Factbox: Successes and failures in past Mars attempts

Fewer than half of the attempts by global space agencies to reach Mars have succeeded since 1960, with the United States in the clear lead.

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Here is a list of past key Mars missions:

SUCCESSES

DEC 1971: The Soviet space agency’s Mars 3 lander reaches the Red Planet’s surface but its instruments stop working after 20 seconds, likely due to massive dust storms at the time of landing.

JULY/AUG 1976: US space agency lands two probes, Viking 1 and 2, the first to send images and perform chemical analysis of the soil on the Red Planet.

SEPT 1997: NASA’s Mars Pathfinder succeeds in the first deployment of a lander and small free-ranging robotic rover on the Mars surface.

JAN 2004: The US space agency’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity land successfully on Mars. Opportunity continues to send back data today.

MAY 2008: NASA’s Mars Phoenix works for 155 days in the planet’s arctic region.

FAILURES

NOV 1960: Soviet space agency launches Sputnik 22, an attempted Mars flyby mission, but it disintegrates after entering Earth’s orbit.

NOV 1971: Soviet space agency’s Mars 2 crashes on Red Planet’s surface.

MAR 1974: Soviet space agency’s Mars 6 goes silent before landing.

MAR 1974: Soviet space agency’s Mars 7 is lost before entering Mars’ orbit.

NOV 1996: Russian space agency’s Mars 96 fails at launch.

DEC 1999: NASA’s Mars Polar Lander crashes on Mars.

DEC 2004: European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 attempts Mars landing but contact is lost before touchdown.

There have also been multiple attempts to send orbiters to circle the Red Planet or do flybys. Today there are three orbiters in operation around Mars, two US-launched (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and one European (Mars Express).

Most recently was Russia’s failed attempt to launch its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, a $165 million spacecraft designed to travel to the Martian moon of Phobos, scoop up soil and return the sample to Earth by 2014. Mission control lost radio contact with the craft hours after the November 2011 launch, and in January the 13.5 ton vessel plunged into the ocean.

Next generation of robots to help manufacturing

Amid the gloom about the prospects for manufacturing in Australia — and the difficulties facing an economy dominated by small businesses (nearly 90% of Australian manufacturing capacity) — there is some cause for optimism.

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A new generation of lightweight, assistive robots looks to provide small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with new options to improve their competitiveness and meet the challenges of high costs and a shortage of skilled workers.

The news is good for workers, too. Robotic “smart tools” offer a means of removing danger and monotony from the work environment and, in striking contrast to conventional beliefs, provide a way to retain the existing workforce for longer.

Studies have shown that robots can boost productivity, but this productivity dividend is dependent on a human workforce able to set them up, maintain them, and make creative decisions about how best to complete work tasks. In a US case study of Marlin Steel, introduction of robots not only boosted quality of company product, but increased employee remuneration.

The manufacture of robots is a growing source of employment. A 2011 report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics found that 150,000 people worldwide are already employed in the engineering and assembly of robots.

This report also identifies use of robotics in SMEs as essential to win back manufacturing from countries with low labour costs. In this case, the introduction of robots is capable of maintaining the viability of manufacturing in developed countries – and preserving manufacturing jobs.

Assistive robotics offer a high-productivity solution that could also help Australian manufacturing integrate into regional value chains, as recommended in the recent Asian Century white paper.

Lightweight robots can be integrated into the Australian workplace as assistants to workers in three ways.

The first is as “intelligent tools”, which work together with human workers. Mobile assistants, manipulators, “smart” picking, lifting and handling systems, and robotic welders, gluers and assemblers enable automation of short-run production processes, and provide a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production.

Secondly, robots can also be used as tools to augment the abilities of human workers in manufacturing processes. Powered exoskeletons enable workers, regardless of age or gender, to lift and manipulate heavy loads safely. Wearable machine vision systems can alert workers to workplace hazards in real-time, including hazards which can’t be detected visually, such as radiation and high temperatures. Mobile assistive robotic trainers and tele-immersive training systems enable experienced staff to remotely mentor workers who are new to a work environment.

The third way is as “smart” field tools, which enable human workers to manufacture items under hazardous or challenging conditions. Tele-operated mobile tools and vehicles are already in use in the mining industry, enabling work to be supervised remotely in an environment that is safe and comfortable for workers. Rigs which facilitate micro-manipulation and micro-assembly enable workers to conduct micro-assembly of complex items without strain to eyesight. Virtual and augmented reality systems allow workers to manipulate tools while remote from the factory floor, therefore reducing risks of work-related injury such as repetitive strain and injuries from use of tools.

So why is robotics changing? Conventional industrial robots — such as those used in automotive manufacturing — are heavy, programmed for one task, fixed in place on the factory floor, and expensive to buy, install, program and maintain. They are also potentially hazardous to humans, so workers are usually excluded from the robot workspace. But the next generation of lightweight robots is different.

