NASA has a plan to just tow an asteroid around space like it's an old car

The crazy part about NASA's Asteroid Initiative isn't so much the part where we land human beings on an asteroid. That's cool and all, sure. But the bit that precedes it is actually a little bit more mindblowing. To make that landing work, we'll first have to send out robotic spacecraft to essentially capture an asteroid and tow it into a stable orbit around the Moon. Yeah. Seriously. Welcome to living in the future, dudes.

The hazards of Moon dust

Despite all the attention lavished on Moon dust, we still don't know what effect the stuff has on human lungs ... which is kind of a big deal, considering the fact that the dust has busted through every vacuum seal its ever faced. And eaten through layers of moon boots. Basically, you can imagine Moon dust as those tiny shards that get left on the floor when you break a glass and inevitably end up embedded in your foot four days later. At The New Yorker, Kate Green writes about efforts to better understand the effects of Moon dust on various materials and how engineers are trying to find new ways to control it before humans return to the lunar surface.

Lab meat "delicious", "weird"

A delicious lab-burger, comprising meat grown in a test tube rather than hacked from the corpse of a once-living creature, was eaten for the first time today at a news conference in London. Genetic material was taken from a cow and "turned into strips of muscle" that were then combined into a patty, reports the BBC.

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What Google's self-driving car sees

Charlie Warzel: "THIS is what google's self driving car can see. So basically this thing is going to destroy us all." [via Matt Buchanan]

Growing up in the future

When Veronique Greenwood went to college in 2004, she took a laptop with her ... and a videophone. In an engaging essay at Aeon Magazine, Greenwood writes about what it was like to grow up with a Futurist for a mom, particularly a futurist who, in retrospect, seemed to be more interested in premature technologies than in the sleek, widely adopted versions that eventually succeeded in the marketplace. Greenwood's mother loved the videophone. When Skype came along, free of dedicated hardware, she lost interest.

The rise and fall of the personal car

“The replacement of the car is probably out there. We just don’t fully recognize it yet.” — a really interesting story on the historical patterns of technology adoption and decline, and how those patterns might apply to the things we think of as absolute and necessary as much as they applied to the steamship or the landline.

How space radiation hurts astronauts

Space is full of radiation. It’s impossible to escape. Imagine standing in the middle of a dust storm, with bits of gravel constantly swirling around you, whizzing by, pinging against your skin. That’s what radiation is like in space. The problem is that, unlike a pebble or a speck of dirt, ionizing radiation doesn’t bounce off human flesh. It goes right through, like a cannonball through the side of the building, leaving damage behind.

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How to make corn more sustainable? Grow less of it.

I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"

I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.

Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven. A recent study found that a 3.6°F increase in global temperatures could make corn prices twice as volatile.

All of which is why many experts advocate replacing corn with a portfolio of hardier, more nutritious and more efficient food sources. Wheat production generates less than half the fossil-fuel emissions of corn and returns 63 percent more protein. Other crops actually give back to the land. Chickpeas and peanuts contain twice as much protein as corn, and they increase the nutrient content of soil.

Read about the other suggestions for adapting major food crops to climate change.

Image via WATTAgNet

A new plan for space

Later this month, NASA will start talking publicly about a plan to put humans on an asteroid and bring them back to Earth again. The Telegraph has a preview.

Win a signed copy of Maggie's new book

Would you like a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy?

The book comes out on April 10th and pre-orders have already started shipping. Between now and the end of April, you can earn a fun prize for telling other people about my book.

1) Tell people on your social networks that you're reading Before the Lights Go Out. This applies to Facebook, G+, or Twitter. When you talk about it, be sure to tag me in the post—@maggiekb1 on Twitter, Maggie Koerth-Baker on Facebook and G+—so I know that you mentioned the book.

In return, I'll send you a sticker with my signature and personal thank-you. You can put it in your printed book and create an instant signed copy. Or, if you're an e-book reader, you can put the sticker on ... something else. Maybe your e-book reader. Maybe your pet/baby. Either way, it's yours!

UPDATE: I had another part to this, offering cookies to people who would write reviews of the book. It was meant to be fun. But, talking to a few people, I think that cuts too close to bribery. So I'm canceling that part of the contest.

