blast from the past

A semi-regular round-up of some technolgy stories I’ve written about recently:

Curiosity continues to trundle across Mars, and another article about its on-board laser is here on As always with space applications, it’s the timescales that surprise but probably shouldn’t. ChemCam is the first planetary application of laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, an attention-grabbing media-friendly experiment to zap bits of Martian geography, and a landmark experiment in every sense. Thales Optronics were told “Nice laser; now make it 95 percent lighter and need no cooling,” and achieved it within a couple of years. It’s state of the art – for 2003, when the design was locked down. Although some of the smaller sensor components developed for ChemCam have gone on to Earth-bound uses in the decade since, the new class of laser that Thales designed has not found its way into commercially viable applications because it’s remained stubbornly too expensive. It’s a relic from the past, currently engaged in one of the most futuristic experimental scenarios on the books.

My grasp of gene sequencing tends to be a consistent three years out of date, so it’s only when studies like ENCODE prompt round-ups of where things stand that the vast scale of the topic comes into focus. But now, a decade and a bit into the human genome project, there are some promising practical applications becoming commercially viable. A children’s hospital in Kansas believes it can sequence enough of the genome of a sick child to identify some life-threatening hereditary conditions in a short enough time to start meaningful treatment, through a combination of a custom-built piece of software and a sequencing machine designed to get the job done as fast as reasonably possible. That involves elegant use of a fluorescence-tagging technique that’s been around for a while, but in Kansas they pressed the accelerator. Potentially, clinicians could get results in their hands in as little as 50 hours, although the trial hit some logistical issues that got in the way of that nice round number.

Adaptive optics is a feature of some astronomical telescopes, compensating for natural atmospheric disturbances by deliberately deforming a mirror very, very rapidly with mechanical actuators to counteract the interference. Ophthalmologists face similar problems when trying to get a good look at the retina to spot the onset of certain retinal diseases, but deformable mirror technology was never quite good enough to pull off the same trick dealing with the wide array of optical distortions found in human eyes. Imagine Eyes think they’ve cracked it, in a system that should mark the first reasonably practical transfer of adaptive optics into a normal clinical environment – practical, in that the machine to do the job isn’t the size of a small car.