News from Space: NASA Showcases New Rover Tools

NASA_2020rover1Last Thursday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, NASA unveiled more information about its Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to join Opportunity and Curiosity on the Red Planet by the end of the decade. The subject of this latest press release was the rover’s payload, which will consist of seven carefully-selected instruments that will conduct unprecedented science and exploratory investigations, and cost about $130 million to develop.

These instruments were selected from 58 proposals that were submitted back in January by researchers and engineers from all around the world. This is twice the usual number of proposals that NASA has received during instrument competitions in the recent past, and is a strong indicator of the extraordinary level of interest the scientific community is taking in the exploration of the Mars.

NASA_2020roverThese seven new instruments include:

  • Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): this technology package will process the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. ISRU stands for In Situ Resource Utilization.
  • Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): this spectrometer will use a high-resolution imager and X-ray fluorescence for detailed elemental analysis to a finer degree than possible with any prior equipment.
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): this sensor suite will use an ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy, detecting organic compounds, and high-resolution imaging.
  • Mastcam-Z: an advanced camera system that will send home panoramic and stereoscopic images and assist with rover operations and help determine surface mineralogy.
  • SuperCam: an imaging device with super capacities to perform chemical composition analysis and more mineralogy. This tool will allow the rover to peer around hunting for organic compounds within rocks or weathered soils from a distance, helping identify interesting locations to sample in greater detail.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): This sensor suite to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, and relative humidity. As dust is such a defining characteristic of weather on the red planet, it’s also going to measure dust size and shape, helping characterize how big of a hassle it will make housekeeping.
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): a ground-penetrating radar to imagine the subsurface to centimeter-scale resolution.

These instruments will be used to determine how future human explorers could exploit natural resources to live on Mars, pinning down limits to how much we could rely on using local materials. In addition, demonstration technology will test out processing atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, a key step towards using local resources for manufacturing oxidizers for rocket fuel and suitable for humans.

NASA_2020rover5This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the proposed mission, which is looking ahead to the possibility of manned Martian exploration and even settlement. To quote William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington:

Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible.

At the same time, and in keeping with plans for a manned mission, it will carry on in NASA’s long-term goal of unlocking Mars’ past and determining if life ever existed there. As John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, explained:

The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record. This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.

Mars_footprintNASA addressed these goals and more two weeks ago with their mission to Mars panel at the 2014 Comic-Con. This event, which featured retired astronaut and living legend Buzz Aldrin, spoke at length to a packed room about how Apollo 11 represented the “the first Giant Leap”. According to Aldrin, the Next Giant Leap could be “Apollo 45 landing humans on Mars.”

The panel discussion also included enthusiastic support of Orion and the Space Launch System which are currently under development and will be used when it finally comes time to send human explorers to join the rovers on Mars. The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago.

NASA_2020rover2Not only does it look virtually identical to Curiosity – from its six-wheeled chassis, on-board laboratory, and instrument-studded retractable arms – and will even be partly built using Curiosity’s spare parts.It will also land on Mars using the same lowered-to-the-surface-by-a-giant-sky-crane method. NASA als0 plans to use the rover to identify and select a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

These rock samples will likely have to wait until the proposed manned mission of 2030 to be picked up, but NASA seems hopeful that such a mission is in the cards. In the meantime, NASA is waiting for their MAVEN orbiter to reach Mars and begin exploring it’s atmosphere (it is expected to arrive by September), while the InSight Lander – which will examine Mars’ interior geology – is slated for launch by March 2016.

terraformingSo we can expect a lot more news and revelations about the Red Planet in the coming months and years. Who knows? Maybe we may finally find evidence of organic molecules or microbial life there soon, a find which will prove once and for all that life exists on other planets within our Solar System. And if we’re really lucky, we might just find that it could feasibly support life once again…

Sources: cbc.ca, fastcompany.com, nasa.gov, space.io9.com, (2), extremetech.com

Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


Sources:
fastcompany.com, buzzaldrin.com, space.com

News from Space: Latest Tests and New Players

Apollo11_earthIn the new age of space travel and exploration, commercial space companies are not only boasting immense growth and innovation, but are reaching out to fill niche markets as well. In addition to launchers that can send orbiters and payloads into space, there are also new breeds of commercial satellites, new engines, and a slew of other concepts that promise to make the industry more promising and cost effective.

