News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


Source:
gizmag.com, exploremars.org, indiegogo.com

The Future is Here: Wind Drones and Clean Buildings

wind_powerIt’s no secret that wind power is one of main clean forms of energy that is being considered as a viable alternative to coal, oil and gas. But much like solar, tidal and geothermal, the method has some flaws that is preventing it from being adopted in a more widespread fashion. However, as an infinitely renewable source of energy, it likely just a matter of time before technical developments lead to its wholesale use.

The first challenge has to do with size. Currently, wind farms are massive operations, and many designers think they need to continue to get bigger in order to generate the kinds of electricity we currently need. However, a Netherlands-based startup named Ampyx Power is looking in another direction: an airborne wind turbine that they think could capture the same amount of energy as a large operation.

ampyx-power-powerplane-6-topview-1Basically, their design is a small glider plane attached by cable to a generator, which is then deployed into the air and flies in figure eights. As it moves, the glider pulls on the capable, and the generator converts the movement to electricity. Since it isn’t attached to a tower, it can soar nearly 2,000 feet in the air, catching stronger winds that produce about eight times more energy than the lower-altitude breezes that reach a normal wind turbine.

So in addition to being able to produce more power than a typical wind farm, it costs significantly less than its competitor. The average wind farm weighs about 120 metric tons, while the glider system weighs in at a mere 363 kilograms (800 pounds). And in addition to being cheaper than other renewables, the process may even be cheaper than coal.

wind-power-660As Wolbert Allaart, the startup’s managing director, put it:

We’re replacing tons of steel and concrete. It’s a huge materials reduction, and we can produce the same amount of power. That obviously has an effect on cost as well… The whole reason why we’re doing this is because we think we can get the cost of a kilowatt-hour well below the price of coal.

And Ampyx is hardly alone in developing the technology. In fact, their design is similar to California-based Makani Power’s glider. This company was acquired by Google earlier this year, while Ampyx raised the necessary capital via a crowdfunding campaign. And though there are some differences in the design and methods employed, both companies dream of a day when wind will replace coal and other dirty means.

ampyx-power1Because the planes are so efficient, places that might not have worked for wind power in the past – like forests, where trees catch and redirect the wind – could be a fit for the system, so the market is wide open. And given his country’s growing interest in wind power, Allaart hopes to introduce it to the domestic market very soon:

In Holland, where we’re based, we now have a 4.3 billion Euro subsidy scheme for offshore wind. People are starting to wonder already, if we have a technology being developed in our own country that could provide offshore wind at more or less competitive price with coal, why on Earth are we still subsidizing this so heavily? How fast this grows will depend on political will.

pertamina-energy-tower4site-aerialsomAnother very cool wind-related story comes from Jakarta, where a massive tower is being planned that will be capable of generating all its own power. It’s known as the Pertamina Energy Tower, the proposed headquarters of the Pertamina power company. And while the proposed building will be 99 stories in height, it will also gather all its power from wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

When it comes to its wind operations, the building’s height plays to its advantage. At the top of the building, a funnel captures wind, sucks it inside, and speeds it up to run a series of vertical wind turbines. In this respect, the building operates like a giant, vertical wind tunnel. Solar energy will also be incorporated through panels that will cover the roofs of other buildings on the new campus.

pertamina-energy-tower2energy-ribbonsomBut perhaps the most impressive feat comes in the form of geothermal, a type of energy that’s uniquely suited for Indonesia because it’s a volcanic island chain. Geothermal systems in Indonesia can tap directly into superheated sources of subterranean steam with a single pipe, unlike typical systems that are more complicated and expensive to engineer.

Scott Duncan, the director of Pertamina’s architecture firm – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) – who led the project, describes it this way:

It would essentially provide an unlimited energy source for the tower and campus and could make the tower the world’s first energy-positive supertall building.

pertamina-energy-tower6In addition to meeting this clean-energy trifecta, the design of the tower is focused on saving energy as much generating it. Sun-shading “leaves” on two sides of the building cut glare and shade the brightest sunlight while still keeping the inside of the offices bright enough to avoid most artificial lighting. Instead of power-sucking air conditioners, the building uses water-based radiant cooling systems to keep the temperatures even.

Along with other strategies, the energy-saving design elements mean that the campus – which will include a mosque, a performing arts and exhibition center, and sports facilities along with the office space – can keep energy use low enough that renewable power may be able to cover its entire energy needs. In short, the building could prove to be a model of energy-independence.

pertamina-energy-tower5However, the motivation for this project go beyond the altruistic, and involve a good many practical considerations. For starters, Jakarta still has an unreliable power grid, and if the campus generates its own power, work and play won’t get interrupted. The buildings also won’t have to rely on diesel fuel generators if the city’s power goes down.

The technology is expected to be adopted elsewhere, particularly China where wind power is expanding all the time. Indonesia, despite its easy access to geothermal energy, is not the windiest place in the world. Cities that are strategically located along coastlines or in elevated regions would find the wind tunnel feature that much more useful, reducing their dependence on the other two forms of energy.

shanghai_towerWhat’s more, this building is in many respects what one would call an Arcology, and just happens to be the second one being planned for construction in the world today. The other, un-coincidentally enough, is China’s Shanghai Tower, a building that is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature.

And with global energy prices increasing, the sources of easily-accessible oil disappearing, and atmospheric CO2 levels steadily rising, we can expect to see more buildings like these ones going up all around the world. We’re also likely to see more creative and innovative forms of power generation popping up in our backyards. Much like peak oil, centralized grids and dependence on unclean energy is disappearing…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Ampyx Power glider in action:


Sources:
fastcoexist, (2)