NASA wants to use harpoons to land spacecraft on asteroids

NASA is looking at landing spacecraft on asteroids and comets by firing harpoons into their surfaces.

The space agency, which would be following the footsteps of its European counterpart which landed Philae on a comet last year, plans on using harpoons and tethers to explore multiple comets or asteroids in the future.

A spacecraft would fly close to the target and cast an extending tether towards its prey, before attaching itself with a harpoon that’s attached to the tether, NASA says.

The spacecraft would then “reel out” the tether and turn on a brake that collects energy as the spacecraft accelerates.

“Hitchhiking a celestial body is not as simple as sticking out your thumb, because it flies at an astronomical speed and it won’t stop to pick you up,” said space agency scientist said Masahiro Ono.

“Instead of a thumb, our idea is to use a harpoon and a tether.”


Image and featured image courtesy of NASA

The tethers are intended to be reusable and anywhere between 62 and 620 miles long, meaning they could explore many targets on one mission.

When the spacecraft is done with the comet or asteroid it has landed on, it would be able to use the energy collected from the braking process to retrieve the tether.

“This kind of hitchhiking could be used for multiple targets in the main asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt, even five to 10 in a single mission,” Ono said.

Images courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Images courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

However, this is still an early stage research project from the NASA scientists and so is a long way from becoming a reality.

As the ESA proved last year, it isn’t easy to catch an asteroid, let alone land something on the surface of it.

When Philae touched down on the comet towards the end of last year it bounced on the surface several times and space scientists thought they had lost the probe.

The harpoon landers of the spacecraft also failed to launch properly meaning that it hasn’t been properly attached to the comet’s surface.

If NASA is going to attempt to harpoon itself to a comet in the future, then it will need to ensure the materials used for its spacecraft are up to the job.

Virtual reality experiences offer therapy for children with special needs

The first virtual reality therapy experience for children has been launched by VR Kids, a company developing stress-relieving VR software for children whose illnesses or conditions prevent them from easily leaving home or a hospital.

Designed for children, teens and young adults who spend the majority of time in a wheelchair or bed at home or in a specialist care environment, the VR experiences are intended to combat anxiety, provide happiness and provide children with the opportunity to forge positive mental and physical connections.

The experiences, which are designed for Oculus Rift and work as an interactive story, are intended to be highly intuitive, providing an adventure that VR Kids says has no learning curve and so can be enjoyed from the outset.

Images courtesy of VR Kids

Images courtesy of VR Kids

The first experience, ‘Journey to the Big Bear Festival’, is designed for children with learning difficulties.

The main character, Teddy, takes the child on a journey to meet his friends Tessa and Roompus before bringing them to a firework display. Scene changes are even handled by Teddy, who uses his magical powers to warp the player between scenes as diverse as a giant mushroom-filled forest, a pumpkin farm and a magic carpet ride over a lake.

“As a kid, I got excited thinking about how virtual reality could change the world; today through a culmination of my life’s experiences and my passion for technology and helping children,” said RJ Sampson, founder, president and CEO of VR Kids.

“I’m excited to say that ‘Journey to the Big Bear Festival’ and virtual reality will help children with special needs.”

VR Kids at present only offers its service in Las Vegas, US, taking the software and headset to the child directly, but plans to expand access in the future.

As a non-profit, it does not charge for sessions in the greater Las Vegas area, and parents can request a session for their child through an online form.

Once the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is released, it seems likely the company will expand to allow the download and remote use of its experiences so that it is not constrained by specific locations. However, VR Kids has not yet confirmed this.

Humans are the problem as Google’s self-driving cars crash again

Humans, not technology, are the reason why Google’s self-driving cars keep getting involved in crashes.

Every single one of the accidents that have involved one of the company’s autonomous cars has been the result of a human error, not that of the car.

The latest monthly progress report issued by the company shows that there was another incident during August.

In the latest prang, the untrusting driver – or someone driving with an “abundance of caution”, as Google called them – took control of the car and then, mere moments later, the car was involved in a crash. In the particular circumstances a pedestrian started to cross the road the car was driving down, naturally the car started to slow but the test driver decided to take the reins.

“A vehicle in lane three to the immediate right of, and travelling in the same direction as, the Google AV was already stopped and yielding the right of way to the pedestrian,” the company’s monthly report said.

“A vehicle in the process of changing lanes from lane one into lane two and approaching from the rear struck the Google AV.”

Thankfully the cars were only travelling at 5pm and 10mph and the Google-car driver reported some minor back pain but was released from hospital.


Images courtesy of Google

As the company said in its first monthly report, in May, this year: “In the six years of our project, we’ve been involved in 12 minor accidents during more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving combined. Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”

The first of these accidents say a Google Prius model being “rear-ended” by another car while it was stopped at a traffic light in 2012.
Looking at all of the accident reports the majority of the crashes have involved being hit at very slow speeds by other drivers who have not been paying attention.

A typical line from the reports is: “A vehicle approaching from behind collided with the rear bumper and sensor of the Google AV. The approximate speed of the other vehicle at the time of impact was 1 MPH”.

There’s only been one time when an incident happened at any real speed and even then the autonomous vehicle wasn’t at fault. “The Google AV was driving at 63 MPH when another vehicle traveling in the adjacent right hand lane veered into the side of the Google AV,” the report read, and even then there were no injuries but “some damage” was done to the car.

Given than the company has 48 self-driving cars on the public streets of California and Texas and is averaging around 10,000 autonomous miles per week, it’s not surprising that the cars are involved in collisions from time to time. But as the number of autonomous cars on the streets increases it is likely that the number of all collisions will come down.

There’s one main reason for this: technology is more consistent than humans.

“Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted,” wrote one Google engineer in a blog last month.

But given that one cyclist who encountered a self-driving car for the first time this week went as far to say that they “felt safer” when dealing with the autonomous car than human driven ones, it appears that the cars will make our roads safer.