Vol. 1 / No. 44 — Volcanoes, Robots, and Rovers

Eruption in Holuhraun lava field; Photo: Ármann Höskuldsson, University of Iceland twitter feed
Eruption in Holuhraun lava field; Photo: Ármann Höskuldsson, University of Iceland twitter feed


This week’s seen some pretty intense volcanic action in Iceland, with two long fissure eruptions taking place over the past three days. As you can see there are some pretty great photos being taken by the University of Iceland team and posted to their twitter feed, which you should totally check out. The long dike that has been stretching north away from Bárðarbunga and toward Askja seems to have stopped its northward course and is now erupting from the Holuhraun lava field. As you can see from the picture below, the eruptions are right at the end of the dike, not too far from Askja. For more detailed updates, I still recommend looking up Rei at Daily Kos as well as Volcano Cafe, and if you’ve got a hankering for live webstreams of volanic activity, check out the youtube livestream below.


Oh, and if you’re interested in the volcano situation in the US, this article sums it up pretty well: underfunded.


There were a few stories about robots in the news this week. First was this piece on PopSci’s Zero Moment blog about a project called Robo Brain. Robo Brain is a joint project by scientists at Cornell, Brown, Stanford, and UC Berkley to create a kind of “how-to” database for robots around the world. The idea would be, for instance, that you could ask a robot to do something it had never done before, and it could query Robo Brain which would explain to it how to complete the action. It’s a remarkably clever system. Phys.org has an article on it, too.

The second robot story this week is a fluff piece on a new cruise ship. The terribly named “Quantum of the Seas” will have a bar that will take your orders by touchscreen and then let you watch them being made by a robotic bartender. Sounds nice.

Finally, at a recent conference, engineer and Poikos CEO Nell Watson said we should be careful to teach robots human morals, otherwise they might kill us with kindness — literally.


Gizmodo is reporting that NASA is planning to wipe and re-write the software aboard the Mars rover Opportunity, which, as of today, is in day 3871 of its planned 92(ish) day mission (the mission was originally planned for 90 sols, or Martian days). The software fix is intended to remedy an ailment that is causing the rover to reboot itself at random intervals, a process which takes it offline for the better part of a day.

In other rover news, there’s a great, detailed long read over at the planetary society’s website about the problems being faced by the Curiosity team — specifically, the serious damage being done to its wheels.

Photo: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla
Photo: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Emily Lakdawalla

The problem has largely been solved, but not without a lot of hard work and troubleshooting by some very smart people. Check it out.

And finally, in the last piece of rover-based news, comet-chaser Rosetta has identified five potential landing sites on comet “Cherry-Gerry” (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) for its rover Philae to touch down on. The final choice will probably be made this week, as there is a google hangout with ESA entitled “where will Philae land?” scheduled for Tuesday. If successful, it will mark the first time a human craft has successfully landed (not “impacted”) on the surface of a comet, and should provide data for months.


This week Science is reporting that the Chinese PandaX detector — Particle and Astrophysical Xenon detector — has been progressing greatly in its search for dark matter, and is now moving on to an even more fine-tuned series of experiments. The project, like Stanford’s LUX — Large Underground Xenon detector — uses a tank of cooled liquid Xenon to detect so-called “WIMPs,” or weakly interacting massive particles, a hypothetical set of particles thought to make up dark matter. PandaX still hasn’t seen any — unsurprising given that more advanced experiments haven’t yet seen any either — but the replication of the results is encouraging. Check out the article for more details on the role PandaX may end up playing in the race to detect dark matter.

Speaking of particles that don’t interact much with other matter, scientists in Italy announced this week that pp neutrinos have been detected from the sun for the first time, confirming our current theories regarding what goes on deep inside our star. The Borexino experiment, like other neutrino detectors, uses a large tank of scintillator — liquid that gives off light when a neutrino (ever so rarely) strikes it — and a massive amount of shielding to prevent interaction from any other processes. In this case, that means surrounding the experiment with a thousand gallons of water and sticking it almost a kilometre and a half underground. Scientific American has more on the story, as well as on how the future of neutrino experiments is looking.

Need a Tow?

Finally, this week a great deal of embarrassment was spread around upon the announcement that two ESA Galileo satellites, numbers five and six of a planned thirty-strong ESA-run GPS network, were placed in the wrong orbit and may be unusable. The company responsible for the launch, Arianespace, is said to be looking into what caused the error. Meanwhile, Israeli startup “Effective Space Solutions” might be able to help: they’ve designed a microsatellite “tugboat” designed to dock with errant orbiters and shift them into the correct orbit. They’re still looking for a manufacturer, though, so don’t expect this error to get fixed anytime soon.

Well, that’s all for today. Have a great week!