Space Station Sunday: The Ships That Fell To Earth

Good evening, space fans!  Here's what went on with our off-planet pioneers this week.

Preparations are underway for Tuesday's detachment of the SpaceX Dragon space freighter that arrived at the ISS in January.  The Dragon will be loaded up with scientific experiments to be analyzed back on earth.  Also aboard will be non-essential hardware and a space suit with a malfunctioning fan motor (another space suit aboard the ISS had the same problem, but was repaired.)  The Dragon will be grappled by the 57.7-ft. Canadarm2 robotic arm, then sent back to earth by way of a splashdown near Baja, California.

Another vehicle currently docked at the ISS will be sent home this week, albeit to a fiery demise.  The European ATV-5 cargo vehicle will be loaded with trash and sent home to burst into flames in the atmosphere as it deorbits on Valentine's Day.  How's that for burnin' love?

Artist's rendering of the ATV-5 controlled reentry.  Happy Valentine's Day from space!
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Other scientific endeavors of note this week on the ISS included Commander Butch Wilmore analyzing seedlings in the APEX-03 experiment to determine the effects of microgravity on plant cells and root systems.  ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti analyzed roundworms in an Epigenetics study, which will assess if new cells develop significantly differently in micro-g.

CNN ran a story on the planning, packaging, and consumption of the food that gets transported to the ISS.  Since the human body cannot truly be at rest while constantly floating in micro-gravity, the astronauts must imbibe 3,000 calories a day, more than the average human on earth should consume.  Food scientist Maya Cooper of the Johnson Space Center explains that their team, who are responsible for 40% of all the food sent by NASA to the ISS, tries to "strike a delicate balance between providing home comforts and healthy food."  This includes everything from M&Ms to birthday cake on the comfort side, but a carefully-reformulated program of sodium reduction on the health side.  Of course, every now and again after a cargo launch, a special treat like fresh fruit might be the first thing out of the hatch.

Astronauts Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti were eager to help unpack the latest SpaceX Dragon, which delivered (among other things) this precious golden cargo.
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Back on earth, this week astronaut Scott Kelly concluded his aquatic training, which is designed to mimic microgravity.  Kelly will be headed to the ISS in March as part of a pioneering endeavor to spend a full year in space.  Looks like he's good to go!

On land...on sea...and in the lack-of-air...astronauts always take care of business!
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Want to see the station for yourself (albeit from beneath the surly bonds of gravity?)  Check out Spot The Station and receive text or email alerts whenever the ISS will be flying by your area!  Then, if you happen to leave your lens open and capture an image of the ISS, tag it to #SpotTheStation or @SpotStationAUT (for Android users.)  Enjoy images by space fans from all over earth!

The space station, captured in long-exposure, swoops past Reunion Island, off the coast of Madagascar.
(Image courtesy @panoramareunion.)

That's all for this week, space fans!  See you next Sunday for news on two upcoming this space!

                               Commander Wilmore captured a nice, bright flyby this week.
                                 If you live on the East Coast of the US, you're in this video.

Dial-Up Diagnosis: Smartphone Device Identifies HIV Quickly, Cheaply, And Effectively

Sure, your smartphone has always been pretty sharp, but now, a new app makes it intelligent enough to diagnose diseases.  Thanks to a small device that plugs into a phone, HIV can now be detected in 15 minutes, using only a single drop of blood.

HIV hasn't been cured, but now it's much easier to spot.
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According to, the device has been deployed in Rwanda at healthcare facilities for the purpose of detecting HIV and syphilis.  The device was over 90% accurate in its diagnostic capability.  Handheld and lightweight, it can travel to far-flung patients who may not be able to make lengthy treks to clinics for tests.  Best of all, the devices only cost $34 apiece.

The implications of being able to bring this formerly-expensive and arduous technology to the masses are huge, particularly for the most vulnerable sufferers of HIB.  Samuel Sia, head of the device's research team from Columbia University, explained "If you diagnose and treat them on the spot, you can save the life of a newborn… If it’s not treated, you can have stillbirth."  With 17.1 million people in eastern and southern Africa currently suffering from HIV, the device could be a critical element in saving future lives.