A case in point is the small satellite launch company Firefly Space Systems, which recently unveiled its planned Alpha launcher. Aimed at the small satellite launch market, it’s designed to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and Sun-synchronous orbits for broadband communication using an unconventional aerospike engine, it is also the first orbital launcher to use methane as fuel.

firefly-alphaThe Firefly Alpha is a specialized design to launch light satellites at low cost into low Earth Designed to carry payloads of up to 400 kg (880 lb), the Alpha features carbon composite construction and uses the same basic design for both of its two stages to keep down costs and simplify assembly. Methane was chosen because it’s cheap, plentiful, clean-burning and (unlike more conventional fuels) self-pressurizing, so it doesn’t require a second pressurization system.

But the really interesting thing about the two-stage rocket assembly is that the base of the engine is ringed with rocket burners rather than the usual cluster of rocket engines. That’s because, while the second stage uses conventional rocket engines, the first stage uses a more exotic plug-cluster aerospike engine that puts out some 400.3 kN (or 40,800 kg/90,000 lb)  of thrust.

firefly-alpha-4Aerospike engines have been under development since the 1960s, but until now they’ve never gotten past the design phase. The idea behind them is that rockets with conventional bell-shaped nozzles are extremely efficient, but only at a particular altitude. Since rockets are generally used to make things go up, this means that an engine that works best at sea level will become less and less efficient as it rises.

The plug aerospike is basically a bell-shaped rocket nozzle that’s been cut in half, then stretched to form a ring with the half-nozzle forming the profile of a plug. This means that the open side of the rocket engine is replaced with the air around it. As the rocket fires, the air pressure keeps the hot gases confined on that side, and as the craft rises, the change in air pressure alters the shape of the “nozzle;” keeping the engine working efficiently.

firefly-alpha-2The result of this arrangement is a lighter rocket engine that works well across a range of altitudes. Because the second stage operates in a near vacuum, it uses conventional rocket nozzles. As Firefly CEO Thomas Markusic put it:

What used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars is rapidly becoming available in the single digit millions. We are offering small satellite customers the launch they need for a fraction of that, around US$8 or 9 million – the lowest cost in the world. It’s far cheaper than the alternatives, without the headaches of a multi manifest launch.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been making headlines with its latest rounds of launches and tests. About a week ago, the company successfully launched six ORBCOMM advanced telecommunications satellites into orbit to upgrade the speed and capacity of their existing data relay network. The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida had been delayed or scrubbed several times since the original launch date in May due to varying problems.

spacex_rocketHowever, the launch went off without a hitch on Monday, July 14th, and ORBCOMM reports that all six satellites have been successfully deployed in orbit. SpaceX also used this launch opportunity to try and test the reusability of the Falcon 9′s first stage and its landing system while splashing down in the ocean. However, the booster did not survive the splashdown.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted about the event, saying that the:

Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)… Detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam.

SpaceX wanted to test the “flyback” ability to the rocket, slowing down the descent of the rocket with thrusters and deploying the landing legs for future launches so the first stage can be re-used. These tests have the booster “landing” in the ocean. The previous test of the landing system was successful, but the choppy seas destroyed the stage and prevented recovery. Today’s “kaboom” makes recovery of even pieces of this booster unlikely.

sceenshot-falcon9-580x281This is certainly not good news for a company who’s proposal for a reusable rocket system promises to cut costs exponentially and make a whole range of things possible. However, the company is extremely close to making this a full-fledged reality. The take-off, descent, and landing have all been done successfully; but at present, recovery still remains elusive.

But such is the nature of space flight. What begins with conceptions, planning, research and development inevitably ends with trial and error. And much like with the Mercury and Apollo program, those involved have to keep on trying until they get it right. Speaking of which, today marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 reaching the Moon. You can keep track of the updates that recreate the mission in “real-time” over @ReliveApollo11.

