Alt-week 4.20.13: NASA's Space Shop, nature's needles and 30 years of cellphone bills

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James Trew
April 20th, 2013
In this article: alt, alt-week, altweek, science, video
Alt-week 4.20.13: NASA's Space Shop, nature's needles and 30 years of cellphone bills

Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

The natural world offers up some ingenious biology that is only possible through many, many years of evolution. Other ideas, well, they come about through good old-fashioned brain power. We've got examples of both in this edition. Naturally. This is alt-week.

When you're in the Space business, you're pretty much already at the forefront of the technology game. NASA, however, is looking to the maker community -- especially 3D printing -- to encourage a breeding ground of new engineering creativity. The agency's Ames research centre has a "Space Shop" which already uses advanced metal-cutting and milling tools for prototype development, but recently, 3D printing has become an increasingly important part of that process. NASA believes that the ability to quickly experiment with real working prototypes (rather than digital simulations) is a vital step in effective design, one it hopes will encourage its young engineers to bring their ideas to the table. This is all land-based at the moment, but NASA is already working with a third-party to develop a 3D printer that's suitable for space missions. You can see the Space Shop in CNET's video below. Warning, there's a "rocket science" pun right at the beginning.

In a world full of synthetic materials and digital data, it's easy to forget that mother nature was really the first science geek. Her latest influence can be seen in a new surgical patch, inspired by a marine parasite. The patch will hold skin grafts more securely than current methods (like surgical staples) thanks to microneedles that mimic those found on the Pomphorhynchus laevis worm. The patch's tiny needles pierce tissue easily, with minimal damage, before a releasing a hydrogel that swells under the skin to keep it in place. The new technique results in a grip up to three times that of staples, and as there are no chemicals involved, also removes the risk of allergic reactions. The researchers even claim there's potential for even more benefits, including a dissolving version for internal use, or using the hydrogel as another vehicle for drug administration.

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It was just this month we saw the 40-year anniversary of the first ever mobile phone call. This week marks another important milestone, 30 years since the first commercial cellphone call. Bob Barnett, former CEO of Ameritech (that developed the network the call was placed on) recounts how AT&T passed up the opportunity to develop a mobile network believing there to be limited demand for such a thing. Which, as we know, turned out to be something of a gross underestimation. What was the first commercial call like? Well, we could tell you that it took place in Chicago, and was between Barnett and the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Or, you could jump on the video below, and see it unfold for yourself. Details of the number of bundled minute it used, however, remain unclear.

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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