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Here's Your Jetpack

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Jetpacks have long been a staple of American futurism: we believe that soon, just down the line a bit, we'll be able to strap on a jet-powered backpack and fly to work. But, decade after decade, no jetpacks. At least not at my house. The "Where's My Jetpack?" notion is such a mainstay of futurist thinking that it's the title of a book. But despite not having your own jetpack, various prototypes have been built and actually worked. Let's have a look at the best-known jetpack, which was actually called a "rocket belt."

The Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt

Bell Aerosystems developed the Rocket Belt under contract with the US Army. Its flying time was extremely limited (about 20 seconds), but it actually worked -- tests were carried out throughout the 1960s, as well as flights at the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics. In the demo video below (circa 1966), test pilot Bill Suitor demonstrates the pack, explaining that a timer buzzes against his skull as he flies -- if he runs out of jet fuel, he crashes to the ground. (Incidentally, apparently this happened to inventor Wendell Moore in an early test flight, causing Moore to break a kneecap and stop flying. The early test flights used a ground tether to prevent enthusiastic novice pilots from shooting up too high to safely descend within the 20-second-ish window.) When asked about parachutes and other methods of descent in this video, Suitor chuckles and says, "We rely on gravity." He has a point -- he's not flying high enough for a parachute to help. BEHOLD:

Suitor flew 1,200 times using this device, and wrote a book about being a jetpack pilot, called The Rocketbelt Pilot's Manual. He appeared in a laundry list of TV shows and movies piloting the pack, including: The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, Newhart (!), The Six Million Dollar Man, and the Bond movie Thunderball.

And here's some footage (no sound) of two Bell Rocket Belts flying simultaneously (note the 16mm movie camera mounted on one pilot's helmet). Because of the time limitations, this one-minute movie must have entailed multiple refueling sessions.

And here's Suitor flying at Disneyland in 1965:

(The title of this video says the event took place in 1966, but helpful commenters helped determine that it was probably taken in late December, 1965.)

And a seven-minute History Channel clip about the Rocket Belt:

You can also watch a ten-minute silent film featuring various clips of test flights in the 1960s.

Although the Bell Rocket Belt is the best-known working jetpack, there have been others. NASA uses a jetpack on its EVAs so astronauts can maneuver and return to the spacecraft (plus, there were early plans for a Bell product to go to the Moon on the Apollo missions, notably a two-man variant called the Bell POGO), and various private companies have worked on the technology -- Wikipedia's jetpack page has a good roundup. Also relevant is a MythBusters episode in which the guys attempt to build a jetpack.

So, to answer the "Where's my jetpack?" question: it has been around in various forms since the 1960s, but it's dangerous, requires extensive training to operate, and has run times measured in seconds. But, hey, it exists.

The Jetpack Murder

There's a curious 1990s coda to the jetpack saga involving an "RB-2000" jetpack and an unsolved murder. You can read all about it from Atlas Obscura. Here's a tidbit:

By the time the RB-2000 was flying over the Houston Ship Channel, the company was already in ruins. Barker and Stanley were at each others throats, while the third partner Joe Wright had a failing car stereo business and a escalating crystal meth addiction. Even before the inaugural flight of the belt, Barker and Stanley had had a terrible falling out. Stanley believed Barker was stealing money from the company and when he confronted Barker, they fought violently. From a 2002 Sunday Herald article:

"Stanley got in my face," Barker recalls. "I grabbed a five-pound, dead-blow, lead-filled hammer off the table. I hit Stanley short blows twice to the back of the head. That pretty much ended the partnership."

Read the rest. It's worth it. The book Jetpack Dreams also covers this topic in depth.

See also: Jetpacks: The Future Is Now; Where's My Jetpack?

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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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iStock
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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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