This week saw a major step forward in our quest to conquer the stars — if a humble-seeming one. Three astronauts on the International Space Station ate some lettuce. The reason this seemingly mundane event is even noteworthy is because it’s the first time we’ve ever grown vegetables for human consumption anywhere other than Earth. And it’s harder than you’d think — microgravity is not the kind of environment you’d want to try traditional planting in, unless you like dirt flying everywhere and getting into your probably very important computer systems. Plus it’s a little hard to come by natural light cycles up there — day and night aren’t exactly twelve hours each when you’re inside a metal tube hurtling around the Earth at over 17,000 miles per hour. The system that makes this possible is known as “Veggie” and it’s made by a company called Orbitec. Veggie combines two things: a novel “pillow” design that holds the roots and the growing medium (that’s what’s taking the place of soil), and a lighting system to provide the plants with energy. The fact that the first crop of lettuce is edible (and tastes, apparently, like arugula) is great news, and means they can move on to the next phase of the experiment, which is to try growing and pollenating flowers on the ISS. If pollenation can happen, then space veggies won’t be limited to just leaves: they might even be able to get tomatoes or bell peppers up there. In related news, Orbitec is currently working with some of the less hospitable places in the world, like Dubai, to help them grow more of their own food in indoor, controlled environments. Check out the Guardian for a video of the astronauts trying the lettuce, and the video on this NASA page for an interview with Paul Zampirelli of Orbitec for more.
If you’re not aware, NASA’s still engineering and testing its was to having its own rocket again: the Space Launch System, or SLS. You could be forgiven for not knowing much about it, because it’s just not as flashy as the launches by SpaceX and Orbital. But it’s going to pack a hell of a punch when it finally takes off. This week they performed the sixth of seven firing tests of the RS-25, the engine that’s going to power the core stage of the SLS. If you remember how powerful the test of the solid rocket boosters was (you know, the ones Orbital is making), you should totally check out the latest RS-25 test. It thunders along for nearly nine minutes, and even from the tape you can get a feel for just how powerful this thing is. Technically, it’s the same engine that used to power the space shuttle into orbit, but with a few modifications and updates. Except that in the case of the SLS, there’ll be four of them going off at once. Oh, and if you’re worried about all that smoke, don’t be: it’s steam. The RS-25 uses hydrogen and oxygen as its two fuels. Check out io9 for some sweet gifs, and the NASA website for more information.
In case you missed it, Google’s changing it’s name to Alphabet, and making a new company named Google to replace the old one. Or, it’s making a new parent company for itself, and giving a lot of the companies it’s bought over the last few years to it’s new parent company so they can be more like siblings. Either way, it’s a little confusing, so if you haven’t seen it, go check out my explainer on the subject from earlier this week. As for the new logo, I really can’t stand that lower-case “a,” but otherwise I suppose it’s fine. More on the logo from Wired.
Japan’s Nuclear Power
The first nuclear reactor in Japan to go online since the Fukushima disaster has been restarted this week. Reactor number 1 at Kyushu Electric’s Sendai Power Plant is the first nuclear power plant to come back online after a complete shutdown of all nuclear power in the country following the evacuation of 160,000 people in the wake of the worst contamination since Chernobyl. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces strong pushback from the Japanese public over the decision, but the government maintains that the new standards will protect the population while helping them to reduce the huge amounts of natural gas they’ve been forced to import since the shutdown. Reactor number 2 is scheduled to restart in October. Check out Reuters for more information.
And in slightly related news, a new design for a fusion reactor has made the news this week, being the latest in a line of recent advances in the technology. The (I kid you not) ARC reactor takes advantage of materials advances to create stronger magnetic fields, meaning that — in theory at least — it could be smaller and less expensive while still producing the same power. Scientists at MIT claim they could be as few as ten years away from a production model that produces three times the power it consumes, but everyone’s staying skeptical until they see it work. As the old chestnut goes: fusion is the power of the future, and it always will be. Check out phys.org for more.
Best of the Rest
As ever, there’s more news in the week than I can possibly cover. But here’s a list of links so you can follow up on them yourself.
- Samsung teased its new Gear smartwatch that’s coming next month
- Photovoltaic prices have dropped for a fifth consecutive year
- A new video game, Flock, has an interesting twist that may lead to some great game engagement: planned obsolescence
- A Canadian company has patented a (sort-of) space elevator design
- CG skin is getting a hell of an upgrade
- Samsung’s made the biggest-ever hard drive, and
- The web saw perhaps the single-greatest headline ever: “The Best-Ever Bitcoin Cannabis Drone Entrepreneurs in San Francisco”
I’ll leave you this week with some amazing sights: Slate’s Week In Pictures this week is pretty darn good.
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