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Photo by Lucasfilm

9 Unusual Things That Astronauts Brought to Space

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Photo by Lucasfilm

When you're traveling to space, everything that goes with you—from personal effects to historical items—has to be small and lightweight. Over the span of human spaceflight, some pretty weird things have made the trip. Here are a few of them.

1. Silver Snoopy Pins

In 1968, NASA began an initiative to award select employees with a silver Snoopy lapel pin as part of their Manned Flight Awareness program. While the first awarded pins were not flown, each subsequent pin has been flown on a manned mission. Since 1968, over 12,000 pins have been awarded.

2. Marine Mammal Poster

For each mission, NASA astronauts are allowed to bring personal items that collectively weigh less than two pounds and can fit in a box the size of a book. One of these personal objects was a poster of marine mammals.

3. Jamestown Colony Cargo Tag

In 2007, astronauts above the space shuttle Atlantis brought a cargo tag from Jamestown, America's first permanent colony, which was established in 1607. The piece was returned to the Jamestown museum after its trip to space.

4. Dirt From Pitcher’s Mound at Yankee Stadium

When astronaut—and avid Yankees fan—Garret Reisman flew on board the space shuttle Endeavour in 2008, he brought a vial of dirt from the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium with him. On April 16, 2008, Reisman threw the first pitch of a Yankees game from the International Space Station.

5. NASCAR Starter Flags

Also in 2008, astronauts brought three NASCAR starter flags with them on mission. The green starter flags were packed to celebrate NASA’s 50th anniversary, as well as the 50th year of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 race. Upon return to the earth, the flags were given as gifts: One went to the winner of the 2008 Daytona 500, one for public display at the Florida racetrack, and one for NASA to keep.

6. Piece of the Wright Flyer

When the Wright brothers first flew their rudimentary airplane in 1903, the aircraft only came a few feet off of the ground. In 1969, 66 years after the Wright Flyer’s maiden voyage, NASA brought a piece from the aircraft on its very first trip to the moon as a way to honor the famous duo.

7. Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber

In 2007, the lightsaber prop belonging to Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was taken on a mission to the International Space Station. Star Wars fans even escorted the prop to an airport in California to send it to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The lightsaber spent two weeks in orbit, and was later returned to George Lucas’ film company.

8. Moon Tree Seeds

During the Apollo 14 NASA mission to the moon in 1971, astronauts packed hundreds of tree seeds in their personal kits. Upon return to the earth, the seeds were germinated by the Forest Service and planted throughout the U.S. in 1976 to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.

9. Lego

How's this for meta? In 2012, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa brought Lego bricks with him on his trip to the ISS—which he then used to build a replica of the ISS.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.