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Thursday, August 27, 2015

NASA: Orion will take us to Mars

by Mark Ollig

When will the first human walk on the surface of the planet Mars?

What will the folks, who remembered seeing Neil Armstrong taking that first step onto the moon, think?

Many of you, along with me, no doubt vividly recall the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon-landing mission.

We watched the television screen in awe and wonderment; some of us even looked out the window and gazed up at the moon, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface.

There are a couple reasons I am writing about this.

The first is after re-watching the NASA video of the launch of the Orion EFT-1 (Exploration Flight Test) Dec. 5, 2014; I started thinking about those exciting Apollo missions from the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The second reason is because my brother is having a birthday soon, and I know how he gets a kick out of reading these space-themed columns his kid brother pens.

So, dear brother, here’s another Bits & Bytes space column I hope you’ll enjoy.

The Orion EFT-1 launch was a full-scale, uncrewed, test flight.

A powerful Delta IV heavy rocket launched the Orion MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) into an Earth orbit roughly 15 times higher than that of the International Space Station.

In fact, this test flight saw Orion (to be used for crewed deep-space missions), reach a maximum distance from the Earth of 3,600 miles.

Orion’s successful test flight lasted 4 hours and 23 minutes.

It ended with the Orion crew module entering the Earth’s atmosphere, deploying its parachutes, and making a perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Seeing this was nostalgic; it brought back feelings of excitement and drama comparable to an Apollo command module splashdown.

In fact, the Orion spacecraft crew module strongly resembles the familiar 1960s Apollo command module; although Orion is a bit larger.

Orion’s crew module will provide a sustainable living environment for its human, space-traveling occupants.

The attached Orion service module (resembling an Apollo-era service module), contains the oxygen, water, and power requirements for the crew module.

In comparison, the old Apollo command module could hold three astronauts, and was 12 feet 8 inches in diameter, whereas the Orion crew module holds four astronauts, and measures 16 feet 4-inches.

The crew and service modules of Orion physically look, and perform (more or less) the same basic functions as did the Apollo command and service module.

We will need to wait until 2021, before Orion sends people into space.

It won’t be until the 2030s, when the Orion spacecraft, with its human occupants, travels to Mars.

My message to NASA is: “Be safe, of course; but please hurry up with this Orion Mars-landing mission.”

I mention this, because after crunching the numbers, by the time Orion gets into orbit around Mars, say in 2035; yours truly will be 77 years old (and will probably be still writing this column).

This would be 66 years from when I first saw Armstrong walking on the moon, and hearing Walter Cronkite excitedly shout from the television set; “Man on the Moon! Oh, boy!”

Keep up with the latest news on Orion via its social media sites:

NASA’s YouTube channel shows video of the liftoff of the Orion spacecraft (with some beautiful views from its onboard cameras) here:

Do you want your name to be sent to Mars?

NASA will place your name within a silicon microchip installed on the new InSight Mars rover/lander. It is scheduled to be launched to the Red Planet next year.

InSight will be conducting tests, and gathering soil and rock samples to identify what makes up the Martian planet; this includes drilling deep beneath its surface.

“By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you’re showing that you’re part of that journey and the future of space exploration,” said Jim Green, who is the director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA is accepting name submissions until Sept. 8 at: If you have not “flown” with NASA before, scroll down on this webpage to the “New Flyers” section to add your name.

The Insight Mars lander is slated to launch from Vandenberg AFB in CA, March 4, 2016, and will land at Elysium Planitia or “Plain of Ideal Happiness” on Mars in late 2016.

You can view my Mars Insight boarding pass here:

NASA’s InSight website is:

So, how will yours truly react when watching the first human to walk on the planet Mars?

You’ll need to read about it in a future column – after Orion gets there.

Have a happy birthday, Mike.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Renowned Czech and Polish inventors

by Mark Ollig

I am dedicating this week’s column to my mother.

You see, my mom is celebrating a big birthday this week.