As of the writing of this article, the Lunar module is beginning it’s descent to the Moon’s surface. Stay tuned for the historic spacewalk!

apollo11_descent

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com

Forty-Fifth Anniversary of Apollo 11

Apollo11_launch1Today, July 20th, marks the 45th anniversary of the first step being taken on the Moon. And even though the coming decades may involve astronauts setting foot on Mars or a nearby asteroid, the Moon landing will forever remain one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. And the many speeches, footage and images associated with the mission remain firmly rooted in public consciousness.

Born during the closing months of the Eisenhower administration as a follow-up to Project Mercury – which successfully put astronauts into orbit – Project Apollo was conceived when spaceflight was still very much in its infancy. However, it was under President Kennedy that the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade truly began.

kennedy_moonspeechAnd though some within NASA were already doing some preliminary planning for a manned mission to the Moon in the late 1950s, there was no hardware that could see the mission fly, no rockets large enough to launch a manned spacecraft all the way to the Moon, and no provisions for managing a program of that magnitude. The men and women who brought the lunar landing to fruition were forced to invent almost everything as they went along.

And in the nine years between President Kennedy promising America the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s small step, NASA developed an unprecedented amount of technology and know-how that continues to shape the way NASA and other space agencies plan and implement missions today. These include the Saturn V multistage rockets, which are currently being refurbished for a manned mission to Mars by 2030.

Apollo_11Launching on from Cape Kennedy on the morning of July 16th, 1969, the mission sent Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit. Then, just two hours and 44 minutes after launch, another engines burn put Apollo 11 into a translunar orbit. Four days later, the Lunar Module touched down and the three men – with Armstrong in the lead – stepped onto the Lunar surface.

And for those looking to participate in the anniversary, there are several ways you can participate. On Twitter, @ReliveApollo11 from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is reliving the highlights from Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in “real time”. Also, @NASAHistory is tweeting images and events from the mission, and journalist Amy Shira Teitel (@astVintageSpace) is tweeting pictures, facts and quotes from the mission, again in “real time”.

apollo11_flag2At 7:39 p.m. PDT (10:39 p.m. EDT), when Armstrong opened began the first spacewalk on the Moon, NASA TV will replay the restored footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic steps on the lunar surface. On Monday, July 21 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) NASA TV will be broadcasting live from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they will be renaming the center’s Operations and Checkout Building in honor of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.

The renaming ceremony will include NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana, Apollo 11′s Collins, Aldrin and astronaut Jim Lovell, who was the mission’s back-up commander. International Space Station NASA astronauts Wiseman and Steve Swanson, who is the current station commander, also will take part in the ceremony from their orbiting laboratory 260 miles above Earth.

Apollo_11_bootprintOn Thursday, July 24 at 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT), which is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s return to Earth, the agency will host a panel discussion – called NASA’s Next Giant Leap – from Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moderated by actor Seth Green, the panel includes Aldrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.

In addition to Aldrin recounting his experiences, Fincke and the other NASA staff are slated to talk about the new Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket – both of which will carry humans on America’s next great adventure in space – and what the future holds for space exploration. These will no doubt include talk of the planned missions to an asteroid, Mars, and quite possibly the construction of a settlement on the Moon.

apollo11_flag1The NASA.gov website will host features, videos, and historic images and audio clips that highlight the Apollo 11 anniversary, as well as the future of human spaceflight. You can find it all by clicking here. And if you don’t have NASA TV on your cable or satellite feeds, you can catch it all online here. Plenty has been happening already, marking the anniversary of the launch and recapturing the mission in “real-time”.

Forty five years later, and Apollo 11 still holds a special place in our collective hears, minds, and culture. One can only hope that the next generation of astronauts prove as equal to the task as those who made the Moon Landing were. And I’m sure that when they do make history, Neil Armstrong (may he rest in peace) will be watching approvingly.

And be sure to check out this video from Spacecraft Films, showing the entire Apollo 11 mission in 100 seconds:


Sources: universetoday.com, motherboard.vice.com, nasa.gov, spacecraftfilms.com

News from Space: First Couple to go to Mars!

marsJane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are a pretty interesting couple. Like most, they plan trips together to new and exciting destinations. But unlike most, they plan to go to Mars, and they just might see their dream come true. Twenty years ago, they founded the private space company Paragon Space Development Corporation, with the aim of finding the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet.

