The Future of Space: A Space Elevator by 2050?

space_elevatorIn the ongoing effort to ensure humanity has a future offworld, it seems that another major company has thrown its hat into the ring. This time, its the Japanese construction giant Obayashi that’s declared its interest in building a Space Elevator, a feat which it plans to have it up and running by the year 2050. If successful, it would make space travel easier and more accessible, and revolutionize the world economy.

This is just the latest proposal to build an elevator in the coming decades, using both existing and emerging technology. Obayashi’s plan calls for a tether that will reach 96,000 kilometers into space, with robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors that will carry people and cargo to a newly-built space station. The estimated travel time will take 7 days, and will cost a fraction of what it currently takes to bring people to the ISS using rockets.

space_elevator_liftThe company said the fantasy can now become a reality because of the development of carbon nanotechnology. As Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explained:

The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it’s possible. Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more… we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.

Once considered the realm of science fiction, the concept is fast becoming a possibility. A major international study in 2012 concluded the space elevator was feasible, but best achieved with international co-operation. Since that time, Universities all over Japan have been working on the engineering problems, and every year they hold competitions to share their suggestions and learn from each other.

space_elevator3Experts have claimed the space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets which are hugely expensive and dangerous. Compared to space shuttles, which cost about $22,000 per kilogram to take cargo into space, the Space Elevator can do it for around $200. It’s also believed that having one operational could help solve the world’s power problems by delivering huge amounts of solar power. It would also be a boon for space tourism.

Constructing the Space Elevator would allow small rockets to be housed and launched from stations in space without the need for massive amounts of fuel required to break the Earth’s gravitational pull. Obayashi is working on cars that will carry 30 people up the elevator, so it may not be too long before the Moon is the next must-see tourist destination. They are joined by a team at Kanagawa University that have been working on robotic cars or climbers.

graphene_ribbonsAnd one of the greatest issues – the development of a tether that can withstand the weight and tension of stresses of reaching into orbit – may be closer to being solved than previously thought. While the development of carbon nanotubes has certainly been a shot in the arm for those contemplating the space elevator’s tether, this material is not quite strong enough to do the job itself.

Luckily, a team working out of Penn State University have created something that just might. Led by chemistry professor John Badding, the team has created a “diamond nanothread” – a thread composed of carbon atoms that measures one-twenty-thousands the diameter of a single strand of human hair, and which may prove to be the strongest man-made material in the universe.

diamond_nanothreadAt the heart of the thread is a never-before-seen structure resembling the hexagonal rings of bonded carbon atoms that make up diamonds, the hardest known mineral in existence. That makes these nanothreads potentially stronger and more resilient than the most advanced carbon nanotubes, which are similar super-durable and super-light structures composed of rolled up, one atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene.

Graphene and carbon nanotubes are already ushering in stunning advancements in the fields of electronics, energy storage and even medicine. This new discovery of diamond nanothreads, if they prove to be stronger than existing materials, could accelerate this process even further and revolutionize the development of electronics vehicles, batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, and nanocomposities.

space_elevator2But by far the most ambitious possibility offered is that of a durable cable that could send humans to space without the need of rockets. As John Badding said in a statement:

One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a ‘space elevator’ which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea,

At this juncture, and given the immense cost and international commitment required to built it, 2050 seems like a reasonable estimate for creating a Space Elevator. However, other groups hope to see this goal become a reality sooner. The  International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) for example, thinks one could be built by 2035 using existing technology. And several assessments indicate that a Lunar Elevator would be far more feasible in the meantime.

Come what may, it is clear that the future of space exploration will require us to think bigger and bolder if we’re going to secure our future as a “space-faring” race. And be sure to check out these videos from Penn State and the Obayashi Corp:

John Badding and the Nanodiamond Thread:

Obayashi and the 2050 Space Elevator:


News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:


News from Mars: Beam Me to Mars

marsIn the latest ambitious plan to make space exploration accessible to the general public, Uwingu has unveiled a new campaign where people can send messages and pictures to the Red Planet. It’s called “Beam Me to Mars”, and the company is inviting people to contribute, for a fee, to a “digital shout-out” that will send messages from Earth to Mars on Nov. 28 — the 50th anniversary of Mars exploration.

The first successful Mars mission, NASA’s Mariner 4 – launched on Nov. 28, 1964 – performed the first flyby of the Red Planet and returned the first pictures of the Martian surface. This was the first time that images were captured of another planet and returned from deep space. and their depiction of a cratered, seemingly dead world largely changed the view of the scientific community on life on Mars.

beam-me-to-mars-uwinguAccording to representative from Uwingu, “Beam Me to Mars” celebrates that landmark effort in a new and original way by inspiring people to get on board with Martian exploration. Other goals include raising lots of money to fund space science, exploration and education (Uwingu’s stated chief purpose) and letting policymakers know how important space exploration is to their constituents.

As CEO Alan Sterm, a planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, said in an interview with

We want it to inspire people. There has never been an opportunity before for people of Earth to shout out across the solar system their hopes and wishes for space exploration, for the future of mankind — for any of that… We want to make an impression on leaders. The more messages, the bigger impression it makes. If this thing goes viral, and it becomes the thing to do, then it’ll make a huge impression.

ESO2For $4.95, people can beam their name (or someone else’s) to Mars, whereas $9.95 gets people a chance to beam a name and a 100-character message. $19.95 gets a 1,000-character note instead of the shorter one, and for those willing to spend $99 will be able to send their name, a long message and an image of their choosing. All messages submitted for “Beam Me to Mars” will also be hand-delivered to Congress, NASA and the United Nations.