Her father was Polish and Czech, while her mother was 100 percent Czech.

So, in seeking to come up with a theme for this special column, I decided to write about inventions contributed by some of the Czech and Polish folks.

German and French lineage was on my father’s side of the family, so yours truly logically concluded this makes me a combination of Czech, Polish, German, and French.

There is a possibility my father’s mother’s side also had some Polish ancestry; however, I never established absolute confirmation on this.

But I digress.

And so, faithful readers, since “C” comes before “P” we will start out with a Czech inventor.

Czech inventor Frantisek “Franz” Krizik was born July 8, 1847, in Bohemia of the now Czech Republic.

Krizik, an electrical engineer, along with fellow engineer Ludwig Piette, were responsible for the invention of the arc-lamp.

The arc-lamp is an electrical source of light caused when an arc of electricity is burning between two electrodes, or electrical conductors.

Krizik designed the arc-lamp electric lighting system used for an Austrian paper mill.

The arc-lamp also won the Gold Medal award at the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881.

Both Krizik and Piette were subjects of the Empire of Austria, and resided in Pilsen.

Pilsen is a town located in West Bohemia, which is in the Czech Republic.

Krizik and Piette’s arc-lamp, encased in a decorative metal and glass enclosure, came to be known as “The Pilsen Light.”

They were used in theaters, and for public lighting, all around the world.

In 1880, their arc-lamp was patented in England, Germany, France, Belgium, and Austria-Hungary.

March 13, 1883, the US Patent office granted Krizik and Piette US Patent No. 273,888 for their invention of the electric-arc lamp.

You can view the complete US patent at:

Krizik passed away Jan., 22, 1941; however, his contribution of the electric arc-lamp is still remembered today.

Polish inventor Stanislaw Olszewski, born in 1852, was also involved in an “arc” invention; however, his fame comes as the co-creator of carbon arc welding.

Olszewski, along with Russian inventor Nickolai Benardos, patented their arc welding process in Britain in 1885, and received US Patent No. 363,320 on May 17, 1887.

You can view their complete US patent titled “Process of and Apparatus for Working Metals by the Direct Application of Electric Current” here:

While not patented, the word “robot” has nevertheless become a part of the technical jargon commonly used in today’s world; and frequently seen in this column.

We need to credit this word to brothers Karel and Josef Capek, both of whom were Czech, and born in Bohemia, which is today, as we know, part of the Czech Republic.

In 1920, Czech writer, novelist, and journalist Karel Capek wrote a play called “R.U.R.” meaning: “Rossum’s Universal Robots.”

Rossum’s Universal Robots is the name of the factory where “artificial people” or automatons, called “robots,” are being built.

Robot, or robotics, comes from the Czech word meaning “forced labor” or “servitude.”, as well as, says “robots” was suggested to be used in the play by Karel’s brother, Josef.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary says this about the origin of the word robot: “Czech, from robota; compulsory labor.”

Capek’s play came to the United States, and was performed in New York in 1922, and then in London in 1923.

Polish Inventor, Joseph Tykocinski-Tykociner, produced the first direct sound-on-film (audible film soundtrack) recording in 1921.

I watched a very grainy, but visually viewable and audibly listenable video, produced by Joseph Tykocinski-Tykociner, titled “Talking Motion Pictures,” which textually explains and demonstrates sound being directly recorded as an audio track onto cinematic film.

The old film starts with this text: “Apparatus for photographing speech and pictures simultaneously on a film.”

Next, it states its purpose of being a: “Demonstration of the first experimental talking films produced in 1921-1922 at the University of Illinois, by Prof. J.T. Tykociner.”

Joseph Tykocinski-Tykociner’s voice is heard as he performs a test of his speech as it is being directly recorded as an audio soundtrack onto film in October 1921.

Other sights and sounds shown in this five-minute and 41-second demonstration film included bells being rung; it ends with a person playing a violin.

