SciTech Now Episode 436

In this episode of SciTech Now, we learn how predicting clouds and weather patterns affect solar grids; Dave Mosher discusses planetary protection; an innovative church is connecting people in the 21st century; and how derby engines are fueled by gravity.



Coming up, predicting the clouds.

We can predict what it will take, power output.

And that's what's useful to utility companies, to the customers themselves, who own solar panels.

A Tesla in space.

I think it's not going to be looking very good in 100 million years.

Church -- there's an app for that.

The people are on their mobile phones.

They're on their tablets.

They're online.

That is really where we need to go.

An engine fueled by gravity.

Then they have to tweak, refine, do some engineering.

You'll see some kids with some adjustable wrenches under their cars, tweaking them.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

New research at the University of Texas at San Antonio is helping to predict clouds and weather patterns that affect solar grids.

We go inside the lab for a look.

On a clear day, it's very easy to predict what's called global horizontal irradiance, basically solar irradiance that feeds the PV arrays and produces electricity.

The initial technology that was used at [Speaks indistinctly] in order to forecast solar irradiance consisted of a TSI-880 Sky Imager, which consisted of a camera on top of a hemispherical dome.

In its day, which would have been, say, five years ago, this was a good piece of equipment.

The black band here is called the shadow band, and that's necessary in order to keep the Sun from washing out the entire circumsolar region, and so what happens is there are complicated collection of gears and motors, and this turns and tracks the Sun so that the Sun is always shining here.

What you do is you get a good image around the shadow band, but of course you lose information there.

Now we're going to move to the next technology that was developed at UTSA for the solar-forecasting problem.

This is the next generation of sky-imager technology.

It consists of a security camera enclosure that houses a Raspberry Pi single-board computer and the Pi camera that actually takes the images.

In this particular version, there is also an ODROID-C1 computer for additional computational power.

We have the Pi NoIR camera.

Now, this is new from the previous camera that we were using.

This is going to allow us to look at more things when we actually start taking the pictures.

You also have the fan to make sure, you know, Raspberry Pi keeps its temperature.

And now, this is really cool.

this is a weather-board.

Now, the weather-board, I've blown up kind of what it has up here, right, and it lets us see the temperature, humidity, the pressure, and the altitude.

So this -- I think it was $20 -- piece of technology is just out of this world 'cause it tells us all this stuff and it makes it a lot easier to use these cloud predictions because we can actually look at all of the atmospheric conditions around it, as opposed to just seeing the picture.

So you see that it represents a marked improvement over the earlier technologies.

This was developed at UTSA.

And there is currently one U.S. patent and a patent in China that have been applied for for this technology.

There's a hardware side to this problem, and there's the data that is taken by the actual UTSA Sky Imager.

So that's what I work with, analyzing the data, seeing what's going on.

Analyzing all this data, what we're going to do is use machine learning to be able to predict GHI.

This is just a small structure of machine... The type of machine learning we're using is neural networks.

So in your input layer, you would have all this data.

In this case, we have our images and also various different parameters that we talked about that the weather-board is able to capture.

So the neural networks has a very amazing ability to, if you feed it data, it finds these patterns found within the data.

And it could feed out your output layer, which is what you're trying to predict.

In this case, we're trying to feed it data in order to predict our GHI.

And if we can predict GHI, we can predict PV power, photovoltaic power output, and that's what's useful to utility companies, to the customers themselves, who own solar panels.

And yes, this is just the structure of what we have.

If we can accurately forecast these drops in power, irradiance, the ramps, then we'll have a good handle on achieving what's called dispatchability of power.

In other words, we'll be able to manage and control the electric grid in a way that's optimal.

♪♪ ♪♪

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who's written for and

Throughout his career, he has watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss planetary protection.

What is planetary protection?

Planetary protection is exactly what it sounds like.

It's about protecting Earth from all the stuff out there -- in particular, microbes, alien microbes -- and also protecting other planets, like Mars or these moons of Saturn and Jupiter that might be habitable.

We don't want to muck those up, and we don't want those planets and their life to muck our planet up, too.

So that's what it's all about.


Well, we sent an object into space recently, Elon Musk did, his cherry-red roadster, and it had a little astronaut on it, and there were these amazing photographs and video that was coming back.

What happens to that car?

That is the million-dollar question -- or billion-dollar question, for NASA, certainly.

