private Enterprise

A mention for some of the optics and photonics stories I’ve covered lately:

The B612 Foundation is raising funds for what would be the first privately funded deep space mission, putting its own infrared observatory into orbit around the Sun at roughly the orbital distance of Venus. Ambitious, is probably the appropriate word. B612 are campaigners on the topic of asteroid deflection, and having spotted that NASA isn’t going to complete the mapping of potentially hazardous bodies in the inner solar system to its satisfaction any time soon, it wants to get out there and start having a look itself. A space mission funded by a private organisation with something of an evangelical approach to a certain catastrophic turn of events has some pop-cultural bite about it, and the Foundation rather smartly takes its name from the asteroid in The Little Prince, so my dream of one day writing about the ground-breaking efforts of the Acme Corporation and Roxxon Oil is back on track.

The dietary habits of a hominin who lived in South Africa two million years ago have been figured out, by analysing carbon dioxide lasered out of his tooth enamel. Turns out he was picky. My take-away from this is that I have the wrong idea entirely about the fragility of tooth enamel.

A system at Palomar Observatory should be able to yield direct optical evidence of the presence of exoplanets orbiting other stars, rather than relying on indirect detection of changes in starlight or gravitational effects. This ultimately revolves around getting the speckle caused by the atmosphere out of the picture, using the first “extreme” adaptive optics system deployed for astronomy. They know their AO tech at Palomar, and reckon they might eventually be able to achieve Hubble-calibre resolution from the ground.

Keeping unmanned drone aircraft in the air for longer used to mean installing bigger batteries, but somehow recharging the ones they’ve already got without needing them to land might be a better bet. Shooting a laser at them from the ground and re-juicing a drone that way sounds fairly simple; in principle it ties back into the ideas of wireless power transmission that used to keep Nikola Tesla awake at night, and which then kept a lot of other people awake when he explained to them what he meant. Lockheed Martin and LaserMotive have made it work in a wind tunnel, but the technical bottleneck might be the cells on the drone that turn an incoming laser into electricity, tech which has not been particularly high on anyone’s research program lately.