Engineering News (November 2018)

The International Space Station turns 20

Happy birthday wishes to the International Space Station, the ISS, who turns 20 years old this month. On the 20th November 1998, a Russian Proton Rocket was launched carrying the ‘Zarya’ module from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This module was the first piece of the ISS, with NASA sending up the ‘Unity’ component 2 weeks later, to begin the construction of the ISS which would continue until the final planned module was fitted in 2011. Just 23 months after the launch of Zarya into orbit, 3 Astronauts and Cosmonauts would arrive to live on the ISS as it was and continue the construction of the ISS as well as beginning research projects.

This truly peaceful and international collaboration between as many as 18 nations, including the United States and Russia was breathtaking from an engineering perspective, but also a humanitarian perspective, coming after the ‘Cold War’ era and the International space race. To this day, there is a constant rotating crew of Astronauts and a total of 230 Astronauts from 18 nations have visited the ISS. The accommodation can cater for up to six astronauts and has 2 bathrooms, a gym (for the 2 hours a day of exercise needed due to the effects of weightlessness) and a ‘cupola’ giving 360-degree views around the space station.

The ISS orbits the Earth once every 90 mins travelling at a speed of 5 miles per second. It is one of the brightest objects in the sky which is helped by its 1 acre of solar panels used to generate power. It is the most expensive construction project ever costing £93.4 billion with 136 flights delivering the parts into space over the course of many years. The next cargo to be sent up, along with the food and equipment delivery is a device that recycles and also consists of a 3D printer which can melt down plastics to produce new tools, as and when needed.

Although the ISS seems a world away, we do see many benefits of the project here on Earth directly. These include providing imagery to help with the recovery after natural disasters, robots developed for use on the ISS being used for remote surgical operations, and the water testing technology used here on Earth after being developed in space.

Visit a Black Hole via VR at home

The ultimate destination that you can visit in your own living room: A black hole! It sounds like a scene from a 1970’s Sci-Fi film, but this is now possible with the help of Virtual Reality! Researchers from the Netherlands have used past readings, observations and data modelling to construct a VR ‘Black Hole’. The VR model gives 360-degree views and allows the viewer to see inside including the Sagittarius A* area right at the centre of the black hole as well as the periphery of this area.

Scientists hope that the VR programme will help to correct certain ideas that people have about black holes and to provide an up-to-date picture of the black hole with the data we have to date. This technology has a large potential for outreach work, particularly with school children, helping to shed light on a complex subject. A much safer way to visit!

Lightest race suit ever developed by McLaren

McLaren has teamed up with the manufacturer of team race wear Sparco, to release the latest version of the Sparco McLaren SP16+ race suit. It costs from £2,344 for the most basic form of the suit, with the cheapest add on costing a further £250. So, what is so special about this suit?

The SP16+ is FIA approved, and has been worn by the McLaren race team since 2016. The difference is the weight; it is the lightest race suit ever made, weighing in at just 590g.  This ability to lessen weight is important when you need to be as light as possible for the trip around the Monaco circuit, or on the latest track day experience in your Porsche GT3 RS. Each suit is meticulously made, taking a total of 12 painstaking hours. The zip is ultra slim, the threads are ultra-thin and the padding around the neck and shoulders has been reduced in size. Side pockets, a phone pocket and belt are optional extras if you don’t mind a few extra grams.

Whole 3D body scanner developed

The new Explorer Scanner, capable of producing a 3D Image of the whole of the human body has taken its first scans. The scans will be unveiled at the Radiological Society of North America – the scanner is the first of its kind. Scientists Ramsey Badawi and Simon Cherry designed the scanner which uses both CT (Computer Tomography) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) with the resulting scans yielding astonishingly detailed images.

The scanner can follow 3D movements of radio tracers around the body with a lower dose of radioactivity than the traditional PET scans, which is more suitable for paediatric medicine. The scans of the whole body can be carried out up to 40 times quicker than traditional scans, in fact, the whole body can be scanned in as little as 20-30 seconds. The patient benefits from a  clearer, more detailed scan, spends less time in the scanner, experiencing lower radiation doses which is significant, and  a real step forward in patient care.

The scanner can track drug progress after treatment, observe glucose uptake, visualise inflammation, track metabolic disorders and scan for cancers throughout the whole body. The scanner will also be used extensively for research projects.  Patient use will begin officially in June 2019.

Buildings can be designed to delay wildfire but not stop it

The recent Californian wildfires have caused tragedy and destruction. Many lost their homes and lives due to this as-yet-unknown cause of the fire. Some of the historical Californian wildfires such as the Rush fire in 2012 were caused by natural factors such as lightning, many are either still recorded as being under investigation or due to human factors such as arson or falling powerlines.

The wildfires spread quickly through their areas due to high winds and California is experiencing a particularly dry start to the rainy season which caused areas to be on alert already. Embers from existing fires are carried through these high winds and can set properties alight through debris in the guttering or drifting into houses through broken windows (single pane windows crack easily in heat) or missing roof tiles.

As California seeks to recover from the fires, it becomes more important than ever to ensure the rebuilding creates a safer environment for those for all, but how can this be done?

‘Defensible spaces’ that contain strategically placed well-maintained landscaping to help protect against fire spreading is one area that has received much airplay in the fire safety campaigns. However, this alone is not enough. Construction materials need to be robust and correctly installed to ensure there is no room for embers to penetrate the building and the construction materials on the exterior of the building should be non-combustible (although no building material is completely fireproof). Much of the damage in the Nov 2018 wildfires happened to buildings constructed with wooden frames and flammable roof materials. Many of the houses were also considered too close together.

Changes to construction methods and planning give a two-pronged approach that could help to increase the time available for evacuation but is unlikely to leave areas unscathed in the event of further fires. Power distribution networks should be carefully re-assessed and prevented from causing fires by the sparking of transformers in dry seasons for instance. Reinforced concrete will burn (incidentally ‘Green concrete’ is thought to burn at a higher temperature), but will allow more time to escape from buildings. Although reinforced concrete is more expensive than timber it could save many lives.

Some say that areas that burn regularly in California to maintain their ecosystem, have been built upon and fire suppressed for too long. This has led to the build-up of problems as the fire season gets longer in California and the winds become stronger.

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Engineering News – October 2018

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