Tykocinski-Tykociner was granted US Patent No. 1,640,557 on Aug. 30, 1927, for “Method of and Means for Transmitting, Recording, and Reproducing Sound,” which you can view in its entirety here:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s library archives is where the demonstration video was embedded from. It was uploaded to YouTube at:

And so, dear readers, we have come to the end of this week’s Bits & Bytes column covering some of the contributions made by Czech and Polish inventors.

In closing, I want to thank my mom for being such an incredibly caring mother to me, and for reading this column over the years.

I also want to wish her a very happy 85th birthday!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Drones to provide Internet service

by Mark Ollig

It might come as a surprise to learn nearly two-thirds of the world’s population is still unable to access the Internet.

Various methods of providing Internet access to those living in economically challenged, or isolated parts of our planet, have been proposed and tested.

Educational researcher Dr. Sugata Mitra, working in New Deli, India, wanted to help the poorer neighborhood children who had no access to computers; let alone the Internet.

The children lived in the shantytown next to where he worked.

Dr. Mitra devised a way to do it.

He cut a hole the size of a small window in the wall dividing his office location from this poorer neighborhood.

Dr. Mitra then attached a shelf in this opening in the wall, and placed a personal computer on it; along with a screen, keyboard, and a mouse.

The computer was then connected to the Internet.

The children appeared very curious, when they first approached Dr. Mitra’s “Hole-in-the-Wall” computer arrangement.

According to Dr. Mitra, most of them had never seen a working computer.

Without any prior computer knowledge, the children were able to learn on their own, how to use the computer.

They figured out how to access the Internet via the computer’s web browser.

The children taught themselves how to play online games, and even learned computer programming.

By accessing educational websites on the Internet, they were able to better themselves through online learning.

Dr. Mitra successfully began more of these “Hole-in-the-Wall” computer arrangements in other locations.

In 2013, Google began testing high-altitude balloons outfitted with Wi-Fi radio transmitters for providing Internet access in New Zealand.

Google’s “Project Loon” would consist of a “network of balloons traveling on the edge of space.”

These balloons would connect the Internet to people living in rural and remote areas of the globe.

Google’s Internet-providing balloon network would also serve during times of disaster; when regular Internet service becomes disrupted.

“Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone,” says Google’s Project Loon webpage:

And now; ladies and gentlemen: It’s time to send in the drones.

“I’m excited to announce we’ve completed construction of our first full-scale aircraft,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced on his Facebook page.

Yes, indeed, the fine folks at Facebook have constructed their own remotely-piloted aircraft, or drone, and plan on using it to extend the reach and availability of the Internet to those living in remote areas around the world.

And we’re not talking your typical miniature hobby quadcopter buzzing above your backyard like an annoying bee.

This solar-powered, V-shaped drone named “Aquila” is huge.

The Aquila drone has a wingspan of 140 feet (equivalent to a Boeing 737), and will be using a high-tech package which includes a combination of radios and lasers.

It weighs around 1,000 pounds, and is made of cured 88-gram T700 carbon fiber, which is three times stronger than steel, and yet lighter than aluminum.

The Aquila has four propellers; two on each wing.

The new data/Internet transmission laser Aquila will use is so precise and calibrated, that it could connect with a location the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.

The lasers will be transmitting high-speed Internet signals at 10Gbps.

The Aquila will fly in a circular pattern above conventional air traffic at an altitude of 90,000 feet during the day, and 60,000 feet at night.

The plan calls for an Internet gateway ground station to transmit an Internet radio signal to a “mother” aircraft (drone) which, in turn, will relay this signal, via a laser beam, to the cluster of other drones flying in the area.

Each of these airborne, circling drones will then deliver to the smartdevices and computers on the ground, a direct wireless radio signal for accessing the Internet.

The ground coverage provided by each airborne drone will be some 31 square miles.

The aircraft is designed to remain in flight for three months, and then glide back to Earth to be refurbished and flown again.

To me, this sounds promising, and Facebook has the financial and technical resources to see it through.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will be testing Aquila’s systems in the coming months.

You can view his Facebook message here:

Facebook’s official developers channel on YouTube shows a video explaining their plan at:

Will large, high-flying drones be providing Internet access to various regions around the world?

Stay tuned to this column for further updates.

Image: Screenshot from Facebook 
YouTube channel video. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bumps in the road: A new source of energy

by Mark Ollig

When traveling during Minnesota’s road construction season, it helps to have good-working shock absorbers installed on our vehicles.
While most of us grit our teeth driving over those bumpier bumps in the road, someone else must have been thinking; “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Using this analogy; lemons are the road bumps, and lemonade is harvested-energy.
Someone has successfully found a way to convert the “shock momentum” generated from those bumps, into re-usable energy for our vehicle.
To be honest, folks, when I recently came across this discovery, my first thought was of an oscillating dance floor.
Now, hold on . . . I have not slipped off the deep-end; just yet.
My faithful readers will recall the 2008 column about “piezoelectricity” being generated using the energy of a moving dance floor.
In this column, I wrote: “Some night clubs across the big pond in Europe have special dance floors built with piezoelectrics which absorb and convert the kinetic energy from dancing footsteps into electricity. This energy is used to help power the lighting above and on the dance floor.”
In the Netherlands, a night club called Club Watt features an interactive piezoelectric sustainable dance floor.
This dance floor is able to generate almost 60 percent of the building’s electricity needs.
An average of 5 to 10 watts of power is generated per person while dancing on this specially-built floor.
Yes, each person is essentially a battery (queue “The Matrix” sci-fi movie scene showing thousands of vertically-stacked, interconnected pods; each containing one immobile human being functioning as a battery source to power the Matrix).
The nightclub’s dance floor is fitted with a built-in “bouncing floor” (stay with me on this) which is made up of heavy springs and rectangular cylinders called “power generating blocks” installed in-between the springs.
The blocks are made with crystals; the dancers on this floor will cause the blocks to produce a small electrical current when they are compressed – this is the piezoelectricity process in action.
Getting back to those bumps in the road – what if your car could capture, and make use of the energy generated from the action each shock absorber makes while traveling over those bumps?
Lei Zuo, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, has successfully demonstrated “energy-harvesting” via a car’s suspension system using specially-modified shock absorbers.
Zuo has many engineering degrees, including a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He described the three recoverable energy sources a vehicle creates while driving: the heat dissipated from the engine, kinetic energy from deceleration or braking, and vibrational energy, which is reduced by using shock absorbers.
Zuo has developed a shock absorber which will harvest energy.
He explained how an energy-harvesting shock absorber takes the vertical, piston-like vibrations of the vehicle’s suspension system, and transforms this into the rotational action needed to turn a generator.
This generator then sends electrical power to the vehicle’s battery, or any of its other electrical devices.
Thus, this new source of electrical energy decreases the electrical draw from the vehicle’s alternator.
I noted the modified shock absorber’s generator will still rotate for a while; even after the vibration stops, allowing a bit more energy to be generated.
Zuo believes 100 to 400 watts of energy could be provided by a vehicle’s shock absorbers traveling over normal roads, and even more on bumpier ones.
Zuo and students in his class tested their specially-built, energy-harvesting shock absorber on the school’s campus roads.
Their test results found they could generate 60 percent of the available energy.
The class’s energy-harvesting shock absorber was built using off-the-shelf parts.
Future improvements include installing a microprocessor for detecting and adjusting the vehicle’s suspension settings for various road conditions encountered while traveling.
Zuo hopes to collect the maximum amount of a vehicle’s harvestable energy, while providing a smooth driving experience for its occupants.
Fuel efficiency, if increased by 5 percent per vehicle on a nationwide basis, could result in an annual $19 billion in fuel cost savings.
Virginia Tech’s Center for Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems web page can be found here:
Bits & Bytes' "Dance the night away and create some electricity" Dec. 8, 2008 column, is archived at