And now, after many years of planning, they may finally get to see it come to fruition. The only problem is, the window for this launch – in 2021 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment – is fast approaching. And a number of technical and logistical issues (i.e. how to shield themselves against deadly radiation, how to store their waste, how much food, water, and air to bring) still need to be resolved.

Inspiration_Mars (2)The mission – called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito – is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings.

But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars. They believe that sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators. Beyond that, and in advance of NASA’s proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, it might just inspire a full-scale colonization effort.

Photograph by John de DiosThe couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome near Tuscon, Arizona called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. For two years (between 1991 and 1993), eight people – including Poynter and MacCallum – lived inside this dome as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments.

This included a jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside. All went relatively smoothly until, 16 months into the experiment, crew members began suffering from severe fatigue and sleep apnea.

Mars_OneThey discovered that the dome’s oxygen content had substantially dropped and, when one member fell into a state of confusion in which he could not add simple numbers, decided to refill the dome with oxygen, breaking the simulation of space-colony self-sufficiency. The project was deemed a failure by many, with Time Magazine going as far as to name it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century.

But the crew persisted for their full two-year trial and, if nothing else, emerged intimately aware of the mental traumas of prolonged isolation—crucial wisdom for anyone seriously considering traveling to another planet. As Poynter described it, the challenges were numerous and varied:

Some of the easier ones to get your head around are things like depression and mood swings—that’s kind of obvious. Weird things are things like food stealing and hoarding.

Mars_simulationThe more severe symptoms were similar to the delusions reported by early 20th century explorers who hallucinated while trekking for months through the featureless white expanse of Antarctica. She describes one instance in which she was standing in the sweet potato field about to harvest greens to feed the Biosphere 2 goats when she suddenly felt as if she had stepped through a time machine:

I came out the other side and was embroiled in a very fervent argument with my much older brother. And what was so disconcerting about it was that it really was hallucinatory. It was like I could smell it, feel it. It was very weird.

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)MacCallum blogged about these plans while still living inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon. After Biosphere 2 project, both began working with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR.

Then in December 2012, Paragon teamed up with another commercial space flight company named Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

near-space_balloon5In short, Poynter and MacCallum have their fingers in just about every commercial space venture currently on the table outside of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, of course. Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today. Their focus is on creative teamwork, hoping to foster the kind of innovative spirit needed to make space missions possible.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to send a human couple to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones is one such person, who said in an interview with WIRED that he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

mars-mission1Originally, Dennis Tito hoped to finance the project entirely independently, using crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy. The original goal was also to get the project off the ground by 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017.

They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support. According to McCallum:

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

During recent hearings with NASA, Tito explained that he would need roughly $1 billion over the next four or five years to develop the space launch system and other aspects of the mission. NASA was not readily willing to agree to this and they put the issue on hold. But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space.

oriontestflightAll of this would be great for NASA, which is beholden to public opinion and still looking to Congress to allocate the money needed to new infrastructure and fund future missions. Ergo, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground. Or as he put it:

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars and did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system – all the things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission.

Poynter_MacCallum_Portrait-330And MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators, much as the Apollo missions inspired the current generation of innovators and astronauts. McCallum turned five on July 20th, 1969 – the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and credits that historic event for inspiring him to take an interest in space and enter the Biosphere 2 project.

And though they hadn’t originally intended to be the couple that would take part in the Inspiration Mars mission, they have indicated that they would be willing to throw their hats into the ring. After all, they meet the basic requirements for the mission, being a physically fit middle-aged couple, and the Biosphere 2 project lent them some experience living in isolation.

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356But most important to the couple is the idea of being able to call back to students on Earth and describe the experience. As he described it, watching footage of the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet’s drift closer would be the most amazing thing ever for a child to behold:

That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler. And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

Of that, I have little doubt. And even if Inspiration Mars does not get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), it has hardly the only private space venture currently in the works. For example, Elon Musk and his commercial space firm SpaceX has made incredibly progress with the development of the reusable-rocket system. And Mars One, another crowdfunded venture, is still in the works and aiming to send volunteers on a one-way trip by 2024.