Live discussion tomorrow: Electricity, infrastructure, and our energy future

Join me tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern for a live chat with editors from Treehugger.com.

They'll be talking with me about my new book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.

The key message I want people to take away from this book: Our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable resources. Instead, what matters more is the infrastructures we live with, which dictate how we use energy, where we get it from, and how much we consume. If you want a more sustainable energy future, you'll need to focus on infrastructure. This isn't just about sources—it's about systems.

The chat will be embedded on Treehugger.

A heart with no beat

Artificial hearts are amazing, but flawed. They wear out quickly and, even today, they don't work at all unless the transplantee is hooked up to an external air compressor 24-7. That doesn't make for a great quality of life. In fact, according to a story in Popular Science, written by Dan Baum, the first man to ever use an artificial heart asked his doctors (repeatedly) if they couldn't just let him die.

And yet, many people would still like to avoid dying of heart failure. So how do you solve the problem?

As Baum explains it, the flaws in artificial hearts are all tied back to a key issue: Trying to make them beat like a natural heart. So, what if an artificial heart didn't have to beat in order to do its job?

Meeko the calf stood nuzzling a pile of hay. He didn’t seem to have much appetite, and he looked a little bored. Every now and then, he glanced up, as though wondering why so many people with clipboards were standing around watching him.

Fourteen hours earlier, I’d watched doctors lift Meeko’s heart from his body and place it, still beating, in a plastic dish. He looked no worse for the experience, whisking away a fly with his tail as he nibbled, demonstrably alive—though above his head, a monitor showed a flatlined pulse. I held a stethoscope to his warm, fragrant flank and heard, instead of the deep lub-dub of a heartbeat, what sounded like a dentist’s drill or the underwater whine of an outboard motor. Something was keeping Meeko alive, but it was nothing like a heart.

This is a longer read, but very much worthwhile. It's one of those stories that will leave you feeling like you live in the capital-F Future.

Read the rest of Dan Baum's Popular Science story on a new kind of artificial heart.

Image: Green Heart (And the Green Grass Grows All Around, All Around), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from carbonnyc's photostream

Bill threatens to de-fund public energy research in Minnesota

In times of tight government budgets, there's a temptation to lawmakers to leave the expensive job of scientific research to corporations. I understand that urge. I can sympathize with it. But I also think that it's perilously wrong-headed.

Privately-funded science—that is, usually, science done by corporations—is important. And it can't all be written off as inherently biased, either. The trouble, though, is that corporations have special concerns that influence what scientific research they undertake, and how they do it. In general, today, what they focus on is short-term stuff. They improve existing products. They figure out how to make nifty technology work in the real world.

What they don't do is long-term, big-picture science. This is the stuff that shapes our futures—and the futures of private corporations. If we abandon public funding for science, then we put all of that at risk.

Case in point: Since 2003, Minnesota has funded research on energy through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE). The scientists involved with this program do low-profile, but extremely important work, developing technologies (and methods for using those technologies) that affect every level of our energy systems. Right now, they're involved in everything from developing portable systems that turn farm waste into biofuel, to figuring out better ways to help houses use less energy. They're even collecting the complicated economic and physics data that will help us better understand the full environmental impacts of different fuels, batteries, and other energy sources and technologies. In the course of writing Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I interviewed several of these scientists and learned a lot about the research they do. Some of their ideas won't pan out. Others will shape our energy future. But you don't know which is which until you put in the research effort—and this isn't the kind of research that private companies are willing to do.

Tomorrow, Minnesota state legislators in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee will vote on a bill called SF 2181. If it passes, the bill will de-fund the Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment. Instead, all state money for energy research will go to Xcel Energy, our local electric utility.

There's nothing wrong with Xcel. In fact, they've got a pretty good track record of investing in alternative energy generation and infrastructure changes that will make it easier to build a sustainable energy future. But they aren't going to do the kind of research that IREE does. And they aren't going to research energy issues that don't affect their business—electricity.

Our energy problems are bigger than that. Our research into potential solutions needs to be broader than Xcel should be expected to cover. And it needs to be more forward thinking, and financially risky, than Xcel can reasonably be expected to undertake. There's nothing wrong with funding research at Xcel. But there is something wrong with de-funding research at the University of Minnesota.

If you live in Minnesota, I urge you to contact the members of the Minnesota Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee TODAY. The vote is tomorrow, Thursday March 8. Let them know that public science is important work that can't be replaced by private science. In fact, we need both kinds of science happening, if we're going to meet the challenges of the future. A list of committee members—and their phone numbers—is after the jump.

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What happens when a Coronal Mass Ejection hits the Earth?

At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.

Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.

Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!

A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire. When a CME hits the Earth’s magnetic field and sends it oscillating, those undulating magnetic fields raise currents in conductive material within and on the Earth itself. The currents that ripple through our planet can easily enter transformers that serve as nodes in regional, national, and global power grids. They can also seep into and corrode the steel in lengthy stretches of oil and gas pipeline.

On October 29, 2003, power grids around the world felt the strain from the geomagnetic currents. In North America, utility companies scaled back electricity generation to protect the grid. In Sweden, a fraction of a CME-induced electric current overloaded a high-voltage transformer, and blacked out the city of Malmo for almost an hour. The CME dumped an even larger mass of energetic particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere and orbital environment, where satellites began to fail because of cascading electronics glitches and anomalies. Most were recovered, but not all. Astronauts in low-Earth orbit inside the International Space Station retreated to the Station’s shielded core to wait out the space-weather storm. Even there, the astronauts received elevated doses of radiation, and occasionally saw brief flashes of brilliant white and blue—bursts of secondary radiation caused when a stray particle passed directly through the vitreous humor of the astronauts’ eyes at nearly light-speed.

Flares and CMEs from the Sun continued to bombard the Earth until early November of that year, when at last our star’s most active surface regions rotated out of alignment with our planet. No lives were lost, but many hundreds of millions of dollars in damages had been sustained.

The event, now known as the Halloween Storm of 2003, deeply worried John Kappenman, an engineer and expert in geomagnetic storm effects. The Sun had fired a clear warning shot. Its activity roughly follows an 11-year cycle, and severe space weather tends to cluster around each cycle’s peak. The Sun’s next activity peak is expected to occur this year or next, and the chance of more disruptive geomagnetic storms will consequently increase

The video above shows what the last big CME, in 2005, looked like. Video Link

Energy policy is leaving the middle class behind

If you've paid much attention to policy in general, you won't be too surprised by what I'm about to tell you about energy policy. Many of our well-meaning public programs use tax dollars for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy—the group of people who need those shared funds the least.

Today I spoke at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?", a conference about the short-term future of energy in the United States. At the conference, I met Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli has spent the last year researching the effects of high gasoline prices on middle class and working class families. (I'll be posting some more about that project later.) Along the way, she noticed some serious problems with the way we're currently trying to change energy systems in the U.S.—problems that actually endanger our ability to make real, long-term change.

The green policies put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations are not only not aimed at the middle class; they’re benefitting the wealthy at precisely the moment that high gas prices have slammed the lower middle class.

Consider the flashiest green support for consumers at the moment: tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and solar panels. Buy an electric car (more than $40,000) or a solar array (more than $20,000) and get a tax credit. But most American families making the median income (about $50,000) spend more per year on their old used cars and fuel ($7,900) than they do on taxes ($6,000). So a tax credit effectively steers the taxes they do pay toward those in the upper income brackets.

... Green products and technology need government support. We’ve given so much to high-carbon fuels and infrastructure that they have a built-in advantage, but we can’t afford to depend upon them in the future. If we want to give green energy real political legs, policymakers need to be sure that the middle class gets some of the green goodies that can save money: more efficient vehicles, household solar panels or water heaters, energy-efficiency upgrades. In fact, making sure that there's a middle class market for these goods is part of actually building a strong U.S. green industry—in much the way we built markets for cars, for houses after World War II, and even for home appliances. It’s actually a lot easier to build smart policies than it is to build a killer electric car or a scalable biofuel. But for some reason, we’re not doing it.