That's DR. Smartphone, to you.
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Don't Just Complete, Compete! New "Push-ups With Friends" App Motivates More Muscles

We're now over a month into the new year - have you managed to maintain your resolutions?  If so, congratulations.  If not, was it because you aimed a little too high, or was it simply a lack of motivation?  If your time got crunched but your belly didn't, now, a new app can help you deal with at least one small aspect of getting fit.

The free new iPhone app PUWF (Push-ups With Friends) is straightforward and effective in the way that documented competition can be.  You do pushups, touching your nose to your smartphone as you complete a rep.  You and your friends will all get notifications when someone else in your group also drops and knocks out some pushups.  A leaderboard indicates monthly progress.  Your ripped arms and back will indicate the rest.

Use your smartphone for "games" that actually improve yourself.
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With gadgets like the FitBit and entire smartphone systems devoted to managing every element of your health that's technologically trackable (at least without the aid of hospital equipment), the PUWF app eliminates the need for overabundant obsession.  Like a brutal but effective drill sergeant, it just wants you to do more pushups.  It might not yell at you as viciously, but the drive to out-push your friends might motivate you just as well.

What are you waiting for?  Time to unleash those pythons!  Drop and give PUWF fifty!

"You're too pretty to count them on your own!"
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Pot Automat? Pot-O-Mat? New Cannabis Vending Machine Debuts In Seattle

Yesterday, in a move that helps to further freedom and medicinal options alike, Seattle became the first location in the state of Washington to allow the usage of a vending machine for medical marijuana.  According to, the ZaZZZ machine that is the first of its kind began operating on Tuesday for the customers of Seattle Caregivers medical dispensary.

The machine as well as its contents were fired up yesterday.
(Image courtesy

The ZaZZZ, created by American Green Inc, is an updated version of a similar machine that debuted in April 2014 in Colorado.  Those machines, however, only sold cannabis edibles.  The new and improved ZaZZZ sells the cannabis flower (a.k.a. buds), vaporizer pens, hemp-oil energy drinks, and more.  The first purchase made was for a $15 gram of the "Girl Scout Cookies" cannabis strain.

You will probably also want some real Girl Scout cookies to go with that.
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The machine operates by using an ID card scanner, which verifies user identity after a shop employee confirms the client's medicinal-user status.  Stephen Shearin, president of American Green Inc., is enthusiastic about the adoption of the machines, saying, "It's a way to take something that has proven itself as a viable business model throughout the last century, and bring it into the 21st century."

Five ZaZZZes are planned for locations throughout Washington state, with others planned for Alaska, California, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Michigan. Wherever you venture to find one, you won't even need to worry about getting robbed for your stash cash along the way - the ZaZZZ accepts bitcoin!  The future just got a little more chill.

Bits for hits!
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On The Road Again? Never Lose Power Thanks To New "SmartBackpack"

Let's face it, electronic gadgets govern huge swaths of our modern lives.  Try going a day without your cellphone.  Think about the horror of hitting the gym without your trusty mp3 player.  And of course, the ubiquity of tablets and e-readers has now made them indispensable as well.  So, how do you keep them all powered for hours?

According to, a new wearable battery charger/backpack is the nomadic, stylish answer for how to induce the juice.  Equipped with an onboard charger that's capable of powering up your phone, camera, or even laptop, the AMPL SmartBackpack has got you covered.  Capable of charging multiple devices at once, an OLED screen informs you of progress, as well as weather conditions that may be a hindrance to you or your tech toys.  This intel can also be sent to your smartphone via an app (of course.)

Neglect none of your devices thanks to the SmartBackpack.
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A hierarchy of charging can be established so that more important devices juice up first.  At maximum output, the SmartBackpack offers 147 Wh of charge.  The modular batteries inside can be removed and used individually, or the entire backpack itself can be plugged into a wall socket to re-up its own power.

Currently engaged in an campaign for development, the SmartBackpack will be for sale at $225 in pre-production, and $250 later in 2015.  It might be pricey for a backpack, but it's invaluable for today's tech gypsies who crave constant connectivity.  And maybe you can recoup some of the expense by renting out your power to electronically-estranged folks who planned their battery life badly.

Workaholics, your dreams have come true.
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Green Power In The Green Mountain State: Vermont's Largest City Is Fueled By Renewable Energy

Vermont has always been known as "The Green Mountain State", but now, it's the "green city" state, too.  Vermont's capital, Burlington, now uses 100% sustainable methods to provide power to their citizens.

