News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted

The Future is Here: Crowdfunded Flying Cars!

flying_carsYes, after years of expectations and failed promises, flying cars have finally arrived! Okay, arrived may be a bit of a strong word. But the prototype has been built, and all that’s needed now is some final safety testing to get FAA approval. Then, aerospace inventor Paul Moller will have realized his thirty-year dream of bringing a viable flying car to the market. And to raise money for these tests, he’s mounted a crowdfunding campaign.

Known as the M400X (aka. Skycar), this car is the a vertical take-off and landing vehicle that is also capable of horizontal flight. Powered by eight ethanol-fueled engines, it is designed to cruise at a speed of 500 km/h (315 mph) at a of height of 7600 meters (25,000 feet), or 320 km/h (200 mph) at sea level. A four-seat model that is about the size of a large SUV, this car weighs only 545 kilograms (1,200 lbs), thanks to a carbon fiber and Kevlar composite shell.

flying_cars1In total, it is expected to be able to fly for roughly 1200 (750 miles) without refueling, giving it a fuel economy of roughly 10 km/liter (25 mpg). In addition, a top land speed of 50 km/h (30 mph) makes short-distance street travel feasible. In these respects, it is far more sophisticated than other flying car designs – such as the Airbike and Terrafugia – in that it does not require an airport runway to take off and land, but can taxi when it needs to cover only a small stretch of ground.

The campaign began last month over at Indiegogo and will run to January 4th 2014, by which time, Moller and his company (Moller Int) hope to raise $958,000 of the $1.89 million needed to install the motors and FAA-required safety elements in the vehicle. Naturally, every donation comes with a prize, depending on the amount of money donated. And the grand prize, for a cool $15,000 dollars, is a chance to ride shotgun on the maiden voyage of the Skycar.

flying_cars_m400xOf that total, $932,000 has already been pledged by Nitroturbodyne – an FAA-designated engineering firm handling flight testing – and a former Moller subsidiary named Freedom Motors, which built the rotary engines, and the CliC protective goggles. By going the crowdfunding route, as opposed to corporate sponsorships, stock shares, or venture capital, Moller Int. hopes to raise the money faster while retaining more company control.

Moller, an inventor and TED talker, was also a professor of aeronautics at the University of California before starting the company in 1983. According to him, the decision to crowdfunds was a way of ensuring that public participation in the project, without the need for centralized measures like stocks:

We didn’t want to dilute the stock value by issuing more shares. Crowdfunding is a way for the average person to make a direct contribution towards a specific project without having to buy stock. This way, we can give really nice gifts and make people part of a team that can help make this happen.

All proceeds from the Indiegogo campaign will be used to prepare the Skycar for a June public unveiling where it will conduct an official test flight at an altitude of 600 meters (2,000 feet). Another six months of testing to meet FAA requirements will follow, before donors get their guest flights. After that, Moller will donate the M400 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

flying_cars2From there, he’ll focus on a smaller, two-person Skycar M200 (seen above), which will be made available to the public in about five years time – assuming all goes according to plan. If you have any interest in donating to this cause, which will see a millennial dream become a reality at long last, just go to the Indiegogo page and pledge what you like. Then start saving your pennies for the when the 200 model hits the market. It’s likely to be pricey!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this promotional video from Moller International: