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How Do You Test a Helicopter Bound for Mars?

04-29-21

Caltech grad students helped JPL build a custom wind tunnel in a vacuum chamber for the Mars Ingenuity helicopter. The Ingenuity helicopter may be the first vehicle ever to fly on Mars, but Mars was not the first place it has ever flown. Before packaging it up and blasting it to the Red Planet, engineers at JPL gave the helicopter a trial run in a special wind tunnel. The fan array was designed and built by JPL engineers with input from Chris Dougherty and Marcel Veismann, who are currently working with Morteza Gharib, Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering and Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair of Caltech's Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). Jason Rabinovitch, who was a mechanical engineer at JPL working on testing the helicopter, reached out to the CAST team in 2017. "I'd earned my PhD at GALCIT, so I was aware of CAST and its facilities," says Rabinovitch. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT Morteza Gharib Jason Rabinovitch Marcel Veismann Chris Dougherty

Hungry Fruit Flies are Extreme Ultramarathon Fliers

04-22-21

Michael Dickinson, Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics; Executive Officer for Biology and Biological Engineering, has discovered that fruit flies can fly up to 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) in a single journey—6 million times their body length, or the equivalent of over 10,000 kilometers for the average human. "The dispersal capability of these little fruit flies has been vastly underestimated. They can travel as far or farther than most migratory birds in a single flight. These flies are the standard laboratory model organism, but they are almost never studied outside of the laboratory and so we had little idea what their flight capabilities were," Dickinson says. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT Michael Dickinson CNS

A Swiss Army Knife for Genomic Data

04-05-21

A good way to find out what a cell is doing—whether it is growing out of control as in cancers, or is under the control of an invading virus, or is simply going about the routine business of a healthy cell—is to look at its gene expression. Lior Pachter, Bren Professor of Computational Biology and Computing and Mathematical Sciences, has developed a complex software tool that enables the processing of large sets of genomic data in about 30 minutes, using the computing power of an average laptop. Like a Swiss Army knife, the tool can be used in myriad ways for different biological needs, and will help ensure the reproducibility of scientific studies. "The interdisciplinarity of our team was crucial to conceiving of and executing this project," says Pachter. "There are people in the lab who are computer scientists, biologists, engineers. Sina Booeshaghi is in the mechanical engineering department and brings the perspective of his design background and engineering." [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MCE CMS Lior Pachter Sina Booeshaghi

Computational Tool for Materials Physics Growing in Popularity

04-05-21

Marco Bernardi, Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, has developed a new piece of software that makes it easier to study the behavior of electrons in materials—even materials that have been predicted but do not yet exist. The software, called Perturbo, is gaining traction among researchers. "Over the next decade, we will continue to expand the capabilities of our code, and make it the go-to for first-principles calculations of electron dynamics," Bernardi says. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS research highlights Marco Bernardi

Astronomers Image Magnetic Fields at the Edge of M87's Black Hole

03-24-21

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, which produced the first-ever image of a black hole, revealed a new view of the massive object at the center of the M87 galaxy: a picture of its polarized light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarization, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of a black hole. "We are now able to see a different dimension of the light circling the M87 black hole," says Katie Bouman, Assistant Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, Electrical Engineering and Astronomy, Rosenberg Scholar, and co-coordinator of the EHT Imaging Working Group. "The image we reconstructed earlier showed us how bright the light was around the black hole shadow. This image is telling us about the direction of that light." [Caltech story]

Tags: EE research highlights CMS Katie Bouman

Untangling the Heat Paradox Along Major Faults

03-12-21

Nadia Lapusta, Lawrence A. Hanson, Jr., Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Geophysics, and graduate student Valère Lambert, seek to explain the size of the forces acting on "mature faults"—long-lived faults along major plate boundaries like the San Andreas Fault in California—in an effort to better understand the physics that drive the major earthquakes that occur along them. Understanding the physics that govern major earthquakes on different types of faults will help generate more accurate forecasts for earthquake threats. "We have a lot of data from large earthquakes along subduction zones, but the last really major earthquakes along the San Andreas were the magnitude-7.9 Fort Tejon quake in 1857 and the magnitude-7.9 San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, both of them before the age of modern seismic networks," Lapusta says. [Nature article] [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights MCE Nadia Lapusta Valère Lambert

Professor Bouman Featured in Inverse Magazine

03-10-21

Katie Bouman, Assistant Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, Electrical Engineering and Astronomy; Rosenberg Scholar, was featured in Inverse Magazine as one of the astronomers who captured the first image of a black hole. In 2019, Bouman and a group of more than 200 astronomers from all over the world managed the inconceivable: They captured the first image of a black hole, rendering the invisible visible. "Ideally, to see a black hole, we would need a telescope the size of the entire Earth," says Bouman. "We had to come up with a computational telescope that size." [Inverse article]

Tags: EE research highlights CMS Katie Bouman

New Insight into Nonlinear Optical Resonators Unlocks Door to Numerous Potential Applications

02-25-21

Devices known as optical parametric oscillators are among the widely used nonlinear resonators in optics; they are "nonlinear" in that there is light flowing into the system and light leaking out, but not at the same wavelengths. Though these oscillators are useful in a variety of applications, including in quantum optics experiments, the physics that underpins how their output wavelength, or spectrum, behaves is not well understood. "When you add strong nonlinearity to resonators, you enter what we call a 'rich physics regime,'" says Alireza Marandi, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics. "'Rich' in physics terms usually means complicated and hard to use, but we need nonlinearities to create useful functionalities such as switching for computing." To be able to make full use of nonlinear optical resonators, researchers want to be able to understand and model the physics that underpin how they work. Marandi and his colleagues recently uncovered a potential way to engineer those rich physics, while discovering phase transitions in the light that is generated by the resonators. [Caltech story]

Tags: APhMS EE research highlights KNI Alireza Marandi

Paul Rothemund Places Molecule-Scale Devices in Precise Orientation

02-22-21

Paul Rothemund, Research Professor of Bioengineering, Computing and Mathematical Sciences, and Computation and Neural Systems, has developed a technique that allows him to precisely place microscopic devices formed from folded DNA molecules in not only a specific location but also in a specific orientation. This method for precisely placing and orienting DNA-based molecular devices may make it possible to use these molecular devices to power new kinds of chips that integrate molecular biosensors with optics and electronics for applications such as DNA sequencing or measuring the concentrations of thousands of proteins at once. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights CMS Paul Rothemund KNI CNS

Student-Led Moon Dust Shield Team Named Finalist in NASA Competition

02-16-21

As astronauts walk across the moon, land spacecraft on its surface, drive lunar rovers around, or complete other astronaut tasks, they kick up the dust, and that is a problem because it can cause premature wear on mechanical parts, damage to seals, and may pose a health risk for the people breathing it in. "The sun is shining directly on these particles and giving them an electric charge," says third-year Caltech undergraduate student Luis Pabon. "This causes it to stick to the astronaut's suit or to any sensors or cameras that you put out on the moon." The Caltech team's invention, named Habitat Orientable & Modular Electrodynamic Shield (HOMES), tackles the problem of moon dust entering a potential lunar habitat and wreaking havoc within. [Caltech story]

Tags: research highlights GALCIT MCE Luis Pabon