No telling how and when the first human beings will walk on the Red Planet. But at this juncture, it seems like a foregone conclusion that not only will it be happening, but within our lifetimes. And while we’re waiting, be sure to check out the Inspiration Mars video below. I can attest to it being quite… inspiring 😉


Source:
wired.com
, paragonsdc.com, inspirationmars.org

News From Space: Space Planes and Space Colonies

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesThe year of 2013 closed with many interesting stories about the coming age of space exploration. And they came from many fronts, including the frontiers of exploration (Mars and the outer Solar System) as well as right here at home, on the conceptual front. In the case of the latter, it seems that strides made in the field are leading to big plans for sending humans into orbit, and into deep space.

The first bit of news comes from Reaction Engines Limited, where it seems that the Skylon space plane is beginning to move from the conceptual stage to a reality. For some time now, the British company has been talked about, thanks to their plans to create a reusable aerospace jet that would be powered by a series of hypersonic engines.

Skylon_diagramAnd after years of research and development, the hypersonic Sabre Engine passed a critical heat tolerance and cooling test. Because of this, Reaction Engines Limited won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency. Far from being a simple milestone, this test may prove to be historic. Or as Skymania‘s Paul Sutherland noted, it’s “the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.”

Now that Reaction Engines has proven that they can do this, the company will be looking for £250 million (approx $410 million) of investment for the next step in development. This will include the development of the LapCat, a hypersonic jet that will carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours; and the Skylon, which will carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.

sabre-engine-17Speaking at the press conference after the test in late November, ESA’s Mark Ford had this to say:

ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development. One of the major obstacles to a reusable vehicle has been removed. The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.

The Sabre engine is the crucial piece in the reusable space plane puzzle, hence why this test was so crucial. Once built and operational, Skylon will take off and land like a conventional plane, but still achieve orbit by mixing air-breathing jets for takeoff, and landing with rockets fueled by onboard oxygen once it gets past a certain speed.

Skylon-space-plane-obtains-breakthrough-new-engines-2The recent breakthrough had to do to the development of a heat exchanger that’s able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. It’s this critical technology that will allow the Sabre engine to surpass the bounds of a traditional jet engine, by as much as twofold.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, had this to say about his brainchild:

These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.

And of course, there’s a video of the engine in action. Check it out:


Second, and perhaps in response to these and other developments, the British Interplanetary Society is resurrecting a forty year old idea. This society, which came up with the idea to send a multi-stage rocket and a manned lander to the moon in the 1930’s (eerily reminiscent of the Apollo 11 mission some 30 years later) is now reconsidering plans for giant habitats in space.

o'neil_cylinderTo make the plan affordable and feasible, they are turning to a plan devised by Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970s. Commonly known as the O’Neill Cylinder, the plan calls for space-based human habitats consisting of giant rotating spaceships containing landscaped biospheres that can house up to 10 million people. The cylinder would rotate to provide gravity and – combined with the interior ecology – would simulate a real-world environment.

Jerry Stone of BIS’s SPACE (Study Project Advancing Colony Engineering) is trying to show that building a very large space colony is technically feasible. Part of what makes the plan work is the fact that O’Neill deliberately designed the structure using existing 1970s technology, materials and construction techniques, rather than adopting futuristic inventions.

Rama16wikiStone is bringing these plans up to date using today’s technologies. Rather than building the shell from aluminium, for example, Stone argues tougher and lighter carbon composites could be used instead. Advances in solar cell and climate control technologies could also be used to make life easier and more comfortable in human space colonies.

One of the biggest theoretical challenges O’Neill faced in his own time was the effort and cost of construction. That, says Stone, will be solved when a new generation of much cheaper rocket launchers and spaceplanes has been developed (such as the UK-built Skylon). Using robot builders could also help, and other futuristic construction techniques like 3-D printing robots and even nanomachines and bacteria could be used.

RAMAAnd as Stone said, much of the materials could be outsourced, taking advantage of the fact that this would be a truly space-aged construction project:

Ninety per cent of the material to build the colonies would come from the Moon. We know from Apollo there’s silicon for the windows, and aluminium, iron and magnesium for the main structure. There’s even oxygen in the lunar soil.

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the series Babylon 5 or the movie Elysium out to instantly recognize this concept. In addition to being a very real scientific concept, it has also informed a great deal of science fiction and speculation. For some time, writers and futurists have been dreaming of a day when humanity might live in space habitats that can simulate terrestrial life.

