Monday, April 30, 2012

Underwater Robot Face Off

With a national title on the line, student teams from across the country are competing with their underwater robots in the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-funded championship in Manassas Park, Va.

The 2012 National SeaPerch Challenge brings top teams from middle and high school together to compete with the underwater robots they’ve built as part of a curriculum designed to boost their skills and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The SeaPerch program is an initiative under the Department of the Navy’s STEM Coordination Office, which facilitates outreach efforts across the service. The chief of naval research, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, presented awards to winning teams.

“SeaPerch provides an affordable entry point for underwater robotics, and, from there, directional arrows to other science and engineering competitions and internships—it’s an easy-to-follow ‘yellow brick road’ approach,” said Kelly Cooper, program officer, ONR Sea Platforms and Weapons division. “The goal is to expand student awareness and encourage them to pursue STEM education and careers.”

The competition challenges are designed to reflect Navy-relevant operations. This year, the 70 teams are competing in two events: an obstacle course and a salvage operation. Both take place in a community center indoor pool.

For the obstacle course, teams must navigate through 24-inch rings—which may be oriented in any direction—surface, re-submerge and return through the course. The salvage operation involves five 5-gallon buckets inverted on the pool’s bottom, which each team must float to the surface and then bring poolside.

SeaPerch gives teachers and students the resources they need to build an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from a kit made up of low-cost, easily accessible parts, following a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts with a marine engineering theme. The objective is that students will build STEM, problem-solving and teamwork skills.

Since 2007, more than 42,000 students have participated in SeaPerch. The program is funded by ONR and managed by the AUVSI Foundation—the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International.

Cooper believes that SeaPerch is an educational equalizer. “SeaPerch really resonates with students who do better with hands-on learning,” she said. “It also brings inner-city and magnet schools together to compete, while showing the inner-city students that their ROVs work just as well and that STEM careers are accessible and a real option for them.”

Last year marked the first National SeaPerch Challenge, which was held in Philadelphia with 38 teams. The 2013 event will be May 18 in Indianapolis, with 100 teams expected to compete.

Information for this article provided by the Office of Naval Research

NASA Statement on John Glenn Selection for Medal of Freedom

David Weaver
Headquarters, Washington                               

WASHINGTON -- NASA has released the following statement by Administrator Charles Bolden about President Obama's announcement that astronaut John Glenn has been selected as a recipient of the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom:

"NASA sends its warmest congratulations to Sen. John Glenn on being named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both of John's historic missions to space personified America's dreams and what we believed we could be. Just as President Obama has set us on a course to explore farther destinations in the solar system, John Glenn helped this nation forge a path to a brighter future with greater capabilities. We will build on his achievements to remain the world's space leader for generations to come."

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Better Than Bottled Water

Water purification specialists with Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit , put their water purification systems to the test on a Moroccan beach, during the bi-lateral exercise named African Lion 2012.

The Marines assembled a Tactical Water Purification System  (TWPS) and Lightweight Water Purification System  (LWPS) on the beach to turn ocean water into a sustainable, potable water source for the Marines conducting training operations with the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces , and test the systems on a foreign water source.

“Instead of bringing thousands of pallets of water ashore, this is what we use,” said Cpl. Kyle Slusher, a water purification specialist with CLB 24. “This is what’s going to sustain our force, and we can use it wherever there is a water source.”

Marines  use water purification systems to sustain their forces and also to provide water for a number of other operations such as disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, according to Cpl. Cody Sorrell, a water purification specialist.

“We can use this capability for any sort of mission where Marines are going to be there a long period of time,” Sorrell said. “You can’t conduct operations without a sustainable water source.”

The current mission is to provide a clean water source for Marines training ashore in the desert landscape of Morocco . The water these Marines are sustaining the training units ashore who are working with members of the Moroccan military.

Without this capability, the logistics problem of supplying clean water to the shores of Morocco would become a problem of time and money that would distract from the mission of training between the Marines and Moroccans.

The TWPS is 10,000 pounds, and able to purify approximately 10,000 gallons of water a day by pumping it through a series of filters, which reduce the TDS (total dissolved solids) rating to a level more than fit for human consumption.

Pound for pound for Marines on the ground, it is more than worth its weight in water.

“It’s better than bottled water,” said Slusher.

According to the Marion, Ohio native, the average bottle of water has a TDS ratting between 400 and 500. Using the TWPS, water purification specialist can reduce the TDS ratting to 20.

“A bottle of water from the TWPS is more pure than what you would get from a factory,” he said. “It’s because the only thing we have to add back into the water is chlorine to preserve it.”

The TWPS has the ability to purify water ranging from lake water to nuclear contaminated water, he said.

“If a nuclear bomb went off behind me, we would be able to provide contaminate free water in an hour,” he said.

The LWPS is a smaller version of the TWPS. While not able to boast the same range of capabilities as the TWPS, its use is focused on supplying a small force. Weighing 3,580 pounds the system is able to provide around 2,000 gallons of water a day.

“We use this somewhere we have a really small foot print,” he said.

The last opportunity the Marines had to test their system’s capabilities was in September 2011 at Fort Pickett, Va. , where they filtered lake water, substantially easy to filter in comparison to the salty ocean water they now face in Morocco, according to Slusher.

“Right now we’re showing we can get in, set up and operate it anywhere,” he said.