Submissions must be made via by Nov. 5. And the company – whose name means “sky” in Swahili – and its transmission partner, communications provider Universal Space Network, will use radio telescopes to beam the messages at Mars on Nov. 28 at the rate of 1 million bits per second. The transmission, traveling at the speed of light, will reach the Red Planet on that day in just 15 minutes.

mariner-4-poster-art.enFor comparison, it took Mariner 4 more than seven months to get to Mars a half-century ago. The probe didn’t touch down, but its historic flyby in July 1965 provided the first up-close look at the surface of another planet from deep space. Mariner 4’s observations revealed that Mars is a dry and mostly desolate world, dashing the hopes of those who had viewed it as a world crisscrossed by canals and populated by little green men.

Already, several celebrities have signed on to the campaign, including actors Seth Green and wife Clare Grant, George (“Sulu”) Takei of Star Trek fame and his husband Brad, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, astronaut and former ISS commander Chris Hadfield, commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, former NASA senior executive Lori Garver, Pulitzer winning author and playwright Dava Sobel, and Author and screenwriter Homer Hickam.

Uwingu-CelebritiesThis is not the first Mars effort for Uwingu, which was founded in 2012. In February, the company launched its “People’s Map of Mars,” asking the public to name Red Planet landmarks for a small fee. To date, people have named more than 12,000 Mars craters, and Uwingu has set aside more than $100,000 for grants. And when it comes to getting the general public involved with space science and travel, they are merely one amongst many. The age of public space exploration is near, people!

Sources:,, (2)

News From Space: Earth Organisms Found In Space!

space_organismDuring a routine spacewalk to clean the outside of the space station, a team of Russian astronauts reportedly found organisms clinging to the side of the International Space Station. After analyzing the samples they took, they identified the organisms as sea plankton that likely originated from Earth, but couldn’t find a concrete explanation as to how these organisms made it to the ISS — or how they managed to survive.

Though NASA has so far been unable to confirm whether or not the Russians truly did discover sea plankton clinging to the exterior of the station. But according to the chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission, Vladimir Solovjev, these findings are legitimate and “absolutely unique.” And there is some scientific precedent for certain creatures being able to survive the vacuum of space.


tardigrade-electron-scanning-colorizedConsider tardigrades, for example. These water-dwelling microscopic invertebrates that are known to be able to survive a host of harsh environments. They can survive extreme temperatures (slightly above absolute zero to far above boiling), amounts of radiation hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, pressure around six times more than found in the deepest parts of the ocean, and the vacuum of space.

The organisms found on the ISS aren’t tardigrades, but the little invertebrates show that some living organisms from Earth can indeed survive the harshness of space. But the real mystery is how they made it all the way up there, 330 km (205 miles) above Earth. The scientists have already dismissed the possibility that the plankton were simply carried there on a spacecraft from Earth, as the plankton aren’t from the region where any ISS module or craft would’ve taken off.

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441The working theory is that atmospheric currents could be scooping up the organisms then carrying them all the way to the space station, though that would mean the currents could travel to astonishing altitudes. Living organisms have been found far above Earth before, such as microbes and bacterial life discovered at altitudes of 16 to 40 kms (10 and 24.8 miles) respectively into the atmosphere.

Though these numbers are a far cry from 330 km. For now, all that can be done is to wait and see if the Russian team confirms the findings with NASA. Then, maybe the two factions can work together in order to figure out how plankton made it all the way up into space, and perhaps even discover exactly why the plankton can survive. The organisms aren’t exactly the first confirmed discovery of alien life, but they do pose another fascinating mystery.


News from Space: Dream Chaser Airframe Unveiled

dream-chaser-dockedWith the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, and the termination of NASA’s operations with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), NASA has been pushing ahead with several programs designed to restore their access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). One such program is the Dream Chaser, a joint venture between the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin that aims to create a winged mini-shuttle.

Earlier this month, the program reached an important milestone when the composite airframe structure was unveiled at a joint press conference by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin at the Fort Worth facility. The assembly of the airframe took place at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, where Lockheed Martin is busy fabricating the structural components for the composite structure.

Dream Chaser at autoclave FP141497 07_31_14From here, the completed components are shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth, Texas for integration into the airframe and assembly. Designed to be launched into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and then fly back and land on its power, the Dream Chaser will carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS before landing on commercial runways anywhere in the world.

According to Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, the company chose to partner with Lockheed Martin because of its long history in the development of commercial aerospace technology:

As a valued strategic partner on SNC’s Dream Chaser Dream Team, Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture Dream Chaser orbital structure airframes… We competitively chose Lockheed Martin because they are a world leader in composite manufacturing, have the infrastructure, resources and quality control needed to support the needs of an orbital vehicle and have a proven track record of leading our nation’s top aviation and aerospace programs. Lockheed Martin’s diverse heritage coupled with their current work on the Orion program adds an extra element of depth and expertise to our program. SNC and Lockheed Martin continue to expand and develop a strong multi-faceted relationship.

dream-chaser-test1Dream Chaser measures about 9 meters (29 feet) long with a 7 meter (23 foot) wide wing span, and is about one third the size of the Space Shuttle Endeavor and all other NASA orbiters – which were retired beginning in 2011. Upon completion of the airframe manufacturing at Ft Worth, it will be transported to SNC’s Louisville, Colorado, facility for final integration and assembly.

SNC announced in July that they successfully completed and passed a series of risk reduction milestone tests on key flight hardware systems that brought the private reusable spacecraft closer to its critical design review (CDR) and first flight. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is now moving ahead with plans for the Dream Chaser’s first launch and unmanned orbital test flight in November of 2016, which will take place atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

dream_chaserDream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

These include the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’, which are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around September 2014. Between a reusable mini-shuttle, a reusable space capsule, and reusable rockets, NASA not only hopes to restore indigenous space capability, but to drastically cut costs on future space missions.



News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):


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 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: