Everything Looks Electric at Frankfurt Auto Show
This year may be the turning point for the electric car, if the
cars displayed at the Frankfurt auto show are any indication. The
car likely to make most geeks start drooling is the Peugeot BB1.
Imagine a car designed with drive-anywhere Internet access in mind!
It features an iPod dock built right into the steering wheel, and
a centrally mounted display lets you fiddle with the radio, navigation
options, and yes...connect to the Internet. While there was a physical
car at the show, it's said to be only in the concept stage. This
all-electric vehicle will supposedly have a range of 75 miles
For those who want something a little sportier, Audi stepped up
to the plate with an electric sports car, the e-tron. Bearing some
resemblance to the Audi R8, it will definitely make heads turn;
even your non-environmentally aware friends may lust after one.
This baby sports four electric motors, one at each wheel; combined
horsepower is only 313, but the vehicle's range is a respectable
(for an electric vehicle) 154 miles. Unfortunately, like the Peugeot,
this car is not yet in production.
Mercedes-Benz also revealed a plug-in hybrid, called the Vision
S 500 (no, this isn't BMW's hybrid concept car, coincidentally also
named Vision). Its electric ring motor sits sandwiched between the
injected V-6 gasoline engine and the seven-speed automatic transmission.
A rapid charge cycle supposedly takes less than an hour with a 20
kW source. If you're dealing with a completely discharged battery,
expect to spend about 4.5 hours charging it if you plug it into
a conventional household socket. The car can travel about 18 miles
before the gas engine has to kick in.
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Going Weightless for Free
Student ID cards can earn all sorts of discounts, but this one
is big: instead of paying $5,000 or more to experience microgravity,
certain college students can now do it for free. Thanks to NASA's
Microgravity University program, these students get to ride in a
NASA jet sometimes known as the “vomit comet” that simulates the
weightless conditions of outer space. The teams of students conduct
experiments on the jet that can't easily be performed any other
While the students don't pay any money to ride, there is a price
of sorts. First of all, they have to apply, and not everyone gets
in. Letters of intent are due this week, and completed applications
must arrive at NASA next month. As you'd expect, these are not simple
forms; according to one applicant, they run to 50 or 60 pages. NASA
had been accepting about half of all applicants, but budget cuts
may reduce even that number. Many don't get in the first year; fortunately,
NASA gives feedback, so students can reapply and hope to get in
the second year (and some do).
Once a team of students actually wins their way aboard, they spend
10 days in preparation and actual flying. So far, the program has
reached nearly 3,000 students at more than 165 colleges and universities.
That's not bad for a little-publicized program that has been in
existence for 14 years. A lot of good science has been conducted
on these trips; for example, one team studied “dusty plasmas,” which
exist in space in Saturn's rings and comet tales. There are even
YouTube videos of students conducting their experiments while flying;
it's clearly not the easiest environment in which to practice science!
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Levitating Mice to Learn About Astronaut Health
Speaking of weightlessness programs with a tie-in to space, NASA
now has lab rats to help them protect the health of astronauts.
Scientists at the Jet Propulsion lab managed to levitate mice using
a device powered by a superconducting gradient magnet. The plan
is to use the mice to study the effects of staying for extended
periods in a low-gravity environment.
As JPL physicist Yuanming Liu explained, "The reason we want
to levitate mice is we are aware of the situation that astronauts
who stay in micro-gravity environments long enough might lose some
bone mass." By learning whether such bone loss occurs in mice
in such a simulated low-gravity environment, scientists hope to
gain a greater understanding of what might actually be going on
in astronauts' bodies when they are in space for lengthy amounts
For the record, mice don't seem to enjoy being levitated – not
while they're fully conscious, anyway. The first mouse the scientists
levitated “didn't like it very much, he started to spin and got
disoriented,” Liu said. They next tried levitating a mouse that
had been partially sedated by a veterinarian, and that animal actually
calmed down as he floated. Eventually, after repeated exposure,
mice do adapt to being levitated for short periods; even fully conscious
mice became more comfortable with it, eating and drinking normally.
Liu hopes to proceed to the next stage of the experiment, which
would continuously levitate mice for a week and observe the effects.
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