Elysium_conceptWell, that day might be coming sooner than expected. And, as O’Neill and his contemporaries theorized at the time, it may be a viable solution to the possibility of humanity’s extinction. Granted, we aren’t exactly living in fear of nuclear holocaust anymore, but ecological collapse is still a threat! And with the Earth’s population set to reach 12 billion by the 22nd century, it might be an elegant solution to getting some of those people offworld.

It’s always an exciting thing when hopes and aspirations begin to become feasible. And though aerospace transit is likely to be coming a lot sooner than O’Neill habitats in orbit, the two are likely to compliment each other. After all, jet planes that can reach orbit, affordably and efficiently, is the first step in making offworld living a reality!

Until next time, keep your eyes to the skies. Chances are, people will be looking back someday soon…

Sources: IO9, skymania, (2)bbc.com

News from Space: Chang’e-3’s Landing and 1st Panorama

Change-3-landing-site_1_ken-kremer-580x344China accomplished a rather major technological and scientific feat recently with the recent soft landing of its Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft on Dec.14th. This was the nation’s first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and firmly established them as a competitor in the ongoing space race. What’s more, the event has been followed by a slew of fascinating and intriguing pictures.

The first were taken by the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander, which began furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided landing. The Chinese space agency then combined the photos to create a lovely compilation video, with the point of view rotated 180 degrees, to recreate what the descent looked like.

Change-3_lunar_landing_site-580x470The dramatic soft landing took place at 8:11 am EST (9:11 p.m Beijing local time) with the lander arriving at Mare Imbrium (Latin for “Sea of Rains”) – one of the larger craters in the Solar System that is between 3 and 4.5 billion years old. The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W – located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge.

The video begins by showing the Chang’e-3 lander approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge. At an altitude of 15 km (9 miles), the Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

chang'e3_landingThe vehicles thrusters then fired to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it was at an altitude of roughly 3 km (1.8 miles). The powered descent was autonomous, preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing. Altogether, it took about 12 minutes to bring the lander onto the surface.

Roughly 7 hours later, on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ (or Jade Rabbit) rolled down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil. The six wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt. This too was captured by the lander’s camera and broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

chang'e3_egressThe next bundle of footage came from the rover itself, as the Jade Rabbit took in its inaugural photographs of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. The photos were released by Chinese state TV on Dec. 15th, not long after the rover disembarked from the lander, and were then pieced together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface.

Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer – an amateur photo-astronomer and a science journalist who have composed panoramas from the Curiosity mission in the past – also composed the images together to create a series of mosaics. A sample of the 1st panorama is pictured below, with the Yutu rover in the center and tire tracks off to the left.. Click here to the see the full-size image.

Change-3-1st-Pano_1b_Ken-Kremer--580x203The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander and captured the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft. The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.

Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, has this say about the images in a recent CCTV interview:

This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view

chang'e3_portraitThe 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another. The first is visible above, showing the Jade Rabbit rover (in better resolution), with the image of the Chang’e 3 lander below. Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer of the Chang’E-3 Ground System, was also interviewed by CCTV, and had this to about that part of the mission:

The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.

These are just the first of what is expected to be a torrent of pictures produced by the rover, which according to Chinese officials, will spend the next year conducting in-situ exploration at the landing site. Beyond that, the rover will use its instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by future missions.

chang'e3_lander_portIn addition to accomplishing a great scientific feat, China has now joined a very exclusive club, being only one of three nations that has successfully conducted a soft landing on the Moon. The United States was the first, reaching the Moon with its Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. The Soviet Union followed less than a decade later, having reached the Moon with its unmanned Lunik 24 spacecraft in 1976.

And now, almost forty years later, the space race is joined by one of the world’s emerging super powers. Soon, we can expect the European Space Agency, India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran to be reaching the Moon as well. And by that time, its likely the spaceships will be carrying colonists. Hopefully we’ll have some infrastructure set up to receive them!

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Chang’e 3 descent video, and stay tuned for more updates from the Jade Rabbit and it begins its exploration of the Lunar surface.


Source:
universetoday.com, (2)