New Articles and Apologies

solar1Let’s start with the apologies. I’m very sorry for the prolonged absence of late, and I trust that people actually noticed I haven’t been around 😉 But both my day and my side job have both been very busy and have left me mentally and physically taxed by the end of the day. However, I do have things to show for it, mainly in the form of a new list of articles that were recently published on both Universe Today and HeroX.

I’ve taken to posting the new entries on their respective pages (over on the right there). However, if you’re like me, you don’t bother to check these out much and would rather be notified if something new is happening. And the way I see it, a post now and again that contains the links to all the latest is something people won’t mind hearing about (as opposed to being notified every time one does!)

So here they are, in order of publication:

  • Small Spacecraft Ejected from ISS Will Provide Same-Day, On-Demand Delivery – Basically, the ISS is getting a small fleet of return vehicles that will allow them to deliver samples back to Earth in less than 24 hours. This will help research and experiments quite a bit, and could also open the way for commercial use of the ISS’s National Lab.
  • Make a Deal for Land on the Moon – This one was not only fun to write, it contains a cautionary tale worth sharing. No matter what some realtors may tell you, there’s absolutely no way to buy land on the Moon… yet! However, given the way that commercial aerospace and space industries are heating up, this may soon change.
  • HeroX News: The Promise of Solar Power – This is probably the longest article I’ve written for either publication of late. It deals with recent innovations that are causing solar power to break its own the efficiency limits and usher in an age of renewable energy. And none too soon either!

First Article Published at Universe Today!

bigelow-expandable-activity-moduleHey all! Just wanted to let people know, my first article for Universe Today just went public. The subject of the article was the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a new type of space habitat that is being shipped to the ISS next year. Researching and writing the article itself was not unusual for me. It’s pretty much what I do here every single day. However, the real fun came in speaking to NASA and Bigelow Aerospace themselves via phone and email.

Interviewing the people behind big ideas and technological innovation is something a humble blogger like myself doesn’t get to do!  While I’ve really enjoyed talking to luminaries like Andraka and Makosinski in the past, this was a first for me. Looking forward to doing more of it in the near future!

In any case, follow the link below to check it out and don’t forget to comment and Like us on Facebook… no pressure 😉

www.universetoday.com

News from Space: ISS Sends First Transmission with Lasers

ISS In recent years, the International Space Station has become more and more media savvy, thanks to the efforts of astronauts to connect with Earthbound audiences via social media and Youtube. However, the communications setup, which until now relied on 1960’s vintage radio-wave transmissions, was a little outdated for this task. However, that has since changed with the addition of the Optical Payload for Lasercom Science (OPALS) laser communication system.

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, OPALS is designed to test the effectiveness of lasers as a higher-bandwidth substitute for radio waves and deal with substantially larger information packages. As Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a recent video statement:

We collect an enormous amount of data out in space, and we need to get it all to the ground. This is an alternative that’s much faster than our traditional radio waves that we use to communicate back down to the ground.

nasa-opalsThe OPALS laser communication system was delivered to the ISS on April 20 by a SpaceX unmanned Dragon space freighter and is currently undergoing a 90-day test. For this test, the crew used the OPALS to transmit the “Hello, World” video from the ISS to a ground station on Earth. This was no simple task, since the station orbits Earth at an altitude of about 418 km (260 mi) at travels at a speed of 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph). The result is that the target is sliding across the laser’s field of view at an incredibly fast rate.

According to Bogdan Oaida, the OPALS systems engineer at JPL, this task was pretty unprecedented:

It’s like trying to use a laser to point to an area that’s the diameter of a human hair from 20-to-30 feet away while moving at half-a-foot per second. It’s all about the pointing.

However, the test went off without a hitch, with the 37 second-long video taking 3.5 seconds to transmit – much faster than previous downlink methods. Abrahamson said that the video, which is a lively montage of various communication methods, got its title as an homage to the first message output by standard computer programs.

earth-from-ISSThe OPALS system sought out and locked onto a laser beacon from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory ground station at the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California. It then transmitted its own 2.5-watt, 1,550-nanometer laser and modulated it to send the video at a peak rate of 50 megabits per second. According to NASA, OPALS transmitted the video in 3.5 seconds instead of the 10 minutes that conventional radio would have required.

Needless to say, the astronauts who contribute to the ISS’s ongoing research programs are pretty stoked about getting this upgrade. With a system that is capable of transmitting exponentially more information at a faster rate, they will now be able to communicate with the ground more easily and efficiently. Not only that, but educational videos produced in orbit will be much easier to send. What’s more, the ISS will have a much easier time communicating with deep space missions in the future.

nasa-opals-5This puts the ISS in a good position to oversea future missions to Mars, Europa, the Asteroid Belt, and far, far beyond! As Abrahamson put it in the course of the video statement:

It’s incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station. We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions.

And in the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, showing the “Hello World” video and explaining the groundbreaking implications of the new system:


Sources:
cnet.com, gizmag.com

Mission to Europa: NASA now Taking Suggestions

europa_moon_IoJupiter’s moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and intrigue ever since it was first discovered by Galileo in 1610. In addition to having visible sources of (frozen) surface water and a tenuous oxygen atmosphere, it is also believed to boast interior oceans that could very well support life. As evidence for this mounts, plans to explore Europa using robot landers, miners, submersibles, or even manned missions have been floated by various sources.

However, it was this past December when astronomers announced that water plumes erupting 161 kilometers (100 miles) high from the moon’s icy south pole that things really took a turn. It was the best evidence to date that Europa, heated internally by the powerful tidal forces generated by Jupiter’s gravity, has a deep subsurface ocean. In part because of this, NASA recently issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to the enigmatic moon. Any ideas need to address fundamental questions about the subsurface ocean and the search for life beyond Earth.

europa-lander-2This is not the first time that NASA has toyed with the idea of investigating the Jovian moon for signs of life. Last summer, an article by NASA scientists was published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology, which was entitled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander“. This article set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved. At the time, the article indicated NASA’s ongoing interest, but this latest call for public participation shows that the idea is being taken more seriously.

This is positive news considering that NASA’s planned JIMO mission – Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, which was cancelled in 2005 – would be taking place by this time next year. Originally slated for launch between May and January of 2015/16, the mission involved sending a probe to Jupiter by 2021, which would then deploy landers to Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa for a series of 30 day studies. At the end of the mission in 2025, the vehicle would be parked in a stable orbit around Europa.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, had the following to say in a recent press release:

This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost… Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth. The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.

By opening the mission up to public input, it also appears that NASA is acknowledging the nature of space travel in the modern age. As has demonstrated with Chris Hadfield’s mission aboard the ISS, the Curiosity rover, as well as private ventures such as Mars One, Inspiration Mars, and Objective Europa  – the future of space exploration and scientific study will involve a degree of social media and public participation never before seen.

europa_reportThe RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission that costs less than $1 billion, but will cover five key scientific objectives that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon. Primarily, the mission will need to:

  1. Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  2. Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  3. Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  4. Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  5. Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

Although Europa has been visited by spacecraft and imaged distantly by Hubble, more detailed research is necessary to understand the complexities of this moon and its potential for life. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 was the only mission to visit Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times. Ergo, if we’re ever to determine conclusively whether or not life exists there, we’re going to have to put boots (robotic or human) onto the surface and start digging!

To read the full Decadal Survey report on NASA’s website, click here.

Sources: universetoday.com, IO9.com, science.nasa.gov

News From Space: Canada’s Plans for 2014

canadarm2_chrishadfieldEarlier this month, Industry Minister James Moore announced that Canada’s new space plan will be made public in early in the new year. The announcement came on Monday Dec. 2nd at an aerospace forum in Montreal which also brought together leaders of Canada’s space industry. Emphasizing the achievements of Canada’s space industry, he also went on to claim that next year’s goals would reach beyond these traditional areas:

Our companies are leaders in optics, in robotics, radar imagery and satellite communications, but we will not stop at this success… The industry has spoken up, has worked collaboratively, has given the government advice on how to proceed (and) we’ve taken the advice and we’re putting it into action.

A background paper provided by Moore outlined the government’s strategic goals for its space activities, which include jobs and growth, sovereignty, security and the advancement of knowledge. Moore also told the space industry executives assembled that the government will examine all opportunities to work with the private sector and Canada’s international partners to encourage innovation in the country’s space activities.

Canadarm2_Steve_RobinsonFollowing up on the Emerson report’s recommendations, Moore announced various actions, including the establishment of a space advisory board composed of industry leaders and chaired by Walt Natynczyk, head of the Canadian Space Agency.

This framework will provide the foundation for the next phase of our government’s space program. It will be based on the principles of partnership with other countries and the private sector, catering to our strengths and inspiring Canadians.

The industry minister also said the government will double current support for its space technologies development program to $20 million annually by 2015-2016:

This will bring the kind of predictability and stability of funding that you asked for. And (it) will help develop more groundbreaking space technologies that Canadian space companies are so recognized for.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424Beyond these stated objectives, its not quite clear what in store’s for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). After Hadfield’s high-profile tour as the mission commander aboard the ISS, it is safe to say that interest in this field is growing. And with our nation’s ongoing commitment to providing new robotic arms (aka. Canadarm’s) for the ISS, parts and technical workers and astronauts for manned missions, any increase in public interest is likely to have positive results.

What’s more, with the Obama government dedicated to pursuing some extremely ambitious objectives – towing an asteroid to Near-Earth Orbit, a manned mission to Mars, establishing an outpost on the Moon – it would seem obvious that one of their greatest colleagues in space exploration and research would want to get on board.

Source: cbc.ca

News From Space: UrtheCast Cameras Blast Off!

space_cameraTwo High-Definition cameras designed to stream detailed views of Earth from the International Space Station blasted off into space yesterday. The cameras are the work of UrtheCast, a Vancouver-based company that distributes operational software for publicly accessibly HD cameras and broadcasts. Once installed, they will provide a view of Earth that is usually reserved for astronauts.

The cameras – one still and one video camera – launched at 3:52 p.m. ET from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan on an unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft aboard a Soyuz rocket. The two cameras will be attached to a platform on the underside of the space station that was brought up by a previous Progress flight in July and installed by Russian cosmonauts during a spacewalk.

Urthecastcam_UCThe cameras will be able to view a large band of the Earth between the latitudes of 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south, covering everything from the Canadian Prairies and the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. What’s more, their resolution will be high enough that people will be able to see things as small as cars, boats, their own homes, and even small groups of people.

The company stressed though that individual people would not be discernible as the resolution is simply not high enough to make out facial features. The fixed, still camera will take a continuous video panorama of Earth 50 kilometres wide as the space station orbits Earth 16 times each day. Meanwhile, the other camera will be pointable and able to be directed at specific points on the globe.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????And while many of the images they take will be available free online just a few hours after they were captured, customers will also have access to specific footage captured by the second, pointed camera. So for a small fee, people will be able to take part in what the company likes to call the “world’s first near-live HD video feed of Earth.”

The company expects customers to include governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations that would like particular types of live and archival images for purposes such as monitoring the environment. As Chris Carter, director of wealth management for ScotiaMcLeod and CBC Radio’s Vancouver business columnist, claims that this expectation is valid since UrtheCast’s business model allows it avoid a major hurdle.

urthecaste.gifBasically, the greatest impediment to providing space-based footage of the Earth is the astronomical (no pun!) cost of getting cameras into space. UrtheCast has gotten around this hurdle by partnering with Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, who transported their cameras in exchange for free access to images that it might otherwise have to pay for.

According to a statement made by the company earlier this month, as of Sept. 30, the company – which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange – had annual purchase commitments worth $21 million:

Although these purchase commitments cannot be considered binding prior to the cameras being installed on the ISS, UrtheCast has already begun the process of converting these purchase commitments into binding commercial agreements.

The democratic space age is looming, people. Between regular updates on social media and webcasts from NASA rovers and space satellites, to live feeds from publicly-accessible cameras, we are entering an age where exploration and research are accessible like never before. Add to this the dream of telexploration, and we could be looking at a future where astronauts do NOT get to have all the fun!

Sources: cbc.ca, urthecast.com

The Future is Here: The Factory in a Box

factory_box3-D Printing has proven itself quite useful when it comes to creating components, toys, and models. But when it comes to assembling complicated parts, or full-on products, other machines are often necessary. That’s where the Microfactory comes in, a veritable “multi-tool” machine that merges the best of 3-D printing and machining.

Being touted as “a machine shop in a box”, the creators of the device (the Mebotics company) were inspired to create this multi-tool kit after collaborating at the Boston-area Artisans Asylum. Artisans Asylum is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting hobbyists, artisans, fabricators and entrepreneurs through a series of open maker space presentations.

factory_box2In addition, the team was also inspired by the fact that most manufacturing systems suffer from two major downfalls: noise and mess. By “closing the system”, as they put it, they eliminated both hassles while still ensuring that their device is capable of both producing tailor-made objects and altering them to order.

The Microfactory dramatically expands the range of products a person with no other equipment could make. It is basically able to 3-D print in four colors, out of multiple materials, and also etch, and mill the final products. This process, which combines machining and printing, is what the makers refer to as “hybrid manufacturing.”

3D-printing-in-spaceAs Co-founder of Mebotics, Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, explains:

I wanted to have a machine that was capable of making parts for all the crazy stuff people people would ask me [to make]. I wanted a tool that would allow me to do a whole wide range of things.

As Fryer-Biggs and the team envision it, the Microfactory could also offer users the ability to create devices and components where they are needed, regardless of the location. With a fully-functional computer incorporated to provide the blueprints, they foresee some extreme scenarios where objects could be created and finished where no stores are available:

You’re at base camp in the Himalayas, you’re in the middle of Afghanistan and you wanna make a part. So you connect this thing to a Wi-Fi hotspot–if you have a Wi-Fi card in the machine that you put in. You can then download from the server whatever the replacement part is you need, and in the middle of nowhere, get your replacement.

3d_ISSThis vision is in keeping with what many scientific organizations – such as NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies – are foreseeing. Already, such devices are being considered for use on the International Space Station and on future space missions, where astronauts will always be in need of specialized tools and may not have the ability to have them shipped out to them.

The team currently has several working prototypes but is planning to bring the project to market by raising $1 million through Kickstarter. MicroFactory units are being pre-sold for between $4,000 and $10,000 in several models. Though the team admits that the price is high, the science fiction appeal alone is well worth it! As Marie Staver, a project manager on the team, put it: “The science fiction future is officially here.”

Couldn’t agree more. And in the meantime, check out this video of the Microfactory in action:

Sources: fastcoexist.com, mebotics.com, artisansasylum.com