Eye on Science #3 

5 min read

Small Tech to Big Impact. Possible?

August 12 2021, Everest Base Camp, Khumbu, Nepal

You are lost in a snowstorm. You only have your phone with no active connection on you. Will you get out? I don’t think so. With today’s technology, you would be battling the odds. A few decades into the future though, probably! How? Read on to find out…

October 26 2021, Sandia Labs, Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States

These scientists are working on a vacuum chamber the size of three tennis balls. This is not your conventional vacuum chamber. The chamber does not use a vacuum pump to suck out the molecules from within. It uses a pair of “getters” that bind trespassing molecules via a chemical reaction to the getter itself. The chamber is built of titanium walls and sapphire windows to block low-density gases like helium from leaking in and minimizing the vacuum. 

Now you might wonder, what on Earth is inside this chamber that requires a near-perfect vacuum? The chamber contains small clouds of rubidium gas. If you recall your high school chemistry lesson: Rubidium + Water = Boom. That’s right, Rubidium reacts explosively with water. That’s why it needs to be stored in a vacuum, away from the water vapor in the air all around you. Back on track, these scientists have been shining lasers into these minuscule rubidium gas clouds to measure acceleration and rotation.      Rubidium is used due to its energy difference between its atomic states – high-energy state and low-energy state (its reactivity). This helps in navigation. If you know your starting position and you accurately measure your acceleration and rotation, you will be able to track your position in real-time. This new tracking device is actually a quantum sensor. A quantum sensor uses quantum mechanics to obtain highly accurate measurements of the physical world. In this case, acceleration and rotation. 

What’s in it for you? With this new technology, you can bid farewell to GPS. The best part – this new tracking device can work anywhere. Even in the remotest of locations like Everest Base Camp. GPS devices need to connect with satellites in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 20,200km above sea level. So, GPS requires a clear view of the sky. In a heavy snowstorm, you won’t be able to establish a reliable connection with a GPS satellite. Do not fear! Sandia labs is here! Their new tracking device can get you out of that nasty snowstorm. Hold on, do not get yourself stuck in a snowstorm just yet. The tracking device is still under development. If these scientists can sustain the vacuum required to keep the quantum sensor up and running for five years, then everything will be wrapped into a nice product and ultimately put to test in the real world!

Isn’t it amazing how something so small, in the order of a few tennis balls, could help you navigate your way through the Himalayas in the midst of a snowstorm? Speaking of small technologies making a big impact…

November 23 2021, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, United States

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft launched to space atop a Falcon 9 rocket. 3, 2, 1, lift-off! Its destiny: to crash into Dimorphos (tiny lil’ asteroid) and change its heading. Why? Mankind has been very lucky to have escaped the bane of asteroids since the dawn of our very existence. This luck might run out one day. If an asteroid the size of a few football fields were to smash into Earth, it could wreck an entire continent! Don’t fret it! NASA is on a roll to figure out various methods to deflect asteroids on a collision course with Earth. The DART spacecraft is headed on a 6.7-million-mile journey towards Dimorphos, a 160m wide asteroid orbiting around Didymos, a 780m wide asteroid. The spacecraft will smash into Dimorphos at 6.6km/s. This is expected to slightly alter Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by just 1%. Calm down, Dimorphos is NOT on a collision course with Earth but it serves as a testing ground for the DART mission. If an asteroid the size of Dimorphos was headed for us, a small jolt by a small satellite is really all it would take to alter the asteroid’s course. This holds true only if we manage to detect this asteroid headed for us way in advance. The closer an asteroid gets to us, the more force we’d need to steer it clear of Earth. 

Kelly Fast of NASA’s planetary defense co-ordination office said, “We’re not out of the woods yetbut this is a huge step along the way.” Seems like we are still in the preliminary testing stages. 

The DART spacecraft will impact Dimorphos in September 2022. Ground telescopes will be able to detect the change in Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos (if any) in a few weeks or months. And that was the story of a little satellite that someday just might save all mankind!

That’s a wrap! I’ll leave you to ponder on this – Modern inventions might be getting smaller but they sure are changing our lives for the better. Don’t you think?


This device could usher in GPS-free navigation | Sandia National Laboratories

A passively pumped vacuum package sustaining cold atoms for more than 200 days | AVS Quantum Science

Nasa Dart asteroid spacecraft: Mission to smash into Dimorphos space rock launches | BBC

Sharper GPS needs even more accurate atomic clocks (theconversation.com)

Written by Karthik Raj
Illustrations by Lee Ai Cing


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