A number of technological advances have made this new generation of lightweight robots possible.

First, the next generation of robots can “see” the workplace using advanced vision systems (including stereo and infrared cameras and multi-modal imaging), high precision sensors and perception algorithms.

Secondly, the new generation of robots is mobile. They know where they are and can navigate within the workplace thanks to navigation, localisation and mapping technologies – such as Wi-Fi localisation, beacon-based navigation, simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), and accurate 2D or 3D modelling.

Importantly, human workers are now able to easily communicate with robots via voice and visual gesture recognition. Sophisticated human-robot interactive interfaces allow shared autonomy and human supervisory control. Additionally, augmented and virtual reality robotic systems allow workers to work remotely in hazardous or physically demanding working environments and to tele-operate and tele-supervise remote equipment. Emerging global high-speed wireless communication systems such as the NBN provide the required infrastructure for these technologies.

Manipulation technologies, including force-amplifying exoskeletons (frameworks worn by workers to provide mobility and lifting assistance), dexterous manipulation (grasping and moving complex objects using robotic “fingers” or claws), and multi-robot cooperation make for a working environment that is safer for the workforce and enable any worker – regardless of sex or age – to effectively perform physically onerous or dangerous tasks in complete safety. Robotic tools similar to existing micro-surgery rigs enable workers to perform miniature component manufacturing and assembly tasks with precision and dexterity – without risk to their health.

Finally, the new generation of robots would not be possible without smart fabrication. Miniaturisation and smart and lightweight materials make for small, light, smart robots. These robots can move rapidly around a workplace, respond to commands to fetch tools, rapidly shift stores of materials and finished product, and complement human activities.

Alberto Elfes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Blog: Getting to know our neighbours

Defining ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ has been the subject of some debate since the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper in October last year.

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But how much do we know about the neighbourhood we are calling our own?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied takes a closer look.

Last month I found myself in the hot and humid Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur with five other ‘cultural exchange’ participants and a diplomatic entourage. I was a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our mission was to learn as much as we could about this nation’s rich tapestry in one week.

Malaysia is often seen as an exemplary model for Muslim countries around the world; a country with a Muslim government where halal food is abundant and hijab fashion shops sit comfortably next to Chanel and Hermes.

For me, the opportunity to delve beneath the surface was an experience that offered much to reflect on, particularly for a migrant Muslim who calls multicultural Australia home.

A country of primarily three ethnicities, Malay (60.3%), Chinese (22.9%) and Indians (7.1%), the Malaysians have an interesting political landscape. Curiously, what it means to be Malay is embedded in the constitution of the nation; someone who is born to a Malaysian, who professes to be Muslim, speaks Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) and adheres to the Malay customs.

The comfort with religious identity that seems prevalent in Malaysia is in stark contrast to the strongly secular environment in Australia. The promotion of pro-Bumiputra policies (affirmative action policies for ethnic Malays designed to create opportunities and increase their share of corporate wealth) are also an accepted part of the nation’s landscape – at least by the Malays that we spoke to.

The policy has definitely created a strong Malay middle class, so in that sense it has worked. However, it has created a sense of resentment among people of other ethnicities, which feel discriminated against in their own nation.

The Chinese and Indians seemed frustrated at the fact that they are essentially relegated to second-class status. For me, this brought to the fore issues around personal and national identity and how policies are implemented, however well-intentioned.

As Australians it seemed natural to be shocked at a policy that discriminates based on racial identity, but we would do well to remember the Northern Territory Intervention. We too applied policies that discriminated based on race and ethnicity for a particular socio-economic objective.

It is interesting that both the Australian and Malaysian governments have been comfortable in continuing such policies, particularly when there have been such strong expressions of disapproval in both nations.

A week in Malaysia barely scratched the surface of this complex country, but it was apparent that Australians should not strive to change our neighbours, or that we should change to suit their ways, but that we become cognisant of the fact that our practices and make-up are different and that difference should be respected.

As neighbours we should focus on understanding the perspectives of our fellow Asia Pacific nations and realise the importance of history in their actions. Rather than always viewing them through the prism of an Australian lens, we must appreciate that there is more than one set of lenses to be worn.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an Australian Muslim who was born in Sudan and grew up in Queensland. She is a mechanical engineer by profession and is the founder of Youth Without Borders. Yassmin was the Queensland finalist for Young Australian of the Year in 2011.

Moon mining a step closer with new lunar soil simulant

By Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

Australian researchers have developed a substance that looks and behaves like soil from the moon’s surface and can be mixed with polymers to create ‘lunar concrete’, a finding that may help advance plans to construct safe landing pads and mines on the moon.

