Million Dollar Space Pens or Pencils

If six years ago you had forgotten a Fisher space pen in your car’s glove box and you pull it out today, it will write without a hiccup. It will also write underwater, in extreme heat and in freezing cold. In fact it will write in space too. It has been used for exactly that for decades.

You must have heard of that story where NASA spent millions to invent a pen that writes in space. That is not really true. The millions in research was Paul Fisher’s own money that he spent to develop a pen which would write in weightless conditions. Well, NASA was spending money on it at almost the same time too. But their research program’s budget spiraled out of control and had to deal with public pressure before going back to using pencils.

There’s a good chance you must have received an email like this one, maybe around April 15th:

When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly Discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero Gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a Decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero
Gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass And at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.

Your taxes are due again — enjoy paying them.

Snopes

The Russian one line solution compared to the “$12 Billion” dollar Americans used sounds like a smooth story to tell. But that is not really how it all went down.

At the height of space race, both Americans and Russians used pencils to write in space. But since pencils use graphite to leave a mark, and graphite is flammable, it made pencils not the best things to take into space, especially after the Apollo 1 fire incident. Secondly, graphite conducts electricity pretty well. That means a broke piece of pencil tip, or even the small amount of graphite dust from it could get into the electronics and cause shorts. And then there’s paper, wood and eraser which go with a pencil. All of which produce particles when used and are combustible.

Mechanical pencils were a better solution as they eliminated wood but the graphite was still a problem. Grease pencils or wax pencils solved it to some extent. But again the mark left by any pencil was not as reliable as a pen. Ballpoint pens worked pretty well. However the problem with normal ball pens was that the ink was not designed to work well at low pressures, nor would it do very well in extreme space temperatures. Felt tip pens again used a much thinner ink which wasn’t an ideal choice for usage in low pressure environments like space.

Fisher solved all of these problems by inventing a pen that used an ink cartridge that was pressurized at 35 psi. This ensured the ink would come out irrespective of the orientation of the pen, or the pressure it was in. It also used a non-newtonian  thixotropic ink which acted like ketchup – stayed put as long as the pen was not intending to write, and flowed due to a change in viscosity when the pen had to write. Oh and the ink was designed to work well at -25 to 120 degrees C, not 300 C.

This original spacepen – Antigravity 7 or AG7, the one which was used on Apollo 7 space mission in 1968 after 2 years of testing by NASA, sells on Fisher spacepen’s website for about $60.

This video talks about how it all started from a sandwich:

[Wikipedia], [Physics.org], [Fischer spacepen], [Snopes]

You Need to Know About Driverless Technology Changing the Automotive Industry

BY MEGAN RAY NICHOLS

Even though they’re not on the roads yet, driverless cars are disrupting the automotive industry in unforgettable ways. Keep reading to learn about expected factors related to the evolution of these futuristic vehicles.

1. Market Trends

Automotive analysts say emerging technology is gaining momentum in the automotive market. Top car brands are making their vehicles compatible with popular gadgets and tech-related services, and some people think the Internet of Things (IoT) will also play a role in upcoming models.

Business leader Elon Musk has even announced he plans to earn income by lending extremely safe self-driving cars to interested persons.

2. Potential Reductions in Car Ownership

Musk’s idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you consider most of us are accustomed to carpooling at least occasionally. If you’re from a city where the service is available, you may have even used car-sharing companies that allow you to drive a vehicle on an as-needed basis, then drop it off in a pre-determined spot when you’re done.

Once driverless cars become more mainstream, we may increasingly use borrowed vehicles rather than owning cars. That’s especially true because self-driving cars will be too expensive for some people to own.

Continue reading You Need to Know About Driverless Technology Changing the Automotive Industry

DARPA’s Self-Steering Bullets

Think Angelina Jolie shooting curved trajectory shots with her gun in the movie Wanted. Well, the end result is not exactly fictional anymore (the technique is). I recently stumbled upon the following video demonstrating DARPA’s new self-steering bullet technology and it blew my mind.Here’s the video:

The video shows new missile-like self-steering projectiles hitting a moving target, only this time these are not missiles but 0.5 caliber sized sniper bullets (0.5 inches internal diameter of the gun’s barrel). As seen in the video, enabled by technology, a novice-sniper seems to be able to make a fairly good shot. On a funnier note, I see it like the autotune technology that helps music artists to fit their out of tune recording to a perfect tune.

Jokes aside, watching this smart bullet change its path mid-air, stirred up the curious cat that lives in my head. I would have had a tough time sleeping without knowing how DARPA’s self-steering bullet actually works. So, armed with free journal access (being a Ph.D. student has its perks), I fired up my google scholar and started looking for white papers with some mention of these keywords. With this technology being developed under DARPA, it’s of course one of those hush-hush things and was sure I won’t find much. Still, I was happy to glean a tiny hint of its inner workings.

Continue reading DARPA’s Self-Steering Bullets