NASA puts a lot of effort into planning out missions, you know, even decades in advance, more than a decade in advance, like, what happens to the spacecraft, how are we going to ensure that it's sterile?

Because if you're sending something to Mars and it's detecting life, which is what the space agency is trying to do with the Mars 2020 rover, you're trying to send it to Mars to look for signs of life -- the last thing you want on that rover are bacteria, viruses, fungi, other things that come from Earth to sort of give you a false positive.

Now we have a Tesla that is absolutely covered in germs just flying through space.

And it's crossing Mars' orbit basically twice every 30 years.

So that is an issue.

The good news is that someone did the calculations on this orbit.

Even Musk wasn't...He was sort of flippant about it.

I think he just didn't have access to all the information at the time.

But we've later learned that Mars is kind of the last places-- one of the last places it can crash.

Most likely, it's going to hit Earth within the next 100 million years or so.

There's like a six-point --

Okay, so the car comes back to Earth.

Does it survive 100 million years?

What about the radiation in space?

Does it rip it apart?

This is another great question.

So you've got rubbers and paints and things like that.

You've got tiny little... You've got cosmic rays.

You've got all this stuff in space.

I think it's not going to be looking very good in 100 million years, but it'll probably have crashed by then.

There's a lot of debate about what's going to happen to it, but if you look at what happened to the space shuttle and other objects we've sent up to space but come back to later, it's going to accumulate these, like, dings.

It's going to start looking like the Moon, basically.

It's going to kind of bleach out.

It's going to have little dings all over it.

It's certainly not going to be red looking, I think, in 100 million years.

Don't we already monitor everything that's kind of bigger than a softball that's floating around to see if there's any risk of it falling back to Earth and so forth?

So is there going to be concern about -- I mean, it's very expensive, and not many people are going to do it, but what we send up to space and what we're allowed to throw out there?

So, this is an ongoing problem with human space flight.

We're trying to keep track of all these objects in space, but more and more and more keep getting launched out there.

So we can track them with radar and figure out their orbits and kind of calculate where there might be a collision or a problem, but there's only going to be more objects in space, so we have to think a little bit more, you know, and this Tesla is a good example, of, you know, 'Should we actually launch that?'

Or maybe we should take a little care on the orbit here so it doesn't go through this group of satellites or cross this planet, because space is only going to get more crowded as launch costs lower and we're able to do more with our money.

I can't remember which movie it was -- maybe it was 'Gravity' or something.

It was a totally fake scene, but some satellite splitting up into thousands of pieces and hurtling around, and they kind of caused these ripple effects, right, but even though it probably doesn't happen like the movie, it's still interesting that there's just a lot of space junk out there.

Yeah, so this runaway scenario that you described has a name, and it's called the Kessler effect.

And it was named back during the Space Race.

But the concern was that you launch so much stuff that in these low Earth orbits or even high Earth orbit, where you have a lot of communication satellites, you know, there's bolts, and there's little pieces of debris, and there's empty rocket bodies.

One hits one thing, and another hits another, and suddenly, you have this domino effect, and suddenly, we can't put anything in that orbit because it's just so strewn with debris.

I've actually spoken to some of the defense people about this issue.

They're concerned about it.

They know about it.

They're aware of it.

But they say, 'Look, you know, we don't need any like tractor beams or highfalutin technology to control this.

All we need to do is just keep track of the stuff that's up there and be thoughtful about how we launch things and where we launch them and using which technologies.'

They're confident that we can keep this in check indefinitely as long as we're just thinking clearly about what we're launching.

So the Tesla is a bit of an interesting item to launch, but it's also not hanging around Earth.

It's going to swing by Earth once every 30 years or so.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

You're welcome.

♪♪ ♪♪

People were out observing the aurora, and they started noticing something that was overhead as well when they were seeing the aurora far to the northern regions.

It was unlike most aurora.

Talked to the scientists.

We didn't know what it was.

And together, they said, 'We'll keep taking observations, and we'll call it 'Steve' in the meantime.'

Steve is mostly a very narrow purple arc, and sometimes it has these little green features that go along with it as well that are kind of like waving fingers or a picket fence.

That means that there's plasma physics happening up there to cause that light and to make these little discrete features that we don't understand yet.

We now have some satellite observations from the ESA satellite called Swarm that show that Steve optically is associated with a very strong flow in the particles in the ionosphere, the upper level of our atmosphere.

Steve is important for a number of reasons.

It's really exciting that people armed with cameras all over the globe can capture something that we didn't fully understand and shed new light on that.