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Valuable rare earth minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, platinum and the non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 (He-3) are abundant on the moon. NASA and other space agencies have shown interest in lunar mining but the US is yet to ratify a 1984 treaty that would strictly regulate moon resource extraction.

However, even if moon mining was allowed, lunar conditions are so different to Earthly conditions that new machinery may have to be invented to develop resources found there.

Furthermore, the cost of transporting materials made on Earth would be prohibitive, forcing scientists to come up with ways to build certain equipment using material only found on the moon’s surface.

A research team led by Dr Leonhard Bernold, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of New South Wales, has created a new lunar soil simulant that closely resembles samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

Dr Bernhold said such a simulant is essential to test lunar mining systems on Earth and may help researchers develop ways to create a waterless concrete using lunar dust, a component of the moon surface material known as regolith.

“We now know a lot about the mechanical properties of the regolith on the moon so we can create something that simulates it. We have tried to match it as close as we can,” said Dr Bernhold.

Dr Bernold’s lunar soil simulant is made up primarily of very fine basalt particles taken from a quarry in Kulnura on the NSW Central Coast.

“These particles are a byproduct of crushing the basalt to serve aggregates for making concrete or asphalt, but are too tiny to be useful and have to be thrown away,” said Dr Bernhold.

“On the moon, those small particles are abundant, having being created by small meteorites hitting the lunar surface at high speed over millions of years, thus breaking larger stones down into tiny particles.

As well as providing a substance on which Earthly mining techniques can be tested, the simulant soil can also be mixed with polymers to create a lunar concrete, said Dr Bernold.

“So, for example, we can find ways to create an in-situ resource utilisation material to build a landing pad for rockets on the moon. When rockets are landing, they blow away fine soil and it’s like a sandblaster blasting everything around,” he said, adding that a proper landing pad on the moon would reduce the dangerous sandblaster effect.

“Everything we ship from Earth will cost a lot of money, so we want to do as much as we can from the material that’s available there on the moon in abundance.”

Dr Bernold, who said NASA had shown interest in his findings, is presenting his simulant this week at the Off Earth Mining Forum hosted by UNSW.

Professor Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales said a lunar soil simulant would help researchers better understand the properties of moon dust.

“The main value in this work is to do with the soils on the moon being so different to the type of soil on the earth and the type of soil most mining machinery is dealing with,” he said.

International treaties and special space laws would be needed to work out who had ownership rights to material mined from the moon, said Dr Dempster.

“I understand there’s an environmental argument around it too but if you were to mine the moon or an asteroid or other planets, there’s not going to be the environmental impact that local mining would have on the local biosphere. It’s a way of mining such that the mining process itself doesn’t produce any negative environmental impact,” he said.

“Obviously, however, you need to produce a lot of energy to go and do it.”

Students working with Dr Bernold are studying methods for harvesting and storing solar heat energy on the moon in a ‘lunar battery’ using materials found on the moon.

Greens leader Milne a political survivor

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne is a survivor.

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In February 2011, six federal MPs stood in the Prime Minister’s Courtyard in Parliament House to announce the details of Labor’s forthcoming carbon tax.

Julia Gillard, Greg Combet, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Brown have exited federal politics, but Milne remains.

Milne, a former high school teacher, was elected to the Senate for Tasmania in 2004.

She took over the Greens leadership from Brown – who had been the public face of the party since its formation – in April 2012.

As leader, Milne has been a key figure in delivering Labor’s Clean Energy Future legislation, putting the spotlight on coal seam gas development, banning the super trawler and standing up for the rights of asylum seekers.

She also ended the Greens agreement with Labor – signed after the 2010 election to deliver a minority government – citing the poor design and low revenue earnings from the government’s mining tax.

Gillard’s reaction to Milne’s decision was a curt: “Thanks, righto …”

But such a dismissal denies the importance of the Greens to Labor’s prospects for re-election.

Labor will rely heavily on the minor party (which scored 11.8 per cent of the vote in 2010) for preferences in the race for Senate spots and inner-metropolitan lower house seats where the environmental vote is highest.

The Greens will also continue to hold the balance of power in the Senate until June 30, 2014, making a strong working relationship between the leaders of the key parties crucial to the passage of legislation.

Milne has vowed to recontest the Greens leadership after the election, which is spilled automatically after a poll.

She says the Greens party has “big things to deliver” in the coming term, including making the big banks and miners pay more tax, support for renewable energy and a better deal for the unemployed and refugees.

Marriage equality is a personal issue for Milne who has a gay son, Tom.

Unlike Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Milne doesn’t face re-election in 2013 because her Senate term has another three years to run.

And the 60-year-old Milne, a veteran of the Franklin River campaign in 1983, is not one to shirk a fight.