How Formula 1 helps us in everyday life: a Science Museum exhibit

There’s a special (and free) exhibit on at London’s Science Museum just now called Fast Forward: 20 ways F1™ is changing our world.

It’s promoting the idea that Formula 1 racing isn’t just about going really fast around a track. It’s about cutting-edge engineering, about developing new technology from raw science. And mostly it’s about how those developments often turn out to have real-world applications.

The ways I find most fascinating are how tyre pressure-monitoring technology has made its way into consumer road cars, how to make rubber boots that slip less, and how the time-critical methods of pit stop crews have translated into faster procedures for hospital intensive care operating theatres.

I certainly didn’t know that this much F1 technology had such broad and interesting applicability. I’ll be down to see this exhibit as soon as I can.

F1 hydraulic dampers to keep a racecar in contact with the road can also prevent knee damage to soldiers in fast-moving inflatable boats

NASA’s Kepler mission to look for other planets capable of sustaining life

Tomorrow evening (US eastern time) is the earliest window in which NASA’s Kepler mission may launch. This is very exciting because Kepler’s main mission is to locate planets that are similar, and in similar positions, to our own. Planets like Earth are the ones where we’d be most likely to find life as we know it.

Nearly all of the planets we’ve spotted that are located outside our own Solar System have so far been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. They’re easy to spot, though, because they’re big and hot. Kepler will find smaller, rockier, Earth-like planets.

Photometer Being Lowered onto Kepler Spacecraft

There’s a huge amount of really fascinating science, from the general to the detailed, on the mission page. Here are some excerpts I really like.

How will Kepler look for extrasolar planets? By looking at stars, and watching for signs that something has moved across the front of them:

The Kepler spacecraft…will orbit our own Sun, trailing behind Earth in its orbit, and stay pointed at Cygnus starfield for 3.5 years to watch for drops in brightness that happen when an orbiting planet crosses (transits) in front of the star. Cygnus was chosen because it has a very rich starfield and is in an area of sky where the Sun will not get in the way of the spacecraft’s view for its entire orbit.

How does a transit tell us that there’s a planet there?

Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 2 to 16 hours. This change must be absolutely periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method.

Once detected, the planet’s orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler’s Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

What else will Kepler do?

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
  4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

This is a really exciting mission to undertake during the International Year of Astronomy.

Silver Dart replica makes five flights

Everyone knows the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane in late 1903.

A lesser-known aeronautical fact – outside of the Great White North, at least – is that an early plane called The Silver Dart made Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first powered flight on 23 February 1909.

A Canadian astronaut made some practice flights on a replica of the Dart on the weekend in anticipation of a 100th anniversary celebration today. From the Globe & Mail:

Conditions were perfect as Bjarni Tryggvason climbed into the fragile bird-like biplane and made five separate flights over a 1,000-metre runway on the ice-covered lake.

Leanne Beddow, a spokeswoman for the centennial celebration, said another flight will go ahead as planned on the actual anniversary Monday, weather permitting.

Environment Canada was forecasting snow, ice pellets, rain and high winds for the area, but Ms. Beddow said ceremonies would proceed as planned, including flypasses by military planes and another flight of the replica late in the morning.

“The Silver Dart is actually the most likely to fly out of all of them because it doesn’t need a very high ceiling,” Ms. Beddow said of the potential for poor weather.

“It only needs to get off the ground 20 feet.”

Thanks to Dan for the story.

Original 1909 Silver Dart

Engineering Students Rock

I just got Guitar Hero III as a late birthday present, and tried it on our Wii last night. Seems fun, and with lots of room to practice and become good. I’ll see how long the fun lasts.

From ScienceDaily today, a University of Virginia engineering class is building on the popularity of Guitar Hero by introducing a class where students have to build their own guitar game:

Mechanical engineers combined their skills with that of electrical engineering and computer science to create a college class inspired by the Guitar Hero game. The hands-on course requires students to build their own guitar. To do this, students choose a shape for the guitar, which is cut out of lumber by a computer. Located under the guitar strings, magnets detect vibrations and wire coils send an electronic signal to an amplifier and speaker. Effects pedals can also distort the sound and add special effects.

Skills from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science come together to form a cool kind of class that’s a hit with students.