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Alt-week 3.2.13: A mission to Mars, robosparrow and facial recognition in fertility treatment


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

Life -- as they say -- is short. So, you gotta cram in as much as you can while you're here. Right? How about a once in a lifetime trip around Mars? Well, if that's on your bucket list, then you might just be in luck. There's other news pertaining to one of life's biggest events over the fold, too, but we'll leave you to figure out which story that is. Hint: it's not the robotic bird. This is alt-week.

For many, fertility treatment is a necessary means to a very important end. So, anything that helps potential parents in the process is surely a good thing. Beverly Hills Egg Donation revealed a new program this week that could help provide better matches to its recipients. It's one of a select number of facilities that has advanced facial recognition software that could find eggs from donors that have similar features to the patient. It claims the software creates a virtual topographical map of your features, which is then measured against the donor database, looking for similar surface textures, vector templating and, of course size of features. It's claimed that the software is akin to that used by government agencies such as Homeland Security. But, unlike the US government, you'll only need a consultation -- either in person of via Skype -- to get access to it.

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It might sound like a weird cross between a hollywood storyline and a Craigslist personal add, but non profit organization Inspiration Mars Foundation is seeking a man and a woman to take part in a 501-day mission to Mars. The billion-dollar project is the brainchild of Dennis Tito (he of ISS space-tourism fame), and is seeking private and charitable funding in time to make the proposed launch window -- opening on January 5, 2018. The lucky / selected couple would be launched in a capsule dispatched from Earth's orbit on a trajectory toward Mars. The idea is to benefit from a rare planetary alignment that would make this sling-shot method possible. It would then take an estimated 228 days outward, before looping around the red planet roughly 150 miles above its surface. The return leg will take about 273 days, and ends with a knuckle-whitening 31,764 mph re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. With the envisioned craft offering just 600 cubic feet of living space, this is only open to those who think they can handle the intense conditions for the given period of time. But, with the next opportunity for such a mission said to be 2031 -- at which point competing projects would be much more feasible -- the opportunity to scoop the bragging rights of first wo/manned-mission to Mars will likely be a tantalising prospect to some couples. Especially if that dual income won't stretch to that stellar vacation.

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We've seen Cyborg beetles, cockroaches and even rats before, but this latest creation is possibly one of the creepiest. Scientists at North Carolina's Duke University worked with a taxidermist to create a wing-flapping "Robosparrow" using picaxe chips, tiny linear motors... and a dead sparrow. The idea was to create a lifelike subject with controllable wings, as part of research testing a hypothesis about male displays of aggression in the species. It took the team nine months to perfect the motion for the two-month experiment. Along with the flapping, the robotic bird included a small sound generating system to play authentic calls and swamp noises. Despite already having met its maker once, Robosparrow met a second grisly end, with its head ultimately falling off, and wings ceasing to function after repeated attacks from other male sparrows. While the project might sound a little bit gruesome, the research helped gather data to support the hypothesis that wing flapping is often used to deter rivals.

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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.

[Image credits: Hype Science, Inspiration Mars]

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