Alt-week 8.25.12: robotic noses, Nodosaurs and Space X launches again

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Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

All good things come to an end, they say. Thankfully, most bad things do, too. So while the rest of the world of tech is dealing with the fallout, and possible implications of patent law, over here in the wild party that is Alt, we're fist pumping at all the awesome weekly sci-tech fodder. For example, we've got a robo-nose that can sniff out nasties in the air, a 110-million-year-old footprint found in NASA's back yard, and not one, but two space stories to reflect on. There's a hidden joke in there too, come back once you've read through to find it. This is alt-week.

Electronic hands and arms are -- relatively speaking -- fairly commonplace. In fact, most of our extremities and senses have cropped up in digital form one way or another. This includes the humble nose. We've seen them sniff out air contaminents and cancer before, but this time 'round it's lung-fulls of harmful poisons, such as biological weapons and gas leaks. The technology is based on research by Nosang Myung, a professor at the University of California, Riverside. With a size of four by seven inches, this has real world application in areas such as farming, industry and security. However, the developers hope to reduce its footprint even further, to about the size of a credit card, which could see it pop up in even more places. We know this is a serious business, but for once, we'd love an anatomically correct housing to be developed for it. It'd certainly spruce up those drab, dark warehouse corners.

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From the top of the body, we now go to the other extreme -- the foot. Not just any foot, either (although, also, not a robotic one), as this hoof belongs to something called a Nodosaur. The more astute among you might have already figured out that this is a prehistoric creature, possibly roaming the earth some 110- to 112-million years ago. Madness. Also, where do you think you might find such evidence of an other-worldly creature? Why, on the grounds of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center of course. We kid you not. The print was discovered by dino-tracker Ray Stanford, who says the creature would have been an armored leaf-eater of some stature, describing it as a four-footed tank. Also, if you ever meet iron-oxide or hematite, buy them a drink, as it's their presence in the soil that gave us such a good preservation. "Almost like concrete" says Stanford.

You might wonder how something like a dinosaur footprint could go unnoticed for so long, but then we remember how busy the teams at NASA must be. Proof of this dedication came to light this week with the news that the mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope are now ready. There are 18 mirror sections in total, each of them gold plated and ultra-smooth. Once launched -- sometime in 2018 hopefully -- the 4.2-foot hexagonal sections will be the largest mirror ever flown in space. This should hopefully help it add to the work of Hubble, peering deep into the universe to help better understand the big bang and investigate alien planets. Certainly something to think about, the next time you're staring at your own tired visage with your own humble mirror during your morning routine.

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If 2018 is a little too long for you to wait until your next space-launch fix, then fear not. Space X recently revealed that the first of its 12 planned cargo runs to the ISS will take place in October. The news comes after NASA announced that Space X was fully certified to shuttle (as it were) cargo up to the permanent space station. Of course, you may remember Space X carrying out a similar mission recently, which it turns out was apparently just a practice run! With so many flights planned, they'll also likely be pleased to find out that scientists are pretty sure, now, that the universe is smooth, rather than fractal in nature as previously suggested by some camps. Should make for a smoother ride at least, not that they'd be going quite far enough for that really to be an issue. Maybe some day!

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[Image credits: NASA, Space X, USC]

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

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