Saving the world, one battery at a time. That was the feeling you got if you watched Elon Musk’s stunningly low-key keynote at the Tesla Motors media event this week as he announced the release of the home and office batteries called the Powerwall and Powerpack, respectively. The fact of the matter is, renewables like solar aren’t perfectly consistent. The sun, as Musk pointed out to chuckles among the audience, doesn’t shine at night. So Tesla, a company that knows a thing or two about batteries (and about marketing) is now selling sexy batteries to keep your house running overnight. Only it’s more than that — because if it were just about getting off the grid, you might need more than 10kWh — that might keep you going all night if you don’t want to do any laundry or run any space heaters (the average home in the US uses, say, 30kWh in 24 hours) — but what it will do is allow you to shift power usage from peak to off-peak times. Even if you’re a solar power user on the grid, you could soak up energy from the grid during the day when solar power floods the grid, to use at night when we’d typically have to switch the grid over to coal or gas. If enough people have these (Musk estimates two billion and then explains why that’s not such a large number) the world won’t need non-renewables. Now maybe you’re dubious about those numbers, but even if so, the fact that Tesla is making the designs open source — not just for the batteries, but the so-called “gigafactory” where they’ll be made — means that anyone will be able to make batteries like these and sell them. You’ve got to hand it to him: Elon Musk is, once again, trying to save the world. Gizmodo has a great little rundown on the batteries (they come in black and red, too); and WaPo has a great piece on why you should care. Oh and if you’ve got twenty minutes, check out the keynote itself. It’s a curious mix of engineered advertising and geeky humility.
Looking something like an upended propane tank launching itself into the sky, this week Jeff Bezos’s space tech startup Blue Origin released two videos of the first test flight of the New Shepard, a reusable craft to (eventually) take people to the edge of space and back. The first video has a pretty soundtrack and is emotionally uplifting, but if you want to see how it went, check out the other:
It tops out just shy of the boundary with space, at about 58 miles up (62 is generally given as the limit). Now it wasn’t a perfect test: the first stage is designed to be reusable, and, well, that didn’t pan out. As we all know from SpaceX’s attempts to rescue a first stage (from what is admittedly a much harder distance and speed) it’s not easy. And from the dust cloud upon the capsule’s return I’d be surprised if it’d qualify as much more than “any landing you can walk away from,” once they put people inside. But overall it looks as though it went very positively. Especially for a first try. This gets more interesting when you read the following on Blue Origin’s website:
We’re already designing New Shepard’s sibling, her Very Big Brother – an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard’s size and is powered by our 550,000-lbf thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine.
If they can get that one up and going they could well pose a threat — maybe not to SpaceX, which has such a head-start — but to ventures like Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser program, it could prove a new contender. On the other hand, it could just be a new opportunity for working together. Either way, the space race just got a lot more exciting, so, while I never thought I’d say this: “thanks, Jeff Bezos.” The Verge has more on the story.
Messenger’s Last Ride
It’s been a good decade for Messenger, the little Mercury probe that spent ten years in space, its final four in orbit around Mercury, taking photographs and scanning the surface and telling us everything it could about the planet closest to the sun. In its time there, it sent back literally hundreds of thousands of photographs of the surface of the planet, discovered ice in its craters’ shadows, measured its magnetic field and found it to be thirty times smaller than we thought it would be, and much more. But such is the surest tragedy of existence that all good things must come to an end, and so it was with Messenger. On April 30 at 19:26 GMT (that’s 3:26 Eastern Daylight Time) Messenger added its own mark to the surface, crashing into the far side of the planet at something like 8,750 miles per hour. Just hours before, five new craters it discovered were named in honour of artists (as is the tradition with Mercury): Carolan, Enheduanna, Karsh, Kulthum, and Rivera. Check out The Verge for the last photo Messenger ever took, and Space.com for the story of those craters.
Progress 59 (M-27M)
This week another ISS resupply mission failed. Unlike the last failed mission, Orbital Sciences’s CRS-3 launch which exploded seconds after launch thanks to a fault in the refurbished Russian NK-33 engines used by the Antares launch vehicle (which will be subsequently replaced), this one was less spectacular. The Progress 59 mission (also known as Progress M-27M) seems to have suffered as a result of a small explosion during separation from the third stage of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket on which it was launched, causing enough damage to prevent control communications. The trip to the ISS was only supposed to last six hours, and although they managed to re-establish some communications and reset the rendezvous for two days later, they were unable to regain enough control of the craft to complete the supply run. The Progress craft will safely re-enter the atmosphere in the next week or so, causing the loss of the roughly three tons of supplies. Thankfully they have enough food to last until September, and in June another SpaceX Dragon should hopefully arrive to top them up. Check out the Telegraph and Vox for more on the story.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable are not going to merge, following Comcast’s withdrawal of its bid to buy TWC last week. Why not? Well, it looks like it wasn’t going to go their way, and they decided to cut their losses. In an article over at Ars Technica, it seems as though the important players in the decision, the DoJ and the FCC, thought (as did we all) that a mega-Comcast would stifle an already near-monopolistic market and give sweeping powers to crush non-cable alternatives. All I know is that Comcast and Time Warner are literally the most-hated companies in America, and that honestly, I wouldn’t even move to a place if all it had to offer was either.
This week Audi announced it was making diesel from carbon dioxide and water, which sounds amazing — and it is. Kind of. What they haven’t done is created something magical. It isn’t a car that runs on air and water. What they’ve done is find a way to make “blue crude” by heating up water, separating the hydrogen, and mixing it with carbon dioxide under great pressure. After that, they refine the crude into diesel by the normal methods. It’s just a way of storing energy chemically so you can use it later in your car. The potentially revolutionary part is that the energy they’re storing — whatever they’re using to heat and split the water, and to create the pressure to recombine it with carbon dioxide — can be renewable, like wind or solar. That means you can store solar in diesel and drive your car around, and you’re basically driving around on solar power. Now the real questions are: how much energy is lost in the process, and how much will it cost per litre? They’re claiming they can make it for roughly twice the cost of regular diesel per litre, which in the future could mean we’ll have a viable substitute for jet fuel that doesn’t ruin the environment. Here’s a more skeptical post explaining the numbers and telling you not to hold your breath, though, just for balance.
Best of the Rest
Once again, there’s no way for one man to cover all the news. But here’s some things you should definitely see:
- NASA’s got a plane with shape-shifting wings
- The Naval Research Laboratory has a see-through ceramic that’s basically bulletproof
- Scientists at Cornell have made a transistor three atoms thick
- NASA’s “ping-microwaves-around-inside-a-bucket” drive seems once again to work, though nobody knows why
- NASA (again!) has an electric drone airplane that takes off and lands vertically (it’s pretty cool), and
- Ars Technica has a test drive up of Microsoft’s augmented reality headset, the Hololens.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.