Tag Archives: space

Jeff Bezos’ space company does world first in landing reusable rocket

The Amazon chief used Twitter for the first time to announce historic landing of Blue Orbit rocket, but got trolled by Elon Musk

Jeff Bezos’ privately-funded space company Blue Origin announced a historic first today – it successfully landed a fired rocket back on Earth after an unmanned flight to space.

Bezos announced the compelling test flight video on Twitter – the first time he has ever tweeted – calling the achievement the “rarest of beasts.”

In this test flight, the rocket separated itself from the New Shepard vehicle, which flew to an altitude of 93km on Monday, at almost 4 times the speed of sound.

Usually, the rocket would have fallen back to Earth and been unable to complete any more flights. “Rockets have always been expendable,” Bezoswrote in blog post about the landing. “Not anymore.”

In this case, it was guided towards a launchpad on Earth where it slowed down and landed, intact. This means the rocket can be re-used for subsequent flights, which companies like Blue Origin claim will make spaceflight far less expensive.

Bezos told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that he planned to start commercial suborbital flights with tourists potentially in less than two years. “I’m thinking it could be sometime in 2017,” he said.

But not everyone was as triumphant about the event. Rival space entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk responded on Twitter saying it wasn’t really that rare, linking to his own SpaceX Grasshopper rocket which has done multiple flights – although it hadn’t gone as far as Blue Orbit’s 93km distance.

He then went on to Tweet from his own account about the distinction between space and orbit, and why getting into orbit was a lot harder than reaching the edge of space.

Mr Musk’s private space transport company SpaceX has also beenattempting to land its Falcon 9 rocket but has failed to do so yet. In June, it exploded after lift-off.

Earlier this month, SpaceX was awarded its first Nasa contract to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.

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How much would you pay to own a piece of space history?

A part of the first computer in space comes to the auction block.

Want an out-of-this-world gift for the space nerd on your holiday list? Then consider a piece of the computer that helped guide the Gemini 3 spacecraft.

A Dallas auction house on Monday began accepting bids for part of the computer that flew with astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they orbited the Earth on March 23, 1965. It was NASA’s first two-man space mission, and the first to require an on-board computer.

Grissom and Young are among NASA’s most celebrated astronauts. Grissom was among the seven astronauts profiled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” and was the second American in space. He was killed in 1967 during a pre-launch test for theApollo 1 mission.

Young made six space flights during his 42 years of active service with NASA. He was the ninth person to walk on the surface of the moon.

The first computer to reach the stratosphere helped them return from their four and a half hours aboard the space capsule. It wasn’t what you’d call petite. The entire computer weighed 59 pounds and the memory component, known as a “memory plane,” measures 4.25 inches square. All that space held a mere 4,096 bits of storage, or about half a kilobyte. (In comparison, this story you’re reading takes up more than 130 kilobytes.)

And yet, the computer — built six years before Intel introduced the first microprocessor — performed an astounding 7,000 calculations a second. It set the stage for the Apollo missions to the moon, said Paul Ceruzzi, who curates the electronics and computing collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “Gemini was a rehearsal for that, in Earth orbit,” he said.

The earlier Mercury missions didn’t need their own computers, according to NASA’s “Computers in Spaceflight.” Re-entry was calculated by a computing center on the ground. Retrofire times and firing attitudes were transmitted to the sole astronaut, who manually conducted the maneuvers.

There’s another Gemini 3 milestone you might not know. It carried the first contraband into space: a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop at the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach,Florida, according to Space.com. Young pulled the sandwich out of his spacesuit’s pocket two hours into the flight, spraying the capsule with crumbs. NASA was not amused.

The memory plane on auction is composed of “tiny doughnuts of magnetic material,” said Ceruzzi.

“This little piece is responsible, in its own way, for ushering in the Space Age,” said Heritage Auctions historian Michael Riley of the device. “Look what it accomplished.”

Heritage Auctions set the initial price of the memory plane at $1,200. Online bids will be accepted through November 5. A live auction, which includes an online component will take place on November 6.

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Astronomers compile stunning 46-billion pixel image of the Milky Way

A team of astronomers at the German University has compiled a tremendous image of the Milky Way galaxy. The image contains 46 billion pixels, which makes it the most enormous astronomical photo ever captured to date. It’s the result of data gathered over a period of five years by astronomers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.

The data was compiled from 268 individual views of the Milky Way galaxy, including some of the sun and the Earth. The view was attained after continuously capturing images over that five-year period with the help of telescopes located in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

In order to view the image in its most detailed format, you’ll need to use this online tool. “For five years, the astronomers from Bochum have been monitoring our Galaxy in the search of objects with variable brightness,” the team said in a statement. “Those objects may, for example, include stars in front of which a planet is passing, or multiple systems where stars orbit each other and which obscure each other now and then.”

Heading the team of astronomers at the German University, Professor Rolf Chini from the astrophysics department had the herculean task of assembling 268 sections of different images. Chini arranged these images in a flawless manner and ended up with a breathtaking, comprehensive image of our galaxy. Even after assembling the image, it took another seven weeks to create a 194GB file, which contained different angles of the image paired with a variety of filters.

“Using the online tool, any interested person can view the complete ribbon of the Milky Way at a glance, or zoom in and inspect specific areas,” the group said in the statement.

The online tool for viewing the main image lets you dig in deep to view specific sections. Not only that, but the university has made the image “searchable,” which means you can search for specific information about any space object present in the Milky Way. For example, if you type “R Leporis,” the tool will take you to the respective star in the image. It’s an exciting piece of work by Rolf Chini and his team for other reasons: The compiled image shows more than 50,000 variable-brightness stars present in the Milky Way, that have never been recorded in the history of space science.

Image credit: Lehrstuhl für Astrophysik, RUB

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Astronomers compile stunning 46-billion pixel image of the Milky Way

A team of astronomers at the German University has compiled a tremendous image of the Milky Way galaxy. The image contains 46 billion pixels, which makes it the most enormous astronomical photo ever captured to date. It’s the result of data gathered over a period of five years by astronomers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.

The data was compiled from 268 individual views of the Milky Way galaxy, including some of the sun and the Earth. The view was attained after continuously capturing images over that five-year period with the help of telescopes located in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

In order to view the image in its most detailed format, you’ll need to use this online tool. “For five years, the astronomers from Bochum have been monitoring our Galaxy in the search of objects with variable brightness,” the team said in a statement. “Those objects may, for example, include stars in front of which a planet is passing, or multiple systems where stars orbit each other and which obscure each other now and then.”

Heading the team of astronomers at the German University, Professor Rolf Chini from the astrophysics department had the herculean task of assembling 268 sections of different images. Chini arranged these images in a flawless manner and ended up with a breathtaking, comprehensive image of our galaxy. Even after assembling the image, it took another seven weeks to create a 194GB file, which contained different angles of the image paired with a variety of filters.

“Using the online tool, any interested person can view the complete ribbon of the Milky Way at a glance, or zoom in and inspect specific areas,” the group said in the statement.

The online tool for viewing the main image lets you dig in deep to view specific sections. Not only that, but the university has made the image “searchable,” which means you can search for specific information about any space object present in the Milky Way. For example, if you type “R Leporis,” the tool will take you to the respective star in the image. It’s an exciting piece of work by Rolf Chini and his team for other reasons: The compiled image shows more than 50,000 variable-brightness stars present in the Milky Way, that have never been recorded in the history of space science.

Image credit: Lehrstuhl für Astrophysik, RUB

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NASA crowdsources Mars spacesuit durability testing, offers $15,000 in prizes

NASA is run by a lot of smart people, but sometimes the smartest thing you can do is ask for some help. That’s what NASA is doing in its quest to design the next generation of space suit technology. NASA is asking the public to come up with ideas on how to test prototype Mars space suit materials for durability without actually going all the way to Mars. The agency plans to give away $15,000 in prizes for the best ideas.

We’re all familiar with the current space suit design, which has been used by astronauts for decades. The problem with these pieces of equipment is that they’re optimized for low-Earth orbit. They have some damage resistance, but they aren’t built to be worn while walking around on the surface of a planet, or anywhere really — there’s no walking at all in low-Earth orbit. They’ll need new suits.

Any future Mars mission would likely include many extravehicular activities (EVAs). If you manage to safely land a crew on mars after months in space, they won’t just take one stroll on the surface and go home. There’s serious science to be done out there, and that means a real risk or damage to suits during EVAs. NASA has reason to be worried too. Some astronauts who walked on the moon reported damage to the outer layers of their suits that impaired the insulation. They were only a few days from home, but Mars is much more remote.

Mars spacesuit

Analysis of the Apollo suits by NASA has revealed that the abrasiveness of lunar dust likely caused the damage. Mars could be even more perilous in this respect. It’s quite dusty, and it has an atmosphere that can blow that dust around at upward of 60 miles per hour. The terrain of Mars is also much more complex with plenty of rocky outcroppings to run into.

NASA doesn’t have a standard way to test for this sort of damage, thus the crowdsourcing approach. The agency suggests interested parties consider innovative ways to subject materials to a simulated Martian environment. The procedures will be judged based on how well they can be matched to fiber damage of samples exposed to lunar dust, which is the closest analog we currently have. The proposed processes should also be able to quantify the number and size of particles that migrate through the fabrics and analyze physical damage in the form of cuts, tears, and so on.

NASA expects to make up to three awards of $5,000 each for a total of $15,000. The challenge is being run by NineSigma Inc. as part of the NASA Tournament Lab. This program has previously solicited suggestions for improving email in space and the design of reusable seals for use in EVAs. Submissions have to be in by December 3rd and winners will be announced in late January 2016.

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Found on Mars: Cool, Clear Water?

Dark, narrow streaks going downhill at four locations on Mars are evidence of water flowing on the planet, NASA confirmed Monday.

Called “recurring slope lineae,” the streaks are approximately the length of a football field, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They are believed to have been formed by the seasonal flow of water.

Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology noticed these lineae as an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona in 2010. He and seven coauthors wrote a report on the research, which was published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

All four locations, including the walls of the Garni and Hale craters, show evidence of hydrated salts, most likely magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate, Ojha wrote.

The findings strongly support the team’s hypothesis that recurring slope lineae form as a result of current water activity on Mars, he said.

“They’re likely 95 percent correct,” said William Newman, a professor of earth and space sciences at UCLA.

“We know there’s water in [Mars’] polar caps — that’s irrefutable — so the picture they paint is plausible,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Figuring Out the Proof

Ojha noticed back in 2010 that the lineae appeared during Mars’ warm seasons, when temperatures were above -23 degrees Celsius, and seemed to indicate the downhill flow of some liquid. They would fade in cooler seasons.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is equipped with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, made the initial observations. HiRISE observations have documented recurring slope lineae at dozens of sites on Mars, NASA said.

Ojha’s study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The researchers found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, Ojha said, suggesting that either the dark streaks themselves, or a process that formed them, were the source of the hydration.

Where’s the Water Coming From?

Mars’ atmosphere consists of about 95.3 percent carbon dioxide and 2.7 percent nitrogen. Water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, which raises the question of where the water could come from.

Perchlorate salts are powerful oxidizing agents, which would explain how the oxygen in the carbon dioxide might be freed to combine with hydrogen — but where’s the hydrogen?

Hydrogen “exists as a trace element, but it’s highly reactive and would likely bond to any free oxygen to form water,” said Mike Jude, a research manager at Frost & Sullivan.

“Even Earth has a hard time retaining free hydrogen,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The major source of water in the inner solar system is comets, and Mars could have retained “a significant fraction” of that water, UCLA’s Newman speculated.

Daily temperature changes are severe on Mars and could cause liquids to freeze and crack the surface, creating more places for liquid to collect, as happens in alpine terrains on Earth, he said.

The Meaning of Water

The existence of water posits life on Mars, although other requirements would have to be fulfilled.

Still, a non-oxygen-breathing life form could well exist on Mars.

Here on Earth, scientists in 2010 discovered three anoxic life forms, meaning life forms that don’t need oxygen to live. They belong to the phylum Loricifera.

Further, just what passes for water on Mars has yet to be determined.

While explanations for the lineae revolve around water, “the nature of the water involved is subject to some debate,” Frost’s Jude said.

Whether that will impact any native life forms on Mars, and how, remains to be seen.

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Blue Origin Rockets Into Cape Canaveral

Blue Origin on Tuesday announced plans to launch rockets from a Cape Canaveral launchpad, which it has leased from NASA.

“The site saw its last launch in 2005, and the pad has stood silent for more than 10 years — too long. We can’t wait to fix that,” said Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder of Amazon.

It’s the sort of thing the folks at NASA like to hear. People are interested in space again, and a reboot of the space race is playing out between two of the commercial spaceflight industry’s top players.

After losing out to SpaceX on a land lease, Blue Origin has snatched a lot in the same neighborhood at Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX plans to launch its next rocket from Launch Pad 39A in 2016, while Blue Origin hopes to fire off its first spacecraft from the historic Complex 36 before the decade comes to a close.

The Enablers

The tenants from the commercial spaceflight industry are fulfilling an initiative NASA started roughly five years ago to establish a multi-user spaceport for government and commercial projects.

As the space shuttle program drew to a close, NASA knew it would have a number of assets it would no longer require, said Tom Engler, deputy director of the Center Planning and Development Directorate at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.

NASA wanted to make its old assets available to the commercial space industry to help it realize its goals “faster and more efficiently than they would have otherwise,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“So we started about five years ago partnering with commercial space, and we had some significant wins here at Kennedy Space Center to help us construct the multi-user spaceport,” Engler said.

Commercial Partnerships

One of those victories was a partnership with SpaceX for use of Launch Pad 39A, which the company is rehabbing to host the launch of its Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon spacecraft, according to Engler.

Another victory was Boeing taking occupancy of the old orbiter processor facility, which it has converted into the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing facility. NASA worked with the state of Florida to sublease the center to Boeing, which will use the facility to build its new CST-100 spacecraft.

“We created that agreement with the state of Florida,” Engler said. “Florida is subleasing that to Boeing and allowing them to use that facility to build their CST-100 spacecraft, which they recently unveiled as the ‘Boeing Starliner.’ That’s the new name for it.”

Blue Origin’s move into Complex 36, with plans to build locally, is another victory for NASA, the state of Florida and the Space Coast.

“Our relationship with the commercial space industry is in a number of ways very good,” Engler said. “We’ve had a partnerships we’ve developed here with respect to providing new capabilities to enable their commercial space endeavors.”

Resurgence of the Space Coast

Securing new tenants for the multi-user spaceport has been just one facet of NASA and Florida’s goal to incubate the nascent spaceflight industry in the region known as the “Space Coast.” State and federal officials also have been pushing for commercial companies to build their rockets on Florida’s east coast.

In the commercial space industry, there’s an opportunity to leverage the synergies of consolidated operations, said Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliances for Space Florida. Florida is poised to benefit from those economic efficiencies.

“We had once just been a launch site,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Now we build capsules for Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and soon we’ll be building rockets for Blue Origin. We still have much to do, but we are well on our way to providing end-to-end services for the space marketplace of the future.”

Geography is a major reason the Space Coast is ideal for the space industry, noted Ketcham. It’s why the government secured the 147,000 acres where the Kennedy Space Center rests.

“Often [spacecraft and rockets] were shipped from elsewhere with the expectation that it will work — but here in Florida, we see to it that it does,” Ketcham said. “This mentality has engendered not just a capable workforce, but a community culture that knows what it takes to get people and payload into orbit.”

Now, with Blue Origin serving as another win for the Space Coast, questions about the future of the Kennedy Space Center seem to be drowned out by all of the activity going on.

“There was a general concern over the future of the Kennedy Space Center,” said NASA’s Engler, “but from where we are now, the future is very bright.”

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SpaceX Dragon capsule could be used to return Mars samples to Earth

NASA’s Ames Research Center has developed a draft proposal for a mission that would retrieve soil samples from Mars and deliver them back to Earth. It’s ambitious to be sure, but NASA scientists are optimistic about the so-called “Red Dragon” proposal, so named because it would rely on a modified version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. According to the team, this mission could be feasible in the early 2020s, just in time for NASA’s next Mars rover mission.

Repurposing near-Earth spacecraft for longer voyages is usually a bad idea that never gets past the initial design stages. However, SpaceX designed the Dragon capsule to be highly adaptable. After all, the manned Dragon is essentially the same vessel that’s already in operation as an automated cargo transport.

CEO Elon Musk says the Falcon 9 Heavy is powerful enough to take the fully loaded Dragon to Mars, provided it is not needed for the return trip. A lighter payload could make it all the way to Jupiter. He and SpaceX were not involved in the design of the Red Dragon mission, but Musk has since come out in favor of the basic idea, noting that the Dragon vehicle is designed to land on any surface in the solar system.

red-dragon-mission-concept

Landing on the surface of Mars becomes an increasingly tricky problem as you increase in mass. The atmosphere is too thin for parachutes to do all the work, and delicate components don’t take kindly to hard impacts. The 1-ton Curiosity rover was landed with the aid of a rocket sled, but the Red Dragon would have a 2-ton payload at least. Ames scientists think the Red Dragon can set down without any parachutes, using only the Super Draco engines that are being developed for the emergency abort system on manned Dragon capsules. This would allow Red Dragon to rendezvous with the planned 2020 NASA Mars rover, which will have already collected soil samples for the return mission.

It would be inefficient to try and lift the whole dragon capsule back off the Martian surface, so instead it would carry a small Mars ascent vehicle that would launch into orbit. The lower gravity and thinner atmosphere on Mars make it easier to reach orbit. This craft would line up for an Earth encounter, then release a smaller Earth return vehicle with the samples on board. Once it’s in low-Earth orbit, a second Dragon capsule will be sent up to retrieve it.

Getting samples of Martian soil back to Earth would be the best way to learn about the history and composition of Mars. There’s only so much a rover can do from millions of miles away, and if scientists come up with a new idea for a test, they have to wait for the next mission. Having fresh samples would accelerate things greatly. Maybe we’d finally be able to figure out if Mars has ever supported life.

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NASA May Move Microsatellites Magnetically

NASA earlier this month entered an agreement with Arx Pax to use its Magnetic Field Architecture technology in hardware that will let astronauts move tiny satellites without touching them.

The Space Act Agreement marks a major milestone for Arx Pax, CEO Greg Henderson said. “It’s exciting to work hand in hand with NASA’s brilliant team of scientists and engineers. We’re thrilled about the potential impact we can make together.”

Henderson and his wife, Jill Henderson, last year launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund development of a functional hoverboard based on the technology.

Magnets in Space?

NASA has been seeking to create a magnetic tether that can be used to couple and uncouple microsatellites called “CubeSats.”

It’s interested in exploring whether this tech can be used in a space environment, said Luke Murchison, a project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

NASA in the near term will work to identify the constraints of the magnetic tether technology with regard to its applications in low-Earth orbit, he said.

“In the long term, we are interested in developing technology to allow the autonomous assembly of small modular satellites,” Murchison told TechNewsWorld. “That would let us create entirely new satellite architectures.”

Building Blocks

CubeSats are a small form factor for satellites, said Alex Saunders, a student working at the CubeSat Lab at California Polytechnic State University.

“They come in small 10-by-10-centimeter cubes, and they can be used for a variety of things,” he told TechNewsWorld. “A lot of them are used for tech demos in space.”

A tech firm will reach out to CubeSat researchers to test prototypes of their products in space, said Saunders. They’ll put them on a CubeSat, “and we’ll get data back to them so that they can say they tested it in space.”

Along with launching tech demos into space, CubeSats also are used to conduct scientific experiments in space.

“One of the projects we’ve worked on here at Cal Poly is ExoCubes, where we put a small mass spectrometer in space and are reading ions and neutral data for certain particles at a certain level in our atmosphere,” noted Saunders.

Coupling and uncoupling CubeSats using Magnetic Field Architecture would make a good tech demo and could serve as an important step to scaling up, he said.

Building It Out

Someday, larger satellites even could use magnetic tethering to dock or undock with space stations, Langley’s Murchison suggested. This just the start of MFA’s use in space. NASA plans to iterate on the tech through its alliance with Arx Pax.

“We are currently developing a number of prototypes over the next one to two years,” he added, “and will be exploring alternative designs with this technology.”

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Ultra-thin optical metasurfaces manipulate light in exotic ways

A team of researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CalTech have developed a range of ultra-thin, optical components capable of arbitrary manipulation of light. The devices, dubbedmetasurfaces, are able to locally modify the properties of a light-field in ways difficult to achieve with standard optics.

So what does it mean to manipulate light? Light, an electromagnetic field that propagates through space, can be completely described at one wavelength by polarization, phase, andamplitude. If we know what the light-field looks like now, we can accurately predict what it will look like in the future by knowing only these properties.

Any optical component that exists can be thought of as essentially modifying one or more of the above properties. For example, in free-space optical systems, polarization is modified using wave retarders, polarizers, and polarization beam-splitters; phase is shaped using lenses, curved mirrors, or spatial phase modulators; and amplitude is controlled via neutral-density absorptive or reflective filters. Therefore, by combining many components, we’re able to build systems that can manipulate the light-field to varying degrees.

However, as you may have guessed, in order for us to have full control, we normally need many components, each of which is usually bulky and expensive. Think of the optics in a telescope or DSLR for example.

What is a metasurface?

Metasurfaces are planar (~2D) structures that locally modify the polarization, phase, and amplitude of light in reflection or transmission, where each sub-pixel is smaller than the wavelength of light. When we say 2D, the vertical dimension is normally <100nm, or ~1,000x smaller than a human hair. Therefore, these flat, highly functional optical components can be manufactured in exactly the same way as state-of-the-art electronics, such as microchips, which use high resolution lithographic techniques.

, A device that separates x- and y-polarized light and focuses them to two different points. The two different points can be chosen at will

What have they done?

The team of researchers have developed a new kind of metasurface composed of a single-layer array of amorphous silicon (silicon nanopillars), patterned into differently sized elliptical posts — all sitting upon was is essentially a glass surface. Seen under a scanning electron microscope, the metasurface appears as a cut forest where only the stumps remain.

Each silicon stump, or pillar, has an elliptical cross section, and hence has a different effective refractive index associated with the two different modes that can be excited across the structure. By carefully varying the diameters of each pillar and rotating them around their axes, the scientists were able to simultaneously manipulate the phase and polarization of passing light.

Using the elliptical nanopillar as a sub-wavelength pixel, the researchers produced a range of optical devices, from polarization beam splitters and lenses to phase holograms, all operating at a near-infrared wavelength of 915nm. (Visible light is 400-700nm.)

A device that separates x- and y-polarized light and focuses them to two different points. The two different points can be chosen at will

Should I care?

To be sure, this is an incremental advance. There is a plethora of research worldwide on metasurfaces, and pretty much every single week there is a new device, which will supposedly “revolutionize” the field of optics and be applicable to every field one might think of (which is a nifty selling tactic of getting your work published). Yet, in reality, the research is a small incremental adjustment based on a nanostructured surface, which manipulates a light field to some degree. For example, the work uses infrared light, because doing this at shorter, visible light runs into all sorts of fabrication problems. Also, nanorods and other geometries have been used previously to do pretty much the same thing.

The work in and of itself is not bad, and is a nice window into the world of metasurfaces. However, until someone cracks full, re-configurable phase control at visible wavelengths, the impact of such work will be short-lived.

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