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Alt-week 3.9.13: Sunstones, knotted vortices and a zero-g robot


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

Technology is all relative. We imagine there was a time when even the wheel was the latest must-have gadget. This week we straddle the past and the future of exploration technology to illustrate this point wonderfully. Two very different objects, both a marvel of their time. There are also two hat tips to the every impressive power of mother nature, too. Where else but alt-week? Exactly.

When a cute robot, barely over a foot tall, is getting training for a spell on the ISS, you pretty much know the future has arrived. Kirobo is the lucky upstart, and it's been developed as part of a collaboration called the Kiro Robot Project that includes Japanese institutions such as -- among others -- Toyota, Dentsu Inc, and the University of Tokyo. Little Kirobo is pencilled in to enjoy a spell on the space station sometime after summer 2013. The aim is to carry out conversation experiments between humans and robots in space, speaking with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata in his native tongue. In addition to its linguistic skills, Kirobi will also be taking pictures, updating twitter and generally endearing itself to everyone it meets. Think you're too cold-hearted to fall under the spell too? Watch Kirobi's zero gravity training below, come back, and then tell us you didn't at least crack a smile.

While high profile activities continue on the surface of Mars, other research is digging a little deeper. Figuratively, rather than literally, but new images provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are giving us a glimpse of ancient underwater channels beneath the planet's surface. Located in the Elysium Planitia, a region near the Martian equator, the network of tunnels has long been obscured by volcanic activity on the plains above. The new images -- taken over several years -- reveal the channels which were carved out by flooding over an estimated 500 million year period -- a time when Mars was thought to be cold and arid. The 3D models not only suggest that the scale of subterranean erosion is far greater than previously thought, it may also indicate whether the floods might have contributed to climate change on the planet.

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When we hear the word Vortex, we're inclined to think of dodgy eighties nightclubs, or even dodgier science fiction from the same decade. A group of University of Chicago physicists, however, have been much more productive in their musings on the matter, to the point where they have successfully created a "vortex knot." Linked vortices have been a theoretical concept for a long time, but creating one for real has -- until now -- proved elusive. The Chicago team set about creating theirs with a series of different shaped 3D-printed hydrofoils, coated in bubbles, suspended in water. The study has thrown up some surprises, such as showing that a knotted vortex isn't stable as principles would suggest. In fact, the vortices were observed breaking themselves apart in a particular way, which will provide insights that could assist our understanding of turbulence, plasma physics, and even the general behaviour of fluids. If, on the other hand, you just want to know what a knotted vortex looks like, head down to the video below.

It might sound like something straight out of a Harry Potter movie, but a mysterious piece of rock salvaged from a 400-year-old wreck might turn out to be a legendary Viking "Sunstone" -- an ancient solar compass. The storied crystal is claimed to have been able to accurately map the location of the sun -- even in cloudy sky -- within 5 degrees. The stone in question is a piece of Icelandic calcite, and was recovered from a 16th century shipwreck in the English Channel. Until now, the existence of such a device -- which works by splitting light in a way that points to its source -- has only been hinted at in fleeting literary mentions. Speaking on behalf of the research team that discovered it, Guy Ropars from the University of Rennes believes this could be the first physical proof of an actual Sunstone. Despite now being opaque, Ropars suggests that it is both the right shape and density to be Icelandic spar -- a mineral the team has proven to be able to pinpoint the concealed sun accurately. To complete the tantalising story, the stone was discovered near to a pair of navigational dividers. The cause of the ship's demise, however, remains at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the wreckage.

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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: Guy Ropars, NASA]

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