It's also really exciting that this happens further to the south, where there are more people, so it might be a kind of aurora that more people can see than the usual kind.

We're now able to look up at the sky and see things about the aurora in this subauroral region that we've never understood before, and then we can correlate that with our traditional observations and lead to greater understanding.


For centuries, churches have served as gathering places for communities around the world.

Now worshippers are also gathering in a digital space.

Here's a look at how an innovative church is connecting people in the 21st century.

[ Bell ringing ]

♪ Amazing grace ♪ How sweet the sound

Christ himself went into the community.

Christ has asked us to go into the community.

[ Whirring ] [ Electronic tune plays ]

The people are on their mobile phones.

They're on their tablets.

They're online.

That is really where we need to go.

♪♪ It's an on-demand society now.

We want to worship when we want to worship.

But that's an overall culture thing.

Netflix, Hulu, video on demand.

We expect to have a God on demand.

There's constantly been technological updates in which churches get new stuff.

I mean, Billy Graham pioneered the use of film as a medium.

His message is simple -- a fervent call to Christianity as the remedy for modern evil.

Technology is basically a form of religious competition.

If you've got one church that doesn't have any new technology and its members are aging and it seems to not be growing, and they see the church down the street growing rapidly and getting younger members because it's using apps or putting itself on social media, then more than likely, the church that's aging will pick that up as a way to compete with them.

But you cannot have religion without moral community, so an app will be used as an extension of some form of moral community.

To our wonderful online congregation, who is watching today, thank you so much.

If you would take your phones and open the LifeAustin app or your iPad or your message notes...

We use technology to help bring the community together.

We tested out online streaming onto Facebook, and it fortunately became a great success, and our members wanted that every week after that.

We try and direct as many members as we can to follow through our mobile app.

We extend our services through our mobile app.

We have prayer requests.

It is designed in such a fashion to encourage members to group.

It really is an extension of what Life Austin really is.

The technology changes how humans interact, but they will always interact to have community.

So it just reshapes the ways in which religious messages are distributed, so it's just another way of supplementing what already happens.

♪♪ Technology will change the way individuals interact with each other.

We see it all the time through social media.

I do see communities forming online.

Welcome to 'Yoga with Adriene.'

I'm Adriene, and today we have an awesome heart chakra for beginners' practice.

This is an amazing little ditty for anyone who's wanting to open up not so much here or here but right here... I really do consider the practice online a spiritual practice.

So we may not be there in person all the time, but through this online community, we absolutely are feeding off of each other's energy, and we're absolutely learning from each other.

At the root of it, this is time for you to connect to yourself and... If we're going to be living in a digital age where we cannot escape, then how can we figure out ways to be wise and invest our time and energy in things that serve us?

So how can we master the art of essentially plugging in to unplug?

How can a Facebook 'like' comment and that comment going back and forth, how can that translate to an actual relationship online?

I don't believe my generation, Generation X, can get into that.

Millennials and the generation following -- I do believe that that's where we're going to, making these connections online.


It seems a little bit backwards to log on to YouTube, of all places, to get your Zen on or to have your centering moment of the day, but there's something for someone to get out of it.

Even if we're not identifying it, they feel a connection.

I think what'll happen in the future is the same that's already happened already, which is that these new technologies will allow for existing congregations to reach out and try to bring people back in.

♪♪ [ Keys clacking ]

In Lenoir, North Carolina, young derby drivers are putting their pedals to the metal in a series of races in which their only engine is gravity.

The Downhill Run teaches physics as well as engineering to students in a fun and creative way.

Here's a look.

[ Speaks indistinctly ] And they're away!

Science and gravity are fast and fun...

All right, and they're off! the North Carolina Gravity Games.

[ Cheers and applause ] The Earth's magnetic pull provides the power.

Ingenuity, engineering, and physics combine to make the 15-second run down the Ashe Avenue hill in downtown Lenoir as fast as possible.

It has lots of science in it, and my friend's going to come with me and cheer me on.

And it's really fun.

[ Cheers and applause ]

They're away!

That's 10-year-old Alexa Garner.

She likes science.

All right! Come on!

I like doing experiments and stuff like that.

And for math, I just like all of the equations and everything.

She also likes racing in soapbox derby events.

You get to build the car, and you get to see how it works and everything.

And you get to learn how to drive the car, go down the hill, and it's pretty fun.

Alexa won her first race easily.

We'll check back with her.

