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April 1, 2013 at 6:50 PM
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Scientists fly drones over active volcano

PASADENA, Calif., April 1 (UPI) -- NASA says earth science researchers flew an unmanned aerial vehicle into the sulfur dioxide plume of a Costa Rican volcano to study its chemical environment.

The scientists launched 10 flights of small electric aircraft, equipped with cameras and sensors, into the volcanic plume of the Turrialba Volcano near San Jose, Costa Rico, the space agency reported Monday.

The project is intended to improve remote-sensing capabilities of satellites and computer models of volcanic activity, researchers said.

"It is very difficult to gather data from within volcanic eruption columns and plumes because updraft wind speeds are very high and high ash concentrations can quickly destroy aircraft engines," said researcher David Pieri from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Such flight environments can be very dangerous to manned aircraft. Volcanic eruption plumes may stretch for miles from a summit vent and detached ash clouds can drift hundreds to thousands of miles from an eruption site."

The Dragon Eye UAVs, formerly used by the U.S. Marine Corps, used in the study weigh 5.9 pounds, have a 3.75-foot wingspan and utilize twin electric engines that ingest little contaminated air, the researchers said.

"This project is great example of how unmanned aircraft can be used for beneficial civilian purposes -- in this case for better understanding Earth system processes and the impact of volcanism on our atmosphere, said Matthew Fladeland of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "By taking these retired military tools, we can very efficiently and effectively collect measurements that improve NASA satellite data and aviation safety."

Shellfish gone near damaged nuke plant

TOKYO, April 1 (UPI) -- A species of shellfish has disappeared along an 18-mile stretch of coast near Japan's devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, scientists say.

Researchers from Japan's National Institute for Environmental Studies and National Institute of Radiological Sciences found a species of shellfish known as Thais clavigera was extinct in eight of 10 places within the 12-mile-radius alert zone of the nuclear plant, which was damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Other shellfish species were found in the alert zone but their numbers had declined and high levels of radioactive materials were detected in them, the researchers said.

Lead researcher Toshihiro Horiguchi said the disappearance of Thais clavigera was likely a result of radiation from the damaged plant.

Researchers ruled out the tsunami as a cause, because the shellfish were found surviving in other areas affected by the disaster, having disappeared only from the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima plant, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.

Swiss firm plans robotic mini-shuttle

PAYERNE, Sweden, April 1 (UPI) -- A Swiss firm says it intends to construct a robotic rocket plane that will launch satellites into orbit off the back of a modified jetliner.

Swiss Space Systems -- S3 -- says its unmanned suborbital shuttle could be traveling to launch height atop an Airbus A300 jetliner by 2017.

"S3 aims to develop, build, certify and operate suborbital space shuttles dedicated to launching small satellites, enabling space access to be made more democratic thanks to an original system with launching costs up to four times less than at present," the company, which has headquarters in Payerne, said in a statement.

While it will concentrate on launching unmanned satellites at first, it has plans beyond that, a company spokesman said.

"Our first priority is the launch of small satellites until 2018," Gregoire Loretan, S3's head of communications, told SPACE.com. "And the goal for S3 is to establish certification process and standards to help the development of manned flight afterwards."

The carrier aircraft would lift the robot rocket plane to a lunch altitude of about 33,000 feet, S3 said, at which point the rocket plane will utilize a liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket engine to reach an altitude of around 50 miles, high enough to put a satellite equipped with its own small rocket into orbit about 434 miles above Earth.

After deploying the satellite the robotic space plane would glide to Earth and land at a spaceport S3 said it will build in Payerne.

U.S. retires supercomputer

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., April 1 (UPI) -- A supercomputer that was once the fastest in the world -- and the first to break a computing speed milestone -- has been retired, U.S. researchers say.

Five years after becoming the first system to break the petaflop barrier (a quadrillion floating point operations per second), IBM's Roadrunner computer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has been decommissioned, eWeek reported Monday.

The $125 million computer -- which covered 6,000 square feet and held 6,563 dual-core processors and high-performance graphics chips spread out over 296 server racks -- will be dismantled, scientists said.

Its relatively short working life is an example of the extraordinary speed of development and innovation in high-performance supercomputers, they said.

"Roadrunner was a truly pioneering idea," Gary Grider of the laboratory's High Performance Computing Division, said in a statement. "Roadrunner got everyone thinking in new ways about how to build and use a supercomputer. Specialized processors are being included in new ways on new systems, and being used in novel ways. Our demonstration with Roadrunner caused everyone to pay attention."

Roadrunner helped drive the use of coprocessors and graphics accelerators to create supercomputers, and experts say new designs could be performing 1 quintillion calculations per second, 1,000 times faster than Roadrunner, by 2020.

"Even in death, we are trying to learn from Roadrunner," Grider said.

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