A robotic rocket that can repeatedly take off and land vertically would have endless uses: As a lunar lander that can park itself at a fuel station, gas up, and immediately relaunch to ferry supplies elsewhere on the moon. Or as a space-tourism craft that can touch down safely on helicopter-like landing pads. That's why four years ago, NASA opened the $1-million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a competition designed to encourage private companies to develop low-cost rockets with the precision, power and quick turnaround needed for moon and other missions.
Blindness, brain cancer, vegetative states: These are among the most hopeless conditions without cures—yet. Now doctors are turning to unorthodox methods to solve some of medicine's most intractable challenges. The early results are in, and they look promising.
This year, the rules have all but disappeared for competitors in the world’s oldest international trophy competition, the America’s Cup sailing race. Motorized sails are fine, the single-hull rule is out, and in the case of the BMW Oracle Racing team’s boat, even sails are optional. Instead, the largest wing ever constructed could catch enough wind to make the yacht the fastest yet.
Autonomous cars and military 'bots find their way by using lasers to make virtual maps of terrain. Neato Robotics's XV-11 applies the same tactic to your messy living room. The robotic vacuum uses smaller, cheaper lasers to scope out a space and plot the quickest path to cover it. So instead of wandering randomly and bouncing off objects, like other robot maids, it can devote its battery to actual vacuuming.
Teamwork among honeybees keeps a hive running smoothly. Worker bees collect pollen, nurse bees care for larvae, and male drones spread the colony's genes. Each insect's efforts ensure the colony's success. That strategy led Gu-Yeon Wei to suggest that Rob Wood morph an almond-size robotic fly he had developed into a fleet of autonomous bees, each capable of carrying out specialized tasks. Perhaps, they speculated, the "RoboBees" could supplement the pollinating duties of bees stricken by a mysterious affliction that's killed 36 percent of America's 2.4 million hives.
When starlight passes through a planet's atmosphere, certain elements absorb specific wavelengths of light, and these show up as dips in the spectrum.
If aliens are out there, the best shot at finding them—assuming they resemble the life-forms on Earth—is to look for planets like ours. E.T.'s home will probably require an atmosphere to have liquid water and keep out solar radiation, so astronomers search for perfectly sized and situated planets surrounded by blankets of life-supporting gases like oxygen and water vapor. Now they know how to recognize that ideal atmosphere.
This is not your typical light show. The neon light piping into the brain of a mouse with Parkinson's disease stops the animal's tremors instantly. Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University believe the laser light can "turn on" damaged or inactive brain cells.
What happens when you pop a pill? Inside the University of Calgary's $1.5-million virtual-reality room, scientists can don a pair of 3-D goggles and find out in high-definition detail. Biochemist Christoph Sensen and his colleagues have created a virtual human dubbed the CAVEman (for Automated Virtual Environment) that lets them monitor how a virtual body metabolizes medicine.
In the movies, entrusting human life to robot helpers and sophisticated machines inevitable ends in fire, destruction and death. But in reality, the automatons are actually saving lives. We featured six Machines that Heal in our July issue, one of which is Twendy-One, a Japanese robot nurse straight out of the comic books built to assists the elderly.
As firemen prepare for wildfire season this summer, they will reach for their trusty Pulaski ax, the century-old tool used to hack ditches between flames and the rest of the forest. But they will have some new, high-tech help as well. Mini tree-mounted weather stations and airborne infrared sensors will provide the clearest picture yet of where fires are and where they're headed.