These race cars are called kit cars.

A racer buys a kit of premade materials to build the car.

Well, it's really cool because the schools and teams and Scouts and home-school groups work on these cars throughout the year.

Then they come, and there's a little bit of pressure to race 'cause they haven't seen this hill before.

And then they have to tweak, refine, do some engineering.

You'll see some kids with some adjustable wrenches under their cars, tweaking them.

And they go race again, which is very much what the engineering process is in the real world.

But there's another division in the Gravity Games, called Engineering Challenge.

This year's theme was functional minimalism.

Oh, and across the line!

So to make a functional vehicle that had steering and brakes but would also make a weight limit, under a weight limit.

And this folding car was the Alward family's solution.

The family homeschools their children.

The Gravity Games provided a great learning tool.

We took an awning off of an RV.

It was just an awning that folded out, and the bars that held the awning up, we used those.

They're made out of aluminum.

And we cut those down and bolted everything together and put some tires on it.

The ball bearings stay still, but it can spin inside, so it gives it easy spinning.

Okay. And then your steering is just that bar -- you just pull the bar one way or another.

Yes, just pull this string right here.


No offense -- I would be a little nervous riding this because there's just not... much around you.

Here we go, and they're off!

But you feel pretty good.


Because the gravity, I sit low on the cart, so the gravity is really low to me.

I'm really low to the ground.

So I won't roll as easily.

Cars reach speeds of about 20 miles per hour.

Joshua won his first two races but then lost.

Wait. Wait.

Where do you want to put it?

[ Indistinct conversation ]

Right here.

Yeah, right there.

This is perfect.

And this is one of three teams from Apex Friendship High School's Academy of Engineering.

There was no problem with the car.

We've just got to find where to put our hood ornament.

It's very essential to the car's function.

There was one time we were trying to decide who our mascot was.

And someone randomly said, 'A catfish riding a unicorn.'

That was me, by the way.

Yeah, that was him.

A catfish riding a unicorn.

A catfish riding a unicorn.

It was random, out of nowhere.

So I decided to draw it that night, and I brought it the next day, and the team was in love with it.

Udayan here, he drew it, and then we got a vector of the image, and then we 3D printed it yesterday.

We have a single-seat assembly that's composed of 2x4s.

Our axles are threaded rod through grade-16 steel pipe.

And they're away!

And then our steering is just steel cable to the axle.

And then the seat looks like something, like a real seat from a car.

Yeah, the seat is from Tommy Hasting's Miata.

We love the Engineering Challenge division because it's an opportunity for the kids to say, 'I don't know.

Let's see if it's going to work, and let's go figure it out,' and learn from that, and we like it when they fail 'cause then they learn from that failure, and they move forward from that.

A more aerodynamically designed car beat the team in a second race.

So just what laws of physics govern the Gravity Games?

Well, before the race, every car has potential energy.

That's the energy due to its position.

Once the car starts moving, that energy becomes kinetic energy, the energy of motion.

The car accelerates.

Gravity is the strongest force on the track.

Gravity pulls objects towards the center of the Earth.

It's also pulling the car down the hill.

The car's weight is the measure of the pull of gravity in pounds or kilograms, but it's the car's mass -- or the amount of matter in an object -- that's most important.

In this case, that's the car plus the driver.

The higher the mass, the greater the amount of potential energy at the start of the race.

And they're off!

Then there's friction, the force that resists the motion of two surfaces in contact.

That slows the car down.

Wide tires, tires that wobble, and even steering increase friction.

There's also wind resistance, or drag.

That's the slowing effect that air causes as the car moves through an atmosphere.

And they're racing!

The lower the profile of the car, the less wind resistance.

All those physics lessons are why Google created the Gravity Games.

The company runs a big data center in Lenoir.

It's a great way to get students engaged, excited, participating in hands-on activity, not just classroom learning.

Obviously, they need to do that, but the way to really make it tie in and get them like, 'I can do this, and I can see practical application of physics and aerodynamics and gravity and the way everything works together' is through an activity like this.

We thought it would be a great way to get students engaged, excited, and if we can, you know, point a student as a result of this, one or two of them decide to go into a STEM career field or degree program, we've done our job.

And they're away!

By the way, Alexa kept racing and winning and finished in third place.

She also loves breaking stereotypes.

I'm a girl driver, and maybe it's not all boys in this.

Girls can race and beat y'all.

Nice job! [ Chuckles ] ♪♪

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...