Story written by Sgt. Richard Blumenstein
On location in Morocco

Power Prosthetics Propel Service Members to Better Lives

By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., April 27, 2012 – Marine Corps Cpl. Garrett Carnes was on a clearing mission in Afghanistan‘s southern Helmand province in February when he stepped on a pressure plate that exploded and cost him both legs.

Two months later, the former squad leader was fitted with prosthetic legs -- one with the X2 microprocessor power knee, and the new combination of a bionic foot and ankle at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center here.

Carnes, 22, called his first steps “motivating.” The gift of being able to walk so soon exceeded his expectations. “Mentally, it feels good to get back on my feet,” he said, taking steps on a slightly elevated ramp with parallel bars to grasp. “It’s a little awkward, like a baby who’s learning to walk.”

Such steps are taken every day at Walter Reed’s prosthetics gait lab, where rapidly changing technology is giving active-duty service members the chance to walk again and, in some cases, return to duty, said Dr. Charles Scoville, chief of amputee services in the orthopedics and rehabilitation department.

First considered impossible to design, the X2 and higher grade X3 knees have provided a new way of life for above-the-knee amputees, Scoville said. New microprocessors have five sensors, compared with the original C-Leg, which had two.

Now, a combination of gyroscopes, accelerators and hydraulics provide the knee with greater stability, mobility and versatility by recognizing actions, officials said. The multiple sensors can determine when the wearer wants to sit down or go up and down ramps and stairs, all without presetting the limb with a remote device, as required by the former technology.

The first prosthetic limbs, Scoville said, had mechanical knees that were neither limber nor conducive to the warfighter. The wearer had to swing the leg outward and project himself forward to walk.

The Biom ankle -- a combination foot and ankle prosthetic that works with the X2 or X3 knee and is specifically designed for returning warfighters -- is the newest device that enables flexibility.

Scoville describes the knee and ankle/foot combination as more intuitive than older versions.

“It does the work for you,” he said. By replacing the once-rigid prostheses, the new, lighter and user-friendly limbs allow enough flexibility to stand on one leg, and step or walk backward without falling, he said.

Army Staff Sgt. Billy Costello demonstrated his knee, foot and ankle flexibility by sitting on the floor and stretching to pull his foot toward him. He also lost a leg by stepping on an improvised explosive device while on a clearance mission.

“We had just taken out 19 IEDs,” he said. “I found one more the hard way.”

Costello was another patient who progressed faster than his doctors expected. Soon to be discharged, he is an intern at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. and plans to enter the National Guard when he returns to North Carolina.

“I still want to support the guys,” he said, adding that he would deploy if his medical condition allows it, but quickly added he doesn’t want to be a “liability” to his unit.

“The vast majority of patients won’t return to active duty,” Scoville said. “Our goal is to bring them to their highest level of function.”

Scoville said 1,453 troops with severe limb loss have been fitted with prostheses since December 2001 and of those, some 300 service members returned to duty, with 53 redeploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We view patients as tactical athletes,” Scoville said. “They don’t have an off-season and they don’t know when their next game will be."

Marine Corps Cpl. Rory Hammill plans to resume his active lifestyle once he’s discharged from active-duty. Before an accident in Marja, Afghanistan claimed one of his legs, he was a runner, snowboarder and surfer, all of which he hopes to resume he said, close to the level of ability he once had.

These service members are just a few of the 200-250 patients who are fitted with prosthetic limbs each month at Walter Reed, said David Laufer, chief of orthotics and prosthetics services. By contrast, he added, the civilian sector produces about the same number per year. In addition to limbs, the lab also creates hands that can move fingers, with such dexterity that they can operate a computer mouse and perform other daily tasks. Designing and developing hands is the lab’s niche, Laufer said, noting that work is ongoing to enable hands to act intuitively like ankles, feet and knees.

Far fewer hands are made in the lab than legs. “The standard of care is shifting,” Scofield said. “It’s made a significant impact on the wounded warriors who live with these advances. We want people to know we’re restoring their lives.”

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Within the Realm of a Dying Star

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been on the forefront of research into the lives of stars like our sun. At the ends of their lives, these stars run out of nuclear fuel in a phase that is called the preplanetary or protoplanetary nebula stage. This Hubble image of the Egg Nebula shows one of the best views to date of this brief, but dramatic, phase in a star’s life.

During the preplanetary nebula phase, the hot remains of an aging star in the center of the nebula heat it up, excite the gas and make it glow over several thousand years. The short lifespan of preplanetary nebulae means there are relatively few of them in existence at any one time. Moreover, they are very dim, requiring powerful telescopes to be seen. This combination of rarity and faintness means they were only discovered comparatively recently. The Egg Nebula, the first to be discovered, was first spotted less than 40 years ago, and many aspects of this class of object remain shrouded in mystery.

At the center of this image, and hidden in a thick cloud of dust, is the nebula’s central star. While scientists can’t see the star directly, four searchlight beams of light coming from it shine out through the nebula. Researchers hypothesize that ring-shaped holes in the thick cocoon of dust, carved by jets coming from the star, let the beams of light emerge through the otherwise opaque cloud. The precise mechanism by which stellar jets produce these holes is not known, but one explanation is that a binary star system, rather than a single star, exists at the center of the nebula.

The onion-like layered structure of the more diffuse cloud surrounding the central cocoon is caused by periodic bursts of material being ejected from the dying star. The bursts typically occur every few hundred years.

This image is produced from exposures in visible and infrared light from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA