Nobel Prize goes to laser-wrangling physicists, including first woman to be honored in 55 years

The 2018 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to a trio of researchers whose work in lasers enabled all kinds of new experiments and treatments. Arthur Ashkin is the primary recipient, sharing the prize with Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland; notably, the latter is the first woman to receive the prize since 1963, and […]

The 2018 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to a trio of researchers whose work in lasers enabled all kinds of new experiments and treatments. Arthur Ashkin is the primary recipient, sharing the prize with Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland; notably, the latter is the first woman to receive the prize since 1963, and only the third in history.

“This year’s prize is about tools made from light,” the Swedish foundation said in its announcement of the prize. ”

The work that won the award stretches over decades. Ashkin’s began during his tenure at Bell Labs in the ’60s and ’70s,  where he discovered that tiny particles and in fact cells and monocellular creatures could be trapped and manipulated using microscopic lasers.

In 1987 he used his “optical tweezers” to capture a bacterium without harming it, opening the possibility of the tool being used for all kinds of biological applications.

Mourou and Strickland, meanwhile, were also making strides in laser technology. They approached the open question of how to compress a powerful laser into a brief but equally powerful pulse, publishing a breakthrough paper in 1985.

The CPA technique described by Mourou and Strickland’s landmark research.

By “stretching” the beam out, then amplifying it, then compressing it again (as you see in the diagram above), they created the first “chirped pulse amplification,” which would become a standard tool. If you’ve gotten laser eye surgery, for instance, you’ve enjoyed the benefit of their research.

“The innumerable areas of application have not yet been completely explored,” the Nobel press release reads. “However, even now these celebrated inventions allow us to rummage around in the microworld in the best spirit of Alfred Nobel – for the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Strickland joins the very small club of women who have received the prestigious prize. It was given in 1963 to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who created the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, and before that in 1903 to Marie Curie for, of course, her work on radium. (She won the Nobel for Chemistry 8 years later, making her the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to win one in two different fields.)

Speaking to NPR, Strickland expressed surprise that so few women had been honored. “Really? I thought there might’ve been more,” she said. “Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there … I don’t know what to say, I’m honored to be one of these women.”

If you’re curious about the specifics of the research honored today, feel free to check out this writeup by the Nobel Foundation.

Lunewave is pitching a new sensor offering better vision for autonomous vehicles

The investment arms of BMW and the Chinese search technology giant, Baidu, along with a large original equipment manufacturer for the auto industry and a slew of technology investors have all come together to back Lunewave, a startup developing new sensor technologies for autonomous vehicles. The $5 million seed round which the company just closed […]

The investment arms of BMW and the Chinese search technology giant, Baidu, along with a large original equipment manufacturer for the auto industry and a slew of technology investors have all come together to back Lunewave, a startup developing new sensor technologies for autonomous vehicles.

The $5 million seed round which the company just closed will serve as a launching pad to get its novel radar technology, based on the concept of a Luneburg antenna, to market.

First developed in the 1940s, Lunewave’s spin the antenna technology involves leveraging 3D printing to create new architectures that enable more powerful antennas with greater range and accuracy than the sensing technologies currently on the market, according to the company’s chief executive John Xin.

Lunewave was co-founded by brothers John and Hao Xin and is based off of research that Hao had been conducting as a professor at the University of Arizona. Hao previously spent years working in the defense community for companies like Raytheon and Rockwell Scientific after graduating with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.

Younger brother John took a more entrepreneurial approach, working in consulting and financial services for companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Liberty Mutual.

Lunewave represents the culmination of nine years of research the elder Xin spent at the University of Arizona applying 3D printing to boost the power of the Luneburg antenna. With so much intellectual firepower behind it, Hao was able to convince his younger brother to join him on the entrepreneurial journey.

He has a strong desire to commercialize his inventions,” John Xin said of his older brother. “He wants to see it in everyday life.”

 Image courtesy of Driving-Tests.org

Now the company has $5 million in new funding to take the technology that Hao Xin has dedicated so much time and effort to develop and bring it to market. 

“With a single 3D printer in the laboratory version we can produce 100 per day,” John Xin told me. “With an industrial printer you can print 1000 per day.”

The first market for the company’s new technology will be autonomous vehicles — and more specifically autonomous cars.

Lunewave is focused on the eyes of the vehicle, says John Xin. Currently, autonomous technologies rely on a few different sensing systems. There are LIDAR technologies which use lasers to illuminate a target and measure the reflected pulses with a sensor; camera technologies which rely on — well — camera technologies; and radar which uses electromagnetic waves to detect objects.

Startups developing and refining these technologies have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the autonomous vehicle market. In June, the camera sensing technology developer Light raised over $120 million from SoftBank. Meanwhile, LIDAR technology developers like Quanergy and Leddartech have raised $134 million and $117 million respectively and some studies have claimed that the market for LIDAR technologies was already a $5.2 billion last year alone.

Most companies working with autonomous cars these days use some combination of these technologies, but the existing products on the market have significant limitations, according to Lunewave’s chief executive.

John Xin argues that the Lunewave technology can detect more objects in a wider field of view and at greater distances than existing products thanks to the unique properties of the Luneburg antenna.

Think of the antenna as a giant golf ball with a 360 field of “view” that can detect objects at greater distances than existing Lidar technologies because of the distance constraints on laser technologies.

Xin with a Lunewave prototype

“LIDAR right now is at the end of the day because of its short wavelength. It does not function as well in poor weather conditions. Penetration of shorter wave lengths would be very difficult in poor weather conditions,” Xin said. “Our radar technology has the ability to function across all weather conditions. Our hardware architecture of our Lunenberg antenna has the best distance and the spherical nature of the device has the 360 detection capacity.”

The company came out with its minimum viable product in 2017 — the same year that it launched. It was one of the early companies in the UrbanX accelerator — a collaboration between Mini and Urban.us — and is part of BMW’s startup garage program.

The company raised $5 million in two structures. Its seed financing was a $3.75 million equity round led by the automotive investment specialist McCombs Fraser with participation from Ekistic Ventures, Urban.us, Plug and Play, Shanda Capital, Lighthouse Ventures, Baidu Ventures and BMW iVentures. But a portion of its capital came in the form of a $1.25 million non-dilutive government grant through the National Science Foundation . “In late 2016 that’s what helped us to jumpstart the company,” said Xin.

Now, the company just needs to fulfill Hao Xin’s dream of taking the product to market.

“We have the product,” John Xin said. “It’s not just taking in money. Now it’s about [proof of concepts] and pilots.”

NASA’s climate-monitoring space laser is the last to ride to space on a Delta II rocket

This weekend, NASA is launching a new, high-tech satellite to monitor the planet’s glacier and sea ice levels — with space lasers, naturally. ICESat-2 will be a huge boon for climatologists, and it’s also a bittersweet occasion: it will be the final launch aboard the trusty Delta II rocket, which has been putting birds in the air for nearly 30 years.

This weekend, NASA is launching a new high-tech satellite to monitor the planet’s glacier and sea ice levels — with space lasers, naturally. ICESat-2 will be a huge boon for climatologists, and it’s also a bittersweet occasion: it will be the final launch aboard the trusty Delta II rocket, which has been putting birds in the air for nearly 30 years.

Takeoff is set for 5:46 AM Pacific Time Saturday morning, so you’ll have to get up early if you want to catch it. You can watch the launch live here, with NASA coverage starting about half an hour before.

Keeping track of the Earth’s ice levels is more important than ever; with climate change causing widespread havoc, precise monitoring of major features like the Antarctic ice sheet could help climatologists predict and understand global weather patterns.

Like Aeolus, which launched in July, ICESat-2 is a spacecraft with a single major instrument, not a “Christmas tree” of sensors and antennas. And like Aeolus, ICESat-2 carries a giant laser. But while the first was launched to watch the movement of the air in-between it and the ground, the second must monitor the ground through that moving air.

It does so by using an industrial-size, hyper-precise altimeter: a single, powerful green laser split into six beams — three pairs of two, really, arranged to pass over the landscape in a predictable way.

But the real magic is how those lasers are detected. Next to the laser is a special telescope that watches for the beams’ reflections. Incredibly, it only collects “about a dozen” photons from each laser pulse, and times their arrival down to a billionth of a second. And it does this 10,000 times per second, which at its speed means a pulse is bouncing off the Earth every 2.3 feet or so.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, its altitude readings are accurate down to the inch. And with multiple readings over time, it should be able to tell whether an ice sheet has risen or fallen on the order of millimeters.

So if you’re traveling in the Antarctic and you drop a pencil, be sure to pick it up or it might throw things off.

Of course, it’s not just for ice; the same space laser will also return the exact heights of buildings, tree canopies and other features. It’s a pity there aren’t more of these satellites — they sound rather useful.

Although ICESat-2 itself is notable and interesting, this launch is significant for a second reason: this will be the final launch atop a Delta II rocket. Rocketry standby United Launch Alliance is in charge of this one, as it has been for so many others.

Introduced in 1989, the Delta II has launched everything from communication satellites to Mars orbiters and landers; Spirit and Opportunity both left the Earth on Delta IIs. All told, more than 150 launches have been made on these rockets, and if Saturday’s launch goes as planned, it will be the 100th successful Delta II launch in a row. That’s a hell of a record. (To be clear, that doesn’t mean 50 failed; but a handful of failures over the decades have marred the launch vehicle’s streak.)

A Delta II launching for the Aquarius mission in 2011

One charming yet perhaps daunting idiosyncrasy of the system is that someone somewhere has to literally click a button to initiate takeoff — no automation for this thing; it’s someone’s job to hit the gas, so they better look sharp.

The ULA’s Bill Cullen told Jason Davis of the Planetary Society, for his epitaph on the rocket:

Yes, the Delta II engine start command is initiated by a console operator. The launch control system is 25 years old, and at the time this used a ‘person in the loop’ control which was preferred compared to the complexities of a fault-tolerant computer system.

So why are we leaving this tried and true rocket behind? It’s expensive and not particularly big. With a payload capacity of 4 tons and a cost (for this mission anyway) approaching a hundred million dollars, it’s just not a good value any more. Not only that, but Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Base is the only place left on Earth with the infrastructure to launch it, which significantly limits the orbits and opportunities for prospective missions. After ICESat-2’s launch, even that will be torn down — though hopefully they’ll keep the pieces somewhere, for posterity.

Although this is the last Delta II to launch, there is one more rocket left without a mission, the last, as it were, on the lot. Plans are not solid yet, but it’s a good bet this classic rocket will end up in a museum somewhere — perhaps standing upright with others at Kennedy Space Center.