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.


The Future of Space Travel: Stamp-Sized Thrusters

MIT_microthrustersReducing the cost of space missions is one of the greatest challenges facing engineers and technicians today. With a myriad of planned missions, ranging from everything to a settlement on the Moon, sending satellites to Near-Earth asteroids, and manned missions to Mars, the goal of making space travel more affordable is a persistent and important one.

As it stands, most efforts are directed towards created craft that are either reusable, repurposed, or simply don’t rely on big, expensive and disposable rockets to get them into orbit. But another angle at bringing the cost of missions down is focusing on the size of the space craft themselves. If they could be shrunk down to the point where they are no larger than a paperweight, sending them into space could be done on the cheap.

cubesatAlready we are seeing this idea at work with CubeSats, a new breed of satellites that are roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube. Over the past decade, dozens of these satellites have been sent into space, often as part of University projects. Since most sensor and survey equipment is now small enough that it can fit into a shoebox, the CubeSat design is ideal for departments that cannot afford to mount multimillion dollar space missions.

Expanding on this concept, MIT’s Poalo Lozano, a professor and the director of the Institute’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, has unveiled a new type of “microthruster” which, when added to the scaled-down satellites, could radically reduce the cost of space missions even further.  Roughly the size of a stamp, these tiny ion-engines would prolong the use of satellites by ensuring they could maneuver in space.

CubeSatsUp until now, CubeSat’s have had a limited life expectancy as their orbits inevitably decay and they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. But by equipping them with an Electrospray Propulsion System (iEPS), these pint-sized satellites would be able to conduct life-saving maneuvers that would extend their period of service and give them new functionality.

The thrusters are basically a liquid-fuel system that, when a voltage is applied, emit a stream of ions through tiny nozzles that propel the satellite forward. According to Lozano, four of these thrusters could provide attitude control and main propulsion for standard solar-powered “1U” CubeSat, which measures about 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side and weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds).

europa-lander-2But more exciting are the long-term prospects created by the addition of these tiny thrusters. For the price of sending a large spacecraft, a fleet of CubeSats could be dispatched to explore the moons of Jupiter. Other possible missions include clearing the massive pile of orbital debris floating around the Earth, de-orbiting satellites at the end of their service lives, and correcting atmospheric drag in low Earth orbit.

Part of what makes plans like these so feasible is the fuel-to-weight ratio it allows for spacecraft, something which astronauts and space agencies always have to take into account. As the Space Propulsion Laboratory claims on their website:

Less than 150 g of propellant would be required by a 1U CubeSat to reach Earth’s escape velocity from [low Earth orbit] and explore interplanetary space.

cubesats2Other possibilities arise from the fact that iEPS units require very little in the way of fuel, so even scaled-up versions can be fitted to small satellites to provide cost-effective and fuel-efficient thrust. Scientists in Switzerland, for instance, say they can send a shoebox-size satellite to the moon in six months with only a few drops of fuel.

As Professor Lozano said, in regards to the long term plans for the iEPS concept:

The goal is to make [CubeSats] do most of the things we already do with big satellites, except in a less expensive way. People have very big plans for these very small spacecraft.

cubesats1But in reality, even the outer Solar System is not limit when it comes to this scaled-down satellite technology. Looking even further abroad, tiny satellites could be sent into deep space to map out what lies between our Solar System and other stars, or investigate the mysteries of the Milky Way. Asteroid prospecting could also benefit from small, cost-effective probes that are capable of navigating between rocks.

And when the technology is scaled down even further, perhaps even to the nano level, millions of tiny probes could be sent out into space to study dark matter, high-energy particles, and seek out new life. Combined with new technologies like space penetrators, entire solar systems and even galaxies could be seeded with tiny space sats. Exciting possibilities indeed!

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video on CubeSat’s, courtesy of Singularity HUB:


News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.


News from Mars: Another (Planned) Mission!

mars-mission1When it comes to generational milestones, those of born since the late 70’s often feel like we’re lagging behind previous generations. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” or the “Baby Boomers”, we weren’t around to witness Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of JFK, Neil Armstrong, or the FLQ Crisis. For us, the highlights were things like the development of the PC, the birth of the internet, Kurt Cobain, and of course, 9/11.

But looking ahead, those us of belonging to Generation X, Y, and Millennials might just be around to witness the greatest event in human history to date – a manned mission to Mars! And while NASA is busy planning a mission for 2030, a number of private sources are looking to make a mission happen sooner. One such group is a team of UK scientists working from Imperial College London that are working to mount a a three person mission to Mars.

mission-to-marsThe planned mission consists of two spacecraft, the first of which is a Martian lander equipped with a heat shield that will send the crew off into Earth’s orbit. The second craft would be a habitat vehicle, which is the craft that the crew would live in during the voyage. The habitat vehicle would consist of three floors, and measure in at around 30 feet (10m) tall and 13 feet (4m) in diameter.

The astronauts would be situated in the lander during takeoff, and would move to the habitat when the dual-craft reaches Earth orbit. Once the astronauts are safely within the habitat, a rocket would shoot the dual-craft off on its journey to Mars, which would take nine months to arrive, less than the approximately 300 days that most projections say it will take.

Mars_landerOnce In space, the dual-craft would then split apart but remain connected by a 60 meter (200 foot) tether. Thrusters from both vehicles would then spin them around a central point, creating artificial gravity similar to Earth’s in the habitat. Not only would this help the astronauts feel at home for the better part of a lonely year, but it would also reduce the bone and muscle atrophy that are associated with weightlessness.

The craft would be well-stocked with medicine to ensure that the crew remained in fine health for the nine month transit. Superconducting magnets, as well as water flowing through the shell of the craft, would be employed to help reduce both cosmic and solar radiation. And once the dual-craft reaches Mars, it would tether back together, the crew would move back into the lander, and then detach from the habitat descend to the Martian surface.

Mars-mission-2This mission would also involve sending a habitat and return vehicle to Mars before the astronauts arrived, so the crew would have shelter upon landing as well as a way to get home. The crew would spend anywhere from two months to two years on Mars, depending on the goals of the mission and the distance between Mars and Earth. On the way back home, the mission would dock with the ISS, then take a craft back to Earth from there.

What’s especially interesting about this proposed mission is that each stage of it has been proven to work in an individual capacity. What’s more, the concept of using water as a form radiation shielding is far more attractive than Inspiration Mars’, which calls for using the astronauts own fecal matter!

Unfortunately, no real timetable or price tags have been proposed for this mission yet. However, considering that every individual step of the mission has been proven to work on its own, the proposed overall journey could work. In the meantime, all us post-Baby Boomers can do is wait and hope we live to see it! I for one am going sick of hearing Boomers talk about where they were when Apollo 11 happened and having nothing comparable to say!

And be sure to enjoy this video of the University College London team discussing the possibilities of a Mars mission in our lifetime:


News From Space: Penetrators to Explore Space

space_penetrator1As space exploration goes, we can do quite a bit within our own Solar System. We can land people on the Moon, rovers on Mars, and put satellites in orbit around the inner and outer planets. We even have the means of placing astronauts on Mars, presumably. But the cost are still prohibitively high, and when it comes to reaching distant celestial bodies, we remain pretty powerless.

Hence the new “space penetrator” program being contemplated by the European Space Agency. Basically, this amounts to a space missile that is fired in the direction of a celestial body, and which delivers a payload of sensors and equipment upon arrival on the surface. Classified as a “hard lander”, this program has been under development for ten years and offers many advantages over the standard soft lander.

space_penetratorFor starters, a soft lander not only has to slow down before landing (which requires rockets and a payload of fuel), but has to be built to land rather than just crash into the ground. And if a soft lander wants to collect subsurface samples or conduct readings, it requires additional equipment to drill and scoop. By contrast, a penetrator can simply smash through a planet’s surface layer, and requires no additional fuel or landing gears.

Of course, a space penetrator also comes with its share of issues, like ensuring that its payload survives the hard landing. This requires that a special spring mechanism be included in the outer shell that cushions the payload from impact. This “suspension system” is made out of Torlon polymer, which is able to provide a 2mm gap of insulation during a high deceleration. A retrorocket will be employed in order to soften the blow a bit as well.

space_penetrator2In order to rest the impact, the designers who built the steel penetrator fired it directly into a 10-ton block of ice. The missile traveled at 340m/s, just under the speed of sound, and turned the block into powder. But the penetrator’s casing and internal instruments remained intact and functional. Thanks to onboard sensors, the test impact will provide the developers of the missile, Rapid Space Technologies, with more information.

The space penetrator is intended to do more than just collect subsurface soil samples. Once in use, it will also help look for alien life by busting through icy surfaces, such as on Jupiter’s famous moon Europa. For years, scientists have suspected that the planet may support aquatic life beneath its icy surface. With the help of radio signals, the on-board sensors could send information up to an orbiting satellite, which could in turn relay that information back to Earth.

converted PNM fileThe European Space Agency has funded the project, but has not yet decided if it would ultimately use the space penetrator. Currently, the system isn’t designed to be launched from Earth, but rather a satellite or spaceship. There’s no telling if it will be used anytime soon, but it does present scientists and astronomers with an viable option for future interstellar exploration.

And there is huge potential as far as the exploration of Europa is concerned. Ever since it was postulated that subsurface oceans exist there – ones that are warm enough to support life – the Jovian moon has served as a source of inspiration for astronomers and science fiction writers alike. I for one am interested to see what resides underneath all that ice, provided we don’t disturb it too much!

And of course, there’s a video of the space penetrator test taking place. Check it out:


News from Space: The Orion MPCV gets a Manned Mission

Orion_arraysIt’s known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and it represents NASA’s plans for a next-generation exploration craft. This plan calls for the Orion to be launched aboard the next-generation Space Launch System, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon.

The first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 70,000 km (40,000 miles) beyond the Moon. This mission will serve as a forerunner to NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – a mission to capture an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth – which was recently approved by the Obama Administration.

orion_arrays1But in a recent decision to upgrade the future prospects of the Orion, the EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission. This flight would involve sending a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of the small Near Earth Asteroid that would be relocated to the Moon’s vicinity. Until recently, NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission.

However, the enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the SLS, to an orbit near the moon where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021. This upgrade would also allow for an exceptionally more vigorous test of all the flight systems for both the Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

orion_arrays2It would also be much more technically challenging, as a slew of additional thruster firings would be conducted to test the engines ability to change orbital parameters, and the Orion would also be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment. And lastly, the mission’s duration would also be extended from the original 10 to a full 25 days.

Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman, explained the mission package in a recent interview with Universe Today:

The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back. EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely. “Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” explained Dean.

orion_spacecenterThe SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of even the Saturn V, the very rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts into space and put Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Moon. Since NASA is in a hurry to reprise its role as a leader in space, both the Orion and the SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

As already stated by NASA spokespeople, the 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This mission will be what is known as a “two orbit” test flight that will take the unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to an altitude of 5800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

After the 2021 missions to the Moon, NASA will be looking farther abroad, seeking to mount manned missions to Mars, and maybe beyond…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of NASA testing out the parachutes on the Orion space vehicle. The event was captured live on Google+ on July 24th from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and the following is the highlight of the event – the Orion being dropped from a plane!:

Food From Space: NASA’s 3D Pizza Printer

3DpizzaNASA has made some buzz with its announcement to print 3D pizza in space. And while this might sound like an awesome and appetizing use of the pioneering technology, it also has some pretty exciting implications for space exploration. For decades, astronauts have relied on freeze dried and thermostabilized food to meet their nutritional needs. But with 3D printing being considered, astronauts of the future could be using something akin to a replicator out of Star Trek.

Earlier this month, Quartz broke the news that NASA’s Systems & Materials Research Corporation received a $125,000 grant to spend six months building a prototype of a 3-D food printer- one that will be able to print out a tasty pizza before venturing on to other food items. According to his NASA proposal, the printer spits out starches, proteins, fats, texture, and structure, while the inkjet sprays on flavor, smell, and micronutrients.

3d-pizza_printerThe pizza printer is the brainchild of Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer at the Systems & Materials Research Corporation who has long worked on 3-D printing technologies. In an interview with Quartz, he explained the process:

It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor. Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.

As already mentioned, astronauts currently rely on food that is freeze dried prepackaged so that it can be eaten in microgravity. Astronauts get supplies when necessary from the International Space Station, where cargo vehicles transport their “fresh” food. But future astronauts who go to more distant places, like Mars, won’t be able to resupply. And that’s where the Advanced Food Project really comes into play.

pizzaWhen considering missions to Mars and farther into space, multiple issues need to be addressed. Grace Douglas, an Advanced Food Technology Project scientist at NASA, explains what these are and how 3D food can address them:

This is the only food that the crew members will have, so it needs to maintain its nutrition content for the length of the mission, and it has to be acceptable. If they don’t want to eat it, they won’t eat enough… 3-D food printers are looking at providing powdered forms of ingredients, and these would not be processed ahead.

That’s a good thing: minimally processed food has more nutrients, and it’s tastier. It also allows for even more options than what’s available today. And to address another key problem – printing in microgravity – NASA already has the option of using some of the more advanced prototypes.

anti-grav3d2Consider the Mataerial, a recently-developed 3D printer that is capable of printing in zero-gravity. NASA is exploring other processing technologies outside of the 3-D printing realm as well. High-pressure processing, which uses high pressures with a low-heat treatment to sterilize foods, is one option. Another is microwave sterilization–a process that uses high-heat treatments for a shorter period of time.

These latter technologies would make fresh foods accessible by ensuring that they are perfectly sterile, thus removing the need for food that needs to be dried or processed in advance. While all three technologies are still in the early phases of development, Douglas and others expect that they will off the ground and running by the time a manned mission to Mars is being planned.

And space is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to printing food. Here on Earth, it is a potential solution for ending world hunger. But that’s another, very interesting story. Stay tuned for it…

In the meantime, watch this video of a 3-D printer creating chocolate:


Going to Mars: Now Taking Volunteers, Names and Poems

mars_lifeLooking at my site, I’ve come to notice that news concerning the Red Planet has been a bit sparse of late. Lucky for me, I had several interesting stories sitting in my inbox which were just waiting to be read, and more than a few had to do with Earth’s closest neighbor. And as we are all no doubt aware, there are quite a few of us here on Earth that believe that she is the future of planetary exploration and colonization.

But would it surprise you to know that there are plans to visit Mars that go beyond NASA’s projected mission of 2030, which will involve sending live astronauts for the first time? Take the Mars One Project as an example. Conceived by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp, this project involves using existing technology and private sponsorship to fund a one-way trip to Mars and establish the first permanent settlement there by 2023, thus putting them ahead of NASA’s plans to send explorers there by almost a decade.

mars-one-brian-versteegAnnounced back in January, the project put out an open call for volunteers, and some 80,000 people have applied thus far. Thirty-five of those applicants hail from my own country (Canada), with the vast majority of them being men who are still in their 20’s. Those who apply are apparently asked some rather grueling and personal questions designed to test their aptitude and beliefs, which includes the meaning of life itself. I’m guessing more than one person answered “space exploration”!

The first things to be sent will be the modules themselves, followed shortly thereafter by the first of six teams, with each team of four arriving every two years. In time, the home base would consist of habitation modules with oxygen, water and provisions, but would expand to include solar panels. Landorp has also indicated that primary funding will come from an as-yet-unspecified “global media event” that will feature the astronauts and their preparation.

In short, it’s like a reality TV event featuring the first people who will make the seven month trip.

??????????????????????????????But for those who don’t feel like making the trip, or who would like to send something to Mars other than themselves, there’s also NASA’s MAVEN mission. As part of the “Going to Mars” campaign that is being managed by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP), the MAVEN mission is a chance for the general public to send their name and a short poem to the Red Planet via NASA’s latest Mars satellite.

MAVEN – which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN – is due to be launched in November from the Florida Space Coast. Attached to the front of the orbiter will be a DVD featuring the names of everyone who applies to take part in the campaign. In addition, of those poems submitted (which is to be written in the form of a haiku), three will be selected for the mission as well.


Voting will be done by the public online, and over 1 million people have already submitted their names. The rules for the contest can be found on the mission website here. Children are allowed to participate, but must do so through a participant of 18 years of age or older, preferably a parent or guardian. Activity opened at the beginning of the month and ends July 1st, so get your names of poems in soon!

Since the campaign and contest are open to people of all ages, walks of life, and is indiscriminate of education or qualification, it’s a pretty good way for the public to participate in the ongoing exploration of space and our Red planetary neighbor. And when considered alongside the many and increasing private efforts to send people to Mars, it says about the increasingly democratic nature of space exploration.


News From Space: The NASA-Funded Fusion Rocket

fusion-rocket-university-of-washington-640x353NASA scientists have been saying for some time that they plan to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. At the same time, space adventurist Dennis Tito and his company Inspiration Mars want to send a couple on a flyby of the Red Planet in 2018. With such ambitions fueling investment and technological innovation, its little wonder why people feel we are embarking on the new era of space exploration.

However, there is one sizable problem when it comes to make the Mars transit, which is the wait time. In terms of Tito’s proposed flyby, a trip to Mars when it is in alignment with Earth would take a total 501 days. As for NASA’s round-trip excursions for the future, using current technology it would take just over four years. That’s quite the long haul, and as you can imagine, that longer transit time has an exponential effect on the budgets involved!

Mars_landerBut what if it were possible to cut that one-way trip down to just 30 days. That’s the question behind the new fusion rocket design being developed at the University of Washington and being funded by NASA. Led by John Slough, this team have spent the last few years developing and testing each of the various stages of the concept and is now bringing the isolated tests together to produce an actual fusion rocket.

The challenge here is to create a fusion process that generates more power than it requires to get the fusion reaction started, a problem which, despite billions of dollars of research, has eluded some of the world’s finest scientists for more than 60 years. However, researchers continue to bang their head on this proverbial wall since fusion alone – with its immense energy density – appears to be the way of overcoming the biggest barrier to space travel, which is fuel weight and expense.

spacecraft_marsUltimately, the UW fusion rocket design relies on some rather simple but ingenious features to accomplish its ends. In essence, it involves a combustion chamber containing rings made of lithium and a pellet of deuterium-tritium – a hydrogen isotope that is usually used as the fuel in fusion reactions. When the pellet is in the right place, flowing through the combustion chamber towards the exhaust, a huge magnetic field is triggered, causing the metal rings to slam closed around the pellet of fuel.

These rings then implode with such pressure that the fuel compresses into fusion, causing a massive explosion that ejects the metal rings out of the rocket and at 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph) and generating thrust. This reaction would be repeated every 10 seconds, eventually accelerating the rocket to somewhere around 320,000 km/h (200,000 mph) — about 10 times the speed of Curiosity as it hurtled through space from Earth to Mars.

NASA_fusionchamberHowever, things still remain very much in the R&D phase for the fusion rocket. While the team has tested out the imploding metal rings, they have yet to insert the deuterium-tritium fuel and propel a super-heated ionized lump of metal out the back at over 100,000 kilometers and hour. That is the next – and obviously a very, very – big step.

But in the end, success will be measured when it comes to two basic criteria: It must work reliably and, most importantly, it must be capable of generating more thermal energy than the electrical energy required to start the fusion reaction. And as already mentioned, this is the biggest challenge facing the team as it is something that’s never been done before.

However, most scientific minds agree that within 20 years at least, fusion power will be possible, and the frontiers it will open will be vast and wonderful. Not only will we be able to fully and completely lick the problem of clean energy and emissions, we will have rockets capable of taking us to Mars and beyond in record time. Deep space flight will finally become a possibility, and we may even begin considering sending ships to Alpha Centauri, Bernard’s Star and (fingers crossed!) Gliese 581!


NASA Engine Will Take Us To The Moon (And Beyond)

NASA_Moon1For almost a year now, NASA has been discussing plans which will eventually culminate in a return to the Moon. Initially, such plans were kept under wraps just in case NASA found itself in a budget environment that did not favor renewed space exploration. But since the 2012 election, and the re-election of President Obama, NASA publicly announced its plans, confident that the budget voted on in 2010 (which included lucrative funding for them) would continue.

And now, NASA has been unveiling the tools that will take us there and beyond in the coming years. Far from simply shooting for the Moon for the first time in decades, NASA’s plans also include manned missions to Mars, and exploratory missions which will take it out to Jupiter and the outer Solar System. And since they are thinking big, its clear some budget-friendly and powerful tools will be needed for the job.

jx-2rocketAbove, we have the latest. It’s called the JX-2, a liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engine is the modernized version of the J-2, the engine that NASA used in the late-’60s and early-’70s to thrust humans beyond low Earth orbit. With the conclusion of the Apollo program, these babies fell into disuse. But with the upgrades made to these new versions, NASA hopes to send people back to the Moon, and a few places beyond.

Of course, there are other noted improvements in NASA’s arsenal that will also come into play. For starters, the J-2 was part of the general assembly of the Saturn V rocket, the mainstay of the space agency’s fleet at the time. In the years to come, NASA will be deploying its new Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

NASA_marsThe SLS is NASA’s next-generation rocket, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon. According to NASA spokesmen, the SLS rocket will “incorporate technological investments” and “proven hardware” from previous space exploration programs.” Essentially, this means that projects which have been shelved and retired have been updated and incorporated to create a rocket that can do the job of sending men into deep space again.

The Orion MPCV, on the other hand, is the module that will sit atop the SLS, carrying its crew compliment and delivering them to their destination once the rocket has put them into space and disassembled itself. Announced back in September of 2011, the SLS and MPCV constitute the largest and most powerful space rocket system ever built by a space agency.

No date has been given as to when the SLS and MPCV will be sent into space, courtesy of the new JX-2 rocket engine. But NASA claims there will be a launch sometime next year. As for the Moon, well, we’re waiting on that too, but it’s clear that with Mars slated for 2030, a manned mission to the Moon is sure to happen before this decade is out.

In the meantime, check out the infographic on the new rocket system below, and keep your eyes on the skies! We’re going back, and this time, we mean to stay!


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