This month: New sensors to aid in lunar landings, a step toward a better artificial nose, and taking aeronautical design tips from pterodactyls.
New Speed, Imaging for Lunar Landing
NASA's Langley Research Center is currently developing two new sensor technologies to aid in the space agency's Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) project ("Sensors Advance Lunar Landing Project" from Science Daily). The ultimate aim is to enable spacecraft to autonomously identify and navigate to a safe landing site. One provides 3D active imaging while the other measures speed. The two special-purpose light-detection and ranging (lidar) sensors are currently undergoing flight tests. According to Bob Reisse, leader of the Langley researchers (as quoted in the article), "We were pleased that the two flight tests we've conducted so far have resulted in better than expected performance of these sensors. "
Building a Better Artificial Nose
Artificial noses or e-noses have used a number of approaches to detect the blends of chemicals that make up a scent but when compared to the olfactory wizardry of the humble human nose, they fall far short. For those teams using engineered proteins as olfactory receptors, one of the drawbacks is that the proteins break down when exposed to moisture or subjected to a different environment. MIT researchers, led by Dr Liselotte Kaiser, have figured out how to mass-produce the proteins that bond to the various chemical components of a smell. The challenges still to overcome include placement of the receptors and the signal processing required to convert a protein's bond with a target molecule to useful data. (For more information, read "Research aims for artificial nose", courtesy of the BBC.)
Taking Design Pointers from Pterodactyls
The U.S. military's reconnaissance drones may snag some design pointers from ancient flying dinosaurs. Pterodactyls—the pointy-headed rulers of the skies during the late Triassic period—possessed both maneuverability and gliding capabilities, according to paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee at Texas Tech University at Lubbock as quoted in Science News ("Pterodacyls may soar once more"). Chatterjee, with University of Florida at Gainesville aeronautical engineer Rick Lind and their students, copied some features of the pterodactyl's skull when they designed a reconnaissance drone with a rudder on its front rather than its tail. From the computer simulations, the drone possesses a much sharper turning radius(14% smaller) than one of a more conventional design. Plans are afoot to build a prototype later this year.