First Drone Goes Flying to the North Pole on a Climate Mission

(Bloomberg) — Roberta Pirazzini set out an Arctic expedition to do something no one had ever tried before: fly a drone near the North Pole.

a group of people riding skis on top of a snow covered mountain: The white surfaces of Arctic ice reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere, while the ocean’s blue surfaces absorb it.

© Photographer: Alex Morales/Bloomberg
The white surfaces of Arctic ice reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere, while the ocean’s blue surfaces absorb it.

Sensors on the drone would assess sunlight reflected from the ice. This measurement, known as surface albedo, is key to understanding how much solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth and how much is reflected back into the atmosphere. It’s one of the scientific puzzles that can help predict how fast sea ice will melt.


Load Error

But flying a drone over the planet’s northernmost reaches is no simple feat. Pirazzini and a colleague, Henna-Reetta Hannula, spent months learning to fly at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, where both are on staff as scientists. Technicians designed and built a sophisticated navigation system capable of handling extreme weather.

The scientists and their drones then joined the largest Arctic expedition in history aboard the Polarstern, an icebreaker carrying dozens of researchers on a year-long mission. The pair had also brought along a smaller practice drone that could fly inside their tiny cabin, the only chance they’d have to keep their skills sharp in the weeks of sailing before finally stepping onto the ice.

Right away, Pirazzini ran into the same problems that have beset Arctic explorers for two centuries: treacherous navigation conditions and technology that buckles in the deep cold.

Drones and helicopters have trouble near the North Pole because global positioning satellites suffer small uncertainties at extreme northern latitudes. This creates mounting confusion for navigation the closer a pilot gets to the North Pole, and Pirazzini’s drones would be operating closer than any before.

The navigation nightmare has claimed another drone earlier in the expedition. The drone took off from the ship, went in a completely uncontrolled direction and crashed. Pirazzini was terrified her albedo-measuring drone would fall victim next, and her fears were confirmed as soon as she stepped onto the ice. The navigation system on the main drone wasn’t working, meaning she and Hannula would need to manually calculate distances, direction, altitude and wind speed.

“The freezing conditions were our main enemy, not only for the ice in the blade” of the drone’s rotors, “but in our fingers,” Pirazzini says, her voice cracking over a satellite phone during the Polarstern’s return voyage earlier this month. “You need very delicate, small motions to operate the drone,” she says. “When your hand is freezing you lose sensitivity, your fingers can’t control the features anymore.”

Fog would turn into ice around the drone’s blades. Wind gusts stronger than eight meters per hour would ground the drone. Still, the two scientists managed to conduct 18 flights over three weeks. Albedo measurements captured by Pirazzini, 49, and Hannula, 33, will now be analyzed as part of multinational effort to understand how warming temperatures are affecting the Arctic—a scientific race against climate change itself.

Earth’s northern icecap

Read more

These tiny, little-winged dinosaurs were probably worse at flying than chickens

The discovery of two small dinosaurs with bat-like wings a few years ago was a palaeontologist’s dream. Just how flight evolved in birds is something we’re still trying to nail down, and looking at this early evolution of bat-like wings in dinosaurs could give us a clue.  

a close up of a bird: A drawing of the theropod dinosaur Yi qi, which sported bat-like wings.

© Provided by Live Science
A drawing of the theropod dinosaur Yi qi, which sported bat-like wings.

But a team of researchers has now pointed out that just because you have wings, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually any good at flying.


Load Error

Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium are two species of theropod dinosaurs that lived around 160 million years ago, both of which had unusually elongated fingers, and a skin membrane stretching between them, similar to a bat’s wing.

This is an entirely different kind of wing to the one theropod dinosaurs evolved to fly with – the dinosaurs that eventually became birds. And, unlike them, after only a few million years, Yi and Ambopteryx became extinct, which is the first hint that these unusual wings could not match those birds-to-be. 

However, weird wings on extinct critters mean it’s likely multiple types of wings (and therefore flight) evolved over the years, and that Yi and Ambopteryx’s attempts were not the winning strategy.

But before you can write off Yi and Ambopteryx as complete evolutionary flight failures, you have to know how good (or bad, as the case may be) the two species were at flight.

In 2015, when Yi was found, that team of researchers suggested that the size of its wings and other flight characteristics could mean it was a gliding creature – however it’s unlike any other glider we know of, and its centre of mass might have made even gliding difficult. We just weren’t sure.

A new study, by researchers in the US and China, has now looked into the flight potential of Yi and Ambopteryx in a lot more detail, and come to the conclusion that they really weren’t good at getting their little feet off the trees they lived in.

“Using laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging, we re-evaluate their anatomy and perform aerodynamic calculations covering flight potential, other wing-based behaviors, and gliding capabilities,” the team writes.

“We find that Yi and Ambopteryx were likely arboreal, highly unlikely to have any form of powered flight, and had significant deficiencies in flapping-based locomotion and limited gliding abilities.”

The team’s analysis of the fossils (Yi pictured below) was able to pick up tiny details in soft-tissue that you can’t see with normal light.

Then the team modeled how the dinosaurs might have flown, adjusting for things such as weight, wingspan, and muscle placement (all stuff we can’t tell just from the fossils).

The results were … underwhelming.

“They really can’t do powered flight,” says first author, biologist Thomas Dececchi from Mount Marty University.

“You have to give them extremely generous assumptions in how they can flap their wings. You basically have to model them as the biggest bat, make

Read more

NASA spacecraft sent asteroid rubble flying in sample grab

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft crushed rocks and sent rubble flying as it briefly touched an asteroid, a strong indication that samples were collected for return to Earth, officials said Wednesday.

Scientists won’t know until next week how much was gathered at asteroid Bennu — they want at least a handful of the cosmic rubble. But close-up pictures and video of Tuesday’s touch-and-go operation raised hopes that goal was achieved.

“We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess, the kind of mess we were hoping for,” said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona at Tucson.

It was the first asteroid-sampling effort by the U.S., coming four years after the spacecraft rocketed from Cape Canaveral and two years after it reached Bennu. Japan has taken asteroid samples twice.

The carbon-rich Bennu is a time capsule believed to contain the original building blocks of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago and, as such, can help scientists better understand the origins of Earth and life as we know it.

Osiris-Rex scored a near bull’s-eye, reaching down with its robot arm to within a yard (meter) of its intended target zone in the center of boulder-rimmed Nightingale Crater. The sampling container on the arm made contact with the black, crumbly terrain for about six seconds and pushed at least three-quarters of an inch (2 centimeters) into the ground, crushing a large rock in the process, officials said.

As planned, pressurized nitrogen gas fired onto the surface a second later, to kick up a shower of debris so the spacecraft could suck up as much dust and as many pebbles as possible.

The spacecraft quickly backed away and, by Wednesday, was a safe 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Bennu.

Several hours passed before the pictures started pouring in. Lauretta said he was up until the wee hours Wednesday, overjoyed at what he saw. He watched the touch-and-go video about 100 times — “it’s just so cool” — then went to sleep.

“I dreamed of a wonder world of Bennu regolith particles floating all around me,” he said.

Over the next few days, a camera on the spacecraft will aim at the sampler on the end of the robot arm, looking for signs of asteroid residue. If the lighting is right, the camera might even be able to peek into the sample chamber. The spacecraft will also be put into a slow spin, with its arm extended, to provide a more accurate measure of the precious payload.

Based on the images, “the sampling event went really well, as good as we could have imagined it would, and I think the chances that there’s material inside … have gone way up,” Lauretta said.

If fewer than 2 ounches (60 grams) were collected, the team must decide by Oct. 30 whether to try again. A second attempt would not occur until January — at another location.

The plan calls for

Read more