As reported by PBS, the city of Burlington actually makes or obtains more power than it uses, and all derived from "green" sources. At a population of 42,000, Burlington is the most populous state in Vermont, all powered by renewable energy from Burlington Electric.  Ken Dolan, a Burlington Electric worker, explained that this way, power is not only gathered and used in a safer manner than fossil fuels, but it is also cheaper in the long run as a means for the city to energize itself.

The Winooski One hydroelectric plant uses water to turn turbines, creating energy.
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The change to renewables is estimated to save the city $20 million dollars over the next two decades, and it's already helped make significant strides.  Burlington's utility bill rates haven't risen since 2009.

The power itself is derived from several sources.  About a third of it comes from burning biomass (in this case, salvaged scrap wood that is burned to heat steam and thus generate electricity.)  Another 20% comes from wind turbines and solar power.  Thanks to the rivers of snowy mountain runoff that power hydroelectric facilities, the majority of the energy is harvested from hydro (which spins giant underground turbines to generate electricity.)

The J.C. McNeil power plant in Burlington, where biomass is converted to power.
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With Vermont relying deeply on nature to maintain their tourism (skiing and maple syrup are big moneymakers in the Green Mountain State), it's important to Vermonters to keep the environment happy.  Using renewable energy sources keeps things pleasant for the natural world as well as the citizens' wallets.  If their example can be extrapolated to larger areas in the country, we could be well on our way to improving conditions for all by kicking the fossil fuel habit for good.

A few windmills in the mountain vista are worth not having to be reliant on fossil fuels.
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Space Station Sunday: A Superstorm, A Super Cut, And The Superbowl

Good afternoon, space fans!  Here's what was up on the ISS this week.

It looks so pretty when you don't have to shovel it.
(Image courtesy astronaut Terry Virts.)

While a massive snowstorm hit the American Northeast, visibility was at near zero on the ground, but the ISS had an amazing view.  NASA astronaut Terry Virts captured a time-lapse flyby of the storm, which blanketed New England and shut down major cities.  The view from above was striking and the video (embedded below) made the winter wonderland look warm...of all the things to have to worry about on the ISS, Earth weather isn't one of them!

Another Earthly event was of interest aboard the ISS today, as Commander Butch Wilmore and astronaut Terry Virts wore their favorite American football jerseys in celebration of the Super Bowl.  Wilmore (a Tennessee Titans fan) and Virts (a Baltimore Ravens fan) sent a video message home saying that both were excited to watch from their "skybox", and were even more psyched that someday, the big game might be seen on Mars!

Speaking of football, the ISS shares a little something in common with the gridiron:  size.  The ISS covers about the same area as a standard American football field.  Except thanks to the constant orbit, 260 miles above the Earth, it will never make a "touchdown."

Microgravity football (and tackles) would be amazing to watch.  Someday, spacefarers, someday.
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As for business as usual on the ISS this week, the crew maintained their fruit fly study, which studies immune system reactions to microbes in space.  Fruit fly immune systems are similar enough to humans' that they make for good (and much more portable) test subjects.  The astronauts also packed the recently-arrived SpaceX Dragon capsule with materials to be safely sent back home for scientific study, and prepared for several spacewalks which will commence this month.

Commander Wilmore prepares for a little trip outside.  More to follow soon!
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Coolest of all, the Robonaut humanoid robot aboard the ISS got a little more lifelike this week, when astronaut Terry Virts enabled its new robotic legs.  Known as "R2", Robonaut will be assisting with human-like tasks in and around the ISS.  Virts posted this image on his Twitter.

"Lieutenant Robonaut, you got legs!"
(Image courtesy Terry Virts / NASA.)

However, there's some things you just on't entrust to robots, like fashion sense.  Thus, Virts also helped ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti maintain her awesome haircut, which looks extra rock-n-roll thanks to microgravity spiking it for her.  

Not only clippers are needed, but a hair vacuum (held by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov) as well, to prevent bits of locks floating around.
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That's all for these 112 Earth orbits, space cadets!  See you next week with more extra-atmospheric this space!

                                                                 Stay cool, Earthlings!
                                                    (Video courtesy Terry Virts / NASA.)