NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

The reason for the delay was not immediately clear, but was called for after a gaseous helium alarm was sounded in the last moments before liftoff, officials said. (AFP/NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Updated 13 August 2018
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NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

  • Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named
  • Protected by a revolutionary new heat shield, the spacecraft will fly past Venus in October

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla: A NASA spacecraft rocketed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.
The Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the sun's surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.
No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted.
"All I can say is, 'Wow, here we go.' We're in for some learning over the next several years," said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.
Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.
For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family. He proposed the existence of solar wind — a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun — 60 years ago.
It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn't about to let it take off without him. Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.
"I'm just so glad to be here with him," said NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. "Frankly, there's no other name that belongs on this mission."
The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around as it climbed through a clear, star-studded sky. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe — the size of a small car and well under a ton — racing toward the sun.
From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometers), and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.
"Fly baby girl, fly!!" project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University said in a tweet right before liftoff. She urged it to "go touch the sun!"
It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He came away impressed, saying it was like looking at the Taj Mahal for years in photos and then beholding "the real thing" in India.
"I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don't know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years," Parker said on NASA TV.
The Parker probe will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. By the time Parker gets to its 22nd orbit of the sun, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph (690,000 kilometers per hour).
Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.
Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission's derring-do.
"To me, it's still mind-blowing," she said. "Even I still go, really? We're doing that?"
Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe — it's ours, after all — and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions. By better understanding the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature, Earthlings can better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, he noted. In today's tech-dependent society, everyone stands to benefit.
With this mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5 billion years old. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker accurately predicted in 1958?
"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun," Fox said. "We've looked at it. We've studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there."
The spacecraft's heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times. If there's any tilting, the spacecraft will correct itself so nothing gets fried. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun. The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, will be too far away to help.
A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on NASA's books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.
"We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams," Fox said. "It's incredible to be standing here today."
More than 1 million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.
"I'll bet you 10 bucks it works," Parker said.


Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

  • Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates

NEW YORK: Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.
A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.
This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.
The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.
At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.
They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.
“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.
But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.
Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”
“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.
“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?“