The Future of Space: Smart, Stretchy, Skintight Spacesuits

biosuitSpacesuits have come a long way from their humble origins in the 1960s. But despite decades worth of innovation, the basic design remains the same – large, bulky, and limiting to the wearer’s range of movement. Hence why a number of researchers and scientists are looking to create suits that are snugger, more flexible, and more ergonomic. One such group hails from MIT, with a skin-tight design that’s sure to revolutionize the concept of spacesuits.

The team is led by Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who previewed her Biosuit – playfully described by some as a “spidersuit” – at the TEDWomen event, held in San Fransisco in December of 2013. Referred to as a “second skin” suit, the design incorporates flexible, lightweight material that is lined with “tiny, muscle-like coils.”

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuitSpeaking of the challenges of spacesuit design, and her team’s new concept for one, Dava Newman had the following to say in an interview with MIT news:

With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.

Granted, Newman’s design is the first form-fitting spacesuit concept to see the light of day. Back in the 1960’s, NASA began experimenting with a suit that was modeled on human skin, the result of which was the Space Activity Suit (SAS). Instead of an air-filled envelope, the SAS used a skin-tight rubber leotard that clung to astronaut like spandex, pressing in to protect the wearer from the vacuum of space by means of counter pressure.

SAS_spacesuitFor breathing, the suit had an inflatable bladder on the chest and the astronaut wore a simple helmet with an airtight ring seal to keep in pressure. This setup made for a much lighter, more flexible suit that was mechanically far simpler because the breathing system and a porous skin that removed the need for complex cooling systems. The snag with the SAS was that materials in the days of Apollo were much too primitive to make the design practical.

Little progress was made until Dava Newman and her team from MIT combined modern fabrics, computer modelling, and engineering techniques to produce the Biosuit. Though a far more practical counter-pressure suit than its predecessor, it was still plagued by one major drawback – the skintight apparatus was very difficult to put on. Solutions were proposed, such as a machine that would weave a new suit about the wearer when needed, but these were deemed impractical.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-0The new approach incorporates coils formed out of tightly packed, small-diameter springs made of a shape-memory alloy (SMA) into the suit fabric. Memory alloys are metals that can be bent or deformed, but when heated, return to their original shape. In this case, the nickel-titanium coils are formed into a tourniquet-like cuff that incorporates a length of heating wire. When a current is applied, the coil cinches up to provide the proper counter pressure needed for the Biosuit to work.

Bradley Holschuh, a post-doctorate in Newman’s lab, originally came up with the idea of a coil design. In the past, the big hurdle to second-skin spacesuits was how to get astronauts to squeeze in and out of the pressured, skintight suit. Holschuh’s breakthrough was to deploy shape-memory alloy as a technological end-around. To train the alloy, Holschuh wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight coils and heated them to 450º C (842º F) to fashion an original or “trained” shape.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-3 When the coil cooled to room temperature, it could be stretched out, but when heated to 60º C (140º F), it shrank back into its original shape in what the MIT team compared to a self-closing buckle. As spokespersons from MIT explained:

The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.

In order to maintain it without continually heating the coils, however, the team needs to come up with some sort of a catch that will lock the coils in place rather than relying on a continuous supply of electricity and needlessly heating up the suit – yet it will still have to be easy to unfasten. Once Newman and her team find a solution to this problem, their suit could find other applications here on Earth.

Image converted using ifftoanyAs Holschuh explained, the applications for this technology go beyond the spacesuit, with applications ranging from the militarized to the medical. But for the moment, the intended purpose is keeping astronauts safe and comfortable:

You could [also] use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield. If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it… An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance. We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.

Considering the ambitious plans NASA and other government and private space agencies have for the near-future – exploring Mars, mining asteroids, building a settlement on the Moon, etc. – a next-generation spacesuit would certainly come in handy. With new launch systems and space capsules being introduced for just this purpose, it only makes sense that the most basic pieces of equipment get a refit as well.

And be sure to check out this video of Dava Newman showing her Biosuit at the TEDWomen conference last year:


Sources:
gizmag.com, motherboard.vice.com
, newsoffice.mit.edu

News from Space: Space Elevator by 2035!

space_elevator2Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.

The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.

space_elevatorThe central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.

This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.

terraforming-mars2The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.

Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.

carbon-nanotubeThe proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.

To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.

Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp
Space Elevator by gryphart-d42c7sp

One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.

By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.

space_elevator1In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.

Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.

Source: extremetech.com

News From Space: 12 Asteroids to Mine

asteroidsLast year, the private space exploration company Planetary Resources announced that they intended to being prospecting and mining asteroids in the near future. And while they are certainly not alone in their intention to make this happen (Deep Space Industries has the same intention), many have asked if humanity is ready to begin extracting resources from the Asteroid Belt, at least as far as our level of technology is concerned.

In response, a group of astronomers at the University of Strathclyde in the UK did their own study and concluded that it is indeed possible with current rocket technology. What’s more, they conducted a survey of the Asteroid Belt and identified 12 near-Earth asteroids that could be easily retrieved and mined, and which are believed to contain high concentrations of precious and industrial metals.

asteroid_mining_robotAlready, it has been estimated that an asteroid as small as one-kilometer in diameter could contain upwards of two billion tons of iron-nickel ore, which is three times the global yield on Earth. Then there is the likely presence of gold, platinum, and other rare substances. Planetary Resources claims a 30-meter object of the right composition could contain $25 to $50 billion in platinum.

These numbers spurred the University of Strathclyde team, led by Garcia Yarnoz, to pour over the astronomical data on near-Earth objects to see if any of them could actually be snared. To their surprise, they found 12 small asteroids that pass close enough to Earth that they could be corralled into the L1 or L2 Lagrangian points for mining operations. The researchers dubbed these asteroids Easily Retrievable Objects (EROs).

NASA_moonLagrange points refer to points where the gravity of Earth an another celestial object balance out. If anything enters one of these areas, it stays put, which is precisely what you want to do if you are looking to study it, mine it, or just keep it where its accessible. The L1 and L2 Lagrangian points are where the gravity of Earth and the sun are at a draw, roughly 1.6 million km (1 million miles) from Earth and about four times the distance to the moon.

The 12 candidate asteroids all have orbits that take them near the L1 or L2 Lagrangian points, so they would need only a small push to get them to the right spot. Yarnoz and his team estimate that changing the velocity of these objects by less than 500 meters per second would be sufficient, and this could be completed as early as 2026.

asteroid_DA14One of the important criteria in selected 12 mineable asteroids from the database of 9,000 near-Earth objects was size. Nudging a larger asteroid safely to a Lagrange point is simply not feasible with the current state of technology. In fact, most of the EROs that were identified in the study range between two to 20 meters, but that’s still large enough to contain substantial resources.

These 12 objects are probably a small fraction of EROs floating around near Earth. We know where many more of the big space rocks are because they’re much easier to see, but there might be a wealth of resource-rich small asteroids near the Lagrangian points ripe for the picking. And with time, and more orbital telescopes to spot them with, we can expect the list of mineable asteroids to grow.

Source: extremetech.com

NASA’s Vision: Robots to Help Mine Asteroids

asteroid_mining_robotIn a recent study, NASA shared a vision that sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Basically, the plan calls for the creation of robots that could be sent to a nearby asteroid, assemble itself, and then begin mining the asteroid itself. The scientists behind this study say that not only will this be possible within a few generations of robotics, but will also pay for itself – a major concern when it comes to space travel.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, according to the researchers. One, private industry is willing and able to get involved, as attested to by Golden Spike, SpaceX and Planetary Resources. Second, advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible, which can be seen with plans to manufacture a Moon base and “sintering”.

asteroidsBut also, humanity’s surveys of space resources – namely those located in the asteroid belt – have revealed that the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery are there in abundance. NASA proposes that a robotic flotilla could mine these nearby space rocks, process the goods, and then ship them back to Earth.

Best of all, the pods being sent out would save on weight (and hence costs) by procuring all the resources and constructing the robots there. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks. As the agency stated in their research report:

Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost…

asteroid_belt1Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study, went on to explain how the process is multi-tiered and would encompass several generations of progress:

Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters… The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

asteroid_foundryAt least two startups are likely to be on board with this optimistic appraisal. For example, Deep Space Industries and Planetary, both commercial space companies, have proposed asteroid mining ideas within the past year. And since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope, in part for surveying work and the sake of prospecting asteroids.

And this latest research report just takes thing a step farther. In addition to setting up autonomous 3D manufacturing operations on asteroids, these operations would be capable of setting themselves up and potentially upgrading themselves as time went on. And in the meantime, we could look forward to a growing and increasingly complex supply of manufactured products here on Earth.

Source: universetoday.com

The Arkyd 100: Crowdfunding Space Exploraiton

ARKYD-in-SpacePlanetary Resources made quite the impression last year when they announced their plans to begin prospecting near-Earth asteroids with in the intention of mining them in the near future. Alongside such companies as SpaceX and Golden Spike, they are part of a constellations of private interests looking to establish commercial space travel and tourism. But their latest proposal goes a step further, bringing crowdfunding and the realm of space exploration together.

That’s the idea behind a Kickstarter campaign that the company began to raise money for a crowdfunded space telescope. Known as the Arkyd 100, the company claims that this new telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

asteroid_miningTo make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Once the telescope is up and running, it will allow them to better map the asteroid belt, thus assisting them in finding the rocks they want to mine for precious metals and trace elements. And with public financial backers making it happen, anyone pledging money will be able to own a piece of the prospector!

During a webcast on May 28th to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, gave a rundown on the details of the telescope. And interestingly enough, the Planetary Resources’ technical team that designed it also worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover. So if you do choose to invest, you will do so with the knowledge that the same people who helped build the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are behind this project. If that doesn’t inspire investor confidence, I don’t know what will!

ARKYD-Space-SelfieA wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope. And those who invest will have the chance of recouping certain rewards, depending on how much they choose to pledge. Those pledging the minimum donation of $25 will receive the “Your Face in Space” benefit, where you will have you picture placed on the Arkyd and receive a picture of said photo the telescope with Earth in the background. Higher pledges will provide access to the telescope for students and researchers worldwide.

After less than 2 hours into their campaign, Planetary Resources had raised over $100,000. And as of this article’s writing, just one day shy of a week, the campaign has reached $710,945 of their $1 million goal, and they still have 27 days left. I guess people want a piece of this project. And who can blame them, since it is a scientific and historic first!

Check out the promotional video for the Arkyd and Planetary Resources below. To make a donation or get information about the Kickstarter campaign, visit the campaign page here.


Source:
universetoday.com

Preventing the Apocalypse: NASA’s Asteroid Lasso Mission

asteroid_lasso

Shortly after that large meteor hit Russia, President Obama and NASA administrator Charles Bolden both announced that work would begin on a series of asteroid tracking technologies that would ensure that more severe Earth collisions would be prevented. Earlier this month, Bolden spoke at the Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. and said that a robotic spacecraft mission is currently being planned with this goal in mind.

The plan calls to mind such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact, but differs in that it involves lassoing an asteroid instead of detonating a small nuke inside it. The ultimate goal here is to tow an asteroid out of the path of Earth, but then to deposit it in orbit so that it can be visited by astronauts. These astronauts will then collect samples and conduct research that could one day assist in a mission to Mars or save Earth from a catastrophic collision.

Asteroid-Toutatis

This is in keeping with the Obama administrations’ pledge of putting a man on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars by 2030. It’s also in the same vein as NASA’s plan to catch and deposit an asteroid around the Moon, an idea that was proposed back in January of this year as part of the agencies plan to establish an outpost at Lagrange Point 2 early in the next decade.

And even though NASA has expressed that the massive 22 million ton asteroid Apophis will not impact planet Earth in 2036, it didn’t rule out that other, smaller rocks could possibly reach us in that time. Capturing them and towing them to where they could be safely deposited in orbit would present many opportunities, not the least of which could be commercial.

asteroid_foundry

For example, asteroid prospecting is slated to begin in 2015, with companies like SpaceX and Deep Space Industries leading the charge. Once property rights are assigned to various celestial bodies, these and other companies hope to send missions out to mine them and establish automated 3D manufacturing facilities, places that use “sintering” to process ore into metal and other materials that can then be shipped back.

NASA’s science mission directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld also spoke about the importance of the lasso mission at the Human to Mars Summit on Monday. Above all else, he emphasized the importance of using the knowledge and skills gained from the research to achieve the long-term goal of survival:

We have a pretty good theory that single-planet species don’t survive. We don’t want to test it, but we have some evidence of that happening 65 million years ago [when an asteroid killed much of Earth’s life]. That will happen again someday … we want to have the capability [to leave the planet] in case of the threat of large scale destruction on Earth.

Yeah, its a rocky universe. And if we intend to survive in it, we had best learn how to deflect, capture and destroy any that come our way and get too close. And of course, we need to learn how to harness their endless supply of minerals and trace elements.

asteroid_belt1Source: news.cnet.com

Asteriod Prospecting by 2015

asteroid_beltDeep Space Industries, a private aerospace company, has been making a big splash in the news lately. Alongside SpaceX, they have been pioneering a new age in space exploration, where costs are reduced and private companies are picking up the slack. And in their latest bid to claim a share of space, the company announced plans late in January to begin asteroid prospecting operations by 2015.

For some time, the concept of sending spaceships to mine asteroids and haul ore has been explored as a serious option. Within the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, countless tons of precious metals, carbon, silicates, and basaltic minerals. If humanity could tap a fraction of a fraction of that mineral wealth, it would be able to supply Earth’s manufacturing needs indefinitely, without all the harmful pollutants or run off caused by mining.

asteroid_miningSo to tap this potential goldmine (literally!) known as the Asteroid Belt, DSI plans to launch a fleet of mini spacecraft into solar orbit to identify potential targets near to Earth that would be suitable to mine. Lacking the resources of some of the bigger players in the space rush, DSI’s probes will ride-share on the launch of larger communications satellites and get a discounted delivery to space.

Initially, a group of 25kg (55 pounds) cubesats with the awesome designation “Firefly” will be launched on a journey lasting from two to six months in 2015. Then, in 2016, the 32 kilograms (70 pound) DragonFly spacecraft will begin their two-to-four-year expeditions and return with up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of bounty each. Beyond this, DSI has some truly ambitious plans to establish a foundry amongst the asteroids.

asteroid_foundryThat’s another thing about the Belt. Not only is it an incredibly rich source of minerals, its asteroids would make an ideal place for relocating much of Earth’s heavy industry. Automated facilities, anchored to the surface and processing metals and other materials on site would also reduce the burden on Earth’s environment. Not only would there be no air to befoul with emissions, but the processes used would generate no harmful pollutants.

In DSI’s plan, the foundry would use a patent-pending nickel gas process developed by one of DSI’s co-founders, Stephen Covey, known as “sintering”. This is the same process that is being considered by NASA to build a Moon Base in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole. Relying on this same technology, automated foundries could turn ore into finished products with little more than microwave radiation and a 3D printer, which could then be shipped back to Earth.

deepspaceindustries-640x353Naturally, DSI will have plenty of competition down the road. The biggest comes from Google-backed Planetary Resources which staked it claim to an asteroid last April. Much like DSI, they hope to be able to mine everything from water to fuel as well as minerals and rare earths. And of course, SpaceX, which has the most impressive track record thus far, is likely to be looking to the Asteroid Belt before long.

And Golden Spike, the company that is promising commercial flight to the Moon by 2020 is sure to not be left behind. And as for Virgin Galactic, well… Richard Branson didn’t get crazy, stinking rich by letting opportunities pass him by. And given the size and scope of the Belt itself, there’s likely to be no shortage of companies trying to stake a claim, and more than enough for everyone.

So get on board ye capitalist prospectors! A new frontier awaits beyond the rim of Mars…

Source: Extremetech.com

The Future is Here: Asteroid Mining!

The concept is not entirely new. In fact, it’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Moving mining operations, refineries and even heavy industry to the Asteroid Belt as a way of reducing environmental stress and taking advantage of the sheer abundance of natural resources there. It was the concept behind Ben Bova’s The Asteroid Wars trilogy, and was even mentioned as early as 1898 in Garrett P. Serviss’ story Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

But as they say, science fiction leads to science fact. And when it comes to mining the asteroid belt, it seems some wealthy financiers and visionaries are hoping to get in on the ground floor. The company’s name is Planetary Resources, and its backers include James Cameron (of Aliens and Terminator fame) and Google founder Larry Page. Between these three forces, the idea and development capital are being made to being the commercial exploitation of our system’s many, many rocks.

The plan call for the development of viable space craft which will be able to fly out to the Belt, harvest materials, and then return. However, the long term projections involve the creation of mining colonies, heavily automated facilities that will be capable of taking in harvested rocks and ore and convert them to useable materials before they are ever brought back to Earth. After all, while every asteroid is a potential goldmine (literally!), the goal here is to eventually move the majority of the smelting and other potentially harmful operations off of Earth, into space and into orbit.

Click on the link below to read the full article and video below to learn the full extent of the company’s plans. Who knows? If the prospect looks good, maybe Cameron will want to buy the rights to Bova’s series and start making a series of promotional movies 😉

CBC News – Planetary Resources Inc.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/04/23/space-mining.html