized.
“So in this case we have what I would say is by far the best evidence that these are stomach contents,” Brown said.
That said, he notes that it may not necessarily be representative of what this species normally ate, as an animal’s diet can vary depending on its age, its health, and the seasonal availability of different foods.
Still, he said it’s useful to be able to compare it to what scientists think plant-eating dinosaurs were eating at that time and raises new questions to investigate, such as: How much of this food a dinosaur this size would have needed to eat to sustain itself? And how did it digest it?
“I think give us a benchmark for figuring out how this animal may have lived.”
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