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Popular Science May/June 2017

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United States
Camden Media Inc.
4 Issues

in this issue

2 min
tons of fun

FOR ME, IT STARTED WITH trains. As a kid in Manhattan, the typical objects of childhood fixation were often scarce. I couldn’t climb trees or skip stones—but I had 400 tons of urban-rail righteousness thundering beneath my apartment. I’d spend hours in the subway: riding lines to their ends, exploring abandoned stations, and racing through tunnels (sorry, Mom). My friend Nicky even figured out how to jimmy the doors to empty conductor compartments so we could hijack the PA system. (Not sorry.) To this day, there are few sensations that center me like the repetitive rock of a rail car. I still ride the subway every day, and if I’m traveling anywhere near a train line, you’ll find me on it seconds after my bag hits the hotel floor. At stations around…

1 min
mining monster

TALLER THAN THE STATUE OF LIBERTY AND HEAVIER THAN THE EIFFEL TOWER, THIS German mining machine is one of the largest land vehicles on Earth. In HBO’s futuristic Westworld, a bucket-wheel excavator like this claws out an entire city. In reality, these diggers work in openpit mines. The excavator pictured here, called Bagger 288, uses its revolving wheel of buckets as a shovel to continually shift 8.5 million cubic feet of dirt a day. Once it reaches a seam of brown coal, or lignite, it can harvest 265,000 tons of fuel a day. And the crew this behemoth requires? A mere three to four people. 4 conveyor belts receive overburden (soil and rock) or lignite from the buckets, and carry the material at more than 11 mph. Each belt is 10.5 feet…

2 min
anatomy of a dyson sphere

BY 3100 A.D., EARTH’S SKYROCKETING population might require so much energy—to run our virtual-reality consoles, jetpacks, and Hyperloops— that our power plants won’t be able to keep up. Physicist Freeman Dyson proposed a solution to just that sort of crisis in 1960: a machine that encircles a star in a shell of solar collectors to harness its energy output. In our solar system, such a sphere could surround the sun at 93 million miles to collect 400 septillion watts per second, trillions of times more energy than the world uses now. The catch is that there are no materials strong enough to craft a solid mega-structure that big. We could, however, deploy tens of thousands of solar panels—a Dyson swarm—to harvest that same energy. Here’s how one might work. THE DYSON…

2 min
biomachines of the ocean

INSTEAD OF PULLEYS AND SPRINGS, LIVING CREATURES RELY ON CELLULAR machinery to do the work of life. Perhaps none function as unconventionally as ocean-dwelling siphonophores. Born as single embryos, these animals grow not by elongating their limbs but by budding entirely new beings called zooids. These cloned bodies complete specialized tasks: Some help the siphonophore move, others find food, or reproduce—yet a single nervous system orchestrates their motion. Here’s how three of these chandelier-like invertebrates thrive as multitudes. Bathyphysa conifera When BP oil workers spotted this entity during an ROV patrol of the ocean floor in 2015, they joked that it resembled the Internet-famous “Flying Spaghetti Monster”—a cartoon meme mass of spaghetti and meatballs with a pair of protrusive eyes. The resemblance is uncanny indeed. B. conifera’s stem branches off into feeding…

2 min
how to build a giant windmill—at sea

OUR SMALLEST STATE (RHODE ISLAND) NOW HARBORS A BIG RECORD: the nation’s first air-powered offshore energy facility. The five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm, which opened in December, can power up to 17,000 homes. Such turbines have spun across the country for years, mostly in wide-open and gusty places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, generating around 4.4 percent of our national energy. Ocean breezes are stronger and more consistent, which means the plants net more electricity. Here’s how these monstrous machines get assembled at sea. 1/ Foundation Formation Fabricators in Louisiana cut 400-ton steel foundations to varying lengths. That way the turbines all reach the same height when placed upon the uneven seafloor. A barge brings these pieces to the site, where a crane lifts and lowers them to the seabed. A…

2 min
the titans of mars-bound travel

LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE 1960S, NASA’S SATURN V ROCKET SET A mark for extreme. At 363 feet tall, with 7.5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, it lifted six moon-bound missions into space. Retired in 1973, it remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket our species has ever built. With moon missions on hold, we haven’t needed anything close to its capacity. Until now. As governments and private companies race to send astronauts to Mars, bigger is once again better—and necessary. Whose heavy-lifter is the biggest and baddest? Here’s how they stack up. THRUST (MILLIONS OF LB.) HEIGHT (FT.) ULA Atlas V In 2011, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V lifted off with the largest thing that’s ever landed on Mars—NASA’s 1-ton Curiosity rover. In 2020, it’ll carry Curiosity’s cousin. Having safely launched to…