News from Space: Time Capsule to Mars

Time_capsule_to_mars1The selfie is an apparent obsession amongst today’s youth, snapping pictures of themselves and posting them to social media. But for just 99 cents, people can send a picture of themselves to the Red Planet as part of the Time Capsule to Mars (TC2M) – a student-led, crowdfunded project that aims to send three CubeSat microsatellites to the planet containing digital messages from tens of millions of people from all around around the world.

The objective of the TC2M – a project of Explore Mars – mission is to inspire people throughout the globe and allow them a personal connection with space exploration in the same spirit of the Apollo missions. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.

Mars_exploreWith the help and support of NASA, MIT, Stanford University and Deep Space Industries (among others), the student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.

In terms of sending media content, people currently have the option of uploading only images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months, TC2M claims that participants will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.

Time_capsule_to_mars2Emily Briere, a mechanical engineering student who is heading the project, explained their aim thusly:

We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission. The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success.

The data will be carried by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested. The data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is extremely dense and could last for millions of years, hence making it ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thrusterThe technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system. But the most interesting technology of all will be in the form of its engines.

The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS), a microthruster developed at MIT that is essentially size of a penny (pictured above). Each spacecraft will be powered by 40 thruster pairs, which will generate thrust using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The ionic liquid propellant is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe a scaled-up version may one day bring humans to Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thruster1The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.

The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserved uncorrupted on the surface of the planet for a long, long time. As for how they intend to keep it stored until the day that manned missions can retrieve it, there are a few options on the table.

Time_capsule_to_marsOne option that is being considered is to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point – meaning it won’t disintegrate upon entry – and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.

A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored in a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. And as it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars3The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017. You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website. And for those interested in possibly contributing, stay tuned to find out how and where you can donate once the crowdfunding campaign is up and running.

So in addition to showcasing new spacecraft, new media technologies, this project is also an attempt to stimulate interest in the new age of space exploration – an age characterized by public access and involvement. It’s also an opportunity to make your mark on the Red Planet, a mark which will someday (if all goes to plan) be uncovered by a new generation of explorers and settlers.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals:


Sources:
gizmag.com, timecapsuletomars.com, web.mit.edu

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

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

Powered by the Sun: The Future of Solar Energy

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Researchers continue to work steadily to make the dream of abundant solar energy a reality. And in recent years, a number of ideas and projects have begun to bear fruit. Earlier this year, their was the announcement of a new kind of “peel and stick” solar panel which was quite impressive. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Since that time, I have come across four very interesting stories that talk about the future of solar power, and I feel the need to share them all! But, not wanting to fill your page with a massive post, I’ve decided to break them down and do a week long segment dedicated to emerging solar technology and its wicked-cool applications. So welcome to the first installment of Powered By The Sun!

spaceX_solararrayThe first story comes to us by way of SpaceX, Deep Space Industries, and other commercial space agencies that are looking to make space-based solar power (SBSP) a reality. For those not familiar with the concept, this involves placing a solar farm in orbit that would then harvest energy from the sun and then beam the resulting electricity back to Earth using microwave- or laser-based wireless power transmission.

Originally described by Isaac Asimov in his short story “Reason”, the concept of an actual space-based solar array was first adopted by NASA in 1974. Since that time, they have been investigating the concept alongside the US Department of Energy as a solution to the problem of meeting Earth’s energy demands, and the cost of establishing a reliable network of arrays here on Earth.

Constructing large arrays on the surface is a prohibitively expensive and inefficient way of gathering power, due largely to weather patterns, seasons, and the day-night cycle which would interfere with reliable solar collection. What’s more, the sunniest parts of the world are quite far from the major centers of demand – i.e. Western Europe, North America, India and East Asia – and at the present time, transmitting energy over that long a distance is virtually impossible.

NASA "Suntower" concept
NASA “Suntower” concept

Compared to that, an orbiting installation like the SBSP would have numerous advantages. Orbiting outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be able to receive about 30% more power from the Sun, would be operational for almost 24 hours per day, and if placed directly above the equator, it wouldn’t be affected by the seasons either. But the biggest benefit of all would be the ability to beam the power directly to whoever needed it.

But of course, cost remains an issue, which is the only reason why NASA hasn’t undertaken to do this already. Over the years, many concepts have been considered over at NASA and other space agencies. But due to the high cost of putting anything in orbit, moving up all the materials required to build a large scale installation was simply not cost effective.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424However, that is all set to change. Companies like SpaceX, who have already taken part in commercial space flight (such as the first commercial resupply to the ISS in May of 2012, picture above) are working on finding ways to lower the cost of putting materials and supplies into orbit. Currently, it costs about $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). But SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to bring the price down to $500 per pound, at which point, things become much more feasible.

And when that happens, there will be no shortage of clients looking to put an SBSP array into orbit. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the Japanese government announced plans to launch a two-kilometer-wide 1-gigawatt SBSP plant into space. The Russian Space Agency already has a a working 100-kilowatt SBSP prototype, but has not yet announced a launch date. And China, the Earth’s fastest-growing consumer of electricity, plans to put a 100kW SBSP into Low-Earth Orbit by 2025.

space-based-solarpowerMost notably, however, is John Mankins, the CTO of Deep Space Industries and a 25-year NASA vet, who has produced an updated report on the viability of SBSP. His conclusion, in short, is that it should be possible to build a small-scale, pilot solar farm dubbed SPS-ALPHA for $5 billion and a large-scale, multi-kilometer wide power plant for $20 billion. NASA’s funding for SPS-ALPHA dried up last year, but presumably Mankins’ work continues at Deep Space Industries.

Cost and the long-term hazards of having an array in space remain, but considering its long-term importance and the shot in the arm space exploration has received in recent years – i.e. the Curiosity Rover, the proposed L2 Moon outpost, manned missions to Mars by 2030 – we could be looking at the full-scale construction of orbital power plants sometime early in the next decade.

And it won’t be a moment too soon! Considering Earth’s growing population, its escalating impact on the surface, the limits of many proposed alternative fuels, and the fact that we are nowhere near to resolving the problem of Climate Change, space-based solar power may be just what the doctor ordered!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment in the Powered By The Sun series!

Source: Extremetech.com