For decades, satellites and interplanetary probes have been sent into orbit via the Space Transportation System (STS), known more commonly as the Space Shuttle. Despite its fame and success, the Space Shuttle is far from perfect. To start, the shuttle is incredibly expensive to fly; on average, each flight costs NASA a staggering $1.5 Billion (1). Additionally, due to the inherently dangerous nature of space travel, two shuttles — Challenger and Columbia — have been lost over the course of the program, resulting in the death of fourteen astronauts (2). Fortunately, at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers are working on an improved alternative to replace the Space Shuttle.
Referred to as the XS-1, this new unmanned shuttle would be smaller, less expensive, and more reliable than its predecessor. According to DARPA, a typical mission would look like this: The XS-1 takes off and reaches its desired speed and altitude; from there, a detachable pod launches the cargo into orbit; after this is complete, the XS-1 would be able to safely return to its base within a few hours (3).
The most important aspect of this process lies in the fact that the shuttle operates completely in a sub-orbital environment. The XS-1 could launch a large satellite into orbit for an estimated $5 million, a drastic improvement from current methods (4). Additionally, due to the fact that the XS-1 never leaves the atmosphere, it could complete missions in less than a day. Compared to previous shuttles or rockets, which required years’ worth of planning for a single launch, the difference is astounding. DARPA is planning for the prototype to fly ten missions in ten days to showcase this ability (4).
For now, a flying prototype is years away; however, DARPA has contracted a handful of companies for this job. Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and Masten Space Systems are currently in competition to design a prototype for the program (4). DARPA will then select one of the designs from the three companies for an actual prototype. It is only when the actual prototype is built that more details on the project will be known. As of now, we are currently relegated mostly to speculation. Despite this, the project is exciting as it could lead to a renewed space effort by the United States in the coming decades.
(1) Pielke, Jr. Roger A. "The Rise and Fall of the Space Shuttle." Amer. Scientist American Scientist Amer. Sci. Am. Sci. Am. Scientist 96.5 (2008): 432. Web.
(2) "Space Accidents." Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 28 June 2016.
(3) Eaton, Kit. "DARPA Dreams Of The Shuttle's Successor: An Experimental Spaceplane." Fast Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2016.
(4) "DARPA Is Moving Ahead with Plans to Build Its XS-1 Spaceplane." 3GBM. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
Image: © Bambi L. Dingman | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-dream-chaser-crewed-suborbital-orbital-vertical-takeoff-horizontal-landing-vthl-lifting-body-spaceplane-being-image32128847#res14972580">The Dream Chaser</a>
Despite the United States Military’s ability to engage and destroy targets from hundreds of miles away, there is still a need to put boots on the ground in hostile areas. In 2011, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan fired around 250,000 bullets for every enemy combatant killed (1). So much ammunition is being used that manufacturers can barely keep up with the demand. This number is astoundingly high considering that frequent skirmishes happen in areas densely populated by civilians.
Researchers at DARPA are hoping to increase the efficiency of the average soldier, as well as to reduce collateral damage, with the new EXACTO laser guided bullet. EXACTO, standing for Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordinance, is a bullet containing a guidance system that allows for in-flight changes to be made to the bullet’s trajectory. Although the details of the technology are currently classified, it is known that the guidance system accounts for weather and wind, even after the bullet has left the barrel. Even more impressive, the new technology allows for the bullet to track and hit a target that is on the move (2).
The system is described as “fire and forget”, meaning that once the operator has pulled the trigger, the bullet will trace the target on its own. Additionally, the EXACTO boasts a range of 2,000 meters, regardless of environmental conditions. To put this in perspective, with current technology, marksmen are generally limited to a range of well under 1,000 meters in perfect weather conditions.
Another attractive prospect of the EXACTO is that it is not limited strictly to large caliber “sniper” rifles. Although current tests have only been performed with .50 caliber rifles, the system can be easily modified to fit the carbines and smaller caliber rifles of the average foot soldier (2). This means that at some point in the near future the entirety of the United States military could possess self-guided small arms.
A recent video shows a live fire demonstration of the EXACTO; in the video, the bullet completely changes its trajectory mid-flight to hit a moving target. The showing is certainly impressive and has generated extreme interest from the United States military. The interest stems from the fact that snipers and designated marksmen have become a vital part of the war in the Middle East over the past few years. The military is hoping that the EXACTO can help immediately expand and improve the role snipers currently play on the battlefield.
Although no date is set, the EXACTO will likely make its way onto the battlefield within the next few years. It is exciting to say technology like this, once thought to be limited to science fiction, is now a reality.
Watch the demonstration video here: https://youtu.be/TwinHU4iDmo
(1) Turley, Jonathan. "GAO: U.S. Has Fired 250,000 Rounds For Every Insurgent Killed." Jonathanturley.org. N.p., 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 June 2016.
(2) "ADVANCED LASER GUIDED BULLET Technology for US Military - MilitaryHit.com - Military News." Militaryhit.com. N.p., 12 June 2016. Web. 23 June 2016.
Image: © Darko Draskovic | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-bullet-image8766456#res14972580">Bullet</a>
Currently, an estimated 728 million people worldwide do not have access to water deemed ‘clean’ by the United Nations. This results in around six to eight million deaths each year from water borne disease (1). It is no secret that over the coming years clean water will likely become one of the world’s most valuable resources.
To solve this issue, science is looking towards utilizing the world’s oceans, earth’s largest reservoir of water. This seems quite the obvious choice as salt water from the ocean accounts for nearly 97% of all water on earth; while, on the other hand, accessible fresh water occupies less than 1%. However, the process of turning seawater into water that can be used by humans is expensive and inefficient with current technology.
Thankfully, due to its vast potential, several companies and organizations are working on improved desalination methods. One of the most intriguing and promising new methods comes out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers there have developed a new means to desalinate water through a process referred to as ‘shock electrodialysis’.
The process starts when water flows through a frit, a porous material made of small glass particles, with electrodes and a membrane lining the sides. An electric current is then sent through the entire system; as a result, the salt water divides into areas where the concentration is either high or low. Next, “When that current is increased to a certain point, it generates a shockwave between these two zones, sharply dividing the streams and allowing the fresh and salty regions to be separated by a simple physical barrier at the center of the flow (2).” Though this process may seem complex at first glance, it is actually rather straightforward and will be relatively easy to implement.
The most important aspect of this new technology is the efficiency and cost at which it will run. Current methods of desalination, such as reverse osmosis, require expensive filters that are prone to clogging after some time. With shock electrodialysis, the water is not run through a filter, but through cheap porous material made of small glass particles. Additionally, the material and infrastructure required for this process is much simpler than with traditional desalination. This means that large scale use of this method could be done with relatively low operating costs; good news for impoverished countries in need of clean water.
Another benefit lies in the diversity of this process. Shock electrodialysis also excels in purifying potentially dangerous contaminants from water, not just salt. This means that not only could this method treat seawater, but it could also clean toxic ions in groundwater that has been contaminated. This would be useful for the wastewater generated by fracking; a popular method of natural gas extraction in the United States.
At this time, this technology is in its infant stages as researchers have yet to move the experiment past a relatively small scale. However, in the future, shock electrodialysis could help provide millions with clean, affordable, potable water.
(1) Facts and figures. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.unwater.org/water-cooperation-2013/water-cooperation/facts-and-figures/en/
(2) Chandler, D. L. (n.d.). Shocking new way to get the salt out. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://news.mit.edu/2015/shockwave-process-desalination-water-1112
Image: © Izanbar | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-desalination-plant-hamburg-port-harbor-metallic-eggs-image57833775#res14972580">Desalination plant in hamburg port</a>
About one out of every two deaths on the battlefield is due to blood loss from wounds (1). Until this point in time, all field medics had to stop hemorrhaging in a wounded soldier were gauzes and tourniquets. However, these two methods could not address all injuries that soldiers sustained. For instance, a wound in the pelvis or armpit is near impossible to place a tourniquet around, and applying pressure with gauze is incredibly difficult.
This is where the XStat injectable wound-plugging sponge comes into play. Developed in response to requests from field medics during the Iraq War, the XStat is, in simplest terms, a large syringe filled with small compressed sponges. The sponges are made from cellulose and are coated with coagulant along with a radiopaque marker, which allows the sponges to be detected by X-ray if left in the body.
The XStat is simple to use, the syringe is slid into the cavity left by the wound and the sponges are released inside. Upon contact with blood, the sponges expand, soaking up to 300 mL of blood while also placing pressure from inside the wound. The whole process stops bleeding in under twenty seconds, compared to three to five minutes from traditional methods (2).
The United States Military is hoping to drastically reduce the number of deaths from blood loss with this invention. Fortunately, in December of 2015 the XStat was approved for use by the FDA and it was just recently successfully tested in the field (3). The XStat could also make its way into civilian markets later this year as paramedics and first responders are interested in carrying the product.
(1) Smith, O. (2016). Amazing wound-plugging syringe saves first life by using tiny sponges to stop bleeding. Retrieved June 03, 2016, from http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/676107/XSTAT-injection-seals-wound-seconds-save-thousands-gunshot-victims-soldiers
(2) This innovative, wound-filling sponge just saved its first soldier. (2016, May 31). Retrieved June 03, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/this-innovative-wound-filling-sponge-just-saved-its-first-soldier/
(3) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm475810.htm
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For centuries, naval warfare has been fought with munitions powered by chemical propellants. Although certainly effective, solid chemical propellants are limited in terms of their power and safety when stored. The United States Navy is hoping to overcome these shortcomings with a new weapon referred to as a railgun.
Although the term “railgun” might bring images of science fiction to mind, the technology is actually quite straightforward. Traditionally, naval artillery consists of a powder charge and a shell; the shell is propelled when the powder is ignited under pressure inside the barrel. In the railgun, a projectile is accelerated by a series of electromagnets running along the length barrel. The use of this technology allows for the projectile to reach speeds of over 4500 miles per hour, or 6600 feet per second (1). To put this in perspective, the massive 16-inch guns aboard the Iowa Class Battleships could only reach a muzzle velocity of 1830 miles per hour, or 2700 feet per second (2).
The destructive power of the projectile is based almost entirely off of its sheer kinetic energy instead of the energy generated from explosives. Due to the elimination of explosives, the rounds fired by the railgun are relatively small, meaning that an average ship could carry nearly ten times the ammunition compared to current missiles. In addition to the size, another benefit lies in the safety of storage of the munitions. With the lack of explosives, the rounds offer nearly zero chance of detonating when stored inside the ship.
Currently, the U.S. Navy is planning on equipping the Zumwalt-Class destroyers with the new weapon; however, plans have been pushed back to 2017 (3).
Over the next few decades, this technology will likely see usage not only from the United States, but from other major powers as well. Due to the fact that railguns are relatively inexpensive, and can deal with a diverse array of targets, they may prove an effective alternative to conventional forces by virtue of the decrease in military budgets worldwide.
(1) Morris, D. Z. (2016, May 30). Navy's Railgun Push May Reshape Global Military Power. Retrieved June 03, 2016, from http://fortune.com/2016/05/31/navy-new-railgun-military/
(2) DiGiulian, Tony (November 2006). "United States of America 16"/50 (40.6 cm) Mark 7". navweaps.com. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-25.
(3) Cavas, C. P. (2016, January 10). Navy's Rail Gun Still Headed to Sea, but on Which Ship Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/naval/ships/2016/01/10/railgun-navy-fanta-naval-zumwalt-ddg1000/78443016/
Image: © Zhukovsky | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-machine-gun-us-navy-destroyer-fleet-week-staten-island-new-york-may-may-staten-island-new-york-image30398896#res14972580">Machine gun on US Navy destroyer during Fleet Week 2012</a>