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NASA Unveils Monster Mars Rover

But does it have a future on the red planet? Also, a new alloy, and electrifying a dandy horse.

Electrifying a Dandy Horse

About 200 years ago, German inventor Karl Drais invented the Laufmaschine. Also known as the dandy horse, it's basically a bike without pedals that's powered by the rider pushing off of the ground with his/her feet. 

To honor Drais' invention, a group of researchers from Saarland University in Germany gave it a 21st century spin. They call their bike the Draisine 200.0, but their version is electrified.

The Draisine prototype runs on a 200W electric motor controlled by a Raspberry Pi. Their goal was to get an idea of how to control an electric bike in software, but one of the biggest challenges was that since it doesn't have pedals, they needed to find a way to sense when the user pushes and figure out when to use the electric motor. With your typical electric bike, the motor kicks in when you start to pedal.

They added a MPU-6050 six-axis MEMS device that combines a 3-axis gyroscope and a 3-axis accelerometer on the same silicon die to measure acceleration, and the added a hall sensor to the rear wheel that sends a signal whenever it detects one of four magnets that are mounted to the wheel.

According to the researchers, the bike, which is now in its third iteration, can reach up to 12.5 mph on flat terrain, and they've topped out around 20 mph on a downhill slope, which doesn't seem fast until you remember that you don't have pedals. The researchers hope their work will be used by the fast-growing e-bike industry to avoid programming errors that have already plagued other industries. Like those autonomous cars that keep slamming into things.

Commercializing a New, More Abundant Rare Earth Element

Wisconsin-based Eck Industries recently signed an exclusive license to commercialize a cerium-aluminum (Ce-Al) alloy that was co-developed by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The new material is ideal for creating lightweight, strong components, but what's more important is that the patent-pending alloy makes use the most abundant rare earth element, Cerium. 

Cerium makes up as much as half of mined rare earth materials, yet has less value than co-mined elements like neodymium and dysprosium that are in high demand for advanced energy technology applications.

Scientists at ORNL, working with Eck Industries and researchers at DOE's Ames and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, developed the alloy to be easy to work with, lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and stable at high temperatures. Testing has shown the Ce-Al is stable at 500°C, which mean that engines can run hotter with more complete fuel combustion while being lighter in weight.

According to the researchers, it doesn’t require additional thermal processing during the casting process and casting can be done using standard aluminum foundry procedures. All of this means cost cutting. The cost of heat treatment and the additional machining required due to thermal distortion can make up some 50-60 percent of the cost of casting traditional alloys. Energy costs could potentially be reduced by 30-60 percent compared with traditional casting processes.

Monster Mars Rover

This week, NASA unveiled a new concept for a future Mars rover. The rover is the work of Parker Brothers Concepts, the company that made the Tron Lightcycle a reality (they call it the Neutron), and also re-created the Ecto-1.

The brothers took design input from NASA experts to create a rover that operates on an electric motor that is powered by solar panels and a 700-volt battery.

The rover actually separates in the middle. The front section, which can seat four people, is designed for scouting and equipped with a radio and navigation provided by GPS. The back section serves as a lab that can disconnect for autonomous research.

The six wheels are an interesting part of the design. They were designed to have a lot of surface area and large vents so it could traverse over sand and not get stuck.

Now, the concept isn't headed to the red planet anytime soon, but actually the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where NASA hopes it will inspire people. At most, maybe a few ideas from this concept will make it into the next rover.

Looks like a really expensive hype piece, but before you get fired up, NASA did stress that the Kennedy visitor complex funded the build without use of